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.

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Texada Island—“Sheet Harbour West”

Texada Boat Club

18-19 June 2012

As we were reaching up the Malaspina Strait, we debated about where we should make a reprovisioning stop before we arrived in Desolation Sound.  A resort marina near Grief Point was pricey and commuting to Powell River complex. Powell River’s docks are crowded, difficult to enter and also pricey.  Lund was a possibility, but tiny and perhaps too far along.  So we chose Sturt Bay on Texada Island.   We’d anchored here last year, both going to and coming from Desolation Sound, and found it fine, easy and pleasant even.

But skipper was hesitant—there was a squeak in the front end of the engine that the mechanic in Canoe Cove had not managed to eliminate despite many hours of labour.  Oh well, at least he’d discovered that we needed to replace the fresh water pump on the engine, thereby avoiding disaster.

Karin insisted.  We’d find a mechanic and every other thing we needed at Texada.  It’s like the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia, she insisted, full of self-reliant, resourceful people.

Found on the dock

So we hauled into Sturt Bay, site of an old lime kiln, and once a booming marble quarrying town.  We anchored in a lovely nook near the Boat Club and rowed ashore, where we were greeted by the Warfinger.  He gave us a pamphlet on the history of the island and town, another one outlining a historical walk, and suggested a mechanic we might contact—not too expensive, good and honest.  We walked through the little town in the hot sun—Texada has a greater number of sunny days than any other place in BC—appreciated the flowers growing everywhere, were greeted and directed to the store by townspeople, and repeatedly offered rides.  We were able to shop for everything we required, then driven back to the docks by the clerk.  Later we were driven up the hill to the Laundromat at the RV park (the cleanest most pleasant Laundromat we’ve ever seen while on the water); we bought some local chicken and turkey eggs, and called the mechanic.

Texada with a view

Monday morning at 8am we rowed him to the boat.  He diagnosed our problem as loose belts (that’s what we’d told the guy at Canoe Cove it was!) and changed them, then helped us sort out three additional problems.  Within an hour he was done—great service for a good price, a “house call” even.

Texada Island United Church

Bravo Texada!  It is quite like Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore.  We felt very much at home there and laughed not a little at ourselves for liking this place so much when sometimes we complain about the remoteness of our hometown. How much harder still to live on an island where virtually every industry has shut down, and BC Ferries is cutting back the numbers of its runs!

Island worlds

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“I’ve lost my rudder in the chuck!” (More Coast Guard Tales)

Fog closes in as several boats leave Princess Louisa Inlet

16 June 2012

What do you do when you hear someone cry out over the radio, “I’ve lost my rudder in the chuck?”

If you’re the Comox Coast Guard Station, you reply immediately: “Station who reported losing its rudder in the chuck, do you need assistance? What is your location?”

It is foggy and pouring rain. We’re coming back down Jervis Inlet from Princess Louisa with the radar on; without it, we wouldn’t see much at all.  No splendid mountain views and photo opportunities around every corner this trip. Worse still, Mr. Lost-his-rudder-in-the-chuck and the Coast Guard aren’t communicating too well. A boat called “Devilfish” offers to try to relay messages, but that doesn’t work either.   Finally a voice comes on the radio, the roar of an engine in the background, to report that Mr. Lost-his-rudder-in-the-chuck “was on the rocks in a back eddy in the Skookumchuck Rapids.  I’m trying to tow him out.”

All that you can see in this wet weather

The Coast Guard radio operator wants to know then, “Who are you? Do you need assistance?”

The driver of the helpful boat reports, “We’re doing okay here for the moment.  I’m an aluminum craft. No name,” and then he gets back to work.

Unfortunately for the Coast Guard, they have to track every radio contact by place and vessel name.  They persist then in trying to find out the name of the “no name” vessel—“is no name your name?” Other vessels also get into the act—just what is going on there in the Skookumchuck (Sechelt Rapids) on this dark and drenching day?

