Vancouver, The Gulf Islands, and Desolation Sound
Even after traveling around the world in our 38-foot Beneteau Bagheera
, our home cruising grounds of the Pacific Northwest continue to captivate us. Its breathtaking vistas, exotic wildlife, and the sheer magnitude of its stunning coast, along with thousands of islands in protected waters, make it the ultimate cruiser's paradise. Unlike the rest of Canada, a benign climate makes cruising possible virtually year round, but when the weather is inclement (and it does rain a lot in the winter), there are numerous attractive alternatives. There aren't many other places where the post-race discussion in the winter is about whether to go cruising, fishing, or skiing that afternoon.
The cruising potential is vast. The route from Victoria to Glacier Bay in Alaska is 1,000 linear miles, but is so indented with fjords, inlets, and islands that it has 25,000 miles of coastline. To the south, Puget Sound offers farther cruising grounds with the San Juan Islands, a particular treasure. History abounds. The First Nation's People are said to have arrived over 10,000 years ago. Juan de Fuca, a Greek in the service of Spain, was one of the first European explorers. In 1592, he discovered the strait located at the southern end of Vancouver Island, which now bears his name. Captain Cook's arrival, in 1778, stimulated several other intrepid seafarers after whom islands and towns have been named. Captain George Vancouver came in his war sloop Discovery in 1792, and was so taken with the serenity of the climate and the pleasing landscapes that he explored and surveyed much of the coast for the next two years, a remarkable feat in view of the reefs and swift currents that surge through the passes in the island chains.
In 1858 the first gold prospectors swarmed up the coast to the Queen Charlotte Islands, then further through the Inside Passage to Alaska and the Klondike in the Yukon. The salmon that had sustained the native peoples also attracted attention, and canneries appeared along the coast. Others saw the potential of the forests, and logging camps and mills sprung up. Soon the primary industries of the coast were thriving with supplies, and workers and their families were taken in and out by small vessels. Today large numbers of cruisers go north every summer, attracted by the tranquility, easy cruising, excellent fishing and the great escape from the rat-race of their daily lives.
Most visitors arrive in Vancouver, BC's largest city and financial hub. Vancouver's beauty is often compared to Cape Town, Rio, and Sydney, but on a sunny summer's day it is hard to rival. Its lush green mountains soar up from the brilliant ocean, gardens are always a blaze of color, and the dramatic downtown silhouette is bordered by Stanley Park, a thousand acres of forest. Just an hour away by sailboat is the wilderness of Howe Sound and its many island anchorages. Snug Cove on Bowen Island is our favorite winter destination with its pub on the dock, long walks, and small bakery for the perfect cruising breakfast.
It is a four-hour sail across the Gulf of Georgia to the Gulf Islands, 250 islands that stretch 50 miles along Vancouver Island's southeast coast. They have a near-Mediterranean climate and, being in Vancouver Island's rain-shadow, are far drier than the mainland. After passing through one of the turbulent passes, only possible near slackwater, the sailor is greeted by a mass of green conifer and ochre-skinned arbutus covered islands. These provide a myriad of attractive anchorages with many marine parks, and the flat seas and good breezes make for wonderful sailing down the channels. Vistas vary from the white sands of Sydney spit, to the rocky inlet of Pirates Cove, to large Saltspring Island which is known for its artisan community. Mayne Island bills itself as The Isle of Health and Happiness, a feeling that is reflected in the entire chain. Eight of the larger islands have a considerable number of permanent residents. With proper planning, it is easy to replenish supplies en route where sailors are invariably helped with energetic enthusiasm.
One of the fascinations of the Pacific Northwest is its abundant marine wildlife. Dall porpoises, Harbor seals, and Steller sealions are particularly prevalent, with Californian sea lions visiting in the winter. Gray, Humpback, and Finback whales are often sighted along this migratory route. Seeing the tall dorsal fins of the distinctive orcas, or killer whales, is a common, but always exciting event, especially when they raise their black and white heads and spout close to the boat, or leap up from the sheer joy of being alive. Often a large group of these whales (there are 18 pods resident in the area) is associated with the salmon running to spawn up river. There are five varieties of salmon on the coast, although sadly numbers are dwindling. Birdwatchers are also in their element here. Over a million birds use the Pacific flyway for their migration routes, such as the snow geese that visit Siberia for the summer and the Rufous hummingbirds that travel up from Mexico to hatch their tiny chicks. Typical species seen from the boat include gulls, murres, several varieties of ducks, swans, vultures, herons, and the distinctive bald eagles with their huge nests. On walks ashore we often spot mink, raccoons, river otters, and deerblack bears, skunks, beavers, and coyotes are also prevalent, but less often sighted.
One of the joys of the Pacific Northwest is that it provides a perfect cruising ground for the less experienced sailor and for families; it is particularly forgiving in the light-wind summer months. Boats often anchor stern-to, with a line tied to a tree or rock ashore or rafted together. We have wonderful memories of brightly colored life-jacket clad kids fishing on deck or rowing ashore in the dinghy. During the long summer evenings, parents enjoyed a sundowner on board with the catch of prawns, clams, or oysters, while a salmon, cod, or snapper is cooking to perfection on a rail-mounted barbecue. The children may play contentedly on the beach astern, building forts out of driftwood or discovering fish, crabs, nudibranchs, anemones, and starfish in the rocky pools. With these experiences in their lives, there was no hesitation in our boys' response when we told them about our plan to cruise overseas. "A two-year summer holiday?" they enthused. I quickly added that they would still be doing their schoolwork!
Desolation Sound is a destination for those who have more time to spare. Some 90 miles north of Vancouver, the largest marine park in British Columbia boasts much warmer waters, since the tidal currents from north and south of Vancouver Island converge here. Favorite spots on the passage north include white-sand Buccaneer Bay with its acres of clams and protected Secret Cove for the night. Rural walks are plentiful. The one on Hardy Island, where visitors can pick blackberries and apples in one of the abandoned homesteads, is particularly attractive. The Harmony Island group has always provided happy times with its Freil waterfall tumbling down the steep rock face for a bracing shower. The steep-sided fjord of Princess Louisa Inlet is a stunning diversion with its sheer granite cliffs that rise over 6562 feet, deep turquoise water, and Chatterbox Falls cascading down the mountainside at its head.
"Wow!" is the only way to describe Desolation Sound itself, especially if you have the opportunity to fly over the archipelago, which is highly recommended. The scenery is not only stunning, its grandeur is overwhelming with peaks that tower 7,000 feet high while the seabed is over 2,000 feet below, in channels that are less than a mile wide. One can spend weeks going from one spectacular anchorage to the next in this lush high-island group, which is bordered by the snow-capped Coastal Range. Calm and serene, although with the occasional blow for an exciting sail, Desolation Sound is deserted for 10 months of the year with a busy time found only during July and August. A few of the many popular anchorages include the landlocked haven of Squirrel Cove, where it is fun to take the dinghy through the reversing rapids into a lagoon, and pretty Prideau Haven. Refuge Cove has fuel, supplies, and mail; Teakerne Arm boasts Cassel Cascade; and Tenedos Bay has a trail to Unwin Lake, one of the many lakes that are great for a refreshing swim and for doing laundry for those who are finding it hard to tear themselves away.
Only the intrepid venture north through the turbulent Hole in the Wall. Fewer still continue to the Queen Charlotte Islands, remote home of the Haida, and up to the iceberg-strewn waters of Alaska. But they are grand areas for cruising, as you will find out in the months to come.