Why We Like Outposts

map of Central and North Coast First Nations in BC

BC Central and North Coast waters and First Nations

17-19 July 2012  Codville Lagoon Marine Park, King Island, Fisher Channel/ Shearwater, Denny Island & Bella Bella (Waglisla), Campbell Island/ Unnamed cove on Cunningham Island, off of Troup Passage

We would have liked to stay in Codville Lagoon and hike again to Sagar Lake for a swim, but getting our raw water pump fixed was becoming urgent: saltwater was flowing into the bilge and the bilge pump was coming on more and more frequently, which was a drain on the batteries. (One trouble forever leads to another on a boat; if you don’t fix the first thing, other things will soon require repair.) Our friends George and Susan on Top Brass were headed to Shearwater for supplies and wireless service; they volunteered to shepherd us in.

We hauled anchor then and set off. Wind!


Holland America Lines Volendam passes in front of Quoddy’s Run

We set the sails and reached across Fisher Channel, where we passed off the stern of the Holland America Line’s cruise ship Volendam.  They would not deviate for us, although we were sailing and they motoring, and the rules of the sea dictate that they should change course, if necessary for us.  Here, instead, as in so much of the world today, size and corporate might ruled: the little one must step aside for and accommodate the bigger one, no matter the situation.

When the Volendam passed, we noticed that it was not flying an ensign.  Marike called them on the radio to ask why—wasn’t that, too, a rule of the sea? The mate on watch stumbled about, at a loss for words, and finally said, “well, we were supposed to have high winds,” as if wind and flags might never mix. We imagined this must be another cost cutting measure—“no need to replace any tattered flags this year because we didn’t fly any”—or else a way to avoid confusing North American customers aboard for an Alaska cruise: “if we’re in North America, why are we flying a Dutch flag?” But perhaps it was sheer laziness. Who knows? Definitely not shipshape naval order! Perhaps cruise ships have now completely traded naval customs for hospitality services.

Llama Passage

In Llama Passage

Suddenly we were in the narrower Llama Passage, but still sailing. Northern Expedition, one of the largest of the BC ferries, passed us, its wake and its echoes knocking back and forth from shore to shore and rocking us violently, though not so violently as the man paddling by near shore in a canoe.  He turned himself into the waves and rode them out; if he hadn’t, he would have been swamped.

Northern Expedition

BC Ferry Northern Expedition in Llama Passage

Soon the clouds lifted and we were passing Bella Bella (Waglisla), home to the Heiltsuk First Nation. Suddenly messages started pouring into the inbox of our telephone—wireless service!  Waglisla might be difficult to get to, but its citizens are profoundly connected to the outside world.

near Waglisla

Quoddy’s Run approaching Bella Bella

A turn to starboard and then again; we threaded a narrow passage and motored to a dock at Shearwater.  Shearwater, once a WWII Air Force Base, is now the marine service center for the Central Coast. Fishing boats, ferries and other essential craft are looked after here; so too are leisure craft such as ours, as well dozens of big sports fishing craft and cruisers bound to and from Alaska.  We had been told that a repair in Shearwater would be pricey and require a long wait.


Shearwater Harbour Dock

Indeed, when Marike first went to the order desk, she was told that we might have to wait some days to see a mechanic, and that the fees for work could exceed $100 an hour.  But when she introduced herself as a sailor from Nova Scotia, and said that we really could not afford to stay at a dock for more than one night, the office manager shifted her approach.  Clearly, what we needed wasn’t the “yacht from afar” treatment (although we were, truly, a yacht from afar); we required, instead, access to the local inside track, the sort of service that residents might get when they needed it, on local time and at local rates.  Marike was sent out to see the manager in the yard and explained to him that we had a spare pump, but were unable to get the awkwardly placed old one off with its bracket, which had to be placed on the new pump. “Ah you need a monkey,” the foreman said, walking over to one of his workers.  “Here’s your fellow, Kevin.”

Wasco at Dock in Shearwater

Vessel in Shearwater enroute to Haida Gwaii

Kevin came immediately down the dock to the boat.  He wasn’t sure he could change the pump before the yard closed for the day, but he liked the smell of the soup Karin was cooking.  We promised him some soup and homemade bread if he managed to pull off the repair that day.  And of course he managed.  He even tapped in a new hole for the set screw on the pulley, so that we could be sure that the pulley would not fly off.  He changed the belts; he said that the belt on the pump pulley was too tight, which pulled the pump out of alignment and caused it to fail sooner.  In the end, we paid for two and a half hours of labour at $95 an hour, with a side of minestrone and bread and butter, had a completed repair, learned a few things, and made a new friend.

Be Bear Aware

Be Bear Aware! Slightly altered sign at the grocery store

We realize that we like outposts—after all, we’ve chosen to live in one on the East Coast, although it is admittedly far less remote than Shearwater–because people who live in such a place do recognize fellow outliers, fellow travellers, and they have, at once, respect for and capacity to assist those who, like them, don’t center their lives in the economies and expectations of large urban centers.