Here’s part of what the Sailing Directions: British Columbia Coast (South Portion) has to say about those waters: Sechelt Rapids, known locally as Skookumchuck Rapids, is at the south end of Skookumchuck Narrows.  It is formed by Boom Islet, Sechelt Islets and numerous rocks and shoals.  The roar from the rapids can be heard for several miles.

It is hazardous for any vessel to attempt to navigate Sechelt Rapids except at or near slack water.

Tidal streams attain 15 knots on the flood and 16 knots on the ebb during large tides….Low powered vessels, or those that tend to answer the helm sluggishly, may find themselves being spun about or set upon the west shore if attempting to abort passage through the rapids.

This is not a good place to lose your rudder—or to have to be rescued.  The name—formed from two words in Chinook, a 19th century west coast trading language, skookum, or strong, and chuck, saltwater—says it all.

Finally the skipper of the aluminum vessel gets back on the radio to report that he’s delivered “dropped-rudder-in-the-chuck” to dock safely.  “My boat has no name,” he says again.  “I have to run now; I have things to take care of. We’ll talk later.”

Another anonymous and busy hero, here sung, though clearly not by name.

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To the Trapper’s Cabin (Accidental Geocachers)

Sunrise at the dock in Princess Louisa Inlet

15 June 2012

As soon as we docked at Princess Louisa, everyone asked, “are you going to the trapper’s cabin?”  We had no idea what they were talking about—the trapper’s cabin?  Apparently some distance upward was a cabin, a ruin now perhaps.  There were all sorts of stories about it—how rough the route was—and then some signs warning that the way was difficult and not recommended.  They were not quite as serious as the sign by the falls that warned that 12 people had died trying to climb up the slippery rocks alongside the roaring water, but they were clearly meant to dissuade casual hikers.

That’s not too hard is it?

The day after we arrived, we met a couple of sailors up from Oregon and Washington; they were going to try the hike up to the fabled cabin, did we want to go?  Karin said yes, but Marike, who suffers from vertigo, hesitated and decided not to go. The way down might be worse than the way up….It usually is.

Karin tries rock climbing

Later, we realized we’d read about the way up to the trapper’s cabin in Muriel Wylie Blanchet’s wonderful book, The Curve of Time, her account of the summers she and her children spent in the late 1920s exploring BC waterways aboard their 25-foot motor cruiser, Caprice.

Falls by the cabin dropping to the sea

As she tells it, “…there is an old skid-road—small logs laid crossways to make a road to skid the big logs down to sea, with a donkey-engine and cables. The skid-road goes up to about six hundred feet—back the way the old glacier had retreated…

Arriving at the trapper’s cabin

“Six hundred feet high doesn’t mean that you get there by walking six hundred feet.  It must have been two miles back to the little trapper’s cabin at the end of the skid-road. The road slanted at quite an incline…I’m sure it was nine times 600 feet before we stand panting beside the cabin…We drank from a running stream, we bathed our faces and arms in it, and bathed our feet in it while we emptied the earth and gravel out of our running shoes” (14, 88).

Falls by the trapper’s cabin

The route began on the remains of that skid road, which was rickety and rough, then disappeared into new growth.  The way was steep—a climb nearly every step up (and so a descent nearly every step back) through creek beds and cedar roots and over rocks.  One sheer face offered a rope attached to a tree above as a handhold. We clambered over and under deadfalls, past roaring creeks, lightening struck trunks, Devil’s Club, new growth, herbaceous dogwood, birds singing all around us.  As the roar of Chatterbox Falls fell away, we became conscious that we were moving gradually towards a new roar.  We climbed steadily for an hour and 50 minutes, up and up and then we saw it, a pile of nail-studded tumbled logs, a carved lintel, two narrow bedsteads—the trapper’s cabin.  Above it, a steep moss covered lip dripping with moisture, and to the side, another thundering cascade.

