May Odyssey, La Conner to Desolation Sound
By Howard Eskildsen
A cold wind buffeted the Fairy Boat, our 26 foot express cruiser, as we departed La Conner early Tuesday morning, the fourth of May, for Desolation Sound. We stopped at Anacortes for breakfast, and the chill cut through our coats as we walked to the Calico Cupboard. Fairy suggested that one of us should have our head examined for going north in such cold weather and looked squarely at me. In the recesses of her eyes, I thought I momentarily glimpsed a straight jacket with my name on it. “I’mmm nnnottt cccoollddd,” I said through chattering teeth.
“My point, exactly.” she groaned.
In spite of the weather we were lured by a dream, born in the pages of The Curve of Time, to visit the northern region during a season when it still seemed remote. Any wind, rain or cold endured along the way was simply the price paid for the privilege.
After breakfast we set out in earnest on the first leg of the journey. Our spirits rose with the temperature as we chased sunbeams over lead-colored water past Orcas Island and on to Canada. We cleared Canadian Customs at Bedwell Harbour, and the agent invited us to stay at the dock as long as we liked since they were not very busy. Sunlight set the brightly colored buildings on shore aglow against the backdrop of fresh spring foliage, and the excitement of the trip fully set in. Ripples giggled against the hull while we ate lunch under a sign stating, “Customs Only, Time Limit 15 Minutes.”
After lunch we passed carefully through the narrow Pender Canal and then ran north through the Gulf Islands towards Telegraph Harbour. Wind-chased waves at the north end of Saltspring Island made the last few miles a bit rough, and it was a relief to enter the flat water of the harbour. Strangely, the breeze inside the harbour ran directly opposite to the wind outside.
We fueled and moored for the night at Thetis Island Marina. The pub was open but we decided to eat on the boat and retire early in anticipation of a dawn crossing of the Strait of Georgia the next day. We needed to cross in time to meet our friends, John and Michelle from Bellingham, at Powell River on Thursday.
Wednesday morning, the weather radio sounded contradictory as usual. Small craft warnings were in effect, but winds were light along our route across the strait from Porlier Pass to Merry Island. One thing was certain, the wind would rise later in the day in advance of an approaching cold front. The sun rose while we traversed Porlier Pass into the strait, and we ran smoothly at 22 knots over barely rippled water to Thrasher Rock. Merry Island was only an hour away and still reported seven knot winds, so we committed to the crossing.
When we were half way across, near the Halibut Bank buoy, the wind attacked from Howe Sound and roused 2-3 foot waves from the starboard quarter. We could still run in plane by slowing our speed to match the waves, but it was a wet, pounding ride. We traversed Welcome Pass and proceeded up Malaspina Strait. Before long we had to slow to our six-knot hull speed. Large waves passed under the stern and pushed us along, but it was a gentle, rocking ride. Two hours later we entered Beach Gardens Resort by Grief Point.
The wind swirled around the breakwater entrance as Fairy tended the fenders and lines just inside the marina. “Pretty scrappy out there.” a young man named Kevin commented as he helped us fuel and move to our overnight moorage. We used the cell phone to notify our friends of our arrival, and then checked out the resort. They asked if we would like a room at the resort to get away from the rocking of the boat in the marina, but Fairy and I actually enjoyed that feeling, so we declined. We did come back ashore to enjoy steak and salmon at their restaurant that evening, however.
On Thursday morning the rain did a heavy tap dance on the deck while wind in the rigging of nearby sailboats wailed mournfully in the wake of the passing cold front. Gusts buffeted our boat, but below in the cabin, we were warm, dry and happy as clams. John and Michelle arrived late that afternoon, and the resort manager was kind enough to let them park free of charge for the five days they would be with us on the Fairy Boat. They were in high spirits in spite of the rain, for better weather was on the way.
