A couple of weeks ago I escaped my day-to-day life to cruise from Gold River to Friendly Cove aboard the Uchuck III.
The scenery was incredible, the crew friendly and the food tasty and filling. The Uchuck is a working vessel so I, along with the other passengers, also got to watch the crew loading and unloading freight and even dropping off a couple of kayakers via a sling.
But I wasn’t along just for the ride. I was meeting David Esson Young, former owner and captain of the Uchuck. He’s the author of The Uchuck Years, a West Coast Shipping Saga.
The book is a valuable history of marine transportation to remote areas on and near Vancouver Island.
It’s the story of a small company making a go of it in good years and bad and moving ahead with the times. It’s about a close-knit crew working together in an unpredictable environment. And it’s full of funny anecdotes about quirky coastal characters.
Based on more than half a century of personal experience, as well as a family scrapbook and company records and journals, Young has told the Uchuck story in a way no other writer could.
“The idea was in the back of my mind for a long time,” says the 74-year-old. “I’m just about the last man standing as far as the early days of the company. Initially I thought it would be something my grandkids would like to read.
“But then I thought about the tens of thousands of people who have travelled on the Uchucks and thought they might be interested too. Seven years ago I realized I was well past my ‘best before date’ so better get at it.”
Habour Publishing was interested in the project as soon as Young approached them. But when the book was released this spring, everyone was surprised.
It was so popular, Harbour had to fly books in for one event and order a second printing. The Uchuck Years is also making itself right at home on the Vancouver Sun BC Bestseller list.
“I had a lot of help,” says Young. “Harbour sent the manuscript to Betty Keller and she took the rough draft and got it in shape. As for the popularity of the book, it is a huge surprise to me.”
It all started in 1946 when Young’s dad, Henry Esson Young and a friend sold their homes to purchase a marine freight company and the Uchuck I operating out of Port Alberni to the Barkley Sound area. Eight-year-old Young almost drowned on his first trip on the vessel but two years later he was working on the boat weekends and holidays for 25 cents a day.
Young recounts stories about the company’s 1960 move to Gold River and traveling the waters of Nootka Sound. And how everyone — even the owner — did everything and anything that needed to be done.
In the old days in particular, the crew had an intimate knowledge of and relationships with customers. Taking a cocker spaniel back home or visiting someone in the hospital was all in a day’s work.
For many years after the company moved, two crews worked alternating shifts with workers eating and sleeping onboard during their week on.
Young points out that the owners soon realized the wisdom of hiring an older female cook. Some held the position long term and others came and went. On occasion there was no cook, so the crew would set the sandwich stuff out and passengers fended for themselves.
Today, two women in the kitchen produce vats of chili and clam chowder, as well as fresh-made sandwiches, cookies and muffins. Folks are welcome to bring their own snacks too. And the wheelhouse is open to all — I heard one youngster bragging, “…and I even got to touch the wheel!”
As well as hauling freight, the Uchuck has established a reputation as great transportation for wilderness kayakers and backpackers and as a tourist draw all on its own.
Young, who has lived in Royston with his family since 65, sold his share in the business in 1994 and continued to do relief work until two years ago.
“I miss it a lot, especially the camaraderie,” he says. “Aside from a few short-term things, it’s pretty well the only job I had. I must have travelled a million miles in one Uchuck or another.” (There have been three Uchucks.)
“I really enjoyed the writing process,” he adds. “I’d like to carry on; I have a series of stories about animals that shared the landscape with us while out on the Uchuck. You know, bears, cougars, dogs, cats and raccoons. And of course there are more stories about events and people.”
If the success of The Uchuck Years is any indication, Young has transitioned nicely into a new career.
The Uchuck Years includes 70 black and white photographs as well as maps. It is available at local bookstores and retails for $24.95. For more information about voyages on the Uchuck III, visit www.getwest.ca.