by Howard Eskildsen
Southerly breezes pushed us gently along as we headed northwest across the Georgia Gulf on June 24, 2001. The engine rumbled happily, powering us at 22 knots as Active Pass faded from view. We had spent the previous night anchored by our friends’ house near Bellingham before setting out in earnest on a trip that would stretch the limits of our boat and our capabilities. After a visit to Princess Louisa Inlet, we planned to head northwest through Desolation Sound, past the tidal rapids of “the maze,” through the Johnstone Strait to the Broughton Islands and to the Queen Charlotte Strait. For nearly three weeks we would be on our own in unfamiliar territory carried by our 26-foot boat, which one “expert” thought had no business there.
During a cruising lecture he had stated that he had two words for the waters north of Campbell River, “NO BAYLINERS!” For a time I wondered why not. The Native Americans routinely traveled there in their cedar canoes, others had followed the same route in a 19-foot open sailboat and one couple had even rowed through it in a 17-foot sea-dory. It had always seemed to me that what we could or could not do was limited more by our imagination than by our equipment. Let the “experts” think what they may, we determined to take our lovely little boat wherever we chose or make fools of ourselves trying.
Gradually, familiar landmarks appeared in the distant haze: Howe Sound, Sechelt, the Merry Island Light and Welcome Pass. I kept close track of the fuel gage and the total miles traveled on the GPS as we approached the pass. The next planned fuel stop would put us nearly 135 miles into the tank, and our estimated maximum range was approximately 150 nautical miles. I do not ordinarily push the lower third of the tank, but I wanted to know from experience how far we could actually run on a tank of gas in the event that a planned fueling stop in the remote north areas happened be out of service.
Near Merry Island we crossed a shearline marked by some floating kelp; a strange sound came from our propeller, and we started to fall off plane. I quickly powered back and continued at hull speed while considering the problem. It sounded like we had spun the hub of the propeller. Since the breeze and current were pushing us towards Welcome Pass and the boat ran smoothly at 1500 RPM, I decided to go through the pass to calmer waters and away from a lee shore before changing the propeller. Along the way I wondered about the wisdom of continuing our 750-mile journey with only one good propeller remaining. I used the cell phone to call repair shops in Pender Harbour and at Egmont, but they had none.
In the calm waters on the other side of the pass I lowered the dinghy and raised the outdrive. To our surprise, a four-foot long piece of splintered, wood lath draped around the drive, but the propeller was in good shape. We removed the lath, raised the dinghy and continued smoothly on. I still wondered, though, if it wouldn’t be better to find a second spare prop anyway.
The gage sank below a quarter of a tank as we neared Secret Cove and our GPS confirmed that we had traveled nearly 115 nautical miles on that tank of fuel. I briefly considered stopping at Pender Harbor for fuel even though our calculations showed we should make Egmont with about 15 gallons to spare. Instead, I gritted my teeth and continued on. The needle bounced off the empty mark as we traversed Agamemnon Channel. Occasionally we thought we heard the engine begin to sputter to a stop, but it purred along unruffled by our imaginings. I sighed in relief as we pulled into the fuel docks with the gage pegged at empty. A cheerful young attendant helped us fuel and then move to our moorage spot for the evening. After doing the math, we found that we had traveled 134 nautical miles, burned 89.5 gallons of fuel and still had 15 gallons remaining in the tank. As always, our little Bayliner was predictable, reliable.
With the fuel situation properly tested, the worry center of my brain turned to finding a second spare propeller. None of the local marinas stocked them, and I expected the odds of finding one would not improve as we traveled north. Finally I called John and Michelle, whom we had visited the night before in Bellingham. They were planning to join us the next day for our trip to Princess Louisa, and John was happy to find us another propeller.
Fairy and I relaxed along the dock and chatted with other boaters that were headed north for the summer. Gray clouds played tag with the sun while beams of light danced across the waters and mountains. We considered eating at the lodge, famous for their Skookum Burgers, but decided just to enjoy a glass of wine and a snack on our boat instead. Currents arose in the channel and our boat began tugging playfully at the moorings. The water sprites were teasing us to leave our cozy seats and head to the fabled Sechelt Rapids.
We huffed up the marina driveway to a rolling road that wound through forest and clearings. Houses and boats in various states of repair peered back at us as we wandered by. Signs of the generation of my youth appeared in the form of old Volkswagen minivans with faded peace symbols discarded among the weeds. I briefly wondered how many had expatriated here to avoid the draft while I wore a U.S. Army uniform. Regardless, I was certain that we were all equally happy that we did not see combat.
The road ended at a stop sign, and we turned right and plodded up the hill as instructed, though it seemed to lead away from the rapids. At the top of the hill a welcomed sign pointed us towards the Sechelt Rapids trail. We followed an asphalt road for a short time. At one clearing, Bathgate Marina appeared, snuggled in its sheltered bay. A short distance later the path left the private road and wound through the forest, up and down and around hilly terrain. It led on and on past Brown Lake and up one last rise. When we began to wonder if we had missed the rapids, a soft sound, like the wind in the treetops whispered from the trail beyond.
By the time we reached the first overlook, the rolling water shouted loudly as it jostled through the islets and the narrow passage. At Roland Point the ground trembled from the raucous roar of the surging, flood current. Standing waves nearly six feet high drummed the nearby shore, and logs flipped end for end as they were tossed through the turmoil. In the lee of the point an upwelling such as we had never seen belched thousands of gallons of foamy water that swirled back into the churning chaos. I did not even want to imagine what would happen to a boat in those waters nor did I want to think of the tidal rapids we would face in the coming weeks.
Overcome with awe, we left only because night was approaching. The return trip seemed faster, perhaps because of familiarity with the surroundings. At Brown Lake, a beaver tended its business in the water near the trail, and we stopped briefly to admire the view as scattered raindrops splashed on the lake.
The last rays of the sun waved goodbye and painted the clouds orange as we stepped back onto the boat. I grabbed the “clunker,” my old 35-mm Pentax, and took several slides of the scene. Then, tired and happy, we retried with the sun for a good night’s sleep. That night it rained as we had never heard it rain before. I arose once to check the cabin and the helm. Except for a couple of marginal drips in the usual areas below the zippers, all was dry-or so I thought. I went back to sleep to the sounds of water swirling under the hull and rain dancing on the deck. I could dream of no sweeter sound.
The next morning I arose early and set out on my usual carousing with a camera. When I returned, the look on Fairy’s face told me something was amiss even before she could say, “The foot of the bed is wet!” With a groan I crawled to the moist corner of the bed and traced the water source. I pulled an overhead panel that covered the electrical wires and control cables. To my surprise, the source was obvious and easy to fix. The passage hole for the electrical connections to the radar arch had not been caulked, and in the heavy rain some water made it down the arch into the opening and to the foot of the bed. We set up the fan and the heater and had everything dried out in a couple of hours. I caulked the hole, and then Fairy replaced the sheets on the bed.
We had solved the problems of the propellers, the fuel range and a leaking cabin; the Strait of Georgia lay safely behind us. With those hurdles safely past we felt that we could handle whatever else the trip might bring and have a good time doing it. A cautious optimism about the remaining trip brightened our boat nearly as much as the sunbeams that winked at us through scattered clouds. Fairy and I sat down for a while and relaxed as we waited for John and Michelle to arrive.
To the Princess
Shortly after noon a familiar auto trundled down the winding lane to the marina and parked under trees that overlooked the Skookumchuck Narrows. John and Michelle headed down to the dock with their gear and a brand new propeller. There is a short list of people that Fairy and I could live with in the confines of a 26-foot hull for four days, and John and Michelle are at the top of that list. The ladies carefully packed things away while John and I chatted excitedly about the next leg of the trip.
