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Destination: Ghost Town, Part 2

A Visit To The Past
In Part 1 of his series, Garrett Lambert described his journey from Victoria on Vancouver Island to the wilderness of Fury Cove just north of Cape Caution. Part 2 completes his 900-mile cruise to the ghost town of Ocean Falls, and home.

From the anchorage in Fury Cove, a gentle four-hour cruise took me north up Hakai Passage past many more humpback whales, and then west through Kwakshua Passage where more than 50 porpoises cavorted around the boat until they were seduced away to some other fun. After anchoring in front of the upscale fly-in resort in Pruth Bay, it was a short dinghy ride to their dock and a 20-minute walk to unspoiled white-sand beaches on the Pacific side of the island.

Despite not finding a Japanese glass net float, I returned to the boat in a great mood that dissipated rapidly upon discovering that the impeller on the generator had failed. My manual suggests that it be replaced every 600 hours, and the hour meter showed 652! I had a couple of spares and had swapped out other impellers, so it wasn’t a big deal. But, knowing the job would take time and be physically demanding because of the cramped location, I put it off because the batteries were fully charged and my next stop would be Shearwater, once a WWII bomber reconnaissance base and now a full-service marina and regional transportation hub. It’s an excellent facility, but the grocery store shelves were sparse because the weekly replenishment delivery was a day away.

A friendly local advised me that the store in Bella Bella, a native community situated on a nearby island, is larger and much better stocked, particularly with fresh foods. Given the choice between working on the generator versus a 20-minute dinghy ride, I naturally opted to visit Bella Bella where just about everything was available. (Prices in such outlying areas are truly shocking due to the cost of transportation, but if you want fresh milk, fruit, and vegetables a long way from anywhere, don’t complain.) The return trip was wet and bumpy as the weather deteriorated rapidly, and my fresh raspberries got mashed by some of the other goodies, so I had to use them on the ice-cream. Just another cruising hardship!

Back on the boat with a now-full larder and rain pelting down, there were no further excuses for avoiding the engine room. I removed the generator sound shield, and with considerable contortion, was able to remove the pump cover and the body of the impeller. However, when I examined the fragments it was clear that three vanes were missing, and they had to be found and removed. I could see into the pump cavity only with a mirror and flashlight, but it was clean. Those vanes were in there somewhere, and careful probing with a finger finally found them securely wedged in the outlet. Removing the hose allowed me to drive them out with a hammer and dowel. By now my hands and forearms were cramping, so I broke for a coffee, after which the new impeller went in easily. I was able to complete the job without having lost parts, skin, or temper (well, two out of three, anyway).

When I later relayed this trial to a fellow boater, he said I ought to take a break and join him for some salmon fishing on his boat the next day. I stayed over and had a wonderful time thanks to his knowledge and skill, losing several, but catching three 10–12-pounders. Back in Shearwater I kept one salmon to eat, traded one to another boater for 100 fresh giant prawns, and contributed the third to a dock party potluck.
I was getting used to lazy days, and it was 1100 before I left on the next leg. After some fancy navigating via range markers through pretty, but narrow Gunboat Passage, I turned northwest and passed through Johnson Channel into Cousins Inlet. At 1400 I saw the village of Martin River to port, and a few minutes later, turned a corner and got my first look at Ocean Falls. At this distance you’d expect it to be a hub of activity. The large building in the photo is the derelict hotel, the low, blue building is the still-functioning powerhouse, and the white splash in between is the wall of water rushing over the dam.

Boats entering the harbor might be surprised to find a simple, but well-maintained and inexpensive marina guarded by a mermaid. I tied up against a strong off-dock wind at 1430, and walked over to the small wood building that serves as a marina community center to self-register and pay. It even had a barbeque and an older computer with a slow internet connection! Later that evening Herb, the wharfinger from Martin River, came by to say hello.

In the meantime I'd started exploring. It’s an eerie feeling walking alone around a community the size and scale of Ocean Falls. It’s not at all like the small, abandoned mining towns that have been developed as tourist attractions with buildings maintained and tarted up, actors in costume portraying the original inhabitants, and swarming with visitors. None of that here. Ocean Falls is deserted and deteriorating.
Established a century ago as a company town in the middle of nowhere, Ocean Falls grew substantially despite only having access to the outside world by boat. Built to process the timber riches of the surrounding virgin forests, the town’s mills produced newsprint for papers around the world and high-quality lumber including the spruce required to build the early generations of aircraft. Schools, hospital, community center, hotel—it had all the amenities until the company owner, Crown Zellerbach, declared that it was no longer economically viable. With that decision, there was no employment, and since the company owned all the fixed assets including housing, residents simply packed up and were gone by 1980. An auction disposed of some of the moveable goods, and for reasons undetermined, many of the houses and buildings were razed. But because of the town’s isolation, much remains as it was the day the town closed.

