I first went to Alaska twenty years ago. I
had met Walt and Millie Woodward the year before in Desolation Sound
and they had given me a copy of their book, "How to Cruise to Alaska
Without Rocking the Boat Too Much." Besides that, and Chapman, I had
a few charts, a compass (not compensated), a depth sounder, and a
sixteen channel VFH radio. A local fisherman in Squalicum Harbor had
drawn the route on my charts.
Things are different now. Now there are several excellent cruising
guides to the Inside Passage. Repairs are available at more places
along the way, cell phone and radio communications have evolved, and
there is GPS and electronic charting. Radar is easier to own and
use. Nevertheless, the Inside Passage remains an unfulfilled dream
for many boaters--and not without reason. It is a difficult trip; no
doubt about it. There are narrows that must be carefully negotiated.
Several passages of open water are daunting. The weather can be
glorious and it can be awful. One summer, it rained every day but
six. Why add our folly to Seward's?
Because the rewards are great. It is a magnificent, magical,
mysterious, dangerous, safe, maddening, protected waterway. I am
fascinated by the intersection of cultures and sub-cultures: First
Nations, gill netters, purse seiners, trollers, sailboats, tug
boats, whale watchers, loggers, power boats, kayaks, cruise liners,
ferries, sourdoughs, and chechakos. Each Spring I look forward to
seeing salmon, orcas, humpbacks, white sides, porpoises, prawns,
clams, grizzlies, black bear, moose, elk, deer, wolves, river
otters, sea otters, eagles, gulls, osprey. Each Fall I remember
mountains, glaciers, whirlpools, tidal currents, red tide, northern
lights, waterfalls, cascades, hot springs, 16 knot tidal rapids,
endless inlets. And always I hold close the quiet anchorages shared
only with coyotes and wolves
The Inside Passage has been one of the great adventures of my life.
Sooner or later, and lately it has becoming increasingly later than
sooner, I cross a demarcating line. It is uncharted, and as
imaginary as longitude. At that moment I realize that the animals,
sea life, water, islands, and mountains are no longer in my world; I
am in their world. The Inside Passage is not just a cruise to
Alaska, it is a journey of the spirit. Somehow, I feel free.
All things change. As we humans expand our range, the imaginary line
moves further north.. I get older. The adventure recedes.
Civilization advances. Less frequently do I hear on the VHF,
"Morning Cap. Red to red OK with you?"--the distinctive language of
tug boat captains passing port to port. There are more boats, more
whale watchers, more regulations. The salmon and halibut are harder
to catch--there are far fewer of them. "Go again," a voice says,
"while the imaginary line is still there."
There are other, less imaginary but equally significant
lines--spatial "joints"--like an elbow or knee, where the bones and
muscles take off in a different direction. The first is the Strait
of Georgia, when you leave the relative civilization of Vancouver
Island and cross back over to the less accessible mainland. The
second change is at the Yuculta Rapids. Here the tides from the
Strait of Juan de Fuca and the southern end of Vancouver Island meet
the tides from Queen Charlotte Sound and the north end of Vancouver
Island. The tide now floods to the south and ebbs to the north. Here
the weather, water, trees, islands all change. The third line is
Queen Charlotte Sound--the first really serious open water crossing.
It is the point of no return. Once across, you can reach the comfort
of familiar things--automobiles, streets, stores--as easily by
continuing north as by retreating south. The final transition is
Dixon Entrance, the boundary between British Columbia and Alaska.
Once again we are exposed to open water. And once across, the
mountains are bigger, the water more open, the anchorages further
apart, the shelter of the islands less accessible.
Passing through these space zones declares the distance you have
come more graphically than passing through time zones flying across
Time is the key. The fool catcher is out there waiting for the
mariner who is late for work and cannot sit out a blow. If the
weather acts up, be prepared to wait it out. In "Exploring the
Inside Passage to Alaska" Don Douglass and Reanne Hemingway-Douglass
give an "Ultra Marathon" itinerary of 28 days from Anacortes to
Juneau and back, and a "Dream" itinerary of 97 days. I would say
skip the marathon and go for the dream. For those without that time,
hire a skipper to take your boat to key destinations and fly in and
out. Bella Bella and Sitka would be my choice meeting places. Or
make the trip north, fly back if you must, and hire a skipper to
bring your boat back. I like to leave as early in the summer as
possible--mid May or the first of June. In any event I want to be
back across the Queen Charlottes before Sept 15.
