I’m sitting at my beloved old Honda car trunk table in the woods north of Campbell River swatting at mosquitoes and black flies despite a brisk breeze. This blog has begun first day out on our next jaunt. I’ve left my computer mouse behind so I’m poking away with my banana fingers and hoping for the best. So far the only other thing I seem to have forgotten is the butter. Jack is fine, peacefully laying on his bed beside me wiggling his ears at the bugs. On our postprandial walk we met a lovely black bear, probably a two-year old. It crashed off into the thick brush of course and I was reminded that old Jack is no longer the feisty beast he once was. Neither am I. We’ve had a long day. With the bugs being so friendly we are about to lock away the groceries and retire for the night. One of the nice things about getting old is that you can fall asleep anywhere, any time. At least until the middle of the night. Then, after determining that it is indeed the “golden age” you can’t get back to sleep until after first light which, of course, is why you can fall asleep any time through the day.
In the morning, after a night of absolute quiet we stepped out into the cool early morning light with clouds of black flies hovering silently. Too stunned to go into feeding frenzy, they’ll soon be at it as the day warms. We’ll move on. With my morning coffee beside me I sift through my notes and see two T-shirt logos I’ve written down. On elderly man slowly walking his old dog had a shirt which said “In memory of a time when I cared.” The other comes from a music video. The drummer’s shirt said “Let’s get together and make some poor decisions.” Right then! With the day’s business meeting concluded, the bugs have broken out the antifreeze and are attacking in squadrons. Breakfast quickly, we be gone!
A few hours of meandering brings us to a vast concrete pad at the end of a logging road on the edge of Johnstone Strait.With our camp barely set up, a pair of humpback whales swam past, heading north. I am very familiar with these waters, having tug-boated and sailed up and down this strait for many decades. I’m looking across to the Stimpson Reef Light and remember all the dark nights either towing logs or smashing into nasty seas. That light was a tiny dot on the radar screen slowly making its way along the sweeping green scan line. Yes, I miss it.
Tonight we have an abandoned log sorting ground to ourselves. One could park up to thirty RVs here with respectable distancing but I’m content with things the way they are. Sadly, after all the frustrations of packing this little boat up here there is no place to launch it. The foreshore is a steep jumbled mass of boulders, logs and abandoned machinery. With the wind I think is coming, perhaps it’s a good thing. This strait is notorious for its quick and deadly seas. There’s an old WWII gunnery fortification a short way down the shoreline I’ve long wanted to visit. But it has languished without my personal visit for almost eighty years. Windy Point will be fine for a while yet.
The marine forecast is for wind and rain which is fine… no bugs! Having worked in the great northern bug country these ones here are amateurs in comparison but still, who needs them. They’re here for a reason, but none of those reasons are mine! The cyber voice droning out the marine forecast offers admonishments about dealing with “Covid One Nine” and assisting the RCMP in their efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. Isn’t a boat an ultimate isolation unit already? Who are the people that think this stuff up?
I sit by my fire, wishing I’d brought a winter coat along. Then I think of this same spot at the same hour in mid-January. It would have been dark by three pm and the snow or sleet would be blowing horizontally. I crawl into my little trailer where Jack has already been warming the bed. A rain shower drums on the lid and we both drift into a deep sleep, cuddled like the old pals we are.
Morning dawns still bug-free thanks to the damp breeze blowing along the strait. There’s low cloud and I’m wearing all my jackets. My little generator drones on, charging the batteries on all my cameras and gadgets. I marvel at how dependant I’ve become on all of this stuff, stuff, stuff. There’s no point in reviewing the minimalism I’ve known and practised, obviously I’ve evolved beyond that, or perhaps “been seduced” is a better term. I can actually shut the generator off from my bed, simply by pushing an icon on my cell phone! Hopefully the breakfast drone will be making a delivery shortly, I pushed that button twenty minutes ago! I do know that trying to work this computer without my mouse is a challenge, downloading images is a right horror, there’s no hope of editing them.
The day passed idyllically. Jack is not up to much hiking anymore so after a couple of kilometres, and several mounds of fresh bear droppings, we prudently decided to lounge beneath the home tent. I watch the ever-changing tidal currents shift and bend and swirl, an eternal fascination. The amount of traffic on the strait amazes me. There is seldom much time with no boats in sight and others when there may be half a dozen to see all at once. I have made a conservative estimate of about one hundred fifty commercial vessels as well as several yachts. Due to Covid one nine there are no cruise ships or tour boats this year. There are a lot of fishing boats heading north right now, there must be some openings in Alaska coming up.