We easily beat the 2 PM departure deadline which would put us at Malibu Rapids before slack water. The boat struggled onto plane with its load of fuel, water and supplies for four people. Clouds covered Marlborough Heights as we passed Vancouver Bay, and scattered showers splashed on the rippled waters as we entered Princess Royal Reach. A large yacht ahead left undulating stern waves in its wake as we proceeded towards Patrick Point. Clouds thinned and parted here and there to reveal mountaintops laced with silvery ribbons that plunged downward through gullies and crevices into the foamy sea.
Soft sunlight brightened the Queens Reach with a warm glow as we approached Malibu Rapids. The yacht powered through the current, which still ebbed at nearly two knots. Several sailboats waited in the reach for the current to slacken. One of the sailboats entered the rapids before us, and we followed them through. The flow revealed the deep water from the shoals and made the passage seem easier than it had on our first visit when we entered through the confused swirls of slack water.
Blue skies gazed down upon the depths of the inlet and clouds caressed the peaks as the scene closed wonderfully around our senses. Soft, snowy whiteness covered the higher ridges and sent plumes of meltwater down bare cliffs and through forested canyons. John moved to the cockpit area to get a better view, and Fairy kindly took the helm so I could get some photos and video. We noted the empty buoys by MacDonald Island as a place we could return to if the docks at the head of the inlet were full.
We let out a collective gasp as the head of the inlet and Chatterbox Falls came into view. Far more water surged down the vertical cliffs than had six years earlier during our last visit. The falls did chatter from a distance, but as we closed the gap the chatter rose to a roar. Thick mist shot from the base of the falls like the exhaust from a jet engine and splattered great drops into the seawater dozens of yards from shore. A lone sailboat lay at anchor in the surge from the stream, and plenty of open space on the dock greeted our arrival.
Several people helped us get into a 30-foot gap between boats near the end of the dock. There were some larger spaces, but they wanted to reserve these for the bigger boats. This made good sense, and it dawned on me that here, as well as at most of the other places we were going, we would likely be the smallest boat around. We visited briefly with Denyse and Bill Herringshaw of the “Searcher,” a beautiful Camano Troll. They were directors of the Princess Louisa International Society and were serving as dock hosts for a time. They had tide charts posted in the window of their boat, and as we looked at the charts, their two cats, Gnome and Troll gazed back inquisitively.
Next we hiked up the ramp and followed a soggy trail to the falls. The thunder of the falling water shook the ground and rattled our bones as we made our way toward the mist. A breeze created by the falling torrent carried heavy droplets from the base of the falls and scattered them through openings in the trees and down the trail towards us. We approached cautiously to the base of the falls and gazed in wonder at the spectacle.
The stream coursed on down to the edge of the seawater, where a second boat had anchored in the outflow. Cruising boats of several styles, from our little express cruiser to large trawlers and sailboats lined the nearby dock. In the distance, scattered falls splashed down the canyon walls, while a narrow, blue band of sky peered curiously downward between cloud-cloaked mountaintops.
To one side of the beach, a path led to the dock ramp, and we slowly ambled back. On the dock we paused awhile to look at the oyster-covered rocks and to watch small fish dart about. Dozens of jellyfish that had avoided stranding at low tide pulsed through the water in seeming aimless motion. Like the jellyfish, we had no special direction to go, for we were already where we wanted to be.
As the daylight faded, we retired to the boat for dinner and to play the domino game called turkey-foot. We laughed our way into the night at our misfortunes as the dominos worked for or against us. “This is ugly, but it’s not ugly enough.” John moaned as he drew some unfavorable ones. By eleven PM we decided to end the games and go outside to see the plankton in the water. We were so far north, however, that even at that hour, the twilight glow outshone the light of the plankton. Only a little disappointed, we collapsed into our berths, happy that two more days awaited us at the inlet.
Morning came early enough; how early, none of us bothered to check. John and I wandered around the trails, past the pavilion and to the falls while the ladies got ready for the day.
After breakfast Fairy and I hiked part way up the path towards the trapper’s cabin. Recent rains made the trail slick and soggy. We stepped carefully up the remnants of the old log skid and beyond to the steep trail that followed a creek bank for a while. It was very slow going and before long we decided that we did not want to trudge all the way to the cabin in those conditions. After about half an hour we found a pleasant resting point with the creek babbling nearby and paused before returning.
The trek back down the path seemed twice as steep as it had when we were ascending. We carefully stepped from rock to root around puddles, slipping here and there and stopping occasionally to plot the next few steps. By the time we reached the old log skid, we were moving more steadily, too steadily.
I had commented to Fairy that the week before our trip I had taken care of a fellow who fell with his arm outstretched and broke his wrist. With only a few more feet to go before the trail leveled out, my feet slipped on a wet log, then caught and I pitched forward. Rather than reach out like my unfortunate patient, I tucked my arms close to my body and went down like a tackled football player. My hat rolled down the trail as I skidded to a stop on the side of my face and shoulder. Fairy gasped as I quickly took inventory. The knee and hip hurt, but moved all right. The shoulder was growing a large, purple bruise that would remind me to be more careful for the rest of the trip. “I’m ok.” I called up to Fairy. We hobbled down the remainder of the trail, both a little shaken. In two visits to the inlet I had taken two hard falls and left some skin behind. I had to be certain that there was not a third fall.
There had been enough “adventure” for the day, so we decided to charge up the boat’s batteries by taking a slow cruise to MacDonald Island. More clouds rimmed the high peaks as we motored at four knots over glassy water. We passed the bend in the inlet and rounded the west side of MacDonald Island. All of the mooring buoys were empty, so we tied to the one closest to the dinghy dock. John and I went ashore while the girls made lunch. Several cabins, which were part of the Malibu Young Life Camp, lay nestled among the trees beyond the dock. Signs on the cabins offered the use of the cabins to visitors in need of emergency shelter, but requested that the cabins be left as they were found.
After lunch we all went ashore to explore the area and the campground for visiting boaters. It showed so much promise, but so little use for such a lovely setting. It was hard to believe that so many boats congregated at the head of the inlet while passing this spot by. When we left the moorage, we departed through the channel to the east of the island. Though it was low tide, we never had less than 18 feet of water under the hull.
The rest of the day went too quickly as we wandered back to the falls and visited with other boaters at the dock. It seemed only a few moments before we were back in our berths with sounds of our snoring echoing off the surrounding cliffs. Rain tapped on the deck off an on through the night, and by morning the falls were really roaring.
The sound lured us out of the boat and back on to the trail around by the falls. One of us commented that only the hardiest souls would likely visit the paths that day, as it would be too daunting for the faint of heart. On the way back down the trail we met the first load of people that had ridden to the inlet from Egmont by tour boat. Hearty indeed, they limped ashore using canes, walkers and an occasional wheelchair. Bedecked with gray hair and smiles, they were not about to let a little rain or arthritis keep them from the thundering spectacle. It was our pleasure to stand aside and let them pass.
In the afternoon we visited the Young Life camp at Malibu. They have a store that makes its own ice cream, but keeps irregular hours. We tied to the guest dock area and were met by the dock hosts who gave us a pleasant tour. The ice-cream store had not yet opened after the tour was over, so we motored back to MacDonald Island and had a snack there before returning to the docks at the head of the inlet.
That evening rain pelted the area almost as heavily as it had the night we spent at Egmont. In the morning I was relieved to find the foot of the bed to be totally dry. More water gushed from Chatterbox Falls than we had ever seen, and a foggy mist drifted away from the top of the falls. Low clouds closed in the valley with a somber magnificence as we reluctantly departed.