Books to read: Don Douglass and Reanne Hemingway-Douglass have the
most comprehensive cruising guides. For the overall trip there is
"Exploring the Inside Passage to Alaska." They also have more
detailed books on British Columbia and on Alaska. "Charlie's Charts
North to Alaska" by Charles E. Wood is essential if for no other
reason than his information on how to transit the Yuculta and other
rapids north of Desolation Sound. And, of course, "Northwest Boat
Travel" and "Waggoner Cruising Guide." .
To nourish the spirit, I bring James Mitchener's "Alaska," Ballard
Hadman's "As the Sailor Loves the Sea," and John Upton's "Alaska
But, all that is ahead. Now we must begin.
I live in the San Juan Islands, but for those who come from further
south, Friday Harbor is the last stop before Canada. There are
shops, galleries, the Whale Museum, a small shipyard, and stores to
buy some of the things you forgot.
In the past, I have most often cleared Canadian Customs at Bedwell
Harbor, now called Poet's Cove, on South Pender Island. But this
summer I'm going to clear at Van Isle Marina in Tesum Harbor and
then head for Genoa Bay Cafe for dinner. What I do next depends on
the tides at Dodd Narrows. Dodd Narrows, just eight miles south of
Nanaimo, must be transited at or near slack water, so I calculate
back from there. If my timing is right, I head for Nanaimo. If the
tides don't cooperate, I anchor in Montague Harbor and plan for
slack at the Narrows the next day. Once through the Narrows, I call
ahead for dock space in Nanaimo. After Victoria, Nanaimo is the
largest town on Vancouver Island. It used to be a rough and raw
fishing village; now it has been gentrified. It is respectable,
charming, delightful and not nearly so interesting.
It is traditional to leave Nanaimo at first light, and I believe in
tradition. Leaving early, through Newcastle Island Passage and
Departure Bay, it is usually possible to get across the Strait of
Georgia before the wind picks up. There have been times when I
guessed wrong. Then I found good anchorage about half way across in
Bull Passage between Texada and Lasquetti Islands. If the weather is
good, I clear the southern tip of Texada and head for Pender Harbor.
The passage up Malaspina Strait is dull, so if the weather continues
holding, I just keep going. If I can't make it to Lund, there is
anchorage around Hardy Island, and moorage at Westview Marina in
At one time, Powel River was the largest paper mill in the world.
You could always tell when a boat had been in Malaspina Strait
because her bow was discolored from the tannin released into the
water by the mill. One year I was lucky enough to get there for the
world championship paper packing contest. It's not what you think.
Main Street was roped off. A flat-bed truck was there with various
sized rolls of newsprint from the paper mill. A fork life would
place a roll of paper on the backpack of a contestant and he would
stagger down the street with his burden. It was an elimination
contest. They began with about 200 pounds and each round the weight
was increased. Gradually contestants dropped out until in the six
hundred pound range, only one gladiator remained. While writing this
story, I called the visitor's bureau in Powel River to see if the
world championship paper packing contest still happens. "No," she
said, "I've never heard of that." I guess the age of gladiators is
over. This year Powel River is hosting a wine tasting event and an
international choral festival. Gentrification creeps north.
If I stop in Powel River now, I visit April
White's Wind Spirit Gallery and Jitterbug Café. April was born in
Haida Guai, the Queen Charlotte Islands, and, through her father, is
a direct descendant to the renowned Haida artist Charles Edenshaw,
of the Eagle Clan. Her work and other artists represented in her
gallery can be seen at www.windspirit.com.
Lund is the last town until Port McNeill. There is a small store, a
repair facility and a good restaurant. From Lund, it's just around
the corner to Desolation Sound. After the Fourth of July the
anchorages in Desolation Sound are crowded. Earlier in the season,
however, there are many uniquely beautiful and well protected
retreats. The water, especially in Pendrell Sound, is warm enough
for swimming, and if there is no red tide alert, the oysters are
some of the best in the world.
The Yuculta rapids are next, so a lay day or two in desolation sound
is always a good idea.