Even though I’m not on the water at the moment, I feel like I’m home. As I write, on the opposite shore, a tug with a log tow rides the flood tide southward, hoping no doubt to make it into Sunderland Channel before the tide in the strait turns against its progress. With skill and luck, it will be in position to catch the first of the next flood into the Wellbore Rapids. Eighteen miles in twelve hours hours, it doesn’t sound like much, but when towing log booms, that distance can seem like an odyssey. A few miles south of here, where you turn out of the strait is a place called Fanny Islet. It is a check point where marine traffic control is advised of commercial vessel’s progress. One dark nasty night I was aboard the ‘Kaymar’ with one-hundred-twenty sections of log bundles, an entire forest packaged into a raft about the size of a hay field. We had our entire towline out, if we slowed from our speed of one knot, that line could snag on the bottom. Then the radio call came. “Mayday, Mayday, oh fuck we’re sinking!” We were the only other vessel anywhere near and are bound in all ways to assist. It was a long and interesting winter night. We missed our tide at the Wellbores.
A line tug bound for Alaska passed a while ago. They are huge tugs, powered with massive EMD diesels, the same as used in rail locomotives and their resonant throb pulses in the gathering darkness long after they have passed from view. It is a reassuring and somehow lonely sound all at once. The barges these boats pull are the lifeline of Alaska. They are huge and travel between the various ports of Alaska and their southern terminus in Seattle. In some of this coast’s thick fogs, although you have them plotted precisely on radar, these massive scows loom out of the gloom looking like half a city. Even though Johnstone Strait is an average of two miles wide, it seem like a ditch when meeting in poor visibility. Of course, you seldom meet in the widest places.
The next day is blustery and dark with frequent rain squalls. I’m wondering what to do with this day. It’s too miserable to sit under the marquis tent and Jack is restless. Then unbelievably the phone rings despite the weak and intermittent cell service. It is the doctor’s office, they want me to come in for an appointment, more test results. Remember the bladder thing? Unfortunately there was no breakfast from the sky and I know there will be no prescription delivery drone. Here I am now, back at my desk in Ladysmith. The weather is forecast to soon improve. Yep, we’ll gone again.
“ We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Native American proverb
I like to mention occasionally that the amazing coastline of British Columbia runs Northwestward to Alaska and ascends through four hundred nautical miles of latitude. Within that distance we have over seventeen thousand nautical miles of shoreline. There is an intricate labyrinth of islands, islets, and inlets. It is as if someone has dumped a monstrous jigsaw puzzle out and nobody gives a toss about fitting anything together. There is a writhing network of very long dead-end inlets, or fiords if you prefer, and also interconnected waterways of seething tidal waters that are studded with hungry reefs. Prudent navigation and local knowledge are essential.
As you travel up the coast by boat the geography and forest vegetation change rapidly with noticeable new features. The water becomes clear, cold, jade green and rich with marine life. The presence of people diminishes quickly once north of the Strait Of Georgia and those who do live there often have characters of strength and individuality. I feel at home and whole once clear of the South coast and its complexity of sprawling population in the prime retirement zone of Canada. The ordeal of the boat trailer as described in the previous blog underscored my growing inclination to find a simpler world. Pre-seniors like myself compete fiercely for menial employment which rewards a lifetime of experience for token remuneration.
At the same time I have uncovered a job possibility as a marine technician in a place called Shearwater which is on Denny Island located between mainland Canada and Haida Gwaii. It is a beautiful area, tiny within a huge archipelago of pristine wilderness. You can travel an entire day without meeting other boats and little, if any, evidence of human presence. I tied up some loose ends, pooled my limited resources and sailed away. Jill, my long-suffering wife, gave me tremendous support despite the demands of her very demanding career. For the time being at least she’s got me out of her hair with only Jack the dog to trip over at the end of the day. Meanwhile I’m steeling myself for the transition between being my own man and jumping to the edicts of someone else.
