The Inside Passage is a natural waterway stretching from the State of Washington to the Alaska Panhandle. For most of its length, however, it winds through Canadian waters, in the province of British Columbia. It is protected from the open Pacific by 300-mile-long Vancouver Island in its southern reaches, and by hundreds of smaller islands to the north. A cruise of this waterway will take you past some of the most spectacular scenery in the world: Endless miles of desolate shoreline provide countless sheltered anchorages, some nestled beneath towering glacial peaks, others guarded by roaring waterfalls, still others bordered by tranquil beaches. To the north, wild fowl, seals and otter abound; to the south, in areas like Campbell River, salmon fishing is unsurpassed.
These magnificent islands and inlets are like home to me. I grew up there and I revisit this awesome country whenever I have the opportunity. That’s why, two summers ago, when Fred LaLau asked me to join him in his 38′ steel ketch Jubilee on a trip between Vancouver and Glacier Bay, I accepted. Initially I was somewhat reluctant, though, as the total traveling time might consume all of the two months I had allotted, leaving little time to explore the land. Also, Jubilee is somewhat ill-equipped, I thought, to be making a trip into that territory: She has no depth sounder, radiotelephone, autopilot or radar. However, this didn’t deter Fred, a steel-haired, easygoing fellow, who had already made a trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands aboard a 20-footer equipped only with a compass, tide table and a few charts.
On the positive side, Jubilee is large enough to ride out heavy weather, and her lapstrake steel hull is strong enough to break an iceberg. She is also quite spacious below and has a reliable 85-hp. diesel that gives her a cruising speed of eight knots, important when you have to buck the strong currents and headwinds that frequent the area. Besides, Fred is an excellent mechanic, which is reassuring. Finally, Fred gave Jubilee a good cockpit cover, to make helm duty somewhat more enjoyable in cold and rainy weather.
Before leaving we took on enough provisions for the round trip to Glacier Bay. We knew there would be a number of places to restock along the way; there are many small stores along the coast and several large towns where everything is available. But supplies are generally more expensive in those isolated communities. Fred, a smoker, took along a good supply of tobacco, and the two cats had enough of their favorite food aboard to last them most of the trip, just in case their particular brand wasn’t available in the small coastal shops. (We actually found later that they preferred Alaskan hamburger.)
Along with a complete set of charts for the area, we were certain to take pilot books and tide tables; the cruise promised numerous submerged reefs and very strong tidal currents. With 200 gallons each of water and fuel, and enough provisions for two months, Fred, the cats and I left Vancouver on July 5, 1982, and headed for Powell River.
In Powell River we spent some time going over charts and tables, double checking the route we planned, to be certain of making favorable tides. Some areas have tidal currents of three or four knots, and having them with us would make a big difference in our progress. We decided not to travel after dark, but intended to take advantage of the north’s long summer twilight. We knew we would need a long run each day if we wanted to spend much time in the northern areas and still get back to Vancouver in six weeks.
Powell River, a lumber town with a population of about 13,000, was a good place to take on fresh produce and items we had forgotten to purchase in Vancouver. We finished these chores around noon on July 8th, and then headed across the Straits of Georgia to Campbell River, a small town at the entrance to Seymour Narrows.
Seymour Narrows is the most direct north-south route in the Inside Passage and the one favored by marine traffic. Currents in this passage can run in excess of fifteen knots, making it necessary for small boats to transit the Narrows only near slack water. At one time a rock in the channel made navigation even more hazardous, because the current pulled vessels in its direction. From 1875 to 1958, 120 ships foundered there, with the loss of 114 lives. To make the channel safer for shipping, in 1958 the hazard, Ripple Rock, was removed by 1,375 tons of a special explosive.
