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Destination: Ghost Town

Part 1, Getting There Is All The Fun

A cruise is all about enjoying the interesting places along the way, otherwise it’s just a commute. However, having an attractive destination in mind—even if you don’t manage to get there—often makes planning and committing to a long cruise easier. And what could be a more fascinating destination than a ghost town?

For this cruise, my destination was Ocean Falls, British Columbia, once a thriving industrial community of 3,500 people with all the modern conveniences, but suddenly and completely abandoned almost 50 years ago. I left Victoria on a sunny day in early July, singlehanding my 40-foot Pacific Trawler on what would be the first leg of a 900-mile, month-long journey.

Exploring the Inside Passage

My route to Ocean Falls took me through the Inside Passage, making the cruise itself a five-star attraction. The Inside Passage is universally known as the collection of protected waterways formed by the barrier islands that guard the incredibly rugged and pristine coastlines of British Columbia and Alaska. It is to the Pacific Northwest what the Intracoastal Waterway is to the U.S. East Coast, but without the population and traffic. The direct distance from Victoria, B.C., to the Alaska border is about 500 nautical miles, with numerous fjords piercing far into the interior. The B.C. mainland alone offers more than 3,500 miles of coastline to explore. Tens of thousands of convoluted islands add another 12,500 miles.

Although fjords are usually associated with Norway, those located along the B.C. coast are just as long and deep, with even bigger mountains. Moreover, many of the islands have their own mountain ranges and inlets. Because the geography makes it just about impossible to build highways, the Inside Passage remains a natural paradise.

A few factors must be taken into account to ensure this excursion is as enjoyable as possible. The region is vast, but the population is tiny. Most of the communities north of Vancouver Island depend primarily on aircraft and boats for transport, and although support services are minimal, they are still conveniently available for re-supply and to deal with any contingencies. That said, the farther north you go, the more self-sufficient you have to be; think anchoring in secluded coves more often than tying up in marinas. Many of the waterways appear like rivers on the charts, and to some extent mimic them except that the currents are tidal and reverse regularly.

The Tidal Factor

Tides are a major consideration in west-coast cruising. The tidal “day” is 25 hours long, during which there are two ebb and flood rotations with a change in depth of as much as 20 feet varying with location and the phases of the moon. (WS-Tide 32 and J-Tides, two excellent tide and current prediction programs, are available as free Internet downloads.) Tides are important for three reasons: First, you can take advantage of the push they give to increase speed or reduce fuel consumption. Second, narrow tidal passes where the currents can be quite strong should be taken within 30 minutes either side of slack when the tide turns and the current is near or at zero (which usually means only two daylight opportunities). Finally, when anchoring, it’s important to ensure there is enough depth below the keel for low tide and enough rode out for high tide. Docks in the Pacific Northwest float, so the only issue in marinas is low tide depth—almost never a problem.

In addition to fabulous mountain scenery and fishing throughout the region, a particular attraction for boaters is the surprising variety of routes to the same destination, and the contrast of their intimacy against vast mountain landscapes. It’s never boring.

My plan was to leave early on July 1 and meander through the Gulf Islands to rendezvous for dinner with friends on July 5 in Desolation Sound, a complex of waterways and islands at the head of Georgia Strait. Gorge Harbour, located on the west side of Cortes Island, has a very good marina and restaurant. Unfortunately, work delayed my departure to July 4. However, by shifting a little east to an alternative route north via Georgia Strait, I would have a direct run to Cortes Island, and with help from the weather gods, I could still make the meal. In these latitudes, summer nights are short, so I departed with false dawn at 0400, made my way through nearby Active Pass against a 2-knot current, and turned north. The wind is fickle in these parts, and can swing around 180 degrees. If the wind is against the tide, anything over 15 knots can produce an uncomfortable ride, so attention to the VHF weather channels is important. On this day the skies were clear, the wind was from the southeast, and the tide was flooding. Everything was working for me.

Ten hours and 80 miles later I anchored in Scotty Cove on the northern tip of Lasquetti Island. Another 0400 start on another beautiful day, and I anchored at noon in Gorge Harbour on the south side of the Desolation Sound national park. Plenty of time for some boat chores and a nap before dinner.

Not So Desolate

Almost all non-Indian place names on the B.C. coast were given by British, Spanish, and Portuguese captains who charted the region in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Desolation Sound undoubtedly reflected the mood of an increasingly homesick Capt. George Vancouver who had left England on April 1, 1791 on arguably the most amazing sea voyage in history. After five years, he had circumnavigated the globe, visited five continents, changed the course of history for both native peoples and European empires, and advanced the colonization of the Americas. He charted the west coast of Canada during the winter of 1792, and bestowed the sound's dreary appellation with the statement, "There was not a single prospect that was pleasing to the eye."

