The midsummer phone call from my friend Bill Beardslee came through with a clarity that belied his remote location. “Hey, buddy,” he asked, “what are you doing in September?”
Bill had sold his business a couple years before and, with his wife Susan, had embarked on the adventure most of us only dream of. The means to that end was Snapdragon, a Bristol-condition 58-foot Hatteras Long Range Cruiser built more than 20 years earlier. When she came on the market, he’d jumped at the chance to acquire her-having owned and operated a well-known Harsens Island marina and boatyard on Lake St. Clair, north of Detroit, he knew her well.
As Bill caught me up on his travels-an extended summer exploring the Great Lakes, a year cruising the eastern seaboard, and a year poking around the Bahamas and Caribbean-he shared the fact that they were summering in Alaska with family aboard. “The kids have to head back to their jobs, and Susan and I want to spend a little time exploring on the way back from Alaska. Can you and Joni join us for a week or so to help bring the boat south?” Well, now, I knew Bill and Susan, both capable navigators, didn’t really need any help, but I was not about to argue.
Arriving a couple of days early, my wife Joni and I took in the Wooden Boat Festival at Port Townsend, on the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula, staying overnight in Port Angeles before heading farther west for a hike in the primeval Hoh Rain Forest. Backtracking to Port Angeles, we caught the evening ferry to Victoria, where we enjoyed the sights and sounds of that delightful city. That evening, it was another late ferry trip, this time to Vancouver for the next day’s flight to Prince Rupert, the northernmost port in British Columbia, lying just south of Ketchikan, Alaska. At one time, Prince Rupert was destined to rival Vancouver as a major city, but in 1912, Charles Hays, general manager of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the company that planned its western terminus at Prince Rupert, made a fateful decision. Returning from a promotional fund-raising trip to London, he booked passage on the Titanic, and the town’s plans for a glorious future went down with Hays and the ship. Prince Rupert has recovered nicely, though, and today caters to both tourists and commercial interests to maintain its economy.
If you have your own boat, you’ll probably want to forgo the harbor sightseeing tour, but there’s a longer cruise to the Khutseymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, 30 miles northeast of Prince Rupert, that may be of interest. Access to the park’s inlet is restricted to permitted group tours, the better to protect the bears and their habitat, so cruising it on your own is not an option.
While in Prince Rupert, a visit to the Museum of Northern British Columbia is also in order. Exhibits show 10,000 years of the region’s history, including the story of the 20 distinct cultures that form the First Nations. One of these is the Tsimshian people, whose territory ranges from just north of Prince Rupert southward to Bella Bella, where we were scheduled to depart Snapdragon. It is an area of impossibly rugged terrain, with nearly vertical granite spires rising thousands of feet directly from the water’s edge, ringed with towering evergreens at lower elevations and topped by rugged snowcapped peaks. These give birth to more spectacular waterfalls than can be counted.
It is also home to the Fiordland Recreation Area, a pristine wilderness area accessible only by boat. Snapdragon was the perfect vessel for such cruising, large enough to be safe and comfortable, small enough to fit into the tighter inlets, and slow enough, cruising at 8 knots, to allow us time to appreciate it all. Departing Prince Rupert, we passed Ridley, Smith and Kennedy Islands as we entered first Arthur Passage and then Grenville Channel, parts of the classic Inside Passage. Here, ghosting through a fog bank, we were surprised by the cruise liner Statendam, emerging and disappearing again moments later in the mists as she hurried on to Alaska. It’s easy to be lulled into a sense of security cruising a protected passage such as this, particularly when the traffic is thin, but our encounters with cruise ships, commercial fishermen, barge tows, and numerous logs along the way reinforced the need for constant vigilance at the helm.
Our first overnight stop was Lowe Inlet. It proved to be an ideal starting point for Joni and me, with four bears and two eagles sighted at daybreak, a pattern that repeated itself almost every day.
September is a peak month for wildlife. In addition to grizzlies, black bears and kermode, or spirit bears, are active, coinciding with the tail end of the salmon run. Most of our anchorages were in small coves, each with several snowpack and waterfall-fed streams emptying along the shore. Every morning thus brought the sight of several bears, sometimes with cubs, feasting on the last of the salmon, and leaving so much food for the crabs that they totally ignored our pots.
Sea lions were abundant, too, curiously examining us at each anchorage. Best of all, though, were the bald eagles. Whether viewing them soaring at a distance, or experiencing the thrill of having them swoop so close overhead that you could hear the powerful beat of their wings and feel the air stir as they passed by, these were moments frozen in time for all of us Easterners.