Steep mossy rocks, covered with cedars

We made our way gingerly to the edge and then out onto a dry platform of rocks.  Above us, roaring tumbling water dropping from the top of the mountain; below us, a winding narrowing tumbling cascade disappearing into the trees. And out in front of us, the narrow channel of Princess Louisa Inlet.  We could see all the way down the inlet, out Malibu Rapids, and into the flat water of the Queen’s Reach.  Two snow-covered mountains stood sentry on either side of the gap–one scarred with logging roads through the snow, all the way to the top—whitening cloud above.

View down into the inlet

We stopped for lunch on the wet logs of the tumbled down cabin, and then turned to head back down.  But there, under the overhanging lip behind the cabin was a rocky shelf where a little green plastic box was hidden—a geocache, begun in 2010. The box contained handwarmers, several coins including a Panamanian balboa, a bottle key and the sodden remnant of a joint.  We added our names and ports of hail to the list, and left behind a little  bag, but did not remove anything.  Then back the way we’d come, slipping and sliding—we each fell more than once before we made it down to the docks, exhilarated, muddy and damp.

Gary and Ron discover the geocache

“Official Geocache”–you saw it here

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Eyes Rubbed Raw by Beauty

Snowy peak

13-16 June 2012 Wednesday-Saturday Princess Louisa Inlet

What a place!

Chatterbox Falls

We smelled cool fresh water as soon as we turned the corner into the foot of the inlet, though we’d already begun to hear the rush of the falls even above the noise of the engine. It was afternoon and already darkening in the inlet, for the stony mile-high sides of the canyon are so steep that they block out the sun. Snow still sits on the mountaintops and on ledges; we consider that the sudden sensation of arctic coldness might be more imaginary than real as we dock, make fast the lines, step off the boat.

Water water everywhere

Big burst of spray

Unbelievable roar of the waterfall called “Chatterbox Falls”; its sound fills the entire cove. Spray flies in every direction.  The force of the falls sets up its own wind.  A little blast near the falls is enough to knock you back.  The gulls settle on a rock some distance from the cascade, at the edge of the spot where freshwater eddies and current join the sea.  There they preen as a fine mist settles over them.  Curtains of mist fill the air; every tree in the vicinity is completely covered in cushions of moss.  Mist rains down on us, even hundreds of feet from the falls, and the roar of so much water is deafening.

Water tumbles over everything

Mossy slippery stones

Gulls bathing and preening at the base of the falls

In fact, there are dozens of waterfalls; water tumbles from every cliff face.  Some of the falls gather as they drop; their conjoined force makes up the volume of Chatterbox Falls.  We wonder at this name, for the falls doesn’t chatter; it roars.

another cascade

The Princess Louisa Society maintains, with BC Parks, a long dock anchored in 300 feet of water so that visiting boats can rest and sailors disembark, walk about, and take on water, which is gravity fed from a mountain stream.  Four boats are here when we arrive; people jump out to take our lines and help us dock, but the conversation is quiet.  Full of awe.

Boats at the Princess Louisa dock

We’ve all come 40-odd miles up the Jervis Inlet, which winds more and more deeply into the mountains, past snow covered peaks; we’ve been visited by eagles and pods of killer whales, our eyes rubbed raw by so much beauty.  It is like sailing through the Grand Canyon, but in blues and greens—a wild mix of sea, mountains, snow, rainforest and sunshine the day we make our trip up.

Killer whales in Jervis Inlet

Radio signals, telephone signals, and the trappings of civilization drop away.  After the conjunction of the Jervis Inlet, Agamemnon Channel, Hotham Sound and the entry to the Skookumchuck Rapids (Sechelt Inlet), there are no more ferries, no more power lines.  Clearcuts, quarries and fish farms gradually give way to the wilderness, and then to more clearcuts and wilderness.  The landscape is so magnificent, so vast, it appears to overcome even these ravages, although we wonder, does it?  Really?  We wonder too at the wisdom of a nation or a province that would encourage the scarring of its natural treasures thus.

