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 Prince Rupert to Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island and home

Once we were tied up securely at the Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club, we flew east for a few days in Ottawa. This was to receive awards from the Governor General of Canada but we took advantage of the opportunity to catch up with old friends and enjoy the capital – in the run-up to Canada Day – at its best. It was a pleasant reminder, too, that summer in Canada can mean more than rain and 12C (our experience since early May).

Prince Rupert has seen better days. It was never exactly a northern Vancouver (even though its founders considered it a much more promising site than Burrard Inlet) but for a hundred years or so it had salmon: the Skeena salmon run was the greatest in the world, and at one time there were more than 20 canneries within just a few miles of Rupert. This year, for the first time ever, the Skeena was completely closed and local tourism operators were fretting that they would not even be able to offer salmon barbecues for visitors.  The fact is, northern BC has been fished out and there is no longer a single cannery on the entire coast.  Although Rupert has a “processing” plant, this is to freeze salmon whole and ship them to China (whence some cans do return, labelled Canadian Salmon, with the small print adding “Processed in China”).  Logging is in decline as well, although to our amazement and disappointment entire shiploads of raw logs continue to leave the west coast for China and Japan: it is no longer considered “worthwhile” to process them in Canada.

In an attempt to rejuvenate itself, Rupert is these days marketing itself as a deep-water port – with a railhead – that is some two days’ closer, in sailing time, to Shanghai than are Vancouver, Seattle or LA; there is also some hope that various pipeline projects may come to fruition (although at least one has recently been stymied on environmental grounds). Slightly surprisingly, there is no will to see any more cruise ships call in: Rupert receives only a few small ships, and professes “distaste” for the hordes that descend on nearby Ketchikan every summer.

Nisgaa Museum

Certainly, the hinterland is far more interesting to visit than Ketchikan’s or Juneau’s (neither of those major destinations actually have a hinterland, lacking roads out). We rented a car for a long but beautiful drive inland: up the Skeena to Terrace, across a weird lunar landscape of lava fields, to a set of four small native villages on the Nass River. One of these is home to the small but exquisite Nisgaa Museum, that houses a collection of masks and other regalia that were confiscated by the first colonial settlers but which have now been repatriated to where they always belonged. Driving back, we stopped for a wallow at a rustic outdoor hot spring and spotted several black bears enjoying the long summer evening. Closer to Rupert we went for several walks, and visited the one cannery that has been selected for preservation: this houses several models of the machinery known as the Iron Chink, that revolutionised canning; explanatory notices stress and apologise for the derogatory (to modern ears) term.  It was interesting to recall that in a similar such museum at Hoonah (Alaska) there was no such coyness – in fact the term was seen as mildly amusing.

There’s a little open water before – southbound – you enter the truly protected waters of the Inside Passage, so we awaited a favourable forecast before heading out into Chatham Sound, passing Holland Rock on the way.  This is one of many named locations on the coast for which, every three hours, actual weather conditions (wind speed etc) are available by VHF radio; there are many more reporting locations than in Alaska and they are a real boon to small boat sailors, serving as they do to “ground” the sometimes general weather forecasts. At Kelp Passage Cove, a Canadian Coastguard RIB called by to ask to see our fishing license: it had been far too expensive for us to consider buying one in Alaska, where the daily cost was almost as high as the Canadian flat rate ($30 approx).

After Chatham Sound we entered a set of gloomy but spectacular sea-filled canyons (sometimes no more than half a mile wide, but rising 2000m on either side) that trend N/S. They are steep-sided and deep – too deep for anchoring – but every ten to twenty miles there are indentations to one side or the other.  Our first day saw us sailing in light breezes down Grenville Channel, as the 2500-passenger cruise-ship Volendam passed us in the other direction, then turning left into Kumealon Inlet, to await the passing of a front with its unfavourable southerly winds. Although these small bays are now frequented almost exclusively by pleasure boats, they often bear witness to a more vibrant past; old, rotting pilings and rusty machinery, almost submerged in the undergrowth, tell that there was once a logging operation or a cannery here.

It was another 20 miles on to Klewnugget Inlet: today we passed not a cruise ship but a large white ferry – BC Ferries’ Northern Expedition – that does the Prince Rupert/Port Hardy run: we would see her many times over the next few weeks. In Klewnugget a tug was on the radio, appealing for a tow or “a mechanic:”  We couldn’t help but be uncomfortably reminded of how dependent we were, in these waters that are often calm or subject to adverse winds, on our own venerable engine.  We have a persistent oil pressure issue that defies diagnosis and that responds only to long sessions of (tiring) hand-cranking.

