Every spring and summer hundreds of pleasure boats move along the central British Columbia shoreline, their owners doggedly pursuing a dream of cruising delightful waterways in northern B.C. and Southeast Alaska.
They become fixated on Cape Caution, an insignificant point of land that many dread for huge seas that build offshore. Focused on safely rounding the cape, they are unaware of or forget that hidden in the jumble of rocks along the shore is the entry to a sprawling wilderness cruising area.
It’'s a place some consider magical because it offers unimagined solitude in protected and usually empty anchorages as well as snowy peaks, amazing waterfalls, glimpses of wildlife, and primitive paintings high on vertical rock walls. Sometime last winter, while daydreaming about cruising, I made a decision. I would, for the first time, take Quadra, my 42 Grand Banks Europa, through that offshore barrier of scattered rock and into the area generally known as Seymour Inlet.
The Canadian government produced its first navigation charts for Seymour Inlet in 1993. However, loggers, fishermen, and First Nations people had been traveling its waters for many years without official charts. Because there were no charts, recreational boaters stayed away. And they continue to stay away today, partly out of a sense that it’s a tough place to reach and partly because the urge to go farther north is overwhelming.
I quizzed many who had explored Seymour —and two parallel and connected waterways, Belize Inlet and Nugent Sound—and found most were pleased. Some disliked Seymour precisely for the reason others enjoyed it—it is a true wilderness. There are no towns, no small marinas, no fuel docks or mechanics. You won’t find government docks for visiting boats, or mooring buoys, or espresso stands. Cell phones don’t work and VHF radio picks up Canadian weather and coast guard frequencies poorly. If you need rescuing, it’s almost a do-it-yourself job.
Undoubtedly, others are turned away by the guardian at the door to Seymour, Belize, and Nugent: the fearsome Nakwakto Rapids.
On a large ebb, current runs through the rapids at up to 14.5 knots, making it the second fastest tidal current in Canada. The max ebb was weaker the day I had chosen—only 12.2 knots. Streams flowing that fast through a narrow opening create huge standing waves, deep whirlpools, and a surge that few boats could handle. This is no place for a boat at the wrong time.
If you reach the door at slack water, however, passage is a piece of cake.
This adventure began in Port McNeill, on the northeast tip of Vancouver Island, where Dave Wilshin, a boating friend from Anacortes, came aboard. He would be my crew for the next two weeks.
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a former Marine Corps officer, and an experienced Southern California sailor, he was overqualified for the trip we were about to make—except he didn’t know the territory. We celebrated the adventure to come with dinner and wine in a restaurant, because for the next two weeks if we wished to eat, we would cook. At 0700 the next day Quadra slipped quietly out of the town marina and rounded the breakwater. Soon we were on a course that would carry us about 40 miles northwest across Queen Charlotte Strait and along the mainland B.C. coast.
Dave and I reviewed the charts and could see that water from Seymour, Belize, and Nugent slams through Nakwakto Rapids and then races to the sea through two long and narrow passages—Slingsby and Schooner. Slingsby, the northern channel, carries outflow from Nakwakto at 7 to 9 knots max and if you and your small yacht are offshore when that ebb collides with northwest swells in the ocean—well, I’ve been there and it can be bad.
I chose Schooner for several reasons: I wanted to anchor overnight in Skull Cove, which is close by Schooner Passage, and because we would be running against a dying ebb the next morning, I judged Schooner Passage the better route; its maximum flows reach 5 to 6 knots. I’ve been among the rocks off the entrance to Schooner before and with the help of the Waggoner Cruising Guide and the use of BOTH computer navigation and paper charts, we found our away among them and dropped anchor in shallow Skull Cove. After exploring by dinghy, we reviewed our plan for running Schooner the following morning. Nakwakto would be at slack ebb at 1257 hours. It was a four-mile run and we would leave at 1200.
Schooner is loaded with floating debris, shoals, rocks, and turns and was delivering the light force of the dying ebb. (Most recommend transiting Nakwakto at slack flood. The timing was wrong for that but we had no problem doing it at low water.) Despite those challenges it was an uneventful 45-minute run up Schooner and we motored through Nakwakto Rapids 15 minutes before slack water and against a current of about 1 knot. It was as calm as a pond.
We swung to port and went looking for an anchorage. Forested slopes rose several thousand feet above us, their north faces still wearing snow caps. A cloud cover that had persisted for several weeks continued to shield the sun, but visibility was good and we paid close attention to charts and our position because there are no aids to navigation in the Seymour area. Center channel depths of 500 to 700 feet are common, making middle-of-the-road courses easy to follow, and Canadian charts carefully note shallow areas and hazards.