We watched the falls and dock disappear, then passed through the rapids into the Queen’s Reach. The rain ended and ceiling raised as we proceeded into Princess Royal Reach. Flat seas gave way to ripples, then chop as we rounded Marlborough Heights. Several logs bobbed in the water and we had to keep a close lookout. Between the Brittain River and Vancouver bay, the wind whipped the water into confused waves that made it hard to see obstacles in the water. Suddenly a 30-foot log appeared about three boat lengths away, floating parallel to our course of travel. With the usual sailor’s shout I turned hard to port, waited a moment and turned back to starboard to kick the sterndrive away from the log. We missed it by about 20 feet.
There was barely time to catch our breath when a gust of wind ripped the pole and the Princess Louisa burgee from the bow railing. It clunked off the deck and disappeared below the tossing water. Past Vancouver Bay the wind and water settled down and we fetched Egmont without further excitement. After saying goodbye to John and Michelle and refueling, we set out on the next phase of our trip.
Through the Maze
We motored carefully through the remainder of the Jervis Inlet over lightly rippled water. The sun melted away the clouds, and we turned into the Malaspina Strait under warm, sunny skies and cruised on to Beach Gardens Resort near Powell River. We washed clothes and sheets, cleaned the boat and finally got a long-needed shower. Refreshed, we settled in for the evening, and I studied the route for the next leg of the trip.
Morning dawned clear and calm, and we started at a leisurely pace. There was no hurry since we would have to wait until 12:30 PM to cross Dent Rapids which was less than two hours away. We slipped smoothly past Powell River and through Thulin Passage with very few other boats in sight. By Lund, a horrible racket jolted through the boat, and both Fairy and I thought that it had come from the engine. I powered down immediately and checked under the cockpit. The sound reminded us of the noise made when the coupling to the outdrive had separated nearly ten years earlier. For a moment I thought that the trip was over before it really had a chance to begin.
At idle the engine purred smoothly, and no debris lay spattered around the outdrive coupling. The belts were all intact, and I wasn’t sure what to think until a milder version of the sound grated out again. “It came from the radio, some sort of static.” Fairy explained. I closed up the engine compartment and turned down the volume on the radio. We continued on without further problems, though it took nearly an hour for our nerves to settle down.
Past Sara Point a twinge of sadness tugged at me as we bypassed Desolation Sound with its enchanting memories. Like a maze, several passages opened before us, begging exploration as we continued through Lewis Channel, then Calm Channel to the Yuculta Rapids.
The current ran nearly four knots through the broad passage. Upwellings and small whirlpools pushed the boat from side to side as we continued on to Big Bay. We powered down as we entered the bay, and the current slowed us to about three knots until we were near the docks. There was no hurry; we had three hours to go before Dent Rapids calmed down, and after seeing the Sechelt there was no way we would challenge the Dent in its full furry.
We moored to the visitor’s dock, then wandered up the inviting path past green grass and brightly colored flowers to the general store. The store had a warm, cozy feel, and we enjoyed browsing. Unfortunately, they did not have a pole to replace the one we lost with our Princess Louisa burgee, so we could not mount our NBT burgee to the bow of the boat. We bought a few items, then wandered around the resort. Above the bay the tall peak, Mount Muehle, looked down on the enterprise, flanked by blue sky and scattered clouds. We had hoped to eat lunch at the restaurant, but it did not open until noon and we had to be through Dent Rapids by 12:30, so we dined on the boat.
Before long, engines of boats at the nearby docks rumbled to life in anticipation of slack water. We followed two sailboats through Gillard Pass as the last remnants of the flood current died. I envied the house on Little Dent Island that looked down on the passage in full view of the infamous Devil’s Hole. I would love to have found a safe place to stop and watch the giant whirlpool open up as the current returned to full force, but we had other plans for the day.
We meandered through the deep gorge of Cordero Channel and watched the chart carefully to avoid wandering astray down Nodales Channel, Phillips Arm, or any number of other inviting breeches in the mountainous valley. We threaded our way through scattered islands and turned south down Mayne Passage. There in a small bay, nestled behind a rocky point, Blind Channel Resort lay against a mountainous backdrop. Brightly colored flags waved lazily from the ramp as we pulled to the fuel pump. Neatly painted facades decorated with stone and shell mosaics made from local materials decorated the dock pilings. An energetic, cheerful young man helped us fuel and then find mooring.
On shore the artistry continued and blended into the theme of the restaurant and store. We followed the side walk past neatly trimmed lawn and shrubs to the main building to pay for fuel, moorage and to purchase chart 3564 for its large scale coverage of the eastern end of Chatham Channel. I should have purchased one more chart.
The store manager laughed as he told of going a whole year without selling a single copy of his extensive chart inventory. This year, however, a poor bloke had his entire electronic navigation system washed away by an errant splash of green-water and had to purchase a complete set of paper charts for the whole summer’s cruising. Charts had been moving well ever sense.
We stashed our goods in the Fairy Boat, then headed across the grass to the right of the store and through a wooded passage to a footbridge that crossed a small estuary. Beyond the estuary the path disappeared into the forested hillside and split into two trails. One hugged the creek while the other wound along the ridge; both headed to a giant tree known as the Thurlow Cedar. We took the “high road” and huffed up the trail through the trees past stumps, nursery logs and springs that harbored (or is it harboured?) brown, speckled frogs.
Finally we came to a large wooden pillar that reached nearly to the top of the forest. We wondered if it was the famous tree, but then decided that it couldn’t have been, since it was dead. It was the “cedar snag” that we had noted at the trail marker earlier. “One helluva snag.” I said half aloud. A short distance later the living giant cedar, nearly 20 feet in diameter at the base, loomed upward into the canopy.
After a brief rest by the cedar, we continued along the upper trail until it joined the creek by a wooden bridge. We crossed the bridge, but heavy brush crowded the trail and bears were rumored to be about, so we turned around and followed the creek back down to the estuary.
Back at the trailhead, the sign pointed to another faint trail that led to the rocky bluffs overlooking the marina. We followed along the shore, past an ancient gasoline-powered logging winch, then turned back into the woods until we reached the point. The overlook gave a bird’s eye view of the channel and surrounding bays. We plodded and stumbled our way back to the resort and showered at their facilities, which were the very best that we encountered on the whole trip.
After cleaning up we walked to the restaurant by the store. Pastel colors adorned the structural beams and pillars while paintings, tapestries and quilts decorated the wall. Another very pleasant young gentleman took our order, and later a kindly, gray-haired lady introduced herself. “I’m Annemarie.” She said softly. She and her husband founded the resort in 1970 and her son whom we had met at the store now runs it. Her grandsons join the workforce in the summer, and one had helped us fuel while the other was our waiter for the evening. After a short visit, she proceeded to welcome the guests at the other tables, showing grace and warmth that added to the dining delight. The food was prepared to perfection and was one of the best meals we have ever enjoyed.
After dinner I checked the charts and prepared for an early departure. Something didn’t quite match up on the two charts that covered the remainder of route from Cordero Channel to Wellbore Channel. I wrote off the confusion to fatigue and turned in for a pleasant night’s sleep.
We departed around six AM to make the slack current at Greene Point Rapids and at Whirlpool Rapids. Through Green Point the water still swirled, but the brunt of the current had passed. A mile or so later we ran off chart 3312 and none of the formations matched 3544, our next chart. I followed the center of the channel and watched for signs of shoals in the dying current. A long channel opened up to the north. For a moment I wondered if it was Wellbore Channel, but it angled too far back and I could not locate Bulkely Island. I continued straight ahead and finally realized that we were passing Loughborough Sound and were traveling over water for which we had no charts. After about two miles the terrain matched up with chart 3544 and I breathed a sigh of relief as we turned up Wellbore Channel.