As well as the wind, you need to play the current in these long, narrow channels, but the predictions often seemed very approximate, and it was a lottery trying to guess where – in a N/S aligned channel – the flood from the south would meet the flood from the north. So our progress onwards to Lowe Inlet was accomplished at a speed over the bottom of about 1.5 knots, vs 4 through the water. Lowe is a spectacular location – a broad waterfall roars and spreads foam through the inlet – but, at 32m, we found it uncomfortably deep. Exploring on shore, we surprised a large porcupine foraging along the shoreline: he looked at us briefly before shambling up into the woods.

After Alaska, where we saw almost no other boats, we were now starting to see a few; we went for a coffee (and met Sugar the cat) aboard Wild Abandon, whose crew have the admirable policy of living entirely off what they can catch or scavenge.  Indeed, when they leave on sailing voyages, they have a policy of only carrying food for one day (would that we were so creative/lucky at fishing).

 
Emerging from Grenville on July 4th, we encountered the massive dark blue Disney Wonder coming the other way: a vast Stars and Stripes in lights dominated the top deck, Neil Diamond was blaring out and the passengers seemed to be having a very “liquid” Independence Day. For us it was also a special day, in that the evening’s anchorage was called Coghlan Anchorage: nothing remarkable, but nice at the end of a long day (as the crew might say).  

Around the corner was the only community for many miles: the small native settlement of Hartley Bay. We squeezed into the very tight little harbour and explored the village: no shop, but boardwalks all around the bay, and out to a lake behind the village. There were lots of signs saying “No to Tankers”, a reference to plans to develop Kitimat – 50 miles away, up Douglas Channel – as an oil trans-shipment port. All the way down the coast we would encounter more and more manifestations of Nimbyism (Not In My Back Yard).  Given the natural beauty of these parts it was easy to sympathise… and yet we all enjoy the high standards of living that come with the development and shipping of oil, hydro power and so on.  Indeed many would say it is rather late to be queasy, this after these once-rich waters have been fished out and the hillsides clearcut, with the enthusiastic participation of the local native bands.

In Douglas Channel, as in all the major fjords that cut deep into the interior, afternoon outflow winds in summer can be near gale force; the winds often reverse at night, but with less strength; in winter, when there is high pressure over the continent, the phenomenon is the opposite. So we cut across Douglas early in the morning, then headed inland up the narrower, much more scenic Verney Passage, the breeze hitting 20 knots by noon, 30 an hour later: sheer grey granite cliffs and cirques on all sides as we raced along, with patches of snow lingering in the shadier corners. At Kitsaway we shared an anchorage with another small boat: Polynya, with the unusual (for here..) port of registry of Iqaluit, and went for a long walk on shore; as everywhere in these parts, you need to be very aware of bears, but we were half-hoping to see one of the famous Kermode (White, or Spirit) bears that are reputedly quite numerous here.

Devastation Channel, Ursula Channel and on to a favourite stop for generations of fishing boats on their way to or from Alaska: the hot springs at Bishop’s Bay. We were lucky enough to find one of the three mooring buoys vacant: if you need to anchor, it is a rather precarious 30m or so (“Not really an anchorage at all”, was one comment on our chart plotter). Under the trees above a very short floating pontoon are two tubs: one for rinsing off, the other for stewing, the temperature around that of a hot bath. We wallowed for an hour or more, taking in the carved and painted signs left behind by hundreds of boats (“Savage Kitty” was one the crew especially appreciated).

Now we came into Princess Royal Channel, even narrower and steeper-sided than Grenville. Here was a stop we had been looking forward to: the long-abandoned ruins of the once bustling cannery at Butedale. There are rustic floats built on massive tree trunks, a ramp ashore, and a friendly caretaker who keeps an eye on the extensive but fast-collapsing old bunkhouses, workshops and managers’ houses. Until very recently a huge amount of power was still available, generated by a penstock (wide-diameter wooden pipe) and two enormous turbines (“Kendal, 1938”, we read) but the penstock had finally fractured, this past winter, and the caretaker was using a gas generator. There are plans to revive Butedale as a combined marina, high-end resort and water-bottling plant but the current owner (a former gold-miner from Smithers) is only the latest in a long line of such visionaries. Previous “tenants” include many squatters who only hastened the destruction, one infamous band selling off a barge-load of prime salvage material for “$2000 worth of beer”.  It seemed to us that the process of decay is so far advanced that it will be extremely costly and labour intensive just to make the site safe enough to build on again. We walked up a berry-infested trail behind the settlement to the lake that used to power the turbines: there is a vast logjam that dates, the caretaker told us, from the 1940s; “lots of valuable timber there, too”, he said. Back on the pontoons, we were graced with a visit by Tiger, the very large and fearless ginger cat that keeps the caretaker company over the lonely winter months.

