By R. Bruce Striegler

With names like Francois, Williston, Babine or Arrow, British Columbia is marked with massive freshwater lakes, some man-made others natural, and John Harding is exceedingly familiar with many of them. A former lawyer in Prince George, his company Waterbridge Steel Inc. now constructs inland ferries in remote B.C. locations and also operates some of those ferries under contract with the provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

“Many years ago, I had a client, Finlay Navigation, operating tugs and barges on Williston Lake who said he wanted to sell his business. I was always more interested in business than law, so I made him an offer and we expanded from there, getting into ferry construction and operation,” he says. The story though, really begins long before his purchase.

In 1968 B.C. Hydro flooded approximately 350,000 acres of forested land behind the newly constructed W.A.C. Bennett hydro-electric dam on the Peace River in northeastern B.C., the resulting reservoir named Williston Lake. The largest lake in British Columbia and the seventh largest reservoir in the world, it runs 250 kilometres north-south and150 kilometres east-west as the dam not only backed up waters of the Peace River, but also two ­tributaries, the Parsnip and Finlay Rivers. Williston Lake is 155 kilometres at its maximum width, with a surface area of 1,761 square kilometres (680 square miles) and contains over 74 trillion litres.

The company Mr. Harding bought, Finlay Navigation, began operations as a marine towing company, operating tugs and barges on the huge reservoir. Twenty years later when Mr. Harding took over the renamed company, the market had changed, customer demands were different and the inland vessels needed significant upgrades.

Building big vessels on northern lakeshores

And so, in 1985 on the shores of the vast inland lake over 1,000 kilometres from Vancouver, Harding and his team from Waterbridge Steel beached the Finlay Navigator 1 in a specially-prepared cradle to begin a novel and innovative renovation and fabrication project. They cut the large vessel apart to widen and install other pre-fabricated components. A few years later, increased demand drove the lakeside construction of the Finlay Navigator 2, a 250-foot roll-on/roll-off zero discharge industrial marine transport which provided supply and access to the remote logging camps and villages hauling up to 320 off-road loaded logging trucks daily.

From these successes came a 1994 contract from forest company Canfor to build an ice-breaking, log-carrying ferry. Construction began on the lakeshore building the 360 foot, 7600 horsepower Williston Transporter which entered service in 1995, and was able to carry 5,500 tonnes of cargo year-round on the big lake. The vessel was certified by Transport Canada and built to American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) rules.

“We started this in the town of Mackenzie on Williston Lake where we’ve built or renovated three or four, each getting bigger in size. We then took our techniques to Babine Lake for Northwood Pulp where we constructed the Babine Charger,” continued Mr. Harding. Travelling at 12.5 knots, that vessel measured 230 feet long, powered by 1,800-hp twin z-drives. Located about 177 kilometres northeast of the Prince George, Babine Lake is 153 kilometres long, and covers an area of 495 square kilometres. Mining and forestry now dominate the region where in 1822 a Hudson’s Bay trading post was the commercial centre. Roads and electricity did not arrive in the area until the 1980’s.

Economic change brings new focus

As the forest industry declined due to the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation and U.S. economic disputes, Harding sold his interests in the Williston and Babine Lake operations in 2000. In 2003, the B.C. Government called for proposals for private partners to operate the Francois Lake and Upper Arrow Lake routes. Harding came out of retirement and turned his attention to inland commercial ferries. B.C. has 14 fresh water ferry routes, all run by private operators responsible to the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. The fleet consists of six free-running vessels, five reaction ferries, two aerial tramways (for winter use) and five cable ferries as well as tugboats and barges. Cumulatively, the fleet carries more than 2.4 million passengers and more than 1.5 million vehicles annually.

Harding’s Waterbridge Steel won both competitions. The Francois Lake contract became the first-ever public-private partnership in B.C. involving inland ferries, and was based on his plan to cost effectively build a new ferry to accommodate the growing traffic on the lake. Francois Lake is located at nearly the precise geographical centre of B.C., and at 100 kilometres long and over 244 metres deep is the second largest natural lake in the province. Although sparsely populated, the region is home to a number of First Nations, a moderate level of tourism at fishing camps and resorts, some agriculture and cattle ranches, with forestry and mining the other economic drivers in the area.

After six months of lakeshore construction, the Francois Forester entered service in 2004. At 220 feet, the roll-on/roll-off double-ended vessel carries eight loaded logging trucks, 20 other vehicles and up to 145 passengers, nearly doubling the capacity of the previous ferry. With a total crew compliment of about 30, five per shift, the Francois Forester does the 2.5-mile crossing 18 hours per day, seven days a week year-round, and does not charge tolls. Winter ice, which can form as deep as two feet, does not prevent the ferry from operating.

Harding says they fabricated steel modules in the company’s Prince George shop, and trucked the pieces to Francois Lake to assemble in a Ministry of Transportation dry-dock at the site. John Harding notes that, when they took over the route, the loading facilities were quite rudimentary, slowing the operation down. To improve efficiency on the north side, they later added a ramp to the vessel and built some shore-side improvements to provide direct and easy loading and unloading. “When we added the ramp to the vessel, we saved about 100,000 litres of fuel annually,” he said.

Current and future construction looking positive

Harding is currently constructing a 1,100-tonne, 320-foot-long ferry in B.C.’s southern interior in the tiny lakeshore town of Nakusp on Upper Arrow Lake. This, the second route Harding’s company operates, will see a new vessel replace two aging boats. The new ferry will accommodate 80 vehicles and 250 passengers beginning in 2014. Marine design was provided by a West Vancouver firm, and steel cut and formed in B.C.’s lower mainland is shipped to the site. As construction of the new inland ferry moves ahead on-schedule, Harding sounds optimistic about the future.

“We’re currently working on three big mine projects, two really big icebreakers for coal mining on Williston Lake, 10,000-hp tugs and 600-foot barges. We’re also in preliminary discussions around a large ore-truck barge on another northern lake. Mine development is a slow process, so we never bank on these things until a contract is signed, but if all these things come together, it will be on a scale of about ten times that of what we’re building at Nakusp.”

He notes that with Transport Canada’s recent delegation of shipbuilding safety inspections and construction standards to private classification societies, it blows costs through the roof. “From what we’ve seen with Lloyds with whom we’re dealing on the Arrow Lakes vessel, we’re adding nearly 20 per cent to the cost.” Commenting on the difficulty of building large vessels in remote areas, Harding says, “You’re isolated, nothing is available of any construction consequence, so you have to be organized and certain of your plans so you don’t have an idle crew of 50 waiting for oxygen or acetylene.”