BC & SE ALASKA-2: NORTHBOUND IN NORTHERN BRITISH COLUMBIA,
Friday, June 10 - Crossing Queen Charlotte Strait and to Pruth Bay on Calvert Island
The weather forecast the night before was for light winds that would build to 15 knots from the northwest later in the day. We went to bed with high hopes of another idyllic cruising day. Up at sunrise for a 0530 departure, the change in the forecast was not fully understood but it would be felt for the next 5 ½ hours. The new forecast was winds from the northwest 10 to 15 knots, swells from the west at about a meter with a wind chop. We would live first-hand the difference between those two forecasts.
Queen Charlotte Strait separates the northern tip of Vancouver Island from the main land. To get to Alaska three bodies of water must be approached with care and respect: Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait with its infamous landmark, Cape Caution, and Dixon Entrance that roughly separates a portion of British Columbia from Southeast Alaska. One of the guidebooks suggested crossing Queen Charlotte Strait when the swells are less than a meter and winds are 10 knots or less. We were stretching that guideline.
Shipperly took the lead and after leaving Port Alexander, turned to the north and followed Browning Passage into the Queen Charlotte Strait. The 40-mile crossing route was straightforward, north past Pine Island, give Cape Caution a 5-mile berth due to shallow waters creates more swells, past Egg Island and keep Calvert Island on the port side to enter Fitz Hugh Sound.
Queen Charlotte Strait was already very awake at 0600 hours with an 8-knot wind and a 2-foot swell from the west. Low clouds obscured the mountains and would provide some drizzle. By Pine Island, the wind was 12 knots and the swells were a consistent three feet high with 20% of them being 5 footers. 80% of the waves were from the northwest and the other 20% came from a more westerly direction. The crews of Shipperly and Tribute talked by radio twice about turning around but continued. Millie, Tribute’s resident cat, came up from hiding under the covers and loudly expressed her displeasure and retreated to wait out the seas.
The challenge was to effectively quarter the swells or go into them at about a 45 degree angle to get to the destination. The autopilot was working too hard and could not keep up with the needed changes in direction. Hand steering was required. Steer into swell line too much and the route to the Calvert Island would be longer. Steer the other direction and swell will hit the beam of the boat and cause it to roll side to side and be very, very uncomfortable. If you kept focused, hand steered the boat while adjusting to the direction of the waves, the ride was safe and only be mildly uncomfortable. Lose focus and the boat falls off or the rogue wave set is not seen, the beam roll will dump the books from the bookcase and toss around the crew if they are not seated or holding on.
At Pine Island, Shipperly opted to use more horsepower and “punched it” and we watched them fade away toward Calvert Island. They would later arrive at the anchorage an hour before us and would be greeted at the entrance to Fitz Hugh Sound by a pod of Orca whales. We saw three sea otters who stood about halfway out of the water to look us over; a first for us.
Tribute was sound and solid, with the John Deere diesel maintaining about 8 knots. The ride was quite rough with a combination of pitching and some rolling, but we were never afraid and never felt unsafe because we had experienced this before on the Strait of Georgia, crossing the Potomac River, the length of Lake Michigan and crossing the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. The issue was more about maintaining the strength and mental focus to meet the challenge.
At 1030 hours and a few miles from Cape Calvert, the swells were consistently 5 feet high. Quartering them put our route to far to the west of Cape Calvert so Tribute’s route include an additional course adjustment of going nearly east for three miles and then turning north. When the tip of the island shielded Tribute from the swells, the water became calm and flat and shortly thereafter, the tossing and rolling was all a memory. Tribute had crossed Queen Charlotte Strait.
Tribute traveled the length of Calvert Island and turned west into Kwakshua Channel that separates Calvert from Hecate Island, continued five miles to Pruth Bay and at 2 PM, anchored in 50 feet of water with Shipperly, 4 Nordhavn’s, two sailboats and 4 other trawlers at a former fly-fishing resort that is now an education and research center.
Tribute had traveled 62 miles. After lunch and a short rest, the dingy was put down and we picked up Ken and Pauline and took them ashore where the trails to the west and north beach were taken. The beaches were beautiful, fine white sand with shells and driftwood. After three days on the boat, walking over four miles felt great. Afterwards, we had dock-tails on Shipperly and talked about the next day’s adventure.
