Hartley Bay: the ultimate walkable, car-free community

Entering Hartley Bay

In the small harbor behind an impressive seawall we tied up to a float with family fishing boats, small aluminum outboards.  Amazing catch: glistening salmon, Dungeness crab with bodies ten inches across.  I asked a couple of men who were cleaning six halibut each 3 to 4 feet long if they were planning to freeze them and feed the village all winter long.  “No,” they said, pointing to the heavens, a bright 9 pm sun still far from the horizon, “We’re going to sun dry it.”   Indeed, the forecast calls for another unprecedented string of rainless days.

No one had told us so we were unprepared for this interesting community with a singular way of life.  The population is 100% Native.  Unlike other communities along the coast there is no evidence of a cannery nor of an economic past based on mining or logging.  Instead Hartley Bay appears to thrive on line fishing and a way of life that infuses tradition into the future.

The village of less than 200 people is extremely isolated.   Sixty miles to the north, at the end of the Grenville Channel, lies the port town of Prince Rupert.   Sixty miles to the south, down Princess Royal and Tolmie Channel, lies the slightly larger Native village of Klemtu. Sixty miles to the west, at the end of Douglas Channel lies the small town Kitimat.  Hartley Bay is accessible only by air and water.  However, no floatplane landed while we were there and and the passenger only ferry calls only three times a week in the summer.  There is no store apart from a home-based enterprise that sells candy bars and potato chips.  No hotels, no eateries and no bars.  (In fact, the place is dry, which may have something to do with its success.)

Hartley Bay, home of the Gitga’at people who are part of the larger Tsimshian Group, is an extremely dynamic place with sound physical and social infrastructure and great “urban planning”. The community obviously enjoys strongly shared values, cultural cohesion, and political clout.    You only have to walk around and look.

How about a tour?    Call this Front Street: I imagine many of the Pacific Northwest Front Streets once looked like this.


Then continue past a residential area and along a deeply forested hill to the ferry dock.   See the tiny float in the distance?

To ferry dock

Heading back you notice that Front Street has become Water Street.  Sharing the boardwalk are little girls on bicycles and white haired matriarchs in golf carts.  But no cars!

Front becomes Water St.


This wonderful building is on what would be “First Street”.  Inside you hear the sound of basketballs bouncing.   Up and down the coast basket ball is very popular and girls and boys play together, probably to have enough people for a team.

The Gym


The lobby of the gym is quite surprising: a huge fireplace, basketball trophies and pictures of elders.   When the tribe built a new Big House, which houses a small museum, they turned the old one into a community center with a gym.  Some of the kids have small motorbikes, which they can take along on the passenger ferry when they leave home for highschool or college.

Lobby of community center


The community center (with the green roof) is conveniently located between the school (this is the view from its broad verandah) and the Big House  (the brown wood structure near the water.



All the public buildings are linked with boardwalks and all have ramps and zero-step entries.  This is particularly impressive since this is Canada, where they don’t have the Americans with Disabilities Act.



Behind the school is a beautiful valley and the residential area. First Street if you will.  The boardwalk is broad enough to allow a golf cart to pass a four wheeler. Every house has zero step walkways leading right to the front door.  Typical of the coastal northwest, the houses are built on pylons.  Here that puts them above the snow melt rushing down the valley.  Raised, lamp lighted boardwalks also better separate bears and pedestrians, so that neither surprises the other.

Residental area

Fire hydrants abound; this one is in front of the new health clinic.



And planning for new houses is complete.



Each new lot has a wooden foundation.

Building lot

When I finally had a crack at good Internet and the chance to check my facts, I discovered that the Gitga’at people have a wonderful website, that includes this description of how they do things.

Gitga’at society has a dual governance system that is sophisticated and complex – a blend of traditional laws, customs and structures and modern laws, policies and structures woven together.

Affairs related to cultural practices and Gitga’at rights and title and territorial lands and waters fall within the domain of the traditional governance. The Gitga’at are committed to governance of their Territory through the traditional system of “Ayawwx” which is the ‘Law of the People’ and the ‘Way We Govern Ourselves’. Decisions affecting Gitga’at lands and resources are made by Hereditary Chiefs and elders following traditional community consultation processes.

Affairs related to the community of Hartley Bay, Band administration and delivery of social programs and services are governed by a Village Council, which is elected by Nation members. Village administration and maintenance is handled by community administrative and technical staff.

Hartley Bay exudes a strong sense of place and well being yet it’s all but ignored in the cruising guides.  Take heed and go.