After a morning swimming and shore exploring in the small bay on Cortes, we said goodbye to the crew of the Clair de Lune and set off to reach Yuculta Rapids at slack tide. Water passing through the narrow passages of this part of the coast often creates powerful tidal currants and whirlpools that can be impassable in a sailboat. North of Desolation Sound, the coast becomes a labyrinth of inlets and channels while the mountains rise high above, some capped in snow. Endlessly winding passages and layers upon layers of mountains in every direction make it difficult to get your bearings if you’re not used to it.
Shortly after leaving the bay we crossed paths with a whale watching boat. The skipper waved to us and let us know to slow down because they had just seen a pair of humpbacks very near where we were. We slowed the boat to a steady crawl and all stood on deck on whale look-out. After only a moment the pair surfaced a ways in front of us, blowing their puffs of wet breath into the air. We didn’t see them again for several minutes. The whale watching boat skipper apparently deciding that they had taken off up the channel, sped off into the distance.
We continued at our slow pace, unsure of where the pair of whales had gone. I walked to the bow and sat there watching carefully. Suddenly with a booming exhalation the enormous black back of one of the humpbacks surfaced just off the boat, not ten meters away.
Realizing we were right in front of him, he changed course with a swerve of his long body, coming along side us. He took several more slow and measured, echoing deep breaths, the sound bouncing off the surrounding mountains, before flipping his tail in the air and diving to the depths just off our side. It was then that the whale watching boat, realizing their mistake, came racing back in our direction.
We anchored in Thurston Bay of Sonora Island for the night on our way into Johnstone Strait. There were no other boats and no signs of current human occupation, only the left behind remnants of a logging operation in the bay and a overgrown abandoned cabin, forlornly hemmed in by trees and gradually peeling of it’s paint. We peered down the bay at what from a distance looked like an inviting place to camp, an area of grass sloping gently to a beach. It turned out however to be mostly soggy sea asparagus and boggy intertidal estuary. We did find a camp spot at an area that appeared to have been levelled by the logging operation at some point and had something that resembled a rocky beach. Propped up against a tree at the water was an ancient looking, thoroughly rusted child’s bike. It was hard to imagine where any child, or adult for that matter could possibly be riding a bike on the steep, rugged and roadless island. I imagined there must have been some roads at some point. Maybe back when families of loggers inhabited these bays on float houses, or when the now abandoned cabin still had fire roaring in the stove.
Since we had seen a large lake on the charts, we decided we would pack a lunch and hike up alongside the creek to find it. After lifting the dingy up the beach and into the grass, we started picking our way into the bush, hoping to find a trail. The forest floor was deep moss, brittle sticks and criss-crossing rotting logs, topped by a tangle of branches, thorny berry bushes and sword ferns. It was extremely slow going for the crew. Climbing over and under logs, and carefully parting thorny bushes while hooting to so as to not surprise any bears we attempted to navigate up towards the lake, while sticking close to the creek. We came across the logger’s decomposing A-frame and a huge rusted winch left behind. Lengths of thick cable and sections of what looked like wooden pipes wrapped in wire were dotted through the bush. Old growth stumps, notched for spring boards sat covered in a thick blanket of moss. The forest was beautiful but the terrain was too rough for the crew. Hot and covered in scratches and bits of forest, we realized that the crew was not up to making it all the way to the lake and back. We had travelled less than a kilometre in over an hour. We stopped in a sunny patch next to the creek to eat our sandwiches and swim in a rock pool. Feeling a bit rejuvenated but also a little defeated, we began to slowly pick our way back through the thick bush to the creek mouth. Back at the bay, an eagle dove at a mother merganser and ducklings. The mother squawked loudly, flapping her wings and circling the duckings in the water. The eagle dove several times but eventually gave up her pursuit and flew off.
We left Thurston Bay early in the morning just after sunrise, to catch the flood tide that would propel us up Johnstone Strait. We had been listening carefully to the forecast as up to 30 knots of wind had been predicted for later in the day – a stark contrast to the glassy calm of the previous several days in Desolation Sound. As we entered the strait there was a brisk but not unmanageable breeze blowing down from the north. Wind against tide created choppy waves while whirlpools and overfalls formed in the current. At the beginning of Johnstone Strait tall snow creased mountains slope steeply to the water. The land features have names like Humpback Bay and Bear point. Amor de Cosmos Creek winds down through a steep sided valley cascading off the Halifax range. The place tell stories of wonder at the power and beauty of the planet. Paradoxically, the mountainsides are brutally scarred by recent clear cut logging. We still had seen only a handful of other boats pass by in the distance.