The high eastern wall shadowed the channel as we gradually closed in on a beautiful, wooden Chris Craft that we had admired at Blind Channel. A tug pulling logs nearly filled the narrows of Whirlpool Rapids, so we slowed to hull speed and followed the 50-foot cruiser around the tug. Just beyond the tug, the narrow entrance to Forward Harbour beckoned and we passed through into the bay. Several boats lay at anchor in the northwest corner of the hazy bay, and muted sunshine over the distant mountains made the other end of bay seem remote and mysterious. We ate breakfast while some of the nearby boats rattled up their anchor chains and departed. A short time later we followed them back to Wellbore and on to Sunderland Channel.
Why the Sunderland is considered more protected than the Johnstone Strait, I could not fathom. To me it looked like any wind-driven waves should roll from the Johnstone right up the channel and crash into the head of the bay. At least we did not have to worry about it that day as the only stirring of the waters came from the few boats chugging about. Soon we entered the treacherous waters of the Johnstone Strait, but it too lay calm under hazy skies. Through the wide channel we ran at 22 knots and kept a close watch for debris on the water. Every shear line demanded close attention and occasionally we had to slow to hull speed to cross them safely.
The Broken Islands soon appeared and we swung wide around them to avoid reefs then doubled back into Havannah Channel. Its islands, bays and passages invited exploration, but another destination awaited. We slowed to cautiously navigate the shallow eastern end of Chatham Channel, and pushed against the current while carefully keeping the channel markers aligned. Fairy watched astern while I steered towards the markers ahead. Though the passage was well marked, I was happy that we had purchased the large-scale chart at Blind Bay.
When the channel widened, we ran on plane again, giving wide berth to Minstrel Island Resort to minimize the effect of our wake. Little did we know that we were passing by our friends, Chris and Jerry Hurd who lay at anchor aboard their 49-foot DeFever, Compromise, in Cutter Cove. We were to meet them in two days at Echo Bay. They had helped us get started boating in 1989 when we had the Fairy Boat on Flaming Gorge, Utah. Later, they had moved to the San Francisco Bay area and lived aboard the Compromise for several years before making the passage up the coast to Port Sidney in August, 2000.
We turned from Chatham Channel and ran down the Knight Inlet to Spring Passage, then threaded through the passages and islands of the Broughton Archipelago, which locals refer to as the Mainland. The Echo Bay Marina float came into view next to a wooded point. Signs that warned boats to keep away remained from the days when the float had been a part of the Lake Washington Bridge near Seattle. A young man warmly welcomed us at the fuel dock, and we filled the tank with imperial gallons of gasoline. Up at the store, a “guard dog” would not let us pass until we had sufficiently scratched her tummy. I asked the store manager when the restaurant opened, and she eyed me with an amused look. “Anytime you would like to open it!” she announced with a giggle. Fairy was laughing as well by the time I remembered that there was no restaurant at Echo Bay. The tone had been well set, and we had several good laughs during our visit there. Other locals at the store gave us advice as to places to visit during our stay in the area.
We had our pick of the docks so we went to a protected spot about half way into the bay and tied. Sunshine warmed the cozy nook and we set to cleaning the Fairy Boat and settling in until, Chris and Jerry arrived. Across the bay from the marina, brightly colored houses and a public dock invited visitors as well. A red and yellow sailboat loaded with passengers motored out of the bay.
After lunch, we piled into Tink, our dinghy, and rowed around the point to Billy Proctor’s place. We first heard about Billy in the book, Heart of the Raincoast, by Alexandria Morton and Billy Proctor. He was born at Port Neville in 1934 and lived his entire life in the local region. Though he never attended a day in school, he learned what he needed to know through reading and experience. Now, anyone looking for practical information about local history, boating or the salmon, is directed to ask Billy.
His beautifully maintained fishing boat, the Ocean Dawn, lay moored at the end of the dock in front of a picturesque home site surrounded by woods. On shore to the right of the dock stood his sawmill where he shaped the lumber used in his buildings. Next to the mill a shed with a gracefully curved roof covered the marine railway where Billy does maintenance on his boat.
A slender form wearing a hat, work shirt and blue jeans walked deliberately down the boardwalk from his house to the dock to welcome us. “I’m Billy.” He said softly, then led us to a building behind the boat where he displayed what he referred to as “my junk.” Rows of antique bottles lined handcrafted shelves on one side while Native artifacts appeared on the other. Various photos, tools, engine parts and other relics of the past were also neatly displayed, and Billy gladly shared the stories behind the items. Some of his stories were sad, but most were hilarious, and we would have gladly stayed all afternoon, but we did not want to wear out our welcome.
As we were getting ready to leave, Fairy mentioned that she hoped to see some bears while we were there. Billy’s eyes lit up, “You want to see bears? Go to Viner Sound early in the morning or at sunset and you’ll see bears.” With a wave and a smile he sent us on our way, and we knew that we just had to come back one more time before we left the area. That night we dreamed about bears as we slept soundly at our quiet moorage. I didn’t set the alarm since I always wake up early, well almost always.
When the first light of dawn filtered into the boat, I knew that I had overslept. We quickly dressed, then ran the short distance to Viner Sound. The end of the sound narrowed so we slowed to hull speed and took in the view of the reflections of shoreline and trees that looked like horizontal totem poles. We went in as far as we dared and stopped for breakfast. A fishing boat lay at anchor and a small boat was tied to a buoy on the north side of the inlet. At the head of the sound a river poured through a grassy meadow into the sea and an eagle guarded the bay from his high perch. A beam of sunlight pierced the clouds over the mountains, splashed onto a hill at the end of the valley and tumbled into the mist. Although the bears had already departed we were not disappointed that we had journeyed there.
After a leisurely breakfast we motored slowly back though the narrows. Ahead, a large, brown form rippled the waters as a giant beast swam through the water. “Is that a moose?” I asked Fairy. She replied that she didn’t think so as she reached for the binoculars. Then the creature turned its large, round head our way and silhouetted its teddy bear ears against the water. We both gasped in wonder as it slowly swam out of sight behind a rocky point.
We left the inlet and headed to the Burdwood Islands. These rocky mounds rose from the deep floor of the fjord to create rugged islands and reefs that could be confusing to boaters and cartographers. Locals had told us it was their favorite picnic area, however, and we had to see it. As we approached from the east I compared the islands with the chart and found a small, wooded island where only a reef was charted. We cautiously wound our way into the group and admired the isolated beaches with white, shell middens scattered along the shores.
We returned to Echo Bay and were preparing for a hike up the nearby hill when the Compromise rounded the marina dock. We visited for a while, and Jerry noted that we had passed right by them the day before, though neither of us was aware of it. We invited them to go with us up the hill, but they were headed to Shoal Harbour to set some crab pots. It was just as well; the hike was a “buggar.”
We rowed across the bay, hiked past the school, then followed some pipes up the hill as directed in the cruise guide. We soon passed two tiny dams made of plastic tarp and wood, which filled the water pipes with brown, tannin-laced water. The spongy path crossed the stream then continued up into the dense forest. We crossed a flat, wooden bridge that was covered with lichen and fungi, then joined a trail lined with ancient, rutted logs that were part of the old skid road that Billy had told us about.
We emerged from the woods and followed a gravel logging road on up the hill. Saplings that were taking over the remains of the road impeded our progress as we battled our way up the steep, rocky slope. Finally we reached the top where discarded logs were piled here and there among the rocks like jackstraws. The view was magnificent, however, and we were glad that we had made the trip. We stumbled our way back down the steep part of the logging road, then got lost a couple of times in the forest before finally making it back to the bay. It truly was an adventure complete with thrills, spills and uncertainty as to the final outcome.