The next day saw us completing our passage of Grenville Channel and turning hard aport into Verney Passage, then to starboard into Ursula Channel for a stop at the hot springs opposite Gribbell Island. Known alternately as Bishop Bay or Bishop Cove, the stop boasts a floating dock maintained by the Kitimat Yacht Club. In addition to yachts, the springs are a favorite stop for commercial fishermen, many of whom are visiting for their first freshwater bath in a month or more. Arriving early with lots of daylight left, we decided on a short hike and it was then that Susan decided to share with us a local brochure on dealing with bear encounters: “If you are attacked, be passive and roll into a ball to protect your head and vital organs. The bear will probably lose interest. However, if the bear continues to bite you, he has decided you are food and plans to eat you, and you should resist with all possible vigor.”
Departing Bishop Bay the next morning, we continued south on Ursula Channel to Fraser Reach and then around the south side of Work Island into Butedale Passage. Butedale was once a thriving town supported by a large fish cannery. The cannery is now gone and Butedale, abandoned and in ruins, is literally sliding into the sea.
Just north of the town is a substantial waterfall, fed by a large lake. “Charlie’s Charts, North to Alaska,” one of two cruising guides I’d strongly recommend-“Waggoner’s” is the other-says of the lake, “Fishing is good, but the mosquitoes are ravenous.” Now I love freshwater fishing, and September yields up Dolly Varden, cutthroat and rainbow trout, and is the end of the steelheads’ summer run. However, faced with being eaten alive by bears and/or mosquitoes, I opted for meals prepared from Snapdragon’s stores. Susan used to be a professional caterer, and with the gourmet spreads she presented, it was a very easy choice to stay aboard.
South of Butedale, we anchored in Khutze Inlet, overlooking a verdant meadow and stunning waterfalls. The next morning, as the fog lifted, we ventured up to the head of the inlet for more spectacular views before departing for Windy Bay. En route, we transited Hiekish Narrows, a restricted stretch of water that can become treacherous unless you work with the tides. Even with Bill’s planning, our speed over ground went from 8 knots to 12 in an instant and we had to steer carefully to avoid whirlpools.
Departing Windy Bay and heading northeast along Sheep Passage, we soon entered Fiordland for two days of unparalleled exploration. To the north, Mussell Inlet and Poison Cove belie their names with some of the best scenery imaginable-meadows, waterfalls and dense forest, all teaming with wildlife. From here, it was south through Mathieson Narrows to Kynoch Inlet, where, hard to believe, things got even better. Well, almost everything, as the anchorage was marginal, with large tidal flats.
After a semi-sleepless night and in the face of a falling barometer, Bill reluctantly decided to leave Fiordland, returning to Windy Bay and its more secure anchorage. It was a wise decision by an experienced captain, as the weather that night gave us a taste of how the bay got its name, with lots of wind and lots of rain, and therein lies another tale.
We cruised the area in September for no better reason than that is when we were invited, but it turned out, in both my and Joni’s opinion, to be the best of times. The summer months are definitely dryer, with nearly twice as much rain in September as in June, July or August, and the temperatures in September are cooler (but still moderate, the first frost usually not coming until mid-October). So why did we end up loving September so much? Because of, not despite, the rain; in addition to eliminating the crowds that can clog the anchorages in the summer, it kept the waterfalls at their peak, with many before unseen, springing to life within minutes after a rainfall began. The majesty of the waterfalls in Windy Bay the morning after the storm defies description, and it is a sight not to be seen in summer. Joni, definitely a warm-weather person, spent much of each day on the foredeck or open flying bridge, donning her Gill jacket as needed.
The penultimate leg of our cruise took us to the appropriately named Bottleneck Inlet, a long, tight cove with a very narrow entry. Anchorage was solid, but it was nonetheless disconcerting to someone raised near the Chesapeake Bay to look out the saloon windows and see sheer rock faces just a few feet away.
Our final day with the Beardslees took us through the edge of Milbanke Sound, with large swells rolling in unhindered from Queen Charlotte Sound and the Pacific beyond, to Seaforth Channel and the Shearwater Resort. The adjacent community of New Bella Bella is home to a small airstrip, from which we would fly back to Vancouver the following day.
It was wet, it was cool, it was desolate, there was no TV or phone, we didn’t see another living soul for days on end, there was not a single shop or restaurant-and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.