North of 50

Somber Desolation Sound

20 June 2012 Isabel Bay, Lancelot Inlet, Malaspina Inlet, Desolation Sound

Desolation Sound! The Sound was named by Captain Vancouver in a fit of melancholy and longing for the flatter green fields of his home; unlike his younger crew who admired the sublime landscape, he found the steep mountains and dark forest oppressive and dispiriting. Despite its dismal-sounding name and Vancouver’s prejudices, the place is beautiful. Gorgeous-ribbons of water wind through steep tree covered rocky ledges leading towards snow covered mountains. On a clear day you come up the Malaspina Channel, turn the corner and an extraordinary mountain vista opens before you: here an open valley; there a cedar covered height that stretches up to more than 1000 feet. One of the older cruising guides we are carrying with us describes the experience this way:

“Yachtsmen rounding the northern tip of the Malaspina Peninsula are sometimes astounded by the view. In marked contrast to the harsh, burned and logged off barrenness of Sarah Point [no longer true, secondary growth has filled in greenly now] one is confronted by the startling prospect of incredibly steep mountains, the multivarate hues of purple and blue of receding headlands and hill slopes and the glistening far off whiteness of perpetual snowfields around a solitary cone-shaped peak–Mount Denman. The steep nature of the funnel shaped channel leading towards the peaks seems to draw one inwards and into Desolation Sound” (Wolferstan, 1987, 53).

Purple prose–since Vancouver’s meeting with the Spanish explorers, Valdes and Galiano here in June of 1792 while their respective countries were at war in Europe–the place seems to have inspired such effusions…to which we have now added our own. It is hard to find language for such altitudes.

These days, Desolation Sound is a revered as a place for boating, kayaking, hiking and even swimming (and then napping on sun-warmed rocks. The water in the Sound is the warmest salt water in the northwest because it sits at the meeting point of two tidal streams, one running up Georgia Strait from the south and the other coming over the top of Vancouver Island and down Johnstone Strait. The tides are quite large (15-17 feet in spots) because significant quantities of water are forced up narrow channels and the currents can be fierce, but through it all a warm layer of water on the surface never shifts much, which creates a little holiday paradise. We observe lots of cultivation of oysters, some other fish farming and (still) clearcutting in places that aren’t parks. But there are also a number marine parks here accessible only by water, and largely undeveloped on the land. With the exception of a leg of the Sunshine Coast Trail on the Malaspina Peninsula, many trails are simply deer and bear paths and overgrown logging roads. Despite that, during the summer Desolation is hardly deserted–there are ferries to a few of the larger islands, and float planes to and from Vancouver, along with hundreds and thousands of private boats–every sort of boat you can imagine plies the waters here, large and small.

[Journal entry] Desolation wasn’t quite desolate when we arrived, but it was dark. Cloudy. The mountains invisible.  Glowering, looming, lowering sky.  But today we wake and the sky is blue. Birds sing; the water is still and reflective as a mirror, and the mountains have revealed themselves in all of their snow-capped glory.  The water makes a wavering mirror world: shining stones, green trees and mosses, blue sky and a scribble of clouds in the northwest.  It is the first day of summer. We are in Desolation Sound and it is (almost) warm enough to go swimming. We’ll go anyway.

Glory when the sun comes out

The sky is still light at 11, a few stars shining feebly: big dipper, little dipper, nothing but pale spots.

About Karin Cope

Karin Cope lives on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. She is a poet, sailor, photographer, scholar, rural activist, blogger and an Associate Professor at NSCAD University. Her publications include Passionate Collaborations: Learning to Live with Gertrude Stein, a poetry collection entitled What we're doing to stay afloat, and, since 2009, a photo/poetry blog entitled Visible Poetry: Aesthetic Acts in Progress. Over the course of the last decade, with her partner and collaborator Marike Finlay, Cope has sailed to and conducted fieldwork in a number of remote or marginal coastal communities in British Columbia and Mexico. Their joint writings range from activist journalism and travel and policy documents, to an illustrated popular material history of the Lunenburg Foundry entitled Casting a Legend, as well as their ongoing west coast travel blog, West By East.
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