Strip mine and clearcut in the wilderness

Words fail the place and so do pictures.  Nothing but being here can do it justice; everything else just miniaturizes and tames for our use a space that, in its own terms, renders us insignificant. The moisture and moss creep over everything; the water continues to thunder down and the mountains to rise up.  We are like the mist, evanescent, nothing but spray before such stolid vastness.  And yet, and yet, we hack away.  We persist in trying to make and remake whatever we find in our own image….Here as everywhere….Another sort of clearcutting—or as close to glory as we “rationalist” humans think we can get?

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Sailing up Jervis Inlet II (Literary Interlude)

The crew never did stop exclaiming at the view

No matter where we went or what we felt or observed, no matter how new to us our experiences were, no matter how solitary the voyage seemed, we were never alone. Wherever we arrived hosts of others had already or always been. Echoes abounded everywhere in and on both water and land.

As we cruised up the narrow winding ribbon of Jervis Inlet, the sea seemed to part the mountains for us.  They lifted directly from the sea, forested, with sheer cliffs mossed in bronze. Across their glittering snow peaks travelled dark shapes of cloud shadows. Nearer peaks merged with higher neighbors beyond, but the face they presented to us was complete. Sharp spires reached into the clouds and from the heights our eyes could follow one long sweeping line to the Pacific. 

Never until then had I seen a mountain whole.

As we went further lofty mountains took more complete possession.  We stared back at a reach behind us and the way by which we had come was hidden. The peaks had closed in.

“This-this-“ I tried to find words. 

“After a summer of it”, Robert said, “you’ll get peeved when I call you from the galley to have a look. We’re only beginning.”

Citation from Kathrene Pinkerton, Three’s A Crew (1940), about a voyage undertaken in 1924. Reprinted by Horsdal and Schubart in Vancouver in 1991.


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Sailing up Jervis Inlet I

Motoring up into Jervis Inlet–the point where the wind began

13 June 2012

The cruising guides warn sailors to be prepared for a long motor up Jervis Inlet, a 46 mile fjord, if they’re headed to Princess Louisa Inlet and Chatterbox Falls. If you’re lucky, they say, you might have a spinnaker run.

Sailing under the Yankee

We left Pender Harbour early in the morning under the iron sail, turning up into the Agamemnon Channel–named for another British Navy ship, of course, 19th century Britain apparently stuffed full of officers trained in the classics.  At Sechelt Inlet, the wind was strong enough to turn the blades of the wind generator, so we hauled out the Yankee and shut down the engine.  As the wind grew, our hull zinged along the water almost on a dead run.  As Karin and Elisabeth dashed about the deck taking photos of the snow capped mountains and countless waterfalls, Skipper Marike couldn’t decide which she was enjoying more—the scenery or the sail.

Elisabeth enjoying the scenery

Happy skipper

Quietly we screamed along the waveless water, jibing the Yankee around bend after bend for 40 miles to Malibu Rapids.  At times we kept up with a trawler or two roaring along at 8 knots.  The hull speed of Quoddy’s Run is supposed to be 7.25 knots, based on a mathematical formula for the length of a displacement hull, but obviously she does not know that.  Sailing up Jervis Inlet on a clear day with a following wind was one of the best—and most unexpected—sails of our lives.

Screaming along

Alas, the sail back out of Jervis Inlet a few days later was in pouring rain, overcast skies, low visibility and no wind….for hours on end.

Return in the fog

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Garden Bay, Pender Harbour

12 June 2012 Tuesday Pender Harbour

Rain drums steadily on the deck and hatches and streams of water roll off the canvas. It is a day of cedar-tinged twilight until evening, which brings descending fog and still more rain.

