2004 Sep 25: Prince Rupert to Port McNeill

Saturday morning, September 25, ADAGIO was tied up to the fuel dock when it opened at 7 AM. After taking on 543 liters of diesel fuel we were ready to depart Prince Rupert, but Steve discovered that he had left his wallet at Breakers Pub. The wallet could not be found so we phoned and cancelled our 3 Visa credit cards from the pay phone at the fuel dock and untied our dock lines.

Narrow Grenville Channel was thick with fog and logs. Our radar picked up several targets, mostly fishing boats, staying to the right side of the channel, as were we. At about 11:30 AM a target appeared on the radar, heading rapidly towards us from our starboard side, and slightly behind us. I tried altering course, but still could not determine our situation. I put the engines into full reverse and a large sport fishing boat steamed across our bows, no radar, no lookout. Whew. I am sure he never saw us. Shaken but not damaged, I was happy to hand the watch over to Steve. In this crossing situation, the other boat had the right of way, as both boats were under power, and the other boat was on our starboard side. On the other hand the other boat was overtaking ADAGIO, so ADAGIO had the right of way. It was complicated. It just reinforces the fact that incidents like this can develop quite rapidly in fog. Our Canadian/New Zealand friends later commented tat they were glad ADAGIO had not been “pranged”, Canada-speak for a beam-on collision.

The fog came and went, revealing waterfalls coming out of the numerous creeks after winding their way down the cliffs and through the forest. When the channel narrowed, we passed through weak whirlpools where logs and rafts of large kelp fronds tended to accumulate close to shore, so we maintained a mid-channel course. Less than two nautical miles from our destination we had a 2.3 knot favorable current. There were about a dozen large logs in the location marked on the chart as having whirlpools, south of James Point, at the entrance to Lowe Inlet. We entered from the south and missed them all. The entrance is straight forward at low tide, with all hazards visible. Seals like silver bullets lolled on the rocks to port. We motored over to have a look at Verney Falls. Pretty, low falls with lots of water, as it comes out of the forest, with deep water right up to a 1 fathom ledge. Boats frequently anchor at the foot of the falls. We would not. A river otter was playing in the foam at the base of the falls.

A“t anchor a few hundred meters from Verney Falls, we watched a flock of black turnstones busily turning over stones on the beach, and a female merganser swimming near the rocks on shore, putting her head under water every few seconds. Her head was a much brighter red color than shown in the field guide to birds. A flock of tiny shore birds spun through the air from time to time, landing and taking off from the small beach.

In the morning, a line of logs and kelp fronds blocked our way as they had collected in a tide line across Grenville Channel just south of the entrance to Lowe Inlet at Hepburn Point. We headed for the narrowest area of the debris, and put the engines in neutral as we passed through. Motoring through the fog, we announced a “Securite’” every 10 minutes on VHF radio channel 16 giving our course, and practiced tracking the fishing boats on our radar. The fog lifted as we exited Grenville Channel and entered Wright Sound, and into the bumpy seas whipped up by the wind whistling out of Douglas Channel to port. The seas calmed as we entered McKay Reach which took us into narrow Princess Royal Channel.

This reach was relatively free of logs, although we occasionally passed a large one, and only a few boats. Sunshine through dappled clouds lighted the bare, glacially scoured grey rock mountains and cascading waterfalls. We were astonished to see that the tops of some of the mountains had been clear-felled by the logging companies. We timed our passage through Heikish Narrows for a three knot favorable current. The whirlpools were small but moved ADAGIO around a bit. No dramas, under blue skies and clear water. This area is the location of the first fish farms that we had seen.

On September 26 we were greeted by a strong fragrance of cedar trees, as we entered the channel into Bottleneck Inlet and approached our anchorage. At dusk, a full moon rose at the head of the bay, sending a long reflection across the water to ADAGIO. A beautiful sunset peeked through the narrow entrance to the inlet and created a mirror image on the still water. Wisps of fog leaked through the narrow entrance into the anchorage after dark and wove their tendrils in and out of the tops of the trees.