Friday morning’s glow revealed glimpses of blue sky through thinning clouds and the extended forecast called for continued improvement. Excitement grew as we ran over rippled water past Sarah Point and entered Desolation Sound. Clouds capped the ridges of the lower mountains, but parted now and then to reveal fresh snow on tree-covered slopes. We ran past Refuge Cove, and into the Teakerne arm to Cassel Falls.
The falls drowned out the hum of helicopters which were logging nearby slopes. Except for a few tugs and fishing boats, we had the area to ourselves. We hiked up the trail to the falls past rusting logging equipment and cables. Fairy and Michelle rested on the sun-warmed cliff above the falls, while John and I explored the shore of Cassel Lake until hunger lured us back to the boat.
After lunch, we returned to Refuge Cove, which in May was open from 1-3 PM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Since our boat had a maximum range of 120 nautical miles with a 20% reserve, I filled the tank whenever I could. After fueling, we left for Squirrel Cove on the other side of the channel.
Seven other boats occupied the cove when we arrived. We anchored between the wooded island near the head of the bay and a small noisy creek that tumbled almost invisibly from the forest. Though the creek piqued our curiosity, we were anxious to see the salt water lagoon at the head of the cove.
Eagles cried overhead while we lowered Tink and dinghied around a rocky point to the mouth of the lagoon. Bare, wet moss-covered rocks, freckled with oysters, lined the rapids pouring from the lagoon, and purple starfish hugged the stones. I couldn’t help but wonder about the state of mind of Vancouver’s men who two centuries earlier who had thought, briefly, that this was fresh water. I also wondered what sounds might have echoed from the trees after they had tried to gulp down some of the brine.
After visiting the lagoon, we returned to the boat for a feast prepared by John and Michelle. Fairy and I had certainly chosen the right traveling companions. As daylight faded little could be heard outside the boat save the mysterious babbling of the creek in the woods.
The next morning, John and I had to check out the source of the sounds on shore. We headed for the water that streamed from underneath low evergreen branches onto the beach. A path appeared that led a few yards to a small, hidden waterfall about 10 feet high. The trail continued into the woods above the falls. Huge stumps stood like the ghosts of giants from a previous era, embraced by the seedlings of their descendants. We remained on shore a only a short time, for the weather was right for a run up Toba Inlet.
While checking out the boat before leaving the anchorage, we discovered that the forward bilge pump was not working. John and I put our heads together (figuratively) to solve the problem. One of the “ladies” mumbled something about, “Danger, men thinking about working.” John discovered and fixed a loose connection at the switch while I cut my thumb with a knife while removing some insulation on a spare wire. After the usual round of somebody-call-a-doctor jokes, we were off.
We ran on plane around the southern tip of West Redonda Island and through Waddington Channel to Toba Inlet. Double Island and Channel Island at the entrance to the inlet stood like guards in front of a giant stone palace.
At first the mood of the mountainous fjord was somber and capricious. A rain squall briefly stirred the water, then ran up the canyon as if embarrassed by its outburst. In its wake, silver ribbons shimmered in the distance as they descended from the towering ridges and plunged into the sea. As the day matured, the weather became kinder, gentler, and the inlet began to gleam in the midday sun.
We continued on to Snow Bay where snow and glacial ice tumbled down to sea level through a steep, narrow canyon. Summer visitors sometimes went ashore here to get ice for their coolers. We laid off shore in the bay and ate lunch with sounds of cascading water laughing in the background. Food had never tasted so good.
We wandered back slowly at six knots with John at the wheel while I took videos and photos. Soft clouds draped themselves over the highlands, like scarves flapping in a breeze, and partly obscured the glaciers on mountain peaks. On the south side of the canyon, a large stream split into several fingers before plunging downward to the sea. A little further away another towering fall splashed off ledges and sent its moist breath through shafts of sunlight. I showed John last year’s cruise guide and asked him if he had ever seen that waterfall pictured on the cover. With eyes and mouth open wide, he pointed at the misty apparition so very near by.