Because I was northbound the wind, of course, was from the Northwest, on the nose as usual. I visited with friends in Silva Bay then headed across the strait to crawl up the mainland coast into the wind. I was disgusted by the explosion of condominiums and suburban development and happy to heading away from this insidious cancer. After a night anchored by Vananda I stopped in Powell River for fuel. Despite a massive downsizing in the forest industry the town struggles on. The locals are very friendly, the views are spectacular and real estate prices are quite reasonable. I asked one fellow for directions to an auto parts store and was promptly offered a ride. The community is like that. I left a black streak on the hull from the fuel dock fenders and while scrubbing it off, the young lady on duty offered me warm water for my hands! I decided to break for a last meal ashore and found myself enjoying the best burger I’ve ever had in Carter’s Cafe On Marine. It’s just a few steps up from The BC Ferry terminal and public wharf. Run by two lovely ladies the cafe is a spot I’m happy to recommend.
The wind eased as I motored on and with a gale warning still posted I was determined to cover as many miles as possible. For some reason marine weather broadcasts love to employ the term “Quasi-stationary”. Quasi, of course means nearly or almost and the determined use of it is certainly quasi. So I travelled northward under the influence of a quasi-stationary front.
After a long night in Church House where the night wind against the tide from Yuculta Rapids held old ‘Seafire’ broadside to the elements. The anchor chain dragged and rumbled across
the rocky bottom and I was up early to tackle the rapids ahead. The Yucultas, Dent and Green Point Rapids slid behind in a few hours and after The Wellbore Rapids I was bashing into the promised rising Westerly wind. Sometimes, it takes up to three days to move a log tow through these notorious tidal bores. I found a calm anchorage in one of the two Jackson Bays within Topaz Harbour and set about clearing a blocked fuel line from the starboard tank. That took until midnight and after a candlelight dinner of Dollarama couscous, at first light, about 04:30, I was on my way northward.
The Westerly winds which blow down Johnstone Strait can be quite vicious. The seas are horrible when the tide is ebbing against that sort of blow. Westerly winds tend to build during the day and then ease as the sun sets but I was determined to make it to Port Harvey where I could go many miles out of my way to trace a tortuous track northwards which would bring me out slightly north of Port Hardy on the mainland side of Queen Charlotte Strait. I’d need to cross to Port Hardy for fuel and groceries before pressing on. Despite a forecast of 30 knots of wind on the nose I continued on past Port Harvey until the end of Johnstone Strait at Blackney Passage. The wind was easing so I continued on past Alert Bay ending up anchoring for the night in Beaver Harbour, only a few miles from Port Hardy. I was elated with my progress and nostalgic for the days when I plied these waters on tugboats.
It has been fifteen years since my work boat days ended but memories flooded back. I recalled how in Lewis Channel a skipper named Cliff (who could never catch enough fish or take enough crabs) had managed to lasso a deer swimming across the channel. In Teakerne Arm we arrived at 02:00 to pick up some log booms. There was a fishing boat tied to the booms and when it became clear that they were losing their moorage spot there was an angry, staccato tirade from the Asian family aboard, prompted by an elderly matriarch. They were determined that they were there first despite our explanation that we had tied our booms there days earlier. We resolutely connected our booms to the rest of our log tow and with a cheery “See you in Vancouver” headed south. The fishing boat soon untied and went its own way.
Towing logs through the Wellbore Rapids at daybreak we came upon a middle-aged lady in a kayak. She had been camping on a stretch of beach when rousted by bears. It turned out that she had paddled from Seattle to Alaska and was on her way home. I remember her when some yachter boasts to me about a minor passage as if it were an epic voyage.
On another trip I was in the wheelhouse as the mate bantered with another boat in the proximity of Milly Island in Johnstone Strait. There is a house built on the island and one of the mates was braying on about what an ugly structure it was. Suddenly the home owner spoke out on the VHF. “Look buddy, your tugboat ain’t no thing of beauty either!”
I rather like the sight of the house and its posture of independence, especially after that particular conversation.
Just south of Milly Island is Kelsey Bay. The boiling tides in that area will make passage extremely difficult to the point that one night a deckhand and myself renamed the place, “Suction city.” We fought the tide rip that night for hours. Mu experiences in these particular waters inspire as much respect as the dreaded Seymour Narrows. Across from Kelsey Bay is Yorke Island which hides the amazing secret of a massive artillery fortress. Perched on the top of the island it nestles in the trees where it was built during WWII to fend off Admiral Yamamoto and the boys, should they arrive. Even many seasoned watermen aren’t aware of the huge installation. The old fort is probably most famous locally as the site of a hippie commune in the sixties. Peace Man!