   

A night at Khutze Inlet (where the crew hooked but failed to land a salmon) and, as we motored south along Graham Reach, we passed another set of ruins at Swanson Bay: a red-brick smokestack still pokes up incongruously from the lush alder forest. This was once a saw and pulp mill; the steep hillsides along these channels were particularly popular with hand-loggers in the old days, because they could fell their trees straight into the ocean. We anchored that night at the snug but minuscule Horsefly Cove, so restricted that we needed to recall our Patagonian anchoring techniques and run a line ashore from the stern. Loons drifted on the still waters at Horsefly; after dark we could hear their haunting calls to each other.

At Hiekish Narrows – too convoluted for large ships – we turned off the main channel and awaited better weather, for a couple of days, in the surprisingly sheltered Windy Bay; the harbour seals here favoured rocks that submerge at mid-tide, and it was a strange spectacle to see them crowding the very last pinnacle to go under, seeming to float their fat bellies on the surface of the water. Once the adverse winds had died down, we meandered through the vast area known as Fiordland: a new provincial park, but frustratingly devoid of anchorages and only accessible, thus, to fast boats with a long range under power. But Mathieson Narrows did not disappoint: 2500m peaks on all sides, a channel only 50 metres wide, with humpbacks browsing the meeting of the tides.

At Perceval Narrows we had a brief glimpse of open ocean to the south, and then – at Oliver Cove on July 16th – we knew the BC summer had finally arrived when we awoke to the first dense fog of the season. We could also sense we were getting further south. As we started to pick up AM radio from Vancouver; for the first time we learned of the unprecedented fires that were devastating the interior of the province.

Soon we were at the next settlement after Hartley Bay: the near-adjoining villages of Bella Bella and Shearwater.  Shearwater has a shop, a restaurant, even a Travelift and is a very popular stop for the large power cruisers that steam up and down the Inside Passage, doing a hundred miles a day or more; we stayed in the low-rent area of the marina, tied to a semi-ruined breakwater, but took full advantage of the shop. A massive, colourful mural commemorates individuals who have participated in the history of Shearwater. Bella Bella, the native village, is much larger, but has a smaller harbour: it can be reached via passenger ferry from Shearwater; both communities are also served by BC Ferries. Although relatively new, Shearwater is of some interest in that it was developed as a flying-boat base in WW2.  There was never any military action here but there is a ruined air-raid shelter in the woods, and a model Catalina flying boat sits at the top of the boat ramp. Shearwater is also home to the greatly diminished fishing fleet that works these waters in the summer: as there is only one opening a week, they are tied up here for most of the time.  It can hardly be worth the cost in fuel for such scant opportunities, but as one fisherman said to us: “you do it for the lifestyle, these days, not to make any money.”

From Shearwater, we took a diversion off the most-travelled route, via Gunboat Channel and into Dean Channel. You soon lose the traffic – the more so this year in that Bella Coola, at the far northeastern end of Dean Channel, was by now cut off from the BC road system by fires, meaning nobody was boating out of Bella Coola. Taking advantage of the daily afternoon inflow wind, we raced along, gybing first one way then the other as the wind bounced off the steep cliffs on either side.  In the early evening, we nosed very carefully into the shallow but well-protected Eucott Bay: a black bear was nosing through the eel grass at low tide, and looked up at us with moderate interest.

Eucott is the site of another set of hot springs: this time refreshingly pristine, with no boat signs or graffiti, but seriously hot.  We spent a couple of days here; one afternoon, having taken a walk before our planned bath, we found ourselves cut off by our friendly bear on the beach. We shared the anchorage with Skalu, another small sailboat, and when it came time to leave, we motored out together into a beautiful sunrise. Heading back down Dean (before the adverse wind came up) we edged over to the right-hand shore to a low grassy bank where from a distance you can make out a small granite obelisk. Closer up, you can see carved into the rock a little piece of Canadian history: “Alex Mackenzie from Canada by land 22nd July 1793.”

The exploit of Mackenzie, a tough fur-trapper out of Montreal, the first white man to cross North America (north of Mexico), was truly amazing (although it is fashionable today to decry him as the Beginning of the End for the native peoples of the west coast). He was guided over the last stretch of his expedition over the continental divide by Indians of Bella Coola; but at the time they were at war with the Bella Bellas, and would bring Mackenzie no further than this point. How frustrating it must have been for Mackenzie to taste the saltwater but not reach the open ocean; it was ironic too, that he missed George Vancouver, who had passed this very point only a few weeks earlier (the message was originally painted in red ochre; it was carved in the bare rock at a later date).