At 0500 July 9th, we left our mooring at Campbell River. The sky was bright in the east; we were accompanied by fishing boats steaming north to catch the tide, and by gulls screeching and scrambling near the water in their fight for surface fish. Our route took us northward through the Narrows, and into Johnstone Straits. By 1600 we were heading into Alert Bay. We had traveled eighty-two miles; a westerly wind and an ebb tide had given us the lift we needed.
Alert Bay is the home of one of the most populous Indian villages on the British Columbia coast and boasts one of the tallest totem poles in the world. Galiano and Quadra were among the early explorers to visit this village. In 1792, they noted in their journals that the Indians gave them a warm welcome, took them into their houses and gave them food. The village is still friendly, but instead of canoes and longboats pulled up on the beach, they now have a prosperous fishing fleet and a good-sized marina protected by a breakwater. The village is also bustling with tourists and local people, and there are pubs, restaurants and even a hospital in the town.
Our next leg, crossing Queen Charlotte Sound, was the part of the trip we looked forward to least of all. The large body of water lying between Cape Scott, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, adn Cape Caution, on the mainland to the north, is often fogged in; islands and rocks are obscured en route. The area is also exposed to the open Pacific. As the fog sometimes lifts around noon, we timed that part of the trip accordingly, staying near the coast of Vancouver Island until there was a definite clearing and then heading across. That night, after traveling more than a hundred miles, we anchored at Safety Cove, a well protected harbor on the eastern shores of Calvert Island. It was almost dark before we got settled in. There were a few fishing vessels and another sailboat ahead of us; it was a tranquil setting and only the occasional ripple of a sea otter heading across the bay disturbed the water.
The next morning the weather was socked in, with rain and low clouds, and landmarks were more difficult to see. The tide aslo worked against us for the early part of the day, and we were able to cover only the 35 miles to Bella Bella. Dozens of bald eagles peered down at us from their vantages in tall trees as we tied up at the fuel dock. There is a general store and hotel in this small Indian community, but limited dock space. Shearwater, across the bay, has ample wharfage and is probably a better bet for pleasure craft.
Our next day’s run brought us to Klemtu, another Indian village, about 70 miles farther north. This picturesque village, with its old abandoned cannery, is nestled behind an island. They advertise a restaurant and fuel but neither is to be found. Although ample dock space is available, we had a definite feeling that pleasure craft are not particularly welcome. We spent the night there and the next morning made the 40-mile run up to Butedale. This was the home of another large cannery whick, like most in the vicinity, has been closed for many years. So far our progress had been good, but the weather dismal. It was cold and drizzly most of the time, with visibility not much more than half a mile. Fortunately, the channels were narrow and it was possible to pick up landmarks, beacons and lighthouses to establish our position. We could not see the spectacular scenery because of the clouds, nor had we been welcomed at some of the communities we had stopped at along the way. Butedale was even less inviting than Bella Bella or Klemtu. Honeysuckle and rosevines clung to the rotting timbers of small white cottages. Tons of water gushed from broken pipes inundating the docks of a once-bustling cannery, cascading into the sea. The entire crumbling structure seemed in danger of collapsing on Jubilee, which was moored directly in front of it.
We made three more stops in northern British Columbia before heading into Alaskan waters; Kumealean Bay, at the north end of Grenville Channel–a good harbor; Prince Rupert, a city of 12,000, where all manner of supplies are available, along with lits of marina space when the fishing fleet is out; and Dundas Island, a few miles from the Alaskan border, our last stop in British Columbia. We spent a couple of days here and enjoyed the serene setting, in spite of the inclement weather. The small bay in which we anchored had much history associated with it. The Tongass Indians were probably its first settlers; since that time a number of countries have held claim to the land. The island was named Captain Vancouver in 1793 after Henry Dundas, a Scotsman whose father was the treasurer of the British Navy. The island was later occupied by the Russians before Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867. The Americans established a tent camp there in 1868, with a complement of about 60 men. The island is now part of British Columbia. As with so many of the islands, all signs of human habitation have now vanished, and the white sandy beach is desolate. The only movements are the trees rustling in the wind.