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Splendid Solitude

Desolation Sound proves a spectacular misnomer during a cruise through British Columbia's Inside Passage.

October 4, 2007

To the east and south, the Unwin Range lifted snow-swirled peaks above shadowy valleys and ridges bristled with fir. Immature Bonaparte’s gulls scattered at our approach, and salmon rolled tauntingly in the channel. The motoryacht Caledonia, a 98-foot Feadship, rounded the tip of West Redonda Island and moved gracefully into the silken calm of what a dyspeptic Capt. George Vancouver had named Desolation Sound in 1792. My wife, Robyn, and I settled into our chairs on the foredeck and held hands in a moment that transcended conversation. Ahead of us, islands seemed to float in the mirror sheen below doubled mountain images.

If you were to imagine the perfect cruising ground, it would have to resemble closely the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska. I would add a few palm trees and a current such as the Gulf Stream that touched on a brilliant beach now and then. But, my southern soul notwithstanding, this thousand-mile-long body of water, mostly constricted by spectacular mountains but now and again baring its side to the open ocean, evokes more superlatives than any place I have ever cruised. In groping for the right simile, I recall the Scandinavian fjords mingled with images of the great archipelago of islands dribbling down toward Tierra del Fuego south of Puerto Montt, Chile.

It is hard to fathom Vancouver’s disgruntled attitude about the area. Like his contemporary, William Bligh, he was both a talented navigator and a tyrannical commander. By all accounts, he was pudgy, goggle-eyed, prone to sweating and frustrated by this interminable wilderness. Perhaps his expedition had been marked by fate, having left Falmouth on April Fool’s Day in 1791. The men of his flagship, Discovery, and of her companion, Chatham, however, found the mountains and the seas glorious. This only seemed to add to his foul humor.

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Vancouver wasn’t the first European to touch on what is now the Pacific Northwest. Another contemporary, James Cook, had visited four years earlier. But, as Vancouver labored to chart the myriad islands and sounds, he found himself frustrated time and again. Promising stretches of water, some leading 50 or more miles back into the mountains, turned out to be yet other fjords with rivers and waterfalls and glaciers at their heads-not the long-sought Northwest Passage.

His angst was our joy. Robyn and I had joined Caledonia a few hours earlier in Refuge Cove after a two-hour floatplane trip up from Seattle. The boat’s owners, Heather and Capt. Christopher Collins, had met us there. Shortly after, David Price of the Monaco office of Camper & Nicholsons International, the boat’s charter agent, joined us. And after a session of photography in the tight, gorgeous hurricane hole in Prideaux Haven Marine Park, another floatplane descended and we picked up Suzette McLaughlin, a broker from Palm Beach.

With our boat’s complement complete (including the rest of the crew: husband and wife Armando and Humberta Gonzalez, and Sadie, the most charming Springer spaniel on the planet), we set off to investigate Western Canada’s fragmented and breathtaking coast.

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There had been talk of a gale mounting somewhere out in the Pacific. Chris, an avid student of weather in all its disparate moods, had been tracking the storm all day. It was difficult to reconcile our present status with anything less than perfect conditions. The air was so clear we could even see the smoky peaks of the higher elevations on Vancouver Island, a range so jumbled it looked as if God had sat down on it to rest during the moments of creation.

Nevertheless, a steady stream of cruising yachts, from powerboats to sailing craft, streamed in out of the Straits of Georgia, like sea gulls seeking shelter.

“It’ll blow by morning,” Chris said.

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Our photographic dalliance had allowed many other boats to seek anchorages, and Chris decided that with Caledonia’s swing room, we would be better off somewhere else.

We re-entered Desolation Sound, turned south into the narrow inlet behind the Malaspina Peninsula and found our way into a small fjord called Theodosia Inlet. The high walls of the Unwins and the Bunster Hills created a tight but well-protected anchorage. There were no other boats, and the only sign of habitation was a rough landing across the way where loggers were making up rafts.

Robyn and I took advantage of the anchoring process to finish unpacking and explore the boat a bit. Our stateroom was the grandest I’ve stayed in. Built atop the saloon during a general refit in 1996, it occupied the entire top deck (excluding the flying bridge, which was atop this), with windows running around three sides and a door leading to an afterdeck with hot tub. The afterdeck was accessible to others via stairs from the starboard side deck, but the stateroom could be made completely private with blinds. The room also featured a queen berth, a huge bathroom with tiled tub and shower, a hanging closet larger than those in most apartments and additional stowage in a chest of drawers that also housed a TV/VCR.

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The saloon, likewise, was filled with light and had a small propane fireplace in the after starboard corner. Abaft was the bar and an enclosed dining area-also bright with surrounding windows-overlooking the stern. Below were another athwartships stateroom with queen berth and a twin-berth stateroom to port. Both had en suite baths.

Forward of the saloon and down a few steps were the galley and three (two and a half, maybe) staterooms plus two more baths. Caledonia, Heather explained, is really set up for six guests, although eight may be accommodated in a pinch.

Heather and Chris have been in the charter business for six years, the past two on Caledonia. It is hard to imagine a more engaging couple (toss in the dog, too; nobody will ever know how much food I slipped her under the table). Both are bright, well read and charming. Their season in Desolation Sound runs generally May through September, at a cost of $25,000 per week, plus food, fuel and alcohol. (One guest, Heather said-a famous chef-brought $40,000 in rare wines with him.)