We made an early start Monday morning for the region of Bella Bella where we hoped to find a berth at the new docks at Shearwater Marine. Conditions were good for crossing the exposed waters of Millbank Sound, except for the fog and light rain. We arrived at Shearwater at about 3 PM on September 27 and tied up to a floating wharf, where two men clad in camouflage clothing took our lines. We asked them which was their boat, and they pointed to the one ahead of us named PACIFIC GRIZZLY. We asked them what kind of fish they were catching, and they answered, “Bears.” They said that the government keeps track of the bear population on the islands, and that they had been hired to cull the old and weak black bears to keep the population healthy. They said that they had several black bears in the freezer of their large boat. When I inquired of the waiter in the restaurant about hiking trails, I asked if there were bears on the island. He answered that there were black bears, and wolves. The wolves stay well fed on the local deer population. We splurged and spent some of our limited funds on halibut and salmon burgers and large salads at the restaurant. Shearwater had minimum facilities and the highest daily rate of any marina we had visited, a whopping $100. Just when we could least afford it. We had become accustomed to paying $20 per night at the state-owned marinas in Alaska.

Tuesday, September 28 we made an early departure and entered Lama Passage where we found weak whirlpools which swung the bow of the boat from port to starboard, then back to port then to starboard, as we passed from one whirlpool to another. Heavily forested hills and islands were on all sides, dotted with a bald eagle or two. We entered Fisher Channel in full sunshine, and following seas and breeze. Time for sunglasses. Cruising does not get any better than this. In the wider Fitz Hugh Sound, ocean swells came through the passes between the islands to the west.

One to two meter swells came in from Queen Charlotte Sound as we entered Smith Sound. Groups of murres or murrelets surrounded us as we approached the entrance to Millbrook Cove. A seal watched us as we anchored. Steve’s log entry at 3:30 PM was, “Anchor down in Millbrook Cove BOTTOM VERY SOFT, HOLDING VERY POOR. Put anchor in 1.5 fathoms with 40M of chain. Still drag slowly both engines at idle, with chain stretched at 166M off rocks and pilings and 140M off rocks to starboard beam.” We had raised the anchor which was covered with fine silt and eel grass strands, then re-set it and let out even more chain and rode.

We rose early Wednesday morning, intending to round Cape Caution before the forecast gale force northerly winds and two to three meter seas came up. Well, at low tide at dawn, ADAGIO was hard aground, in the center of the eel grass bed, our anchor chain payed out ahead of us over the silty bottom. We weren’t going anywhere early that morning. While we waited, I heard a loon calling, and then saw it swimming past. We calculated that the tide at 10 AM would most likely be high enough for us to be afloat, and we could back off, dragging our anchor through the soft silt into the deeper part of the bay. It worked! And we departed Millbrook Cove at 10 AM. The diagram of the anchorage in the cruising guide shows one fathom of depth near the pilings near the shore at zero tide. It actually dries at 3 ft above zero tide. The cruising guides give depths in fathoms. Some of the Canadian charts give depths in meters, others give depths in fathoms. We must be vigilant as to which unit of measure is being used for depths, and it can be confusing.

It was good fun ocean walloping again as we enjoyed the northerly 25 knot winds and two to three meter seas from Queen Charlotte sound and into Queen Charlotte Strait. By noon on September 29 we had rounded Cape Caution, accompanied by dolphins, and flew past Pine Island. From time to time in our voyaging we have motor-sailed, and often we have surfed ADAGIO while sailing, but this day we engaged in “motor-surfing”. In Gordon Channel, with Dorothy at the helm, the engines moving us along at 8 knots, the waves would lift us and hurry us along at 12 knots, then 13 knots, and occasionally at 14 knots of boat speed. Who needs sails in these conditions? Can you imagine taking YOUR home out for a little surfing?

Passing Port Hardy we were joined by several dozen Dalls porpoises who stayed with us for about an hour, frolicking, tail slapping, surfing on our bow waves and leaping for joy. These small porpoises exhale and inhale so quickly when they surface for air that we hear a “zip” sound.

