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Longest running ferry route on B.C.'s coast to celebrate 100 years in operation

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For the past year, Geoff Keddie has called his morning commute absolutely gorgeous. The North Saanich resident has been travelling across the Saanich Inlet to get to work onboard the M.V. Klitsa five times a week.

“It’s a great environment, I love this ferry,” said Keddie. “Everyone is running around, everyone is smiling.”

The route is the oldest continuous ferry service on the coast of British Columbia. It was started by two former naval officers in November of 1924, meaning the route is about to hit a major milestone.

“This November will be 100 years, so it’s pretty amazing,” said Martin Nielsen, senior captain of the Klitsa.

The original vessel was a wooden-hulled coastal steamer called the SS Cascade. It was altered to allow cars to drive on and off of the bow and stern.

One month after going into service, the SS Cascade hit a bit of a snag, sinking at the Mill Bay ferry dock after running into some thick ice on the inlet. The vessel was raised, repaired and back in service a short time later.

The SS Cascade was later rechristened as the Brentwood Ferry after being refitted with internal combustion engines.

The SS Cascade served the route from its early days until the 1950s.

“(In the 1950s), the Mill Bay Ferry was brought in,” said Nielsen. “The Mill Bay and the Brentwood Bay Ferry both worked this area while they were finishing the paving of the Malahat (Highway) back in the late '50s.”

Once that paving was completed, the Brentwood Ferry was retired, leaving just the Mill Bay Ferry to run the route.

In 1969, the company operating the route was bought by BC Ferries, which continues to run it to this day.

“It’s almost like being on a vacation coming on this ferry,” said Sylvia Sangha, a regular ferry passenger on the run.

The M.V. Klitsa has the capacity to carry 19 vehicles onboard, with 150 passengers. The vessel completes nine return trips each day between Brentwood and Mill Bay. That journey connecting the two points takes roughly 25 minutes to complete.

“It is considered by many as being the island’s most scenic route,” said Reet Sidhu, senior communications advisor with BC Ferries.

“The scenery is so beautiful,” said Sangha.

The crossing has, at many times, become the only way in and out of the capital region.

“An interesting story is about how the ferry served as a lifeline during atmospheric river flooding in November of 2021,” said Sidhu.

Over the course of 60 hours, 182 millimetres of rain fell on southern Vancouver Island, causing the Malahat’s Tunnel Hill drainage wall structure to fail. It closed the vital artery into the capital region for three days.

“We added additional crews and additional sailings to keep the ferry service going continuously over the course of three days,” said Sidhu. “That’s a special situation that bonds the community with this ferry service, because it really did help them through an emergency and served as a lifeline.”

Regular passengers say it’s not just the scenery or the occasional whale sighting that makes this route so special. They point to deckhand Hardeep Parmar, who has been working the route for the past 13 years.

“He’s always got a kind thing to say or a joke to tell you,” said Joan Obee, a regular passenger on the M.V. Klitsa.

“He’s absolutely awesome,” said Keddie.

Deckhand Hardeep Parmar has been working the route for the past 13 years. (CTV News)

Parmar, being a humble guy, says it’s not him that makes the trip so pleasant for passengers, but those passengers themselves.

“You get to know people, people get to know us and it’s like a family here,” said Parmar.

He says what makes the route so unique is the tight-knit communities it serves.

“Our wake touches the three First Nations,” said Parmar, pointing towards the Saanich Peninsula while onboard the Klitsa in the Saanich Inlet.

“We have the Tsartlip First Nation, the Pauquachin, the Tseycum over there and we’re going to the Malahat First Nation just to have that sense of history.”

All those First Nations travelled the inlet’s waters long before Europeans arrived.

The Mill Bay Terminal sits in the heart of the Malahat Nation. Although the nearly 100-year relationship between the ferry service and that nation has come with the occasional bout of rough waters, things are beginning to change.

The Malahat Nation told CTV News in a statement:

“The terminal has had a notable impact in some adverse ways; however, both BC Ferries and the Malahat Nation are keen to enhance the relationship and have signed a relationship protocol to discuss and address important issues to the nation.”

That relationship is a work in progress, much like the evolution of the ferry service that will soon be celebrating a major milestone that no other ferry route can claim on B.C.'s coast.  

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