While recuperating at Echo Bay, we visited with Owen and Suzette Youngblood from the Sundowner Tug, Placebo. They had just returned from Kwatsi Bay and insisted that we visit there. We had considered it earlier, but with so much to see in so little time we had dropped it from our list. We discussed it with Chris and Jerry, and they liked the idea.
The next morning, after another visit to Billy Proctor’s museum, we motored up Tribune Channel past a large scar on Gilford Island where a landslide had crashed into the water the previous year. On the other side of the valley a large waterfall cascaded down the mountainside, turned abruptly and then plunged into the seawater. Two miles past the falls a canyon burrowed into the mountains and disappeared behind a small island. We entered the valley, passed to the right of the island and discovered the marina on the left side of a bowl-shaped bay behind the island. Waterfalls tumbled down from bare mountaintops high above the bay, then disappeared into the woods near shore. On the western edge of the bay the sun warmed a grassy meadow where bears were known to feed.
Anca and her two children, Russell and Marieke welcomed us and helped with the lines, while her husband, Max, tended to other dock chores. Anca let us know that though the children were on the dock, they were not allowed to bother the guests. Fairy replied that they were of no bother as far as we were concerned, and she was happy that Howard would have some peers to relate to. Russell drew us a couple pictures then challenged me to a game of Uno. His mom told me not to cut him any slack even though he was a youngster. I didn’t, but he still thoroughly whipped me three straight games.
In the afternoon Russell and Marieke took us on a tour of a nearby waterfall that we could hear, but not see from the dock. We took the dinghy over to the oyster-covered shore near the meadow and proceeded into the woods with air horns ready in case we saw a bear. Beyond a small rise and past the gnarled “Wizard and Witch’s Tree” we discovered the misty veil of water making its last plunge downward. I taught the kids how to make squawking sounds with blades of grass and folded leaves while the adults simply admired the view.
Afterwards Chris, Jerry and Fairy went back to the dock, but the kids lured me on to “Redwall, ” the island at the entrance to the bay. Russell wanted me to see the dragon’s head, and Marieke urged me to visit another part of the island. While each tugged in opposite directions, I tried to remove sharp pieces of barnacles from my sandals. In time I saw the whole island, though the dragon’s head had flown with the tide to a new roost, and in its place a mossy log resembling a moose’s head gazed impassively at us.
After the delightful tour ended and we were safely back at the dock, Fairy and Chris announced that one day at Kwatsi was not enough. Jerry and I agreed heartily, then set out in his dinghy to check the shrimp pots he and Chris had set earlier. As we took turns hauling in the line, the nearby water rippled then exploded with a rush of air that sounded like it gushed from an over-inflated tire. For a minute or two, half a dozen porpoises surfaced repeatedly to breathe, then departed as quickly as they had appeared. We returned to the boat with more shrimp and memories than we had ever expected.
The next morning I rowed around the bay as the sun cast its first light on the rocky mountaintops. Not a breath of wind stirred the water, but a steady rushing sound came from various parts of the bay. One by one, I found the trickles of water that filtered to the sea from hidden forest falls. On a rocky wall across from the island, stranded anemone drooped like suspended sacks of cellophane as they awaited the tide’s return. The low water also revealed Redwall Island’s barnacle-encrusted reef that connected it with the western shore.
I followed the rocks to the shore, then rowed around towards the dock. A curious mink popped out from some hole, then bounced along the rocks, stopping here and there to chew on its latest discovery. It splashed into the water and I thought it was gone, but soon it reappeared and dashed back onto the rocks. It slowly worked its way along the shoreline, bounding and splashing along till it finally disappeared from sight. Only reluctantly did we leave this lovely little bay the next day.
The Fourth of July dawned with clouds and drizzle closing in over the inlet and bay. Kwatsi seemed even more secluded as it slowly faded from view. Though we were headed for Greenway Sound, we took a small detour and turned east into Tribune Channel and motored to Bond Sound. The basin at the head of the sound held one of the last stands of old-growth forest, and various interests battle for control of its future. Some want the area as a park with limited trails to protect the people from the bears. Others want camping and hiking areas fenced to protect the bears from the people. Logging interests, however, have already surveyed roadways in hopes of someday harvesting the timber in the area. For now, however, it simply sits untouched as it has for centuries.
We entered the sound and escaped the chop that made the short trip there uncomfortable. Clouds added a somber feel to the majestic mountainsides that rose steeply and disappeared into the mists. The forest-lined shore meandered along the water with small indentations here and there as we followed it to the head of the sound. A classic old tug, Chief Tapeets, lay at anchor with its nicely painted hull blending well with the surroundings. A river larger than the one at Viner Sound tumbled from the forest into a flat, grassy meadow then laughed its way into the seawater. During the salmon run bears prowl the beach and line the waterway in search of an easy meal. One guidebook says there is no good anchorage there, but if we ever return we will have to try to prove them wrong.
We turned and headed back into the chop of Tribune Channel, stopped to say goodbye to our newfound friends at Kwatsi, then ran to Greenway Sound. Along the way the clouds raised, the rain stopped and waters calmed. We tied to the inside of the southern arm of the dock behind another boat that was nearly as small as ours, then checked in. Chris and Jerry and the Compromise appeared a while later. We visited with Tom and Anne who run the marina, put in our orders for dinner at the restaurant, then Fairy and I did the laundry. It was expensive, but the laundry room was very clean and the water was not brown with tannins, as it had been at other locations on the Mainland.
Later, we walked the docks for exercise, while float planes delivered passengers and supplies, then ferried out the garbage. Marina staff greeted us as they did their daily rounds and made sure that all was shipshape aboard the boats that had been left in their care. We passed by several other boats we had seen along the way including three Nordic Tugs that were from LaConner and Bellingham. Their skipper told Jerry and Chris of a Special Place along Cordero Channel that we absolutely had to see on the way home.
After the walk we tidied up for dinner as the sun settled towards the hills and turned the streaming water from a departing floatplane into drops of liquid gold. We feasted in the marina restaurant in simple elegance. The food we ordered earlier was just to our liking and the staff superb. We lingered at our table until fingers of the sun’s last rays filtered through the trees then clawed at the sky as if reluctant to depart.
The next morning we prepared to go to Eden Island, but we were in no hurry to leave Greenway. The Sundowner Tug, Placebo, docked at the marina, and we swapped stories of our adventures since we last met. Then Fairy and I lured Jerry and Chris to go on a hike before we left.
I ferried the group in “Tink” over to the trailhead to Broughton Lake. We plodded up the steps from the dock, turned left towards the campsite and then disappeared into the forest. The soft, spongy trail wound up and around giant stumps and second-growth trees. Remains of old logging equipment lay partly covered by ferns, lichen and moss. We kept on the lookout for bear or their droppings and wondered if we should have bought some bells and pepper spray for protection. Someone asked how to identify bear scat when you saw it. The reply: It has bells in it and smells like pepper!
The trail crossed a small creek, then leveled out, and a short distance later Broughton Lake appeared through the trees. We followed the right fork of the trail along the edge of the shore to a rocky outcropping with a clear view. Several small, wooded islands, mysterious and shaggy, dotted the lake. The surrounding hills looked like they had been to a bad barber due to patches of new growth timber of various ages all shuffled together on the mountain slopes.