Our next stop was Ocean Falls, at the head of Cousins Inlet.  This is one of the strangest places on the coast.

The waterfall in question is a perfectly smooth and semicircular mini-Niagara, a hydroelectric dam built to power what was once one of the largest saw and paper mills in the world. Five thousand people lived and worked here in the mill’s heyday, in the 1950’s.  The 400-room Martin Inn was famous as the second-largest hotel on the entire west coast of North America; an Olympic-sized swimming pool was home to athletes who competed and won medals in the Olympics and Pan-American games.  But by the early 1970’s, the mill’s owner – Crown Zellerbach – wanted out, having found that the mill’s remote location (there were no roads) imposed unsustainably high costs. The provincial government stepped in to buy the mill but in a stunning “oversight” allowed Crown Zellerbach to keep all its timber rights for the region and assign them to another Zellerbach mill on Vancouver Island.  In essence the province had bought a pulp and paper mill but had given away all its supply of trees. By 1980 the writing was on the wall: the mill was closed and, over the next several years, much of the town was bulldozed.

The permanent population of Ocean Falls is now about 25 persons. There is a small, well-run marina that operates in the summer months, and electricity is still generated (a power line runs to Bella Bella); a ferry still calls in. But nearly all the residents are retirees or people who have snapped up exceptionally cheap property, attracted by the remote lifestyle and probably the cheapest waterfront housing in the world. There is no shop.

We spent a couple of days wandering around this ghost town (which is indeed occasionally used as the set for post-apocalyptic movies).  The Martin Inn still stands, most of its windows intact; the old Hudson’s Bay store is collapsing. But the Art Nouveau Court House functions after a style: it is at once the post office, the library, the office of the RCMP and the town hall. In the woods behind town you can wander along overgrown but tarmacked roads that were once residential subdivisions: the remains and foundations of hundreds of homes have been swallowed by the lush undergrowth with remarkable speed.

Via Codville Lagoon, we sailed on south to another haunting ghost town: the old cannery at Namu, on Fitz Hugh Sound.  If the name is familiar it is because in 1965 a fisherman here caught (accidentally) two orcas (killer whales) in his nets.  The Seattle aquarium got wind, and paid for the whales to be brought south. Namu, as the adult was named, became the first orca to be held in captivity. Fifty years on, public opinion has changed and very few are now held worldwide, but more people probably saw Namu than have ever seen wild orcas, so in his way he was probably critical to the modern survival of this then-poorly-known species.

 

The docks at Namu are now in a literally ruinous state: a large building at the main wharf-head looks about to fall into the ocean. The bay is exposed – Namu actually means “whirlwind” – so we anchored for the night in nearby Rock Inlet, once the winter retreat for cannery workers.

Through Hakai Pass we ventured out briefly into the swells of the open ocean, to Pruth Bay.  This is the site of an ocean research institute, and the bay gives access to wonderful walks on windswept white sand beaches facing the Pacific: flotsam collected in discreet piles behind the beaches is largely from Japan.

Ever southwards, we were now coming across more and more pleasure vessels, and even encountered HMCS Nanaimo stooging along the shoreline: for the first time we started to pick up Victoria Coastguard Radio, as Prince Rupert faded away behind us. It was now high summer – early August – and although the winds were these days favourable (NW) they were usually very light and there were more and more dense fog patches about. So we only glimpsed Cape Caution (one of the coast’s major milestones) through fog banks as we motored into the maw that is formed by the northern end of Vancouver Island and the mainland: Queen Charlotte Strait.

We paused in Blunden Harbour, whose shores are an Indian Reserve: until about thirty years ago you could see traditional burial boxes high in the trees. Then across the strait to Beaver Harbour on Vancouver Island, close to Port Hardy, and named after one of the Hudson Bay’s trading vessels that plied this coast for many years. At the head of this bay is Fort Rupert, once home to George Hunt.  Born in 1854 to an English father, a Tlingit noblewoman and raised as a Kwakiutl, Hunt became one of the foremost collectors of Kwakiutl masks and other artefacts, passing them on to museums all over the world; of course these days that practise is very much frowned upon, and in British Columbia at least, efforts have been made to return such artefacts to their original owners.

The sunset at Beaver Harbour was strange: the sun was abnormally red and even though the conditions were not foggy, a deep haze lingered here – and onwards – for days. We were witnessing the effects of the worst summer ever, for forest fires, in the interior of BC. One lighthouse, to our east, reported every morning: “Smoke, all quadrants.”