Saturday, June 11 and Sunday, June 12 - To Shearwater Marina/Bella Bella on Denny Island
A cloudy morning, 60 degrees with an occasional light drizzle and three boats were gone from the anchorage by 0800 hours. In the distance on Kwakshua Channel was a big tug pulling something long and tall. After pulling the anchor and heading down the channel, the tug was really a fishing boat that was pulling a string of floating houses, complete with a few people, a generator and the materials needed for water. A rack of small boats on the last float was the name of the education center. Soon, the population of the ex-resort would grow with this floating village.
Tribute turned north into Fitz Hugh Sound with a 12-knot southerly wind that would cause 1 to 2 foot chop that we would ride for 20 miles. But compared to yesterday, the ride was easy and effortless. Challenging times does that; the easy things are more appreciated.
The sound is 2 ½ miles wide and often over 1,200 feet deep. The boat traffic was light in this part of the BC coastal wilderness with a fishing boat behind us, three pleasure boats were north of Tribute and later in the day, a cruise ship would pass us by. There is no cell service and therefore no Internet and few, if any roads. The VHF radio is the link to everyone who can hear you.
The low gray clouds were on top of the green hills that steeply ended at the steel gray colored water. Tribute passed by Namu, an abandoned cannery that has severely deteriorated since 2014 with no care, resident or investment. We would hear the story later of opportunities lost and dashed people’s hopes. Probably, the fate of Namu would be like so many places in the wilderness, nature would re-claim it.
Fitz Hugh Sound transitioned to Fisher Channel and narrowed where the ebbing current caused Tribute to follow the shoreline closer. Then, the left turn to Lama Passage with Hunter Island on the port side and Denny Island on the starboard side. Going around the southern end of Denny Island, Campbell Island came up on the port side and New Bella Bella came into view looking like a full size town on the hillside.
New Bella Bella is where the BC ferry stops, has a hospital and a grocery store is home to the First Nations population who are known to welcome boaters. I wanted to stop at New Bella Bella but the small dock was too short for Tribute and was full of small fishing boats. The only option was to go around the point to Shearwater Marina. Shipperly needed fuel and the weather forecast was for rain and wind. A marina would be more comfortable than anchorage.
Shearwater Marina had ample room on the docks and soon we were secured at 1:45 PM having traveled 45 nautical miles. Though the ferry to Bella Bella is frequent, few boaters seem to use it. The marina has an adequate grocery store for small items, a marine store, apparently the only shipyard south of Prince Rupert and has a charter fishing operation that includes lodging. Located on Denny Island, Shearwater gets its electrical power from a dam at Ocean Falls that is located on the mainland about 20 miles away - accessible by boat only.
The marina was very social. We met Jeff and Darlene who have a 44-foot Kadey Krogen and we later enjoyed dock-tails on their boat. They were returning from Ketchikan and would likely be at the Krogen Rendezvous in September. The marina’s Wi-Fi is problematic but the Wi-Fi at the ice cream/coffee shop was great. Tribute’s water supply was refreshed and two loads of laundry were done aboard. We decided to go out to dinner at the marina restaurant and enjoyed great pizza and seafood chowder.
Overnight, the southerly wind picked up to the mid-20’s, the rain started at sunrise and continued through the afternoon with brief periods of relief. This was a lazy day of pancakes, two cups of coffee, phone calls, vacuuming, brief walks, struggling with intermittent Internet access and helping boats land in the breeze. Laurie made bread in the bread machine that provided a wonderful aroma on the dock. She made brownies and beef barley soup from scratch. We sat in the Hodgepodge ice cream/coffee shop that also sold a “hodgepodge” of other stuff and chatted with the employee and learned more about the area. She grew up in Bella Bella and is member of the band (in the states, these are called tribes) and moved to the “outskirts” outside of Vancouver where her children went to school. After moving back to Bella Bella, she noticed the difference in the education system that was behind the one in Vancouver. Also, the parents do not push or challenge the children and simply had low expectations. The band’s leadership had focused on cultural issues rather than economic issues. Today, the unemployment rate is 84%. Investors have proposed a hotel and an aquaculture operation but the band’s leadership have denied them. The band seems to lack the motivation to address the challenges head-on. Housing is a serious issue in Bella Bella and she has decided to move to Port Hardy at the end of the summer.