Elisabeth waits for the rain to stop

They call Pender Harbour the “Venice of BC,” but what we see is weird green light and sorrowful shopkeepers, because bad weather, the high cost of fuel and the high Canadian dollar have brought them little business and steady debts of their own.  We buy $4 litres of milk and walk a damp perimeter path around a small park with a woman and her two labs.  The local bear, she says, was recently shot; someone who didn’t know anything about it got scared and complained it was into the garbage.  We can’t keep going like this, she says, killing what frightens us.

Upside down world

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Closely Watched Birds

11 June 2012  Buccaneer Bay

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Mallard pair; Canada goose

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Northwest Buccaneer

Buccaneer Beach

10 June 2012

We pick up a mooring buoy at N 49° 29.534’ W 123° 59.029’ in Buccaneer Bay, North and South Thormanby Islands

You think that Buccaneer Bay will be about pirates and adventure. That such a place will be full of stories of hideouts and near escapes, buried treasure, smuggled goods and secret knowledge of the winds.  Think again.

Marike stands on a washed up bit of log boom

Buccaneer Bay “was named in 1860, after the racehorse Buccaneer, a contemporary of Thormanby. He did not especially distinguish himself as a three-year-old, but in 1861 won several good races, including the Royal Hunt Cub at Ascot, Thormanby winning the Ascot cup the same year.  See Thormanby Islands.”

Driftwood structure

That’s our friend, Captain John T. Walbran again, Yorkshire native and retired officer of the Canadian Pacific Navigation Company and then the Canadian Government Steamship Quadra, writing in the first decade of the twentieth century.  His compendium, British Columbia Coast Names: Their Origin and History, is a sort of hilarious traveller’s bible,  “a treasury of biography, history and anecdote” for the empire-minded, a record of British homesickness and imperialism at its finest and trivial worst–military rank, social class, famous relations and numbers of guns all scrupulously noted.  First published in 1909 thanks to the assistance of a federal cabinet minister, the volume was reissued in 1971 in celebration of the centennial of British Columbia’s entry into Canada.  It is aptly described by its then introducer, Professor G. P. V. Akrigg (Department of English, UBC), as “sometimes prolix, sometimes eccentric, but always thorough…the foundation work on the origin of our British Columbia place names, an amazing grab-bag of history…a splendid book in which to browse.”

Driftwood anyone?

Thus informed about the source, let us continue.

“Thormanby islands. Malaspina Strait. Strait of Georgia.

After the race-horse Thormanby, winner of the Derby in 1860, owner Mr. J. C. Merry, ridden by the well-known jockey, Custance. The names given on the Thormanby islands are all connected with the turf, which see: Buccaneer bay; Derby point; Epsom point; and Oaks point, and also Merry island; Surrey islands; Tattenham ledge; and Welcome pass. Named by Captain Richards and the officers of H.M. surveying vessel Plumper, 1860” (Walbran, 486).


Today, apparently, descendants of Mr. J. C. Merry live in Vancouver.  Merry Island light warns against reefs that surround the island; the station also tracks weather, wind and sea states.  On Sunday, 10 June, at 7:30 am, the Coast Guard reported that a log boom had come apart in the vicinity of Merry Island, and approximately 70 logs were adrift south of the island.  We saw several of them spiralling by in the current.  A heron had hopped a ride aboard one, an eagle another, and several seagulls clung to yet another.  It seems that for a bird a tree is to hold, whether horizontal or vertical. Like us, they make do where they can.

Elisabeth–and double pleasure on the beach

Just so, the British surveyors of the 1860s scattered familiar characters across the landscape; apparently if you’re an imperial nomenclaturist, a place is well named if it sounds like something from home. That’s why they overwrite the landscape, domesticate it thus, tossing away former names like so much detritus.  Fortunately places may retain more than one name–each place a different place to its various visitors and inhabitants.  The Sechelt name for this bay is Klay-ah-kwohss.  Or so we understand, although we are not confident about the Indigenous linguistic accuracy of our shipboard imperial resources.

Another really huge chunk of driftwood

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