We retraced our steps, then went a short distance on the left fork of the trial to a clearing. We signed in at the BC Parks information board and encouraged them to continue upkeep of the trail. For a short time, we wandered the driftwood-covered beach, then returned back to the boats. We reluctantly said goodbye to Greenway Sound and set out for Eden Island, which locals had recommended as a great anchorage.
We rounded the east end of Broughton Island, then threaded the narrow Indian Passage past Insect Island and Fly Island. Behind Fly Island two bays indented the shore on the east side of Eden Island. Three boats lined the small western bay so we anchored in an indentation to the south. I anchored close to the shore and tied the stern to a tree hanging over a small ledge, while Compromise anchored a little farther out and was free to swing on the anchor.
I slept lightly that night as I usually do at anchor in an unfamiliar place. I had just fallen back to sleep after getting up to check the depth sounder when I heard Fairy whisper, “Howard, there is something out there.” I went back out and could hear something rooting through the brush near our stern line. After listening for a while I figured that it was too small for a bear and too big for a rat, so it wouldn’t likely crawl down the line to our boat.
In the morning while rowing about in the dinghy I finally figured out what had been prowling the shoreline through the night. At the entrance to the western bay, two raccoons worked the rocky beach in search of food. One watched curiously while the other dug around in the rocks for clams and crabs and crunched down each morsel.
I rowed about the bays and then turned up a rocky channel to a narrow passage between Insect and Eden Islands. We had planned to travel that way to Blunden Channel a little while later, and I wanted to get a look at it. At the entrance of the channel two eagles tussled over a favored roosting site, and the displaced bird flew away screeching. On the way back silence settled over the reef-lined passage only to be broken occasionally by the call of a loon and the rubbery sounds of porpoises breathing.
During breakfast Jerry and I discussed whether we should trust the passage since it was low tide and the chart showed a minimum depth of six feet. After discovering an island in the Burdwood Group that didn’t exist on the chart, we were reluctant to totally trust the charts. Instead, we decided to go around the west end of Eden Island and return through Trainer Passage. We were ready to weigh anchor and go.
Oh, no! The day before I had decided to tie the line to the tree rather than run it back to the boat, and the departing tide had uncovered a vertical wall below the tree. I had planned for the tide by making the bowline very large, but I hadn’t made it large enough. When I pulled on the line and stood in the dinghy I could just reach the knot, but could not untie it. After thinking and sputtering for a few minutes, I tied the painter to the stern line with a rolling hitch, climbed to the top of the cliff with the help of the rope and then untied the bowline. I made a loop in the end of the rope for my foot and lowered myself back down to the dinghy. Chris and Jerry never admitted to betting on whether or not I would wind up in the water, but later they did have some interesting photos and subtle suggestions for the “dope on a rope.”
We rounded Eden Island and caught a glimpse of the glassy water of Queen Charlotte Strait, then turned back through Trainer Passage. I regretted a little that we didn’t have time to stop at Monday Anchorage which I had read about in The Curve of Time. We threaded our way through narrow passages past islands and reefs to Retreat Passage. By Health Bay a deer swam between Compromise and the Fairy Boat while crossing the channel. We slowed and altered course to minimize the wake as the deer paddled by with its bobbing head and white tail held high.
I glanced over at the Health Bay Indian Reserve and wondered what it would be like to visit the people who first occupied these islands. Then I decided that they had probably seen more uninvited guests than they needed. We continued on to Mamalilaculla on Village Island where we could learn of the Native culture without intruding.
The Land of the First Nations
We cautiously entered the bay on the west side of Village Island where a dock paralleled the ruins of an old wharf. I radioed Village Island on 79A and learned that Tom Sewid was at the Mamalilaculla village site and we were welcome to go ashore and take a guided tour. Jerry and Chris anchored in the bay while we moved the Fairy Boat to a side-tie along the dock. The outer end of the dock was reserved for their tour boat that brought visitors from Port McNeill and Alert Bay.
We followed a well-worn trail at the end of the dock up a dark, wooded rise and warily watched for bear. A two-story house appeared near the top of the rise, and overlooked the remains of the village. Brush and grass up to four feet high lined the trail to a clearing where a score of people sat on logs or on the ground as Tom shared stories of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation. He stood in full regalia decorated with crests, or symbols that he held family title to and wore a headpiece of cedar bark. Behind him rose the massive cedar pillars and crosspieces that once supported the Big House on the island. Next to the timbers stood the old house of his grandfather, James Sewid.
Tom told several stories that reflected the Kwakwaka’wakw beliefs and also told of the tribal history based on oral tradition and archeological studies. He invited questions from his guests and frequently had us laughing with his answers. After his discussion he showed us totem poles that had fallen but still carried the carved faces, and he encouraged us to look for trade beads along the shore.
High tide covered the shallow bay directly in front of the village, and rocks and islands reflected on the glassy water under a gray, cloudy sky. Here and there sunbeams pierced seams in the clouds, and for a moment I wondered why anyone would ever want to leave that place. Isolation was Tom’s simple reply.
Along the shore brightly colored fragments of china littered the ground near some pilings that once supported the house of the white missionaries and nurse that served the island earlier in the 20th century. The book, Totem Poles and Tea, described the fascinating experience of one nurse, Hughina Harold, who tended the tuberculosis solarium and taught school at Mamalilaculla in 1935 and 1936. Her stories gave a colorful look at life in the village and had been one of the reasons for our visit. As we walked along the water I wondered if she and her companions might have once dined on some of the china that lay shattered along the shore. When we finally left the remains of the village I wondered what to make of the fragments left behind by the cultures that had lived, mingled and then departed from the quiet little cove.
We ran through Village Channel to Farewell Harbour to visit the Village Island Native Cultural Tours center on Compton Island. The small dock was full, however, so we anchored nearby. Tom had told us that anywhere in the harbour would be good for anchorage since there would be little wind that night. The anchor set well, but we could only get a 4:1 scope in the 50-foot depth, and the current that held us against the anchor would surely turn while we slept. In the meantime Chris and Jerry anchored in shallower water near Berry Island. We considered going over there, but raindrops soaked our clothes while we raised the anchor, and the chill sent us longing for a heater.
We departed through West Pass into steel-gray waters of Blackfish Sound. Clouds muted the late-afternoon sun and veiled Queen Charlotte Strait, while raindrops and boat wakes stirred the sullen waters. We were disappointed that no orcas splashed in the sound that had been named for them. We passed between Plumper Islands and the Pearse Islands to Cormorant Island and Alert Bay. I called the marina on the VHF to ask about a slip but received no reply.
We crept slowly around the breakwater hoping to find a space with electrical power available. Sailboats, powerboats, fishing boats rafted together and even a floating house crowded the well-worn docks. Directly in front of us about 20 feet of dock lay unoccupied in front of two sloops. It was just long enough, so we moored with six feet of our bow protruding past the end of the dock. Due to the angle of the dock, we did not block the fairway. Minutes later we had the electrical power connected and were baking ourselves in front of our heater.
After warming up I walked along the docks to check out the marina and pay for our moorage. The gentleman behind us nodded as I walked by. In the next boat a gray-haired lady in red foul-weather gear waved from her 24-foot sloop. The deep lines in her slender face folded into a smile that seemed to reflect the light of a thousand happy sunsets seen from the cockpit of her vessel. I waved and was curious about her life on the boat, but the time was not right for questions so I continued up the dock.
A sign on the small marina office explained why we had not been able raise anyone on the VHF. The office was only open for two hours in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. I returned later when it opened and visited with the harbormaster. She was already aware that we had arrived and assured us that our position on the dock was fine with them.
On the way back to the Fairy Boat I couldn’t help note the hard-working character of the harbour. We were surrounded by serious, sea-going boats. A few were neat and tidy, but most were maintained for work, not appearance, and a couple had to keep the bilge pumps running just to stay afloat. Our boat was definitely a curiosity for there was not another express cruiser in sight.
