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September 7, 2001
Princess Louisa Inlet, British Columbia
50° 12.24' N 123° 46.14 W, wind calm, broken overcast two days, rain three days, fog in mornings.
The book described Princess Louisa Inlet as a four-mile long fiord of deep water, water that turns almost blue-black in color. The water depths of 1000 feet diffuse the daylight away into blackness. The cruising guide advised that boat access - access is only by boat and float plane - was through a narrow rocky opening, an opening having dangerous fast-water rapids. Timing our boat's passage at calm, slack water was critical. Once you get inside the inlet, there are vertical rock sidewalls and dark gray granite cliffs two thousand feet high with cedar trees and fir trees clinging to the crevices and rock shelving. This geographical panorama nearly surrounds the whole inlet. Some peaks are five thousand feet above the water. These vertical surfaces, the book added, continued down under the water's surface for another thousand feet to the bottom of the sound. Considering our 300 feet of anchor rode, there are very few sites for anchorage, needless to say. Sea otters, jellyfish, curious seals, moss covered boulders, grizzly bears (yes really), mountain goats and sixty cascading waterfalls are all here. This surrounding mass of rock and rich forest was breached at the far end by another magnificent feature, Chatterbox Falls. For over thirty years I questioned that I would witness this. Now, at this moment, all of it is a few hundred feet from where we are anchored. Ellen, "Love of Liberty" and I have powered up Prince of Wales Reach, Princess Royal Reach, and Queen's Reach to cross Malibu Rapids. Having transited the rapids, we are now inside Princess Louisa Inlet. This is an extraordinary scene. I cannot verbally describe the place, and I cannot take a photograph that will give a feeling for this natural grandeur. So be it. I'll just grope around and offer something out.
The Northwest, the Gulf Islands, the Inside Passage and Princess Louisa Inlet have been a target cruising area for me since 1971. That was after I had met George Knab. George was re-building his gaff headed wood schooner, "Sea Runner," and all the while talking about the beauty of the Northwest. He said there was Princess Louisa Inlet, the Gulf Islands, the San Juan Islands, Desolation Sound and the Inside Passage to Alaska. He'd been up there in the NW and seemed to know them all. As I listened I decided I'd get there, someday. George was a talented boat carpenter and fully restored "Sea Runner", but he never got his boat from San Francisco to the Northwest. I'm not sure what happened. I never saw him again after the early 70's. I did see "Sea Runner" in Hawaii in 1973, but not George. And, that was that except that a fire had been kindled in me. The guy had given me a dream. After our disappointment with cruising the schooner on the East Coast two years ago, our cruising desires were displaced to the Northwest and Princess Louisa Inlet in particular.
For us, the passage to Princess Louisa Inlet begins in Egmont. Egmont is a sleepy, small back-of-the-forest town that "caters to characters" as the fast-boat driver told us. In Egmont at the marina pub, they serve a 'Skookumchuck Burger' for $14.95 CDN and is without doubt the largest hamburger in the Northwest. They advertise it that way. We had ours cut in half, and it took two hands to lift a half. Ellen and I stuffed ourselves with our first-and-last Skookumchuck Burger ... and a beer. We then met the fast-boat driver on the marina dock, and for ten bucks (CDN) he took us for an unforgettable boat ride in Sechelt Rapids in Skookumchuck Narrows just when the current was running the maximum of 13 knots. There were waves and whirlpools and reversing currents that sobered us to what fast water rapids are about. Water-soaked trees, called 'deadheads,' are buried beneath the churning water's surface until they reach a whirlpool. Then the maelstrom currents shove this 'telephone pole' up to the surface and out of the water. In the fast-boat we skirted the edges of the rapid's worst part and avoided catastrophe. Although to a much lesser degree, we were headed for some such stuff with our boat.