We’d had a glimpse of Heather’s culinary skills at lunch and now sat down to a wonderful dinner, the first of many. A friend of mine once remarked that cruising with strangers was fine as long as the liquor held out. In this case, our newfound friends (as we quickly chose to characterize them) proved such amiable company that the wine was superfluous. Almost.

True to Chris’ weatherfax, I awoke a little before six to the sound of rain thrumming on the overhead. I raised the portside blinds and found Caledonia swinging gently but forcefully, the forests and the mountains sliding erratically by the windows as she moved.

By the time we’d feasted on Heather’s enormous breakfast buffet, the winds had lain down and the rain had withdrawn into sullen clouds that hid the peaks and snagged on the trees like smoke from thousands of unseen campfires.

Later in the morning, we retraced our course back up through the western edge of Desolation and into Lewis Channel, making a brief stop at the little village of Squirrel Cove to buy wine, lemons and limes. These important additions to the ship’s stores stowed, we turned east into Teakerne Arm, another fjord-like inlet, and anchored below Cassel Falls, a fascinating bit of geology in a landscape fraught with such. A granitic ledge, perhaps 30 yards high, blocked a fairly large lake behind it as if nature had designed the perfect dam. We took the dink to the nearby government dock and hiked up the ridge for a better look.

One of the factors in Vancouver’s distaste (“… (it) afforded not a single prospect that was pleasing to the eye…”) was the rambunctious nature of some of the streams and inlets. On the flooding tide, the Pacific packs these gorges with water, which then comes roaring (literally) back out in some places, creating falls, whirlpools and rips. There are inlets and passes where you can enter or leave only on slack water, which may last five or six minutes. Even large vessels cannot cope with a 16-knot flow.

That night, we anchored in Van Donop Inlet, another marine park established by the Canadian government. For the second night in a row, I read myself to sleep with a book Heather had put out for us: “The Curve of Time,” a minor classic in Canadian cruising lore. Written by M. Wylie Blanchet, it chronicles her summer cruises in the 1920s as a newly widowed mother of five. Alone with these children, she explored much of the southern reaches of the Inside Passage in a 25-foot cabin cruiser. I found her words enthralling.

The next day we arose to sunshine, but cooler temperatures. It was early September and this was a foretaste of fall, although this area is known for glorious cruising into October. The rains had primed many waterfalls, from torrents to diaphanous veils draping over the escarpments. Chris ran Caledonia through Deer Passage and Pryce Channel to Toba Inlet, one of the deepest of the fjords. We were in 1,500 feet of water with sheer rock walls on either side. At Racine Creek, Chris stuck the bow of the boat into the hissing spray-with 80 feet of water under the bow. We donned foul weather gear and cavorted shamelessly like tourists at Niagara.

Our way station that night was in Walsh Cove, a placid tree-girt anchorage protected by high cliffs on one side and two small islands fronting Waddington Channel. Thousands of years ago, the early inhabitants stained the rock with crude pictographs. We took a closer look from the dink and then explored an abandoned logging camp where old growth stumps measured a good 30 feet in circumference.

Our final day began with the now cyclical rain. Robyn and I were used to it. A year before, we had made the run from Seattle to Ketchikan, Alaska, as part of a three-boat fleet of 26-foot Glacier Bay catamarans. That had been in June. We did not see sunshine until we crossed the border into Alaska. Nevertheless, we had loved every minute of it-which made this trip all the more poignant and memorable. Mountains we had only guessed at had been made visible. And, God knows, traveling in a fully found luxury yacht appealed to our not-so-latent sybaritic souls.

On the long haul down the Malaspina Strait, we mostly relaxed in front of the fireplace and read. But there was one important stop I had lobbied hard for. With little urging, Chris held Caledonia off the beach while the rest of us piled into the dink and went ashore at Lund. This little village is famous (in my mind, anyway) for two things: It is the beginning, or the terminus-depending on your point of view-of Highway 101, which in various guises stretches all the way down through the Americas to Puerto Montt. Robyn and I can truly say we have stood on both ends.

Lund’s second claim to fame (and my favorite) is Nancy’s Bakery. I hurried up the slope, knowing it was a seasonable enterprise. Sure enough, there was a sign near the door urging locals to settle their accounts because the shop was about to close, but we were in time. I bought out almost the entire stock of butter tarts. I have never seen them anywhere else. You can have your Nanaimo Bars. I’ll take the butter tarts. And I did. Some of them all the way home to New York.

Our final stop was Pender Harbor, high on the northwest shoulder of the Sechelt Peninsula and a relatively short run from Vancouver. This is the much-advertised Sunshine Coast, a slight exaggeration, perhaps, but the weather was, indeed, fine. My problem with it is that it is too close to civilization, too many houses perched along the shoreline.

I wanted, like Ms. Blanchet, to go back north where bears lumber down to the rocky beaches, back to the cove where Armando collected fresh oysters for our lunch, to the immensely private inlets where we lay in untroubled sleep, where the air was redolent of pine and salt and the waters were the color of glacier melt.

And if I ever meet George Vancouver in the hereafter, I’m going to give him an earful.

Contact: Camper & Nicholsons Monaco, (011) 377 97 97 77 00; fax (011) 377 93 50 25 08; www.cnconnect.com; or any charter broker. Caledonia charters for $25,000 per week plus expenses.

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