The Outside Inside Passage
With nothing but ocean between it and Japan, the west coast of Vancouver Island has a well-earned reputation for fog, rain and tumultuous seas. The prevailing weather comes from the north so sensible people travel north to south down this exposed coast. We, on the other hand, have chosen to travel in the opposite direction because we have commitments in late August in the Broughton Islands on the mainland north east of Vancouver Island. Fog is also a factor at this time of year and locals refer to the month of August as Fogust.
We leave Delta Marine Services in Sydney, on the southeast corner of Vancouver Island on July 18th. Bypassing Victoria, a favorable tide pushes our speed over the ground from 9.5 knots to 13.2 through Race Narrows. We spend the first night in Port Renfrew - "port" being bit of a misnomer as it is little more than an indentation on the coast. It lies, however, at the southern end of the notorious West Coast Trail which all of us aboard Venture had thought ran the entire length of the island.
In line with expectations, the following morning dawns foggy and rainy and, once underway, we soon lose sight of the land - thwarting our hopes of glimpsing the trail where it meets the coast. After five hours we turn into Barclay Sound and tie up to the dock at Mills Landing in West Bamfield which is only accessible by water or float plane. East Bamfield, across the inlet, is the northern end of the West Coast Trail and accessible by road.
Barclay Sound extends for many miles and it is here we begin to get the picture that, for small, trailerable boats, the West Coast of Vancouver Island is not as remote as we had previously supposed. A study of the chart or a map of Vancouver Island shows the West Coast to consist of a series of inlets - or Sounds - separated, like stepping stones, by no more than 30 miles of open ocean. Almost every one of these is accessible from the east coast by driveable roads. Nowhere is this more true than at Barclay Sound where Alberni Inlet penetrates almost the full width of the island to Port Alberni located only a few easy miles from the east coast. Boats kept or launched at Port Alberni have access to the extensive protected waters of Barclay Sound.
It is in Barclay Sound that the weather departs from its traditional pattern and for the remainder of our trip we enjoy clear blue skies and calm seas with only occasional fog. We cruise the area for several days including an overnight stay at the Port Alberni Yacht Club which has its only premises on Fleming Island. We hike along well-maintained trails through the dense forest and marvel at the proliferation of mosses, fungi, ferns and new growth sprouting from fallen forests giants. We circumnavigate Fleming Island in the tender spotting a few caves but it is too choppy and windy to risk entering. We spend two nights in the Broken Group on the islands of Nettle and Effigham before heading for the town of Ucluelet located at the northern edge of Barclay Sound.
After three days, during which we hire a car and drive to Tofino, we turn our bows out to sea and continue north. As soon as we leave the harbour we are enveloped in fog and a distinctive fog bow hovers over the horizon. We catch a brief glimpse of the lighthouse and hear its mournful moan before it too vanishes into the mist. A north flowing current increases our speed over the ground to 10.5 kts but, being in opposition to the wind, the price is steeper seas. We turn into Clayoquot Sound and make our way up Templar Channel to Quait Bay where we anchor amid tree-clad mountains. Numerous jellyfish in the water discourage the use of the genset.
The following morning at high tide we take the small tender up Watta Creek off Baccuante Bay. Once inside the hard-to-spot entrance, the shallow water flows, clear as crystal, over the stony bottom. Overhanging branches create deep shadows with glimpses of precipitous, tree-clad mountains beyond. When the water becomes too shallow to motor, we resort to paddles. Our progress is brought to halt by rapids where we scramble ashore over slippery stones. Further progress is obstructed by deadfalls in the forest across the stream and in the surrounding forest.
Back out to sea we round Estaban Point into historic Nootka Sound. We call first at Resolution Cove where Capt Cook made landfall on March 29th 1778. From here we cross the Sound to Friendly Cove where our anchor grips the same mud as the square-riggers which had sailed here from the other side of the world all those years ago. Despite its name, this spot had been the site of much rivalry between foreign nations and was the center for the trade in otter pelts that ultimately led to the demise of the local way of life and the extinction of sea otters along the entire coast. We go ashore in the tender and walk to the church where stained glass windows commemorate the events of past centuries. The interior is decorated with artifacts reflecting first nation culture and traditions. All but one of a group of local children hold back from accompanying us into the church because they said there were ghosts inside.
We learnt from the custodian that, when First Nation communities moved between summer villages, such as this, to their winter locations further inland, they dismantled and carried their entire longhouses with them. Truly a case of moving house.
A series of inland waterways connects Nootka Sound to Esperanza Inlet avoiding the need to face the ocean. The small settlement of Tahsish lies at the head of Tahsish Inlet and Zeballos at the head of Zeballos Inlet. Tahsish has a small but busy marina and offers live music at the small restaurant. Zaballos has less amenities but both towns are connected by dirt roads to the rest of the island. From Esperanza Inlet a short sea passage takes us to Kyuquot Channel (also known as Kyoquot Sound). From here, another short excursion into the ocean leads to the Bunsby Islands and Bunsby Marine Park. It was here, in Checleset Bay in 1969, that a number of otters, flown in from Alaska, were released to reintroduce the species to the west coast of Vancouver Island. They are slowly increasing their range and have been spotted as far south as Ucleulet. They are entertaining to watch as they dive down and come up with one tasty morsel after another to lie floating on their backs, munching it down with an audible crunch, before diving down to fetch another. Mothers park their young on the surface while they go shopping on the sea floor.