Most of the structures are derelict but still standing, including the school, hotel, offices, as well as some houses. One of the residents of nearby Martin River—who introduced himself as “Nearly Normal Norman”— is a self-appointed caretaker and collector of Ocean Falls memorabilia, and is happy to show visitors around. Although the structures seem solid, the interiors are uninviting. This is, after all, rain forest country with some of the highest annual precipitation in North America; moss and mold take over quickly. The dam and power plant are maintained by fly-in crews, but operate at a very low level because there’s no connection to the grid. The potential is available to anyone who can determine how to use it profitably, and there’s no shortage of water flowing over the dam, even in midsummer. Nature is doing her best to erase man`s hand, and even though animals now wander freely where people once congregated, it will be a long time before Ocean Falls disappears completely.

The following morning I got quite a surprise when I went out to the cockpit to find a large seal sleeping on my swim platform! It jumped and so did I. Then I took the dinghy to Martin River, where there’s no public dock, but a local fishing guide called out to invite me to tie up at his place. He and a few friends were having a beer and offered me one, so we had an interesting chat about the hopes for a tiny community with lots of possibilities beyond sportfishing, but no one with the wherewithal to make dreams come true. The miniscule Rain Forest Store in town opens one afternoon per week, and depends upon uncertain deliveries for its food stock. I walked to the cemetery where the grave markers date back to the 1800s, and include the headstones of lots of Chinese immigrants who settled there after coming to Canada to help build the transcontinental railroad or work in the fishery. I wandered around town before returning to the marina, admittedly nervous after being warned to keep watch for a couple of bears that had just been spotted.

After exploring for two days, I headed back down Fisher Channel. A guide book recommended Roscoe Inlet for its particular beauty, so I detoured north and made my way to Roscoe’s head. This fjord, the southernmost waterway of a region appropriately named Fjordland, is so steep and deep that there are no anchorages, so it was back to Boukind Bay for the night. The next morning, I left the Inside Passage and went outside the barrier islands to feel the pulse of the open Pacific Ocean, its power uninterrupted by any land mass all the way from Asia. A few hours later I was back in Shearwater Marina.
The following day, I compromised by cruising the constricted, but extraordinarily beautiful waterways among the outside barrier islands on the way back to anchor again in Fury Cove, and then to Rivers Inlet, one of the world's premier salmon-fishing destinations.

The return trip around Cape Caution to Blunden Harbour gave a little more credence to the scary stories I’d heard: light fog with 8-foot swells and 30-knot winds, uncomfortable but otherwise uneventful. My thoughts of a leisurely series of passages back to Victoria were dashed when the first cell phone tower started downloading messages and voicemails from clients, and indicated just how much work awaited. The weather gods must have been sympathetic, because the conditions for the rest of the trip were idyllic.

Passing the big-sail training vessel, Pacific Grace, in Johnstone Strait made me think of how slow this trip would have been for Captain Vancouver and his counterparts, and I wondered what it must have been like to be away for so long in terra incognita. Certainly no fresh raspberries or ice-cream! I resolved to re-read all the novels by C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, and Julian Stockwin, and then ducked into Telegraph Harbour. This is a former cannery town constructed on wharves, now transformed into a vibrant and colorful whale-watching/sportfishing center. I had thought to spend the night, but it was so busy and crowded with tourists that I decided to carry on, hoping to see a pod of orcas as I passed their favorite rubbing beach at Robson Bight. No luck, made even more aggravating a few hours later when a commercial fisherman who came into Kelsey Bay shortly after me said he’d just followed the largest pod he’d seen in 25 years! A noisy night among commercial fishing boats at the public dock and I was up early for the run through Seymour Narrows in the morning.

For some years I’d wondered and worried about running this dangerous pass with its history of wrecks, but it was another nonevent. Leaving the dock at 0600 got me into the narrows with 4 knots of current pushing me through in a surprisingly easy passage with scarcely another vessel in sight. Conditions in the Strait of Georgia couldn’t have been better— flat calm, brilliant sun—and it was just so enjoyable that I kept passing my planned stops one by one, running nonstop for 16 hours. A brilliant sunset closed out an altogether idyllic day.
In full darkness, I finally turned into Nanaimo Harbour and found a slip at the local yacht club. I was away again at 0530 and entered the Gulf Islands via Dodd Narrows against a 3-knot tide without problem, and on yet another perfect day, wandered through the Gulf Islands until, after 862 miles, I was in my own slip at noon, tired but happy. Ocean Falls was certainly worth the journey. Actually, the journey itself was worth the journey.