NOT ENOUGH TIME
We motored west in Seymour, turned the corner into Belize, and then swung into Mereworth Sound. We looked in at Village Cove, where the British navy reportedly fired on a Nakwaktok native camp in 1868 in retaliation for an Indian assault on a trading vessel named Thornton. No trace of human occupancy could be seen along the thickly forested shoreline. It was a good anchorage, sheltered by a couple of small islands, but we moved on.
Deep at the end of Strachan Bay we found a narrow entrance that opened into the perfect anchorage—it was large, empty, and comfortably deep for anchoring. We stayed two nights, which gave us time to dinghy to an abandoned logging camp on the opposite shore for a good cardio workout on a steep and rough haul road that was being reforested by fast-growing alder trees. I was impressed with displays of native ground cover and flowering plants that thrive in damp semi-shade and which probably will disappear as the new forest thickens. We paused at the sight of a large snake curled in a depression in the haul road; it soon disappeared into the brush. (I later confirmed it was a harmless garter snake.) A pile of bear poop had us worrying a bit, but we continued on.
There has been logging activity in the inlets for decades, but it obviously has been several years since any cutting occurred. Logged slopes are green with new growth and the logging roads we followed had huge ditches cut across them, apparently to provide an escape route for drainage and—perhaps—to discourage any other use. The rapid growth along the rough roads suggests they may be impassable in a few years.
Seymour and Belize offer a number of tidal lagoons for exploration by dinghy, kayak, or canoe. Dave and I left Quadra at anchor and ran the Walker Bay inflatable across Strachan Bay to the entrance to Pack Lake. We found the narrow entrance partly blocked by a huge tree stump that had settled on the bar. The current was ebbing and I thought I could see gravel beneath the water’s surface. We didn’t want to get into the lake and then be stuck there until high tide, so we abandoned that adventure.
My best guide for this trip was a book written by Jennifer and James Hamilton, a Seattle couple with an encyclopedic knowledge of the B.C. length of the Inside Passage. Cruising the Secret Coast was invaluable. We were on a schedule—in violation of one of my few boating rules—and had to move on the next day. We would use the Hamilton book to direct us to Indian pictographs that apparently relate to the attack on Village Cove in the 1860s.
HOW DID THEY DO THAT?
After leaving the anchorage we turned east into Belize Inlet and after a couple of miles we stopped the boat and drifted in awe before a waterfall that tumbled and rumbled thousands of feet down rocky slopes and through forested areas before jetting far out into the inlet.
The chart shows it is fed by five lakes lying far above and replenished by snow melting from towering peaks that surround them.
Cruising the Secret Coast provides lat/long coordinates for one of the two pictographs known to be found near the junction of Belize Inlet and Alison Sound. We found it easily.
Done in red ochre, the pictograph depicts a three-masted sailing vessel and a native canoe with many paddlers. One native is standing and holding what appears to be a musket. Nearby are two more small craft, apparently longboats. One is under sail, the other has oars. Some occupants are armed. We had no coordinates for the second, but we found it. This artwork shows six native canoes—each appearing to have an armed man in the bow—facing another single canoe.
Obviously, there are many questions. The Hamiltons say the first pictograph apparently relates to the British attack on Village Cove. We can only guess what the second means. A native fleet readying for an attack?
Another query: Did the Brits really sail a gunship up one of the channels and then through Nakwakto Rapids to bombard Village Cove? The pictograph displays a ship with several masts, so it would have been a significant accomplishment to sail her into Seymour Inlet and it also would indicate someone had a good understanding of the rapids. Both pictographs are high above the water—perhaps 20 feet—and are painted on a vertical granite wall. How did the native artists work in such a challenging place?
TIME TO GO
We puttered around several more days, anchoring successfully in one iffy location at the head of Alison Sound, which we shared with a prawn boat anchored about 500 yards away. We looked into another tidal lagoon in Nugent Sound. It was a roaring channel of white water so we beached the dinghy nearby, walked across slimy rocks—one small slip would have put us in the maelstrom—and watched from shore.
Dave deserved a brief tour of the Broughton Islands area to the south—an area he has heard much about from boating friends but never visited—and then I had a date to discharge him in Port McNeill and to greet a new crew member for the run home to Anacortes. So, it was time to ease through the rapids and turn south.
Visiting the inlets was a challenge, a delight to the senses, and an experience I enjoyed and never will forget. One needs to be fully self-sufficient—from cooking three times a day to keeping the boat healthy—simply because it is wilderness. (We saw only one other yacht while cruising the inlet, plus two prawn boats.) The only disappointment was that we didn’t see it all. Care is needed in transiting Nakwakto Rapids, but there is a ton of information available about how to do it.
The last question: Would I return? I enjoy being self-sufficient, although my nerves tingle a little when I get into the “what-if” mode. This would be an excellent adventure if done with two or three other boats; there’s plenty of opportunity for each to choose an area to explore while having someone nearby in case a what-if happens.
I would go again. There’s much we did not see or experience.