Inside the Inside Passage                         True stories from the Land of the Spirit Bear  by  Captain Joseph Bettis

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Chapter 3

 Getting Started: Seattle to Desolation Sound

Seattle to Friday Harbor--81 miles
Friday Harbor to Genoa Bay--34 miles
Genoa Bay to Nanaimo--36 miles
Nanaimo to Lund--75 miles
Lund to Eveleigh Anchorage--15 miles

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 the continent.

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 Blues."

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 Powel River.
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

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.

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