Modern “explorers” clearly disagree with this assessment from the otherwise estimable captain. During the summer months pleasure boaters stream north to enjoy the sound’s network of intimate fjords and anchorages, all set against a backdrop of magnificent mountains. As a bonus, the sea is warm enough for swimming, a rarity in the northwest.

Cruise ships and commercial vessels bypass the sound on their way north, staying on the west side of Georgia Strait to transit Seymour Narrows into Johnstone Strait. Seymour is infamous for its whirlpools and wrecks—some 120 boats have been lost. The danger was significantly reduced in 1958 when history’s largest non-nuclear explosion knocked the pinnacle off Ripple Rock, but yachts have the option of two more attractive routes north via six smaller rapid sets in the Discovery Islands. Although these are considered to be some of the most powerful rapids in the world, I have been through all of them, and they are harmless if taken at slack.

On my trip, the tide and current tables indicated that slack in Surge Narrows, the first of three rapids I needed to transit, would occur at 1610 the next day, providing a welcome morning of R & R. Off again at 1400, the approach to the narrows was through stunning scenery via Hoskyn Channel on the east side of Quadra Island. However, because the current was ebbing from the north, I could not avoid missing slack at the next pair of rapids, so at 1730 I tucked in at anchor in Waiatt Bay, surrounded by the Octopus Islands.

Experience can extend the transit timeframe for these passes. If I know the pass and the tide is with me, I will go through in currents of up to 5 knots. If the tide is moderately against me—less than 3 knots—I might risk it if I can see back eddies, currents that double back on themselves and flow in the opposite direction. These parameters will vary for every boat and boater, but slack is always safe and comfortable.

Yet another early (0530) start enabled me to take advantage of a strong flood tide that zipped me through the upper and lower rapids on the north side of Quadra Island at just over 13 knots. Once in Discovery Passage, I made and ate breakfast while continuing the run to Johnstone Strait. Here the prevailing wind is from the northwest, and although the mornings are usually calm, 25–30 knots is not unusual in the afternoon. Since the tides and winds are not always in sync with travel plans, boaters on a schedule can be in for a slog. Once again, except for one short stretch, there are choices of route, including through well-protected waters among the fragmented maze of the wonderful Broughton Islands.

The Broughtons

The Broughtons offer nature cruising at its absolute best, with just enough family-run small marinas—think rustic B&Bs for boats—tucked inside protected coves to provide essential amenities and supplies without being intrusive. (Full-service towns are just a few hours away on the west side of the strait.) Many of these small marinas draw boaters in with potluck dinners. Each marina provides a main course—specialities include roast pig (Echo Bay), Cajun gumbo (Jennis Bay), shellfish (Lagoon Cove), etc.—and a few basic side dishes and desserts, while boaters contribute whatever add-ons they can. There’s always more than enough food. Usefully, the marinas coordinate their choice of evenings, and with a little planning, I spent a leisurely week wandering from one meal to another in brilliant weather. Marinas that don’t do potlucks usually offer some other attraction. Port Harvey, for example, has a simple restaurant and bakery, as well as a small store.

Dinghy trips to nearby coves are a pleasant way to spend a morning or afternoon in the Broughtons. From Echo Bay, for instance, it’s but a short dinghy ride (there’s also a trail for walkers) to Billy Proctor’s spread. One of the coast’s genuine old-timers, he’s been collecting interesting things from the area for decades, and has them on display and catalogued in a small museum; visitors are welcome.

With a licence, trap, and bait, catching a shellfish dinner in the Broughtons is just about guaranteed. While I’m positioned firmly at the consuming end of the food chain, I did put my $15 crab trap out in one of the bays and a couple of hours later pulled up three Dungeness crabs so large that real crabbers using professional gear demanded to know what I’d used for bait. I was embarrassed to admit it was a cut-up hot dog, at which point the interrogation turned to: beef or pork? smoked or plain? brand? and so on. They were delicious steamed, and the leftovers made wonderful crab cakes the next day. Fishing is also very good, but a downrigger is essential to success.

Moving On

It was finally time to leave the protection of the islands, and to round Cape Caution. This is a long passage to be made only after careful consideration of weather and buoy reports, because the cape is a lee shore exposed to the full Pacific. I’d heard lots of horror stories, but the weather was great, the seas were mild, and my trip was a delight. (I did pay my dues on the return trip—more on that next month.) Once around, I could see what looked like water spouts in the distance, and as I got closer I discovered they were spume from humpback whales, many of them, putting on a marvellous display.

Ten hours after departure, I eased past still more whales through the narrow entrance to magical Fury Cove, a particularly beautiful spot with a shell beach and lots of arms and islets to explore.
Next month in Part 2 of his series, the author describes the remainder of his trip north to the ghost town of Ocean Falls and the exciting return journey.