Leave Egmont town and there's a lonely six hours motoring up Prince of Wales Reach, Princess Royal Reach, and Queen's Reach to the approach to Princess Louisa Inlet. There are no marinas, no towns, no roads, and no cars from Egmont on. Only forests, snow capped mountains and a few glaciers line the waterway. There's no food, no fuel and no potable water available from Egmont on. The cell phone and the VHF radio do not work. There are no phone facilities in the inlet. There are few protected coves and few suitable anchorages, but don't be bothered by that. These pristine waterways have their own charisma that makes me think I'm in a safe place. I know of only a few sailors who wouldn't consider just this 32-mile stretch of water more than enough to cruise in for their lifetime. "Love of Liberty" moves reliably on under power. She's a good boat and is operating flawlessly - almost. We have fresh food, frozen food, fuel, propane and water to support us for at least a month. Still, I'm uneasy and concerned about entering Malibu Rapids and passing this 'gate keeper' of Princess Louisa Inlet. All waterway guides advise, "Approach Malibu Rapids at the height of the flood tide or at the bottom of the ebb tide." Better at high tide because the slot-like channel is slightly wider at high water. Good timing is essential even though it takes only three minutes for the boat to pass the channel constriction.
At the very entrance is a submerged offshore rock marked by a green day beacon. Leave that beacon to port. The opening then begins to narrow near the small island on the starboard. The Native Indians buried their dead on this island, hanging the bodies in the trees - and called the island "Forbidden Island." It is a protected burial ground today and must not be entered. No matter to me! Further toward the island, the speed of the current builds as the granite channel sides press closer together. The edges are lined with house-sized boulders, and the whole thing narrows to about 80 feet in width. On the flood, tidal forces push massive amounts of water up the reach and press it into this small portal. On the ebb, tidal forces draw the water out as rapidly as the opening will tolerate. Either way, the tidal buildup creates an overflow, a small waterfall, of white water until the level inside the inlet equalizes. DON'T ENTER when there's white overfall water showing.
We arrived at the green beacon, and the overfall was plainly visible. It wasn't yet slack water, and it wasn't supposed to be. We were cautious, being an hour early for high-tide slack water at the rapids. I wanted to take a good, long look at this. Remaining in Queen's Reach, we circled with another sailboat, cautiously waiting. A 40-foot trawler arrived so I followed him with the binoculars. This chap circled once, then promptly entered and passed through the rapids without harm. Christians one, lions zero, I thought. Next, our friends in another sailboat, who had been through the rapids before, went for it. And passed through successfully. Christians two, lions zero. I looked at the rapids and could still see some roiling white water and whitecaps on the other side. Yet another sailboat - appropriately named 'Coyote' - arrived and began his entry. He noticed our reluctance and waved us along. But, slack water wasn't for another 40 minutes by my calculations. Still, he made it through. Three to zero. We continued to circle conservatively, but soon we decided, if they did, we could.
I passed the green day marker on the submerged rock, a hundred yards out. I reminded myself, "Stay close to the island to starboard and dog leg your course to the right." The outward curve in the current seems to grip the boat and wants to swing us to the rocky wall on the left. I steered favoring the large boulders on the island side. Don't touch the sacred island!! There was no turning back, not now. It was like riding a train track. A five-knot current carried us along. Now, steer to port toward the exit. Be cautious for on the right is the incoming water from the other side of the little "Forbidden" island. But that current seemed only to help swerve the boat to the opposite dog leg and INTO THE INLET. A few little back eddies and whirlpool swirls kick the boat a bit, but we were in there! No sweat! We were elated, and we were THERE, almost. Four more miles to the head of the fiord and Chatterbox Falls.
At the 'Princess Louisa Marine Park speed limit' of 4 knots, we motored past Macdonald Island. The marine park service had placed supplemental moorings there, and two buoys were still available. We could stop here, but we wanted to see the notorious falls at the end of the inlet and perhaps gain a space at the park service float just under the falls. It was only two more miles now. I didn't care how far it was. Summits and mountain peaks reaching into the clouds surrounded us. The depth meter jumped from 80 fathoms to off-scale. It began to rain. We still didn't care because we could now see the falls.