Monday, June 13 - to Princess Royal Channel
The days are getting longer the further north that Tribute travels. The evening twilight fades out at 10:30 and early daybreak begins before 0500 hours. This morning was 53 degrees, calm, a solid cloud cover and nearly still air. Tribute and Shipperly pulled away from the Shearwater Marina at 0600 hours. Though we were the first boats on the dock to leave, several of the large boats at anchor were already gone.
Today’s route would resemble a stair step because the north coast of British Columbia extends west. Tribute would use a set of passages and channels to head west, then turning north, turning west, then turning north, etc. The weather would warm to the low 60’s, the low and solid cloud cover would sometimes partially break up to reveal the blue sky above it, and a light rain would sometimes fall for short periods.
Leaving the Bella Bella islets, Tribute entered Seaforth Channel, a wide and long body of water that went right to Milbanke Sound that is essentially the Pacific Ocean. The closer to Milbanke Sound, the more dominant were the gentle rollers from the west. Before Milbanke Sound, a turn was made to the north and into Reid Passage, a short cut that cruisers use to avoid the swells and wind. The 90 degree turn in the 5 foot swells took some finesse to avoid a swell on the beam, avoid the rocks and stay between the buoys but it was not unsafe or caused any fear. After the rocks and islets that were in plain view, Reid Passage is about 400 feet wide and about 2 ½ miles long. Then another 90 degree turn to the west and another to the north to navigate Perceval Narrows and avoid the surf crashing over Lizzie Rocks. Sounds more dramatic than it was but it was part of the adventure.
The route continued onto Mathieson Channel that goes between Dowanger Island on the port side and Arthur Island on the starboard side. There are several route options that cruisers use and most are away from the route that the cruise ships and the ferry uses. Tribute went west on Oscar Passage and north on Finlayson Channel, and was past the First Nations community of Klemtu when Shipperly reported the first sighting of orca whales for the day. A few miles north at Jane Island and Sarah Passage, a large male orca was feeding a short distance away and then a pod of 5 orca whales were cruising and feeding in the ebbing current. There are three groups of orcas that are talked about, the southern residents live in the San Juan and Gulf Islands, the offshore orcas, and the northern residents who live in northern British Columbia. The southern residents have dropped in population but the northern residents are estimated to have grown to nearly 300.
Tribute took Tolmie Channel north fighting the fading ebbing current where the topography was fjord-like with high mountains on each side with very steep sides that slid into the water. The water depths at the shore were over 100 feet and the anchoring possibilities were fewer than earlier in the day. A large Minke whale was seen close to shore feeding on krill with its baleen. This channel transitioned into Princess Royal Channel and we looked a Swanson Bay as anchorage but the shallowest depth was 90 feet. Khutze Inlet was a short distance away and Shipperly went ahead to scout the options.
At 4:30PM the anchor was dropped and set in 55 feet with 4 other boats. The shore at low tide was close but was not a concern. An early dinner and a movie closed the evening. Tribute had traveled 78 miles and was the longest day to date.
Tuesday, June 14 – To The Grenville Channel
Shipperly was out an hour before Tribute as they wanted to get cell phone service in Hartley Bay before noon. Cell phone service only exists in select locations and if connectivity is essential, then it can create a schedule. We are spoiled in the states with nearly total voice and data coverage and being without it is an adjustment, which is hopefully followed by acceptance and adaptation.
The anchor was pulled at 0845 hours. The wind was calm, the water was flat, 59 degrees and a solid cloud cover that were just below the tops of the mountains. The route for the first part of the day was more stair steps and started westbound and turned north to the small community of Butedale that displayed a massive waterfall and a deteriorating cannery with empty docks. There was a lot of rust and orange material floating in the water that prompted questions and speculation. Then, west on to Ursula Channel where the visibility was only 10 miles with light rain as Tribute was spending most of the day going around the huge Princess Royal Island.
The boat traffic continued to be very light with a large fishing boat going north and only an occasional sport fishing boat working the shoals. With no houses and no sign of human impact except for the past clear cuts in the forests, there was little sign of humanity. At noon, the day had not warmed and without the impact of solar energy on Tribute’s interior, the diesel fired Hurricane hydronic heating system was used several times to keep the interior comfortable and the windows defrosted.