The next morning we walked to the visitor’s center to obtain maps and information about Alert Bay. Afterwards we walked on past the ‘Namgis Burial Grounds with its totems looking outward towards the bay. Some appeared fairly new while others appeared ready to topple. The figures on the poles represented beings from mythical times that were encountered by ancestors of the groups that claimed the figures as family crests. A person acquired title to crests only through inheritance or through marriage, and the crests were a part of their “Box of Treasures.” The poles and the cemetery added to our curiosity of the customs of the Native people and made us wish to learn more.
We ambled back to the marina where another boater informed us that a Native dance would be performed in the afternoon at the Big House near the cultural center. He encouraged us to see it since there might not be another one during our stay. Our friends, Chris and Jerry, were on their way to Alert Bay, so we waited for them to dock before going up to the center. They had some boat-keeping chores to do, so Fairy and I hurried down the street past the Anglican Church, around the head of the bay towards a building bearing the crests of a Thunderbird and a whale. A host at the U’mista Cultural Centre urged us to hurry up the hill to the Big House for the dance was ready to start.
We walked through a short section of houses to a large building with a mythical face painted across the front and entered through doors at the bottom of its gaping grimace. Inside, two huge cedar posts with brightly-painted, carved faces and eagle-like wings gazed over the huge room. From the opposite end of the building two similar poles gazed back. Massive cedar logs rested on decorated crossbeams between the posts and held up the roof in the typical Big House tradition. A fire ring lay in the subdued light in the middle of the house, surrounded by a soft floor of wood chips and earth.
We were directed to seats that rose along the sides of the building to await the ceremony. To my delight, were allowed to photograph all that went on, but it was to be for personal use only. The haunting sound of whistles and flutes called from behind screens while the hostess explained the dances and traditions of the Kwakwaka’wakw. Many of the dances belonged to a family’s Box of Treasures and could only be danced by those who held title to them. The most important of the dances was the Hamat’sa and could only be danced by persons of special privilege.
Sounds of the cedar log drum erupted from the far end of the building, and the first young Hamat’sa danced across the room, portraying a wild man who had to be tamed by the dance ritual. Other dances followed and depicted cultural beliefs and stories. Cedar bark costumes and carved masks added to the mystic of the event, and the dancer with the raven mask truly seemed more like a bird than a human. They performed seven dances, then invited the audience join in the Amla’la or play song. About half of the audience joined in as we stepped to the beat of the drum and wail of the singer.
After the dance ended, we returned to the U’mista Cultural Centre to view artifacts that had been taken from various tribal members after they held a potlatch at Mamalilaculla in defiance of federal law in 1921. With considerable scandal, the artifacts were distributed by a government agent to various museums and private collectors. Thirty years later the law that tribal members had “violated” was deleted, but they never forgot the loss of these priceless cultural items. In 1960, James Sewid (Tom’s grandfather) and others began the political and legal work to recover the items that had been wrongly taken. The first artifacts were returned when the Cultural Centre was completed in the mid-1970’s and more followed in the 1980’s. The return of the treasures was likened to the return of a person captured by an enemy and thought to be lost forever. Rarely, when such persons managed to return to their own people, they were said to have “u’mista.”
As we viewed the masks, coppers, and other items on exhibit, we were thankful that we had visited Mamalilaculla and had also seen the dances before going to the cultural center. The museum items could no longer appear as a mere display of artifacts, but rather as an extension of life past and life resurrected. We could not remain impassive about them, for in our minds they had form, function and meaning.
The Long Run Home
Back at the harbour I reviewed charts and weather for the trip home. We had seven more days before our planned arrival date, and we could reasonably run the 265 nautical mile journey in three days. But should foul weather set in we could easily be holed up for two or three days along the way. The forecast called for wind, rain and drizzle through the night, then clearing over the next 48 hours before another storm rolled in from the Gulf of Alaska. I decided to check the weather again later before choosing whether to spend the next day at nearby Port McNeill or to cautiously embark on the return trip in the morning.
Fairy and I pondered the decision over a plate of fish and chips at the Orcas Inn then hiked up the hill to the Ecological Preserve. We followed a long cement stairway past some large propane tanks, then followed the street map to the preserve which is more commonly known as the “Gator Gardens.” Near the top of the hill a trail led into the woods to a swampy lagoon with dead cedars stretching skyward. Eagles screeched from the tops of the snags as we followed the boardwalk across the marsh. It seemed a more appropriate setting for the Everglades than for the Pacific Northwest, lacking only alligators to complete the illusion.
Misty drops began to fall from gray clouds as we returned to the harbour and paid a visit to the Compromise. We reviewed the weather again and decided that Fairy and I could safely spend the next day at Port McNeill before heading back. By the time we returned to the Fairy Boat, a steady rain descended from the darkness.
The rain tapped on the canvas and deck through the night, then let up at the first light of morning. We slept in a bit later than usual; there was no need to hurry for our destination was only 20 minutes away. As I rolled up the electrical cord, the weathered lady in the sailboat behind us prepared to leave. I untied the bow line and helped her off, though it was obvious by the way she handled the boat that she really needed no help. An elderly gentleman braced himself in the companionway and watched, though no longer able to assist his captain. She smiled, waved and skillfully maneuvered out of the harbour. I stood in awe and watched as the boat and the figure in the red, foul weather suit slowly, happily chugged out of sight.
The Fairy Boat ran like a skipping stone over rippled water to Port McNeill. We fueled then found our assigned moorage near the end of the dock. The clouds began to crack as the Compromise pulled up to the docks. We cleaned and tidied up the boat, then carried laundry up the hill.
Fairy tended the wash while I scouted about with the camera. Greenery covered the grounds at the head of the ramp, and an old steam donkey, once used for moving logs, decorated the grounds by the marina office. In the harbour below, fishing boats and pleasure craft crowded the docks. To the western side of the bay the fuel docks also served the floatplanes that came and went through the day. Beyond the fuel docks, log rafts floated in the shallows.
Later, we wandered about the stores just up the hill and kept returning to “Just Art” to admire the photos and Native carvings on display. In the evening we joined Chris and Jerry for one last dinner together at a local restaurant. The service and atmosphere were wonderful, and the food was perfect-or so I thought. We visited until time to retire for the evening, then said our good-byes.
Through the night sleep came reluctantly, then scurried away at the slightest sound about the boat. My stomach rumbled up heartburn like I had not experienced on the whole trip. I was preoccupied with the Johnstone Strait and how the winds would treat us the next day and dismissed the symptoms as just a bad case of the “jitters.” Around 4:30 AM rumbles in the gut and a low-grade fever revealed that it had been a mild case of food poisoning that had tormented my night. The horizon was aglow with the approaching dawn, so I took some aspirin and prepared to head out.
The weather report called for calm for a few hours before gales swept into the strait by mid-day. The Man on the Moon reflected upon the waters and Venus slowly faded from view as we left Port McNeill astern. A few high clouds sprinkled the red, white and blue colors of sunrise across the smooth waters as we passed Alert Bay. The cold morning air seemed to revive my dulled senses and made the trip tolerable.
In the distance, cruise ships turned silently like ghosts from the strait into Blackfish Sound. Twenty minutes later we bounced over the first waves of the day as we crossed their wakes. We ran headlong into the Johnstone, following the deep gorge as it extended eastward for what seemed like forever. Abeam of Robson Bight, wind spilled into the strait and stirred the water like a cat’s paw. The waves ran down our course of travel and rippled the waterway. By Havannah Channel a one-foot chop pushed us along, then rose to two feet by Port Neville.
