A Passage Too Brief in the Pacific Northwest
Spurred on by the calendar and approaching seasonal gales, the crew of Roger Henry still manages to feast on Canada’s bounty of cruising delights.
A pod of seals and a raft of loons met us at the entrance to Kumealon Inlet. There’s something viscerally pleasing about being securely anchored in the back of a double dog-legged cove while tucked under the trees just yards from shore, smelling the pungent pines, listening to the chorus of birds, and losing count of the jumping fish. Then, if a big bear rumbles out of the bush, it becomes a blue-banner day.
Our next stop was Lowes Inlet. We anchored up a long arm just shy of a thundering waterfall. We rowed to shore to investigate several ancient stone fishing weirs, no doubt the work of the region’s indigenous people, the Athapaskans, now called the Déné. The weir’s design cleverly uses the falling tide to trap exhausted salmon resting in a backwater near the falls, thus illustrating the adage “When the tide is out, the table is set.”
There were many signs of bears—prints, scat, and stripped fish carcasses. Typically, Diana and I drew different conclusions as to how this affected our plans to hike through the woods to the base of the waterfall. She stayed with the dinghy while I made my way quietly down a game trail. Now, all the park brochures suggest that one makes a lot of noise when traveling through bear country. But I figure that shouting, “Hey, bear! Ho, bear!” while jingling annoying bells ensures that you’ll never see a darn bear. Bear sighting or not, I enjoy traveling through terrain in which I rank low on the food chain. It helps to sharpen my focus.
Near the noisy cataract, I sat beside a tall slab of rock watching frenzied salmon repeatedly hurl themselves against amazing hydraulic forces, only to be washed back down into the foaming pool beneath. There was something sad about their desperate struggles.
Because the rock slab jutted out over the deep water, I couldn’t get around it, so I decided to hike back to the dinghy and row around for a better view of the waterfall base. Diana always feels safer viewing wildlife from the boat or dinghy—across a safety moat, so to speak—so she agreed to come along. As we rowed around the rock, we saw, sitting no more than four feet from where I’d just been, a huge black bear. Black bears (Ursus americanus) actually come in various shades of black, brown, cinnamon, and even blue. The most astonishing variation is the white black bear, known as the spirit bear or Kermode bear and found only in northern British Columbia.
We held station in the roiling water, watching the bear swipe or snap at the dozens of fish flying through the air. The animal struck us as somewhat inept, always half a second behind the fish. It suffered several indignities, at one point falling backward on its butt as its head followed the trajectory of a fish arcing directly overhead. We began to feel sorry for the bear when it appeared that dinner would evade it. But Nature rewards perseverance. We cheered in solidarity when finally a fat salmon landed directly in its mouth.
All afternoon, we explored the tall grass flats and forests on both sides of the arm. Then, over sundowners in the cockpit, we watched five beautiful bears wander out of the woods and very carefully jockey for prime feeding position. We felt as if we were in our own private game park, replete with the comforts of home.
Traveling by day, from idyllic anchorage to idyllic anchorage, we progressed south, mostly enjoying the protection of inland waterways but with the occasional open-ocean hop. Through central coastal British Columbia there are no towns as such, just the occasional floating fishing camp or wilderness homestead.
We felt elated sneaking down one mysterious arm, yet frustrated at the dozen others that we had to leave unexplored. We sailed with regret right past the Broughton Islands, a gem of an island group that alone would require several seasons to explore properly.
We slid into Johnstone Strait, the 90-mile cleft that separates Vancouver Island from the mainland. The length and breadth of these inland waterways add up to an enormous catchment system. The many rivers contribute to the volume and billions of gallons of water, especially on the ebb, gush through a few constricted outlets, causing whirlpools, overfalls, and treacherous countercurrents.
Seymour Narrows, for example, is notorious for spitting large and powerful ships out backward. We took our cue from Nature, for here even the whales wait for slack water to pass. With our limited power, it was critical to be pulled toward the narrows on the last of the rising tide, slip through during the brief slack water, and carry on clear of the maw with the ebb.