At the head of the inlet, beside the falls, the park service's floating dock was full. Two sailboaters offer to let us raft up to them at the float, but I declined. One of boaters points out an iron ring in a rock near the outfall of Chatterbox Falls. In fact, it's now raining cats and dogs; fog is moving in; it's getting dark; but I hardly notice. I prepare to anchor and bump around on deck. I stumble and can't help it. I have my head canted back staring up at the granite cornices. Just to the side of the waterfall's outflow we drop the hook in 80 feet of water and back "Love of Liberty" toward the shoreside rock with the iron ring. We now have 68 feet under the keel. The anchor sets in this peculiar configuration with 200 feet of chain out, the chain resting on the upslope of the underwater silt pile from the waterfall outlet. We're a stone's throw from the falls. I get in the dinghy, pull a line to the iron ring, make it fast, and row back to boat. The rain continues. The fog thickens. Everything about the anchor held; that was good. Now, the high granite walls, the fog and the rain blocked-out the last of the evening twilight. Still I'm elated. Our "house" is anchored in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Ellen and I went below, made a hot buttered rum and turned on the propane cabin heater. The boat soon became warm and dry. We made a vegetable omelet and added some bacon. We lit some candles that glowed warmly with a dim yellow light in the cabin and had dinner with our music, the din of Chatterbox Falls. After dinner, I had to check the anchor setup and went on deck where the rainwater was rolling out the scuppers. With a flashlight I checked the anchor chain and the stern line to the rock's ring. All looked OK. Back in a warm bunk, we both fell asleep for 10 hours rest.
We had been here three days when a beautiful 91-foot sport fishing boat coasted through the water to the base of the falls. Without a shred of doubt, it was the most attractive boat of that type that I have seen. In the open, three decks up was a dark tanned, short man puffing cigar smoke and steering behind a broad array of electronic gauges, control knobs and levers. He looked small, like a horse jockey, as he steered all 91 feet of the thing, slipping in between the park service dock and the shoreline where dinghies and smaller boats are typically moored. This captain eased that boat exactly into a space just behind the dock's shore ramp, the most difficult mooring site at the float. The 'captain' was also the owner, and this was his initial cruise on his new boat. He was a 'southern boy' from Louisiana, the boat hailed from the Grand Cayman Islands, and flew a British Flag. Hmmmmmm. He would, as he said, soon take his new obsession south to California, then to Mexico, thru the Panama Canal and into the Gulf "for some fishin' for BIG fish." I could be very happy owning THAT 'stinkpot.' Cruising at 25 knots with a 200 gallon-per-hour fuel burn, I couldn't even afford to bring it home.
It rained for the last two nights creating a heavy runoff over the granite cliffs. After three days on the boat at anchor, Ellen and I needed some exercise, but the only hiking trail around here was a steep 2-hour haul in mud up to a trappers cabin. An experienced Canadian back-country hiker that we met said, "Don't forget your canister of bear-repellent spray! There are brown bears and grizzly bears around here." The slippery trail was poorly marked and was not maintained. We didn't go. After all, I didn't have any bear spray. Another Canadian who said he'd had backcountry experience reported that he saw a bear rolling over a canister of bear spray trying to coat himself with the stuff. I re-launched the dinghy and decided to row about the inlet. In flat calm water we rowed peering under overhanging trees and snooping around rocks and small streams. Oysters and oyster shells covered the intertidal zone; easy pickin's if you like to eat those things. Seals approached the dinghy but never closer than 50 feet. With last night's heavy rain, more waterfalls appeared, and I counted 32 waterfalls this morning. Things seemed so untouched. I could stay here a long while.
Just after he landed, I asked the pilot of a de Havilland float plane about the weather outside the fiord. Being outside of VHF radio range, we had no weather reports for five days. This young Frenchman pilot flew by the seat of his pants. His weather report was about what he saw over the nose of the airplane. Accordingly, he said he hadn't heard any significant or official weather notices. He thought "the weather would be OK" though! At 7 AM the next day we departed, catching the slack water at the rapids. We headed 'Love of Liberty' back to Sidney Harbor.
We sailed across the Canadian Navy's Winchelsea Torpedo Testing Range in the Straights of Georgia. The testing range was declared "inactive" for the day, and that allowed us a straight-shot sail across the Georgia Straights. The winds were good, the seas were moderate, and we had a nice ride to Nanaimo. After a night on anchor in Maple May we powered to Sidney, British Columbia where we obtained our winter moorage. We plan to leave the boat for awhile and drive the truck to visit in the Bay Area in mid September.
Regards, Terry and Ellen.
It is September 11, 2001. The World Trade Center has been destroyed in a terrorist attack this morning. Thousands of wonderful people have died and are dying in this senseless attack. In a month there may be something in this website to talk about again, but not for now.
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