We arrived at Port McNeill on September 29, at a little past 6 PM. The Port McNeill marina was full, and with 20 knots of wind, we were reluctant to try to fit into a small space. The harbormaster did not return our call on VHF radio, but the ketch ISLAND ROAMER did and said that the harbormaster had left for the day. We decided it would be safer to anchor out for the night and hope for calm winds in the morning. We set our anchor down at the west end of bay near 2.4 meter sounding, on a 50 meter rode. On our first attempt, we found a huge kelp bed northwest of the marina, and the anchor would not hold. On our second try we trapped a piece of log in the anchor bight. Our anchor finally held, as the full moon was rising. The strong northwesterlies were expected to continue the following day.

On the beautiful, calm morning of September 30, at anchor with full moon ahead, clearly displaying all of its mare and funny faces, the sunrise performed astern.

We motored over to the Port McNeill marina and found many empty berths. We tied up inside finger F, across from the space on finger E which is reserved for the school bus boat. Dorothy went to the harbor master’s office near the ferry wharf, where there were notes posted saying that she was at the town office. A phone call found her there. We explained our lack of funds, and Hilje the dock-master pulled $500 cash out of her pocket and handed it to Steve. It took a while to receive our new Visa cards, but meanwhile we would not starve.

Port McNeill is the next to the last town on the north end of the road up the east coast of Vancouver Island. Cruisers of these waters consider the waters north of Cape Caution to be the real Canadian and Alaskan “wilderness”. South of Cape Caution, boats travel in channels that are protected from the ocean by 250 mile long Vancouver Island. The difference was immediately evident. For example, people go to the trouble to paint their wooden buildings down here. In Ketchikan, Prince Rupert, Wrangell and Sitka, the rain and snow peels paint so quickly that some buildings stand bare and “rustic”, or with peeling paint that no one has bothered to repair. Port McNeill does not have that “Wild West” appearance that we had grown to expect in each village that we have visited. Even the dogs are smaller and have fewer wolf genes.

I took the ferry to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, and visited the U’mista Cultural Center, the tallest totem pole in the world and the burial grounds where many totem poles have been erected. It was a beautiful sunny day. The history of the First Nations’ struggles with the Canadian government over the custom of potlatches was very well explained. Displayed at the center are a large number of 100 year old wooden masks which had been confiscated by the government in the 1930’s, and returned to the people fairly recently.

The following day found me on the ferry to Malcolm Island to visit the town of Sointula. When I asked a man in the cafe about taking the walking trail up to Big Lake, he said that the trail goes through the forest, and that I should not go alone because there is a black bear on the island. He said that the bear had come into his yard and destroyed his plum tree. Instead I walked half way to the whale rubbing bay west of Bere Pt, hitched a ride the other half way and all the way back. Orcas come to this bay to rub their bodies on the round pebbles and to breed. We saw no orcas, but collected two of the round stones, one back with white flecks and one white with black flecks.

Thick fog had moved in from the west and surrounded the marina, cooling off what had been a warm, sunny day. After a few hours, the fog disappeared as quickly as it had come. Over the next few days, a series of frontal systems threatened to bring gale to storm force southeasterlies and rain.

On October 8 we visited with Kevin and Maureen as they were provisioning their 100 year old 92’ schooner MAPLE LEAF. Kevin used to manage the northern region of Vancouver Island for the Canadian parks and wildlife. Their business is called Maple Leaf Adventures, wildlife and cultural tours in SE Alaska and BC. Kevin is interested in a catamaran of his own, and so we invited them aboard ADAGIO. The ship’s chef brought us a large bag of fresh herbs, and two large beers, sporting beautiful labels showing a photo of MAPLE LEAF under full sail, celebrating her 100th year. Kevin recommended that we phone the harbormaster in Victoria asking for a berth for some time this winter or spring. MAPLE LEAF will be there November thru February. He said that it’s a great place when you are living aboard, but Port Sidney is more secure if you will be away from the boat.

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