The rising wind and waves made it harder to detect the sheer lines and partly hid floating debris that was abundant in the water. In the distance Sunderland Channel looked like the most direct place for the waves to run, but instead they turned south of Hardwicke Island and frothed towards Race Passage. We gratefully entered the Sunderland where the white caps disappeared and the water flattened. We were off the dreaded Johnstone before eight AM, and I steered towards the sun under blue skies as my queasy stomach settled with the sea.
At Wellbore Channel we turned right and pushed through the ebbing Whirlpool Rapids deep in the shaded gorge. Upwellings and whirlpools boiled around the boat and slowed our progress by four knots until we entered the peaceful waters beyond the point. The sunshine returned in Chancellor Channel, and the gorge widened as we ran towards Cordero Channel. We bobbed through the Green Point rapids then took one wistful look towards Blind Channel where we had originally planned to stay on the return trip. But during our journey we had learned of a Special Place that we just had to see before we left those waters.
In a location hidden from casual view, yet so wonderfully obvious once you knew where to look, a small float house hugged the rugged shoreline. Cables from shore and from a protecting island held it securely in its snug little cove. At first it appeared as another private residence, but the u-shaped dock and moored boats revealed that visitors were welcome. A soft-spoken young man helped us tie and introduced us to Boots, their huge, gentle wolf-dog. The fellow explained that his parents would be up to greet us later. The young man showed us where the water hose was then excused himself since he had to leave for work at a nearby fish farm.
Fairy settled into the settee in the sunshine while I downed another aspirin and went below to sleep off the remaining rumblings of my stomach from the prior evening’s dinner. When I awakened three hours later, Fairy told me that we just had to meet the owner.
A thin, weathered gentleman, with long golden hair that was barely contained by his dark hat, greeted us with a warm smile. We followed him to a small picnic table on the island side of his float and visited for quite a while. He had traveled the world and since settling in the Pacific Northwest had lived in Alaska, in Forward Harbour and various other bays along the Inside Passage. He was a gifted conversationalist and filled us in on a great deal of local history, while his alert eye watched to see where our interests led. Finally he explained that it was time for him to prepare the dinner, and he disappeared back into the house.
A couple of hours later aromas from the kitchen lured us into the dining area where the daughter greeted us and showed us to our table. A better meal could not be imagined, and even my unsettled stomach allowed enough food to thoroughly enjoy the dinner. Later as we prepared retire for the evening I asked the owner why they were not listed in any of the cruise guide. He replied that he only entertained guests for fun and did not want any advertising. “If fifteen or twenty people showed up for dinner, what would I do?”
Morning arrived too soon as it always does at a place you have thoroughly enjoyed. Clouds covered the higher ridges and weather threatened to close in. While I listened to the forecast, the water just off the head of the dock churned into a frothing mass of small fish. Gulls squawked as they descended on the free meal, then flew in panic as a huge dark form, with a white head and tail, dropped from the sky. The eagle splashed two golden talons into the water and flew off with fistfuls of writhing fish.
We left early to make it to Dent Rapids for the slack. As we ran though the still waters and passed Stuart Island, I made mental notes of places I wanted to see and visit the next time we headed that way. We watched the compass and charts carefully to be sure that we did not inadvertently wander down a side channel as we proceeded towards Desolation Sound.
After fueling at Refuge Cove, I listened to the weather one more time. We could make the Georgia Strait by noon, but winds were running 15 knots there at the time. They were forecast to diminish around noon, then huff into a wild blow by evening. As we passed Sara Point and entered the Thulin Passage we decided to run to the south end of Texada Island and look at the conditions first hand. Perhaps we could cross the strait before the wind rose, but if not, we could always hole up in Secret Cove.
We passed Powell River and entered the Malaspina Strait. The passage had been fun to explore earlier, but now it seemed to extend forever. Our destination lay over the horizon beyond the strait, and we were racing an adversarial wind. I ran as straight a line as I possibly could over the rippled, azure water. At sheer lines the hues changed and hinted at the flotsam hidden there. After another hour of mind-numbing travel, we realized why friends referred to this part of the trip as the “Malaspina Crawl.”
Finally the end Texada Island appeared and we turned towards the Georgia Strait. The waters lay calm in the lee of Lasqueti Island, and I searched the rocky crevices of the island for Squitty Bay. Finally I caught a glimpse of boats at the dock in the narrow crevice that opened to the strait. It lay calm and protected from the north wind, but I could imagine a rather uncomplimentary variation of its name that would likely describe the bay when the winds turned southeasterly.
One to two foot chop roughened the ride as we left the shelter of Lasqueti and headed towards the Ballenas Islands, but the winds remained under 15 knots. As we turned towards the Winchelsea Islands and skirted Whiskey Gulf, the waves increased to three feet or more. They were widely spaced, however, and we were able to continue on plane as we ran along with the waves.
Around two PM we entered the calm waters of Departure Bay and followed Newcastle Island Passage to the Port of Nanaimo. After 110 nautical miles and over six hours of standing before the helm, we were more than ready to call it a day. But fatigue gave way to relief with the knowledge that we had safely crossed the last major strait that lay between us and homeport, and we relaxed in a way that had not been possible for the last three days.
As predicted, gale force winds riled the Strait of Georgia the next morning when we departed Nanaimo. Four-foot waves rolled through Northumberland Channel as we turned towards Dodd Narrows. Waters flattened in the lee of Gabriola Island, but a tug towing logs radioed us to ask what the conditions were like in the channel. The waters beyond the narrows gave little hint of the turmoil in the gulf just a dozen miles away. The only challenge was dodging the floating debris as we skimmed comfortably over the familiar waters of the Gulf Islands.
At Boundary Pass we bid Canada farewell and cleared customs by cell phone. Since the waters were calm, we headed to Turn Point to look for orcas that had so far eluded us on this trip. Again we came up empty, but an unsuspected surprise awaited us at Spieden Island. On the treeless, grassy slopes on the south side of the island, dozens of animals grazed in the morning sun. We stopped for several minutes to watch the animals that ranged in size from goats to small deer, but were obviously non-native. Though we had heard of the island’s exotic animals, we had never before spotted them.
We continued on to Pole Pass and through the San Juan Islands to Anacortes. Since we had returned two days early, we decided to spend the last night at Cap Sante where the Fairy Boat had first tasted salt. We cleaned and polished the boat so that it would make an acceptable target for seagulls then went for a long walk through the town.
Sure enough, when we returned a gull with its assault weapon still pointed at our boat sat on a nearby mast and admired its handiwork. I gripped the bow of the adjacent sailboat and gave it a good shake. With a squawk and a smirk, the bird flew from the spreader and soared off to find its next target. I said what the bird had just done, and then Fairy and I cleaned off the defiled portions of the boat. It took more than a seagull to get us down, however, and we happily settled in for our last night’s sleep aboard the boat.
The next morning high clouds muted the sun over Padilla Bay as we motored the last ten miles home. The current in the Swinomish Channel pushed against us on our way to La Conner and under the Rainbow Bridge. Jim and Dan of San Juan Marine grinned from the dock as we rounded the end and then turned up current towards our spot on the inside of the dock. Maneuvering in close quarters with a strong current was always a challenge, but after three weeks on the boat it seemed second nature.
With smiles as wide as the waters we had passed, we shared our stories of the little Bayliner that went where it was told it shouldn’t. Then we laughed as only ones who have ventured for weeks on their boat discovering new friends and places can laugh. We had experienced the fear of failure, the thrill of discovery and the relief of a safe return. And whenever we think back on the trip, the places or the people, we can’t help but smile.