An hour later, we reluctantly left Toba Inlet and turned into Homfray Channel. Once again we ran on plane in order to reach Melanie Cove in time to go ashore there. The entrance to Prideaux Haven blended in with the background, and we approached slowly, cautiously until we had it positively identified. Two other boats were at anchor just past the entrance, but Melanie Cove was empty.
After anchoring, we took the dinghy into shore. A lightly used path led up the rise and over to Laura Cove. We walked up the trail right to the point of the “Warning Bear Country” sign. After some discussion, we decided as a group that we were too tired and hungry (or chicken) to continue, and retreated back to the boat. A solitary sailboat sedately entered the cove and anchored, but did not seem intrusive.
As daylight softened, the water line blended into the rocks near shore. Perfect reflections of the rocks on the still water produced a kaleidoscope of symmetrical forms bounded by greenery. As we stared at the reflections, the forms of eagles, orcas, seals, and ravens appeared, as well as the forms of fanciful creatures; some comic, others hideous. They were posed like a giant totem pole tipped on its side.
After dark, the water twinkled with a light of its own. A gentle touch of the surface sent sparks scurrying in all directions like sprites from a fairy wand. Tiny jellyfish captured some of the sparklers and emitted an eerie pulsating glow. We slept well that night, wrapped snugly in dreams of waterfalls, magic and stone totems.
Silver headed mountain peaks still wore their cloudy nightcaps as we departed Sunday morning. In all we counted five other craft in Prideaux Haven. We turned westward enroute to Cortes Island’s Gorge Harbour. Shoals off the south end of Cortes Island extended a long, long way off shore.
Guide Islets marked the entrance to Gorge Harbour, and we respectfully rounded their east end. Cliffs on the left side of the gorge had faded petroglyphs, but we were unable to spot them. We recounted stories of the local tribe dropping boulders from the cliffs onto the canoes of a raiding tribe. Along the opposite shore, caves had once been used as burial sites by the local people.
Between battleground and burial ground, we followed the narrow channel into the well-protected harbour. An otter played at the end of the dock as we bought fuel at the Gorge Harbour Marina Resort. We met a congenial couple, Carolyn and Bob Mehaffy, of the 45 foot ketch, Carricklee. They had lived aboard their sailboat for the last 20 years and earned their keep by writing. My mind started churning. Live on a boat and write; what would it take to do that? Fairy soon noticed the far-away look on my face, and with a quick jab to the ribs told me not to get any wild ideas.
Later, John and I lured the ladies on a hike through the forest along the meandering road to Whaletown where we hoped to get some coffee and cake. Down a hill and around a bend, the church, a library, and t he post office appeared one by one, scattered between rocks, trees and sea in a charming setting. Several sea-worn boats rocked on turquoise water at the public dock.
A closed sign in the store by the dock shattered our pretence for the walk, and John and I were severely reprimanded for looking for lattes in all the wrong places. Fortunately, on the way back, we found Trude’s Cafe, which was open and served lattes, bavarian chocolate cake and other treats. Eventually Michelle and Fairy forgave their wayward “boys,” and we spent the rest of the day relaxing by the boat under clear blue skies.
Monday morning, frost made the dock slippery, and high cirrus clouds dogged the sun with warnings of deteriorating weather. We took the hint and departed early for the Beach Garden Resort. We stopped briefly at Savary Island, but cool winds chilled our plans for a walk on the beach. Rippled seas turned to light chop and approaching clouds softened the morning sun’s glow as we moored at the marina.
We used John and Michelle’s car to explore Powell River and visit the museum, scenic overlooks, stores and Powell Lake. We ate supper at the Seahouse Restaurant and enjoyed “gourmet” pizza baked in a wood-fired oven. The menu included a variety of items including pasta, seafood, steak, and Greek appetizers. When the waitress found out that we were staying at the marina, she offered to call a cab to take us back after the meal. We will stop there again.
Tuesday, a foul wind brought more clouds and rain. We said goodbye to our guests and then tended to boat-keeping chores. After doing the laundry, I performed my famous sea slug impression when my feet slipped on the wet ramp at low tide and I landed on my backside. I had reminded Fairy to be very careful on the steep ramp. The weather forecast called for intermittent rain for the next several days, so we abandoned plans to visit Princess Louisa Inlet.