A major milestone on the west coast is the rectangular Brook Peninsula with its twin capes of Cape Clerke in the south and Cape Cook in the north. Like all such headlands, these act as a magnet for extreme conditions but we are lucky with the weather. At Salander Island off Cape Cook we take time to watch puffins scooting along the shoreline in a whirr of wings and to view sealions hauled out on the rocks. After rounding the cape, the sea temperature drops dramatically, the sky becomes overcast and fog our capricious companion. The glassy surface of a gently undulating ocean is awash with countless tiny sailing jellies, with the lovely name of velella velella. At the base of the Brooks Peninsula we pass through a narrow channel to anchor in Klaskish Inlet.
Another stretch of open ocean takes us to Quatsino Sound which extends many miles inland to Coal Harbour - a mere eight miles from Port Hardy on the East Coast. Other than a good museum, there is little to see at Coal Harbour but it is worth the long journey inland from the ocean to take the tender up the nearby Marble River. This is only possible at high water and, to avoid being stranded on extensive mud flats, we have to be sure to return to open water before the tide drops. It is a beautiful journey with overhanging trees and cliffs on both sides. The stony bottom is clearly visible through the sparkling water and we use our eyes to navigate around the shallow spots. Rounding a bend we find a cave large enough to accommodate the tender. Beyond it, deadfalls and a set of rapids prevent further progress.
Quatsino is the most northerly of the sounds along the west coast and San Joseph Bay, with its offshoot Sea Otter Cove, offer the only shelter before reaching Cape Scott at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Here we encounter a group who have spent ten days clearing miles of exposed beaches of garbage which had drifted in from the ocean. Swirling currents sweeping around the island meet at Queen Charlotte Sound and give Cape Scott has a well-earned reputation for nasty weather. For us the seas continue calm but the cape itself lies hidden from view behind a blanket of fog. From here we turn east and then south to the Goletas Channel guarded by Nahwitti Bar - another spot with a reputation for dangerous conditions under the wrong combination of wind and tide. For us it is a non-event but we have to feel our way through dense fog to spend one night in nearby Bull Harbour on Hope Island. From here we begin to turn south and we are soon back in familiar waters.
Twenty-five leisurely days after departing Sidney we arrive in Port Hardy and, although we still have many miles to go to reach our starting point, our journey along the exposed side of Vancouver Island is complete. The waters south of this point are familiar territory so we cross Queen Charlotte Strait to the Broughton Archipelago and Desolation Sound where the main challenges are the rapids generated at each turn of the tide through the narrow passes. One of these is called the Roaring Hole Rapids - a name that draws us like a magnet. We have been here before and have never forgotten the sight of water ripping through the narrow entrance into Nepah Lagoon at every turn of the tide. The lagoon, four miles long, ½ mile wide and 500 ft deep, contains a huge volume of water connected to the ocean tides through an entrance only 40 yards wide.
We anchor in nearby Turnbull Cove and, over the next 36 hours, make several excursions in the tender to the narrow entrance of the lagoon both at slack and at full flood and full ebb. The contrast between the slack and flood is something to behold. I estimate that, at springs, the level of the water outside the narrows is changing at about ½" per minute - meaning that, after only ten minutes, it has dropped or risen 5". The water on the other side of the short and narrow channel desperately attempts to correct this imbalance resulting in a rollicking maelstrom. When the levels finally balance, the tide outside the lagoon has already reversed and slack lasts less then five minutes before the flow of the current changes direction. During that brief period of time, the surface is glassy smooth and stitched with rows of miniature whirlpools as the water tries to decide which way to flow.
After checking the depths at both low and high water slack, we deem it safe to take Venture through at the latter. There is only one anchorage within Nepah Lagoon and it is not rated as very reliable so we decide to enter the lagoon at 0700 and remain there until the next high water slack twelve hours later. We do this without incident and once inside the lagoon we find ourselves in a lost world. We cruise its full length beneath steep tree-clad slopes wreathed in mist.
We anchor in Yuki Bay and go ashore in the tender. Guarded by the rapids, few people visit this place but they do not deter loggers and evidence of their presence remains on the beach in the form of a decaying donkey engine and a rusting bathtub. A narrow band of trees has been left to shield the clear cuts from the beach but the way inland is blocked by a mishmash of fallen trees like a gigantic game of Pick Up Sticks.
At seven pm we up anchor and make our way towards the entrance. Skeins of mist hover above the water and its uneasy movement confirm that the tide has already turned. The surface is glassy but we know that within a few minutes Roaring Hole Rapids will once again live up to its name as it dances to the tune of the ceaseless tides.
Video of our visit to Roaring Hole Rapids and also to the Marble River and the whole of the trip described in this blog can be viewed by going to the You Tube link on the Fleming Yachts website. A DVD is also available from Our Store.