The Metlakatla Ferry is a vital source of transportation to and from the coastal community at the mouth of the Prince Rupert inner harbour. Much like the orange life preserver mounted on the side of the vessel, seen by everyone, comforted by its presence and purpose, Cory Ryan has been a fixture on the ferry for more than 36 years.
In the three decades he has been a deckhand on that boat, he has shuttled uncountable numbers of passengers to and fro, over the waves, in many different climates and weather conditions, including some of the youngest and most vulnerable residents – the school children. While most school districts across the country have students travel by bus, in this area, they can add travelling to school on a boat as a unique Canadian Northcoast experience.
Waking up each day at 6 a.m. Cory takes pride in his work showing genuine love and concern for his littlest travellers, who no doubt rise about the same time he does.
He has to be at the ferry dock before them as the ferry pulls out of its port at 7:45 a.m. to carry the youth to school in Prince Rupert. The trip usually takes 15 minutes on a good sailing day and up to 25 or more on a rough day, Cory said.
Recently, there have been some rough days on the waters around Prince Rupert. Nov. 24 was specifically one. Taxiing the students back home after their day in class, he was hurt with shoulder and neck injuries as well as a concussion. Due to the wild seven to eight-meter waves rocking the boat so much, he was thrown off the seat resulting in him having to take medical leave. He is off for the next couple of months.
Cory said he doesn’t like taking the kids on the ferry in the turbulent waters because they become scared and sometimes scream. But, he explained, if they are in Prince Rupert already and it’s at the end of a school day, there is a responsibility to get them home safely.
He takes that responsibility seriously. The ferry holds up to 29 passengers, and on school runs, those passengers are all his cousins, family members or his own grandchildren.
As a father of four and grandfather of seven, he said he offers comfort to the school children in rough seas by trying to reassure them and have them lay down on the seats. He said when they are scared. It hits home more for him because of his close family relations with them.
“I turn around and just say it’s okay, we’ve got you. We’ll get you home safe. It’s no good to see the kids scared. I try to calm them down. It’s better to see them calm.”
“I was taught to be calm, never to be scared,” he said. “My dad taught me that.”
He recalls his first incident and lesson in remaining level-headed was on the family fishing boat when he was about 12 years old. A fire in the galley broke out, and Cory remembers standing on the deck watching his father grab the fire extinguisher and put the blaze out with precision in a collected manner.
“He acted so quickly. My dad told me in emergencies to never panic and to stay calm,” he said.
Holding family relationships close in his heart, Cory was until recently looking after his 76-year old mom, Yvonne, on Metlakatla, before she moved into the retirement home there.
He said another lesson his dad taught him was saving money and not spending it all.
“It’s good to have separate accounts to save money. Just in case something happens in the family, it’s good to have money set aside,” he said.
Recently that lesson hit home for him too, when his mom had a seizure, and the savings strategy helped them out. More recently, she had a grease fire in her house and had to stay in a hotel for a week because there was nowhere to move after the damage in her apartment.
He holds the memories of his younger life on Metlakatla close to his heart and said a lot has changed in Prince Rupert during his lifetime, but Metlakatla is at a slower pace.
Cory said his parents taught him a lot of skills and techniques to get through life. His dad taught him gillnetting and how to catch sock-eye.
Living off the food they caught, he would watch his parents jar the fish, and he learned from his mom how to pepper it and candy the fish in brown sugar. These are techniques that he has passed on to his own children.
“It’s very important to teach children these things,” he said, citing the recent floods in the south and the transportation issues up north.”
“We’ve got an ocean right here. We’ve got lots of fish. We’ve all kinds of food in the water,” he said.
He said his whole life has been spent on the waters along the Northcoast, and he can navigate to Vancouver knowing where he is and where the location is at. He warns you always have to listen for the weather, though.
Just turned 50, Cory said he played basketball in youth for the Prince Rupert Sea League. He could dribble with both hands and was taught by his dad Fred Gable who played for the Kitkatla Warriors.
He recollected when he was a child on Metlakatla. He and his brothers would walk from their home to the ferry so they could go to school. The roads were gravel then. Metlakatla now has a baseball field, a skateboard park and a community hall he helped build. It has constructed trails, which when he was a teenager, he helped his father make, for tourists to hike along to see petroglyphs. The roads are paved now, and the children are bussed to the ferry out of safety away from the grizzly bears that at times roam the community.
“I’m glad I live by the ocean. It’s our backyard. It’s all T’shimshian territory,” he said.
He loves seeing the whales and the sea lions in the waters, and the wildlife of the Northcoast, adding that his favourite thing is watching the children he shuttles to school on the ferry each day grow up in the same backyard that he did.
K-J Millar | Journalist
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