Wednesday morning dawned with a chill riding on a ten knot northwesterly. We ran smoothly to the south end of Texada Island where the seas briefly became chaotic, then flattened in the lee of Lasqueti Island. Six miles from Ballinas Islands a 17 knot north wind raised a two foot chop from the starboard beam. We slowed to hull speed and merrily rocked our way past Ballinas and Winchelsea Islands to Departure Bay near Nanaimo.
We had to pay careful attention to the chart and the buoys at the entrance of Departure Bay to avoid the reef on the north side. A boat in front of us started to turn too soon, but then resumed course to round the final marker, while a sailboat behind us cut inside the marker. Fortunately, they missed the reef, either through chance or local knowlege.
The wharfinger at the Port of Nanaimo Boat Basin instructed us to take any open spot on the docks so we tied to the end of “J” dock. After a week in the woods, so to speak, the sight of a sizeable city brought out Fairy’s primal shopping instinct. I must admit that when we passed the Book Store on Bastion, I got caught up in the frenzy as well. Thora Howell, who runs the bookstore was a wellspring of information on authors and books about costal BC. Later, Fairy discovered Art of the Siem along the edge of the marina. (Siem, pronounced see-EM, is a title of respect.) It featured First Nations art and carvings of William Good. The boat sank deeper in the water as our wallets lightened through the day. That evening we ate on the boat and had genuine Nanaimo bars for dessert.
Thursday morning we decided to stay another day in Nanaimo and visit Newcastle Island. The Newcastle dock held only one other boat when we arrived. A large grassy picnic and camping area spread through the trees beyond the Pavilion. To the west, near the pulpstone quarry, the park attendant’s house sparkled like a fairy-tale gingerbread house. A few rabbits hopped here and there under the trees. A sign near the dock described the variety of wildlife present on the island and requested that any cougar sightings be reported immediately!
We followed the trail into the woods to the old stone quarry, then on to Midden Bay’s coal-pebbled beach overlooking Newcastle Channel. Near Brownie Bay on the west side of the island, trees reached upward and sideways towards the ocean. On the edge of this leaning forest, a sunbeam spotlighted a small deer, still shaggy with winter fur, and made it glow.
As we departed the island, a rain cloud that had been perched for hours over the ridge behind Nanaimo descended upon the city. Swirling winds toyed with our boat as we docked, and giant raindrops did their dance on the deck for about 20 minutes. Calm soon returned and we enjoyed a quiet evening.
Friday morning the wind had died completely and we made our way home over barely rippled waters. Floating debris on both sides of Dodd Narrows turned the water into a marine maze. Fortunately, the sunlight was perfect for spotting debris, and we made it through unscathed. Since we had plenty of time, we went on the west side of Thetis Island and through the Sansum Narrows on the way back to the states.
At Friday Harbor the U.S. customs agent seemed in good humor when I called him from the port of entry. He asked where we had cleared Canadian customs, and my words got tangled into “Pender Harbour on South Bedwell Island.” After I got it straightened out that we had cleared at Bedwell Harbour on South Pender Island, he chuckled, “So who was navigating?”
We traveled on to Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes, where we spent our final night moored next to the beautiful maroon sloop, Dream Seeker. She had just arrived from San Francisco, and her crew planned to spend the summer along the Inside Passage. We swapped stories of journeys past and journeys planned, and Fairy lent them our copy of The Curve of Time. Their dream was just beginning while ours was about to end.
Saturday morning saw us safely back to San Juan Marine in La Conner where we keep the Fairy Boat. Soft sunlight set the colors of the city and the Rainbow Bridge aglow as we completed the final mile of our voyage. But as the trip ended, dreams of another were beginning to grow, for dreams are strange things; the farther you pursue them, the larger they become.
© Eskildoodle 2021