Night in Shearwater

Night view in Shearwater

Shearwater was bustling in July; the docks were crammed with vessels.  The wharfinger, it turned out, had a boat of his own in Guaymas, Mexico—we reminisced with him about the way the mountains and desert run to the sea there—and came back to Shearwater in the summers to manage the docks. We met others working in the Service Center office or the chandlery who had arrived, as we had, by chance on a passage and stayed, seduced by the wilderness and camaraderie of living on the periphery. We felt as if we’d stumbled into a community of long lost friends. They were eager to hear about Nova Scotia, and promised to sail or fly or drive by for a visit one of these days.

Laundry table

Laundry Table, Shearwater, BC

We used our hours at the dock to haul away our recycling and trash, to do laundry and reprovision at the impressive and well-supplied grocery store. Figs! Frozen chicken! Fresh vegetables! Ginger! More flour! (We hadn’t known we’d regularly be baking bread when we set out from Nanaimo.) The BC ferry and regular flights to Bella Bella brought in all sorts of luxuries.  We were even treated to a brass concert the evening we were at dock. Our favourite thing, however, was the grand table in the laundromat, a huge, thick, planed and sanded piece of lumber.

Against the Northern Gate Pipeline

Heiltsuk First Nation Opposes Enbridge

Among our aims for this voyage, in addition to investigating the effects of open pen salmon farms on the coast, had been to see for ourselves, first hand, just where the controversial Northern Gateway Pipeline would go, to investigate some of the waters where the tankers would sail, and to listen to what area residents citizens felt about this project to pipe Alberta crude to Kitmat, and then load it on tankers bound for processing in Asia.   We saw a number of signs of Heiltsuk opposition to the pipeline project at Shearwater.  It was clear that many members of the nine North and Central Coast First Nations did not want the pipeline on their lands, nor the risk of a tanker accident fouling their coastal waters.  We would sail some of the waters the tankers would travel if the pipeline were approved once we left the Shearwater/Bella Bella region, and headed further north.

Queen of Chilliwack

Queen of Chilliwack arrives at 10:30 pm

Two ferries serve the major communities between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert: the Northern Expedition, a grand passenger ferry that serves the entire Central and North Coasts, and the Queen of Chilliwack, a smaller, slower vessel that brings cargo and hardier passengers on cheaper fares from Port Hardy to Shearwater and other small communities.  That vessel arrived after 10 pm, when we were out walking at the water’s edge in the long light of a northern summer evening.

Old boats in Shearwater

Abandoned vessels in Shearwater

We hoped the next day to cross to Bella Bella in our boat, fill up with water, and reconnoitre, but when we arrived there were no places to be had at the wharf.   So we moved on, to a charted but unnamed bay on Cunningham Island, where Kalagan and Top Brass expected us for a goodbye dinner before we set off for places further north and they returned south.

mosquito net

Mosquito netting in Horsefly Bay

It was swelteringly hot in that no name bay, if gorgeous.  We listened to a water fall near shore, and watched a grassy area for bears. But, alas, the place was plagued by squadrons of vicious horseflies—in fact, we now call the spot Horsefly Bay.  It was too hot to stay closed up in the boat; besides, it seemed crazy to remain below decks on such a bright day. In desperation, we got out the mosquito net that we’d used in Mexico, a regular queen-sized bednet, and pulled it over the cockpit covers.  That afternoon, when we finally braved the biting onslaught to jump in the water, it was as warm as a bath.  We swam for an hour before dressing for dinner.

crab feast

Elisabeth chooses a crab

That dinner was a feast. Rick and George had spent two days scouting out the best spots and fishing their crab and prawn traps morning noon and night. Dawn and Susan had produced all sorts of other goodies too—salads and brownies—while we baked cornbread and prepared a fruit salad. As the sun dropped, the flies went away. We all sat on Kalagan’s deck, swapping stories, until after dark.  We would head out early the next morning through the Seaforth Channel, then up Finlayson Channel to Klemtu.

prawn feast

Big bowl of prawns


Codville Lagoon Marine Provincial Park http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/codville_lagoon/

Memories of Mexico (Guaymas & San Carlos) http://visiblepoetry.blogspot.ca/2011/03/february-in-mexico.html and http://visiblepoetry.blogspot.ca/2010/02/snapshots.html

On the Heiltsuk of Bella Bella (Waglisla) see http://www.hcec.ca/main.html

For a historical note, see http://www.hcec.ca/heiltsuk.html

Coastal First Nations Great Bear Initiative http://www.coastalfirstnations.ca/

The Coastal First Nations is an alliance of First Nations on British Columbia’s North and Central Coast and Haida Gwaii. The Coastal First Nations include Wuikinuxv Nation, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xaixais, Nuxalk Nation, Gitga’at, Metlakatla, Old Massett, Skidegate, and Council of the Haida Nation.  For their stance on Enbridge Oil’s Northern Gateway Project see http://www.coastalfirstnations.ca/programs/anti-oil-tanker-campaign

See too http://www.firstnations.de/fisheries/heiltsuk.htm for information on stances towards fish farming

BC Ferries Inside Passage  schedules  http://www.bcferries.com/schedules/inside/

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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1 Response to Why We Like Outposts

  1. Betsy Wilson says:

    That was a good one, keep ’em coming!

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