By now we were in familiar waters. In the summer of 1984 we had sailed around Vancouver Island, anti-clockwise, and a few years later – following our circumnavigation of the world on Tarka the Otter – we had spent another summer in the Broughton Islands, north of Johnstone Strait. So we tried to skip some places we already knew, but revisit a few to see how things had changed in thirty years.

There were, as we expected, more pleasure craft, but you could still find private anchorages and many times we would go all day without seeing another boat. A favourite repeat stop was lonely Simoom Sound (named after HMS Simoom; a Simoom is a “hot, dry, dust-laden wind”); others were the once populous but now nearly deserted Ports Neville and Harvey.  Off Port Neville, in Johnstone Strait, we spent an hour or more sailing in company with about twenty orcas, mixed in with a few humpbacks: everyone seemed happy with each other’s company, and with ours. At the mouth of turquoise-blue Knight Inlet – one of the longest fjords on the coast – we anchored in Tsakonu Cove; thirty years ago, they had just logged it, and had moved on, with black bears haunting the fast-growing alder groves; now they were logging the second-growth forest.

As the gap between Vancouver Island and the mainland narrowed, so we came into one set of tidal narrows after another. These are straightforward enough, as long as you pay very close attention to the current tables: make a mistake of an hour and you may find five or eight knots of current running against you. At Dent Rapids, with maximum ebb or flood, a deep fast-churning whirlpool forms – the Devil’s Hole – which even high-powered vessels cannot cope with.  A complication of running the rapids, accordingly, is that everyone else is aiming for the same narrow time windows; large power boats set up heavy wakes that can be dangerous, while slow-moving tugs with massive log booms astern can effectively block passage for half an hour at a time.

After running the final set – Yucultas, pronounced Euclataws – we emerged at last into the Strait of Georgia, with the snow-capped peaks of Desolation Sound to port, the massive bulk of Vancouver Island to starboard. We worked our way slowly down the Vancouver Island coastline, stopping for the first time at Comox. Here – wandering around in search of much needed showers – we were astounded to be hailed by name: it was an old friend, John and his wife Joanna, who had served with us at the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad nearly a decade earlier; he had retired here.

We edged our way around an infamous block of water – Whiskey Golf – that is the bane of local sailors: this large, well-delineated rectangle sits astride the Strait, and is used periodically by the Canadian and US navies for torpedo testing. Whiskey Golf was active at the time, and we listened in to many testy exchanges on the VHF as one unwary vessel after another was warned away.

We reached Nanaimo for a hot, muggy Labour Day weekend, taking a mooring buoy off the beautiful provincial park at Newcastle Island, then it was just one final set of rapids – Dodd Narrows, reaching 9 knots – and we were in the lake-like cluster of islands known as the Gulf Islands.

For our last anchorage, 30,000 miles out from Cape Town, we chose Telegraph Harbour, on Thetis Island, an old favourite destination. When reversing to set the anchor, there was a sudden, horrible clanking from the engine, heavy vibration, and – looking over the stern – no action at all. With a sinking heart I concluded that the engine transmission, after so many miles – and years – of faithful service, had failed us, when we were almost within sight of home.

But it was a pleasant, sunny day, and there was some wind. Although the way on would be quite intricate, there was no reason why we could not sail it.  Accordingly, we dodged the Chemainus-Thetis ferry (in a narrow channel: some stress..) and ran onwards into the open waters of Stuart Channel. But over the course of an hour, the wind failed completely; we could see the smoke from a familiar landmark, the Crofton pulp mill, rising absolutely vertically. Two hours on, we had drifted maybe 50 meters. The forecast for the next day – and the day after – was for calm winds (not uncommon in this channel in high summer).

The crew then had a brainwave. We called up the one sailor we knew who kept his boat in Maple Bay – Paul Scott, whose Contessa “Wind River” we had first encountered in Opua, New Zealand, and then, just a week or so ago, in the Broughton Islands  – and he kindly offered to give up his holiday and come and tow us in.

It was thus in ignominy that we arrived at Maple Bay, whence we had left aboard Tarka the Otter almost exactly thirty-two years earlier. There was no celebration dinner: the prospect of installing a new transmission, or possibly even a new engine, was simply too depressing.

But on closer examination….by contorting myself over the engine, I found that all four bolts securing the transmission output flange to the propeller shaft flange had either shared off or fallen out: the grinding noise was in fact the transmission output flange turning against the prop flange, to which it was no longer attached. Highly embarrassing, but easily remedied.

We tied up at Maple Bay at the very same pontoon from which we had left in 1985 on our circumnavigation of the world; the shaky wooden finger had clearly received no maintenance in the last 32 years.

Updated: October 25 2017



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