Laurie served a hot lunch from the leftovers of the night before and home made cornbread.
With Hartley Bay in view, Shipperly called and said that they had departed the bay and were heading for Grenville Channel. They reported that there was cell service, crappy fuel prices and no other services whatsoever. The weather did not deviate from the morning: low clouds, 60 degrees and more rain than not.
Grenville Channel is 45 miles long, straight, narrows in the middle, has currents that need to be respected and has a several anchoring options. As the ebb tide became stronger and Tribute lost more speed, the decision to anchor at Lowe Inlet was made and the turn was made just as a huge military ship came south with its gray color blending very nicely in the rainy and gray landscape.
Tribute anchored in 80 feet of water in front of Vernay Falls and Shipperly rafted onto the port side. The water current kept the boats in place. Dock-tails were served in Tribute’s salon and we caught up on the last two days and made preliminary plans to cruise to Prince Rupert. The window to cross the Dixon Entrance may be Saturday. Dinner was chicken enchiladas.
Tribute had traveled 53 miles.
Wednesday, June 15 and Thursday June 16 - Prince Rupert
Cruising in June in British Columbia.
Anchoring in front of a waterfall that creates a reliable 3-knot current does guarantee that the boat will be exactly where it started. Two more boats arrived later in the evening. The early morning sky was a light gray, the air was a cool 53 degrees as the anchor was pulled at 0630 hours and Tribute headed out into Grenville Channel where yesterday’s ebbing and opposing current was today’s flooding current that would add .5 to 1.3 knots to the trawler’s speed.
The blue sky would remain hidden all day as the clouds would become very low and would later rise. In the lowest clouds, the radar was used and the running lights were on. The rain was most gone except for the occasional light drizzle. The cool and moist weather is ideal to grow the trees of the Pacific Northwest and this weather is typical for June. Keeping Tribute’s windows defrosted was done by running the defroster and this required running the Hurricane hydronic heating system. Laurie found a product for this situation at the Seattle Boat Show and purchased Frog Spit and it worked great
The Grenville Channel and the southerly winds rose to 15 knots as predicted by Environment Canada. Tribute was enjoying a stable and comfortable ride by going with both the current and the wind. Easing up Arthur Passage, between Kennedy Island and Porcher Island, past Hanmer and Genn Islands, brought the entrance into the inlet that protected the city and docks of Prince Rupert. Soon, the wilderness was behind us as coal and graining loading facilities, a cruise ship and a cargo ship past by, and a container handling facility was past.
At 1:45 PM, Tribute docked at Cow Bay Marina and was enthusiastically welcomed by the dockmaster. Tribute had traveled 59 miles . We met Brian and Barb who are long time Alaska and BC cruisers in their Eagle 40 trawler, Passage, that is kept in Anacortes. They have been cruising this year since early May and the weather was great. We talked about tomorrow’s weather forecast of a light southerly wind, a flooding tide in the morning and the wave height forecast of 1 to 2 meters. They said the conditions do not get any better than that. We decided that tomorrow could be the opportunity to cross the third challenging body of water, Dixon Entrance. Dinner was at the local pub that was at the head of the dock and Wednesday is wings night and the pub was doing a brisk business.
The next day, the morning weather predictions indicated a travel day. In conferring with Ken, he felt that Friday would be a better travel day. Also, Pauline had work commitments and had plans for the day in Prince Rupert. A walk was done to the local marine store that also sold gardening equipment and Laurie bought a pair of Boggs Boots, another book and another map, a fishing pole and reel kit was found at Walmart, and a later stop at the commercial fishing supply store found some basic fishing gear.
Soup was cooked, email was answered, laundry was done, the sea strainer was cleaned, windows were cleaned and coated with Rain-X and we had a longer conversation with Brian and Barb on Passage. The weather forecast for tomorrow is a fine with southerly winds, on our stern 15 to 20 knots and waves are 3 to 4 feet. The wind and the waves may be less on our route that is protected by a set of islands. Also, the after noon weather is predicted to be calmer. After crossing into the U.S, another set of guidebooks and information sources take over.
Just for Fun
In Prince Rupert, Laurie found a bear that was to her liking.