Immediately north of Yorke Island is a bald rock called Fanny Island which is a large bald granite rock clearly visible and marked with a flashing light. It is a well-known check point for commercial marine traffic. One very dark but calm night, while passing nearby with a log tow, the VHF burst into life. “FUCK!. I mean Mayday, Mayday! HOLY FUCK WE’RE SINKING!” A fishing boat had hit Fanny Island. Encumbered with a massive log tow we couldn’t rush to assist but I turned on all our deck lights and summoned the engineer to break out the pumps. While the stricken vessel limped the long mile across to us I relayed the Mayday to the Coast Guard. A Coast Guard inflatable arrived an hour and a half later, its three crewman looking like orange popsicles after their high-speed winter night cruise up from Campbell river. They relayed another pump from a passing tug. We’d already rigged a collision mat over the puncture in the boat’s hull and had two pumps going to keeps things afloat. That effort, I surmise, was perhaps aided by the thick layer of empty beer cans bobbing around in the flooded engine room. Once sufficiently warmed by our galley stove the coast guard crew officiously announced that they would take charge of the sinker. We were only too glad to comply.
Now entering Queen Charlotte Strait, I recalled how this reef-studded body of water is sometimes known as the “Rock Garden” by skippers who have made stormy transits in the dark of this ragged corner of the North Pacific. There is ample material to write about. I’m preparing to publish a sequel to ‘The Water Rushing By’ which is now available from Amazon as either a p.o.d. paperback or as an e-book from Kindle.
Port Hardy clings to life after the decimation of the local mining, fishing and forest industries. Eco-tourism and, like it or not, aquaculture seem to have become the cornerstone of the local economy. Buying some provisions, one of my items was a vacuum-packed pork hock. I joked about how big a pork hawk must be if it can haul a pig away. The cashier didn’t miss a blink, “Maybe they’re even big enough to pack you away!” I stopped for lunch in a local bar and restaurant and noticed a sign admonishing clients not to smoke within the proximity of the establishment. Including a list of possible massive fines, it warned that “Jails isn’t a comfy place!” At the marina where I was moored, the clerk in the liquor store worried about how I was dealing with the “Heat.” It was a scorching twenty-two degrees with a cold, damp breeze blowing in from the sea. It was also worried that there was too much wind to leave to dock and then as I pulled away, I had to wait for a passing fishboat named “Eastern Sunset.” Strange, very strange. I moved on and spent the night in a popular little bight called God’s Pocket, then headed into the grey beyond early next morning.
Queen Charlotte Sound is bounded on the North by Hecate Strait which is the body of water separating Haida Gwaii (still charted as the Queen Charlotte Islands.) On the Southern end of the sound is Queen Charlotte Strait and various other areas also bear Charlotte’s name. To further thicken the stew, the passage between Bowen Island and Horseshoe Bay, near Vancouver, also carries her name. When King Edward III married her in the eighteenth century her maiden name was Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Electress of Hanover. She bore randy old Ed fifteen children so perhaps that is why this area, with all of its islands, is so eagerly named after her. Thank God we don’t have to employ her entire long handle each time we refer to this area. What a mouthful that would be on the radio!
My crossing was uneventful and typical with the open-ocean swell shuddering in under local tide slop and spastic bursts of wind. Rolls of light fog and drizzle welcomed me to the mid-coast. I gazed out onto the broad grey, open curving horizon and ached to head that way. My mind began to clear and I began to scrawl quick thoughts in my journal. Journal? Now there’s a good sign, it’s been a while since I did that. Where I can read my writing I find lines like “He spent money like a sailor and played guitar like an African” or “drowning in the waters you walk on.” Dunno what either one is about but someday it may blossom into sensible eloquence. Writing and photography, I find, require being able to grab to the glory of the moment and saving it for future edification. At least with a camera, there’s not a lot to interpret later on.
How about this? It was scratched out somewhere north of Egg Island.
I feel the ocean swell’s rise
As my happy boat begins to glide
This passage fills me with pride
Because I’m doing what few men do,
Exactly what I want to.
Once into the shelter of Calvert Island the remains of the day turned warm and clear and calm as I motor-sailed northward up the broad waters of Fitz Hugh Sound. At the northeast tip of Hecate Island I found a calm secluded anchorage just at the edge of Hakai Pass. The ancient trees lean out from the worn granite where they cling tenaciously, their brine-burned branches festooned with moss and hanging kelp. It is my last night before arriving in Shearwater and the frantic frustrations of a new job and settling into a new community. For the moment, no-one else on the planet knows where I am.
“The sea finds out everything you did wrong”…. Francis Stokes