That afternoon we attempted to pay a visit to the pub and store in the bay of Port Harvey, only to have a bearded captain and his old dog inform us that we were two years too late. The pub had sank, but will re-open next year. Just how a pub sinks, I’m not quite sure. A little disappointed, we pulled up anchor and motored over to the adjacent anchorage of Matilpi. It’s white shell beach was visible as we weaved our way through tiny islets to the old village site. Ancient and moss covered big leaf maples and wide ragged cedars stood behind the shell beach. When I stepped ashore and picked my way through thimble berry bushes I could see that the moist, black earth was full of broken pieces of shell as well, remnants left behind over many generations of lives lived.
We entered the southern end of the Broughton Archipelago through Beware Passage, which is aptly named as it is littered with rocks just below the surface. The area teems with many thousands of years of history. As we entered Beware Passage we passed by Karlukwees abandoned village site, time weathered wood-plank buildings surrounded by berry bushes, perched atop a white shell midden beach. We anchored in between Harbledown Island and Mound Island, near the village of New Vancouver and the old village site of Mamalilacula. Numerous shell middens were visible in the area and the beach above which we camped was pure white, the bank visible layers of ash and shell. The area hums with ten thousand years of ancient history, now more deserted than it has ever been in the past. Muriel Wylie Blanchet wrote about this area in one of my favourite books, a BC classic, The Curve of Time.
Several very vocal ravens let us know we were on their turf and woke us promptly in the morning. Harry and Bas tried their hands at digging clams and were able to turn up several Geoducks (a huge and bizarre looking clam that is a bit of a delicacy and strangely delicious). We built a fire and fried two of them up with butter for lunch.
That afternoon we decided it would be a great idea to build a beach sauna and have an evening steam. We went about searching for the right size of granite rocks to heat in the fire and for poles from which to build the structure. Once we had rounded up the materials, we went to work building a square frame structure on the shell beach and covering it with a tarp. We tucked the edges of the tarp into the shells and sand to seal it and later that evening when the rocks had been heating in a fire for many hours, we carefully transferred them into the sauna with a metal grill. We all climbed inside and scooped water onto the hot rocks. The result was a very successful, very steamy hot sauna. We dunked ourselves in the cold sea water in-between steams, the full moon shining bright on us. It is so utterly quiet at night in those islands that I actually found it difficult to sleep, being used to a bit of white noise.
The next day we made for the tiny (mostly floating) settlement of Echo Bay on Gilford Island. Upon arriving at Echo Bay we were greeted warmly by the dock master Sam, who immediately invited us aboard his boat for beers. After settling in and eating dinner we went over to pay a visit to Sam and his wife. They enthusiastically encouraged us to play some music as we have several instruments aboard, plying us with cold Lucky Lagers. We were all thoroughly enjoying a good rowdy jam session when we scolded angrily by an old military fellow on the boat next door. “That music’s comin’ through the water like a god damn torpedo!” He shouted in the hatch at us. That was the end of that.
In the weeks prior, several of us had been reading Heart of the Raincoast, by Alexandra Morton, which tells the life story of a legendary fisherman and naturalist Billy Proctor. Billy Proctor lives, fishes and runs a tiny museum in Echo Bay. Having just read about his life and adventures we were looking forward to meeting him and visiting his museum. We walked the trail from the marina to his property and were greeted by an smiling suspender-wearing octogenarian, Billy himself. He had many a tale to tell us of fishing, exploring, life on the sea and in the bush. He seemed pleased that we were heading up to Cape Scott as he said this was always one of his favourite areas. Of course in his day there were no proper trails, only bear paths to follow. Billy’s museum is packed full of everything from ancient stone artefacts to 150 year old glass bottles to fishing lures and logging equipment. It was a joy meeting Billy and hearing his stories. I highly recommend reading Heart of the Raincoast. Billy has also written two books: Full Moon, Flood Tide and Tide Rips and Back Eddies about his experiences fishing and living in the area over many decades. Before we left Echo Bay we were able to enjoy one their legendary halibut fish and chips dinners, which we wont soon forget. The marina owner Pierre caught the fish and fried it himself.