via The Sad Break
2-3 August 2012 Pruth Bay, Fitz Hugh Sound
We met our friends, the young kayakers from Juneau again, on a rainy day in the laundromat in Shearwater. They too had stopped here to clean up and reprovision. Finally, clean sheets, fresh fruits and vegetables, dry socks! We packed the boat with groceries, (Karin had been baking so much bread that we needed more flour,) and topped up on fuel and water. Time to head out, down the Lama Passage again, to Fisher Channel, and then Fitz Hugh Sound. We saw the kayakers one last time, flung out across a steep beach along Lama Passage.
Blue skies and a perfect breeze. We reached speedily down Fitz Hugh Sound, then seven miles up the narrow Kwakshua Channel that cuts deep into Calvert Island, into Pruth Bay. As we entered the channel we saw many vessels trolling for salmon. The fishing was supposed to be good, but it didn’t look as if anyone was catching much.
Still, it was a beautiful sunny afternoon. Around us, low cliffs. We had entered a glacier-carved channel where scrappy windblown spruces clung to crevasses in the steep rock walls, and erratics dotted the heights, as if placed there by giants. It looks like Nova Scotia! Marike said as we motored into Pruth Bay after taking down the sails. Indeed it did.
We dropped our anchor, lowered our dinghy into the water and paddled towards shore.
A low tombolo separated open sea from Pruth Bay and Kwakshua Channel; on that bit of earth sat a large red-roofed lodge and a series of dwellings, once part of a fishing lodge, but now the site of an unusual undertaking called the Hakai Beach Institute. Impressive docks fronted the place; moored there were two red-trimmed aluminum motor vessels with closed passenger cabins, the Hakai Express and the Hakai Spirit, both clearly capable of high speeds in rough weather, along with a series of smaller vessels. We noticed, as we paddled around the docks, finally tying up where a sign indicated that we might, that all of the services one might wish at a dock–water, electricity, and fuel–were run along the dock in closed pipes; it was the tidiest, sturdiest bit of dockworks we’d ever seen. Signs on the walls of a little gatehouse on the dock greeted visitors and explained how they might access wifi services. We’d heard from other sailors that free wifi was available here, but by this time, we’d lived so long without the internet that we thought it could continue to wait.
We walked up the ramp to land, where signs suggested we should enter and sign in at a small house with a notebook, sign in sheets and a computer. We signed in, and then studied the map for the route to the beach. Along the way, we walked through well-kept gardens, past the red-roofed lodge and several stand-alone houses, across a bridge and into the trees, then through a clearing filled with several yurts containing beds and tables and chairs. The trail wound through tall grasses and bushes and silver snags here and there, and into the trees again—Sitka Spruce, regrowing after these shores had been scoured of the trees by the aircraft industry during the course of World War II (think the Spruce Goose). Then there was the beach, glowing in the late afternoon.
A long sandy spit at low tide. The sun slowly lowering in the west over many jagged islets. Birds wading in the shallows, kelp strewn across the beach. Numerous steep rocky outcrops, like those we’d seen at Los Frailes, in Mexico, where the surf had first knocked us down and rolled our dinghy, years ago. In the cracks at the base of these rocks was a riot of colour–purple and orange sea stars twisted together, and green aggregating anemones eating crabs. Ospreys circled overhead, while an eagle watched us from her perch in the top of a tree on the top of one of the steepest stony outcrops.
We were in a stunning and clearly sacred place.
Before we returned to our boat, we made an appointment to come back the next morning and interview the founders and owners of the Institute, Eric Peterson and Christina Munck. Eric invited us to the lodge for breakfast and lunch while we talked with him. We met in the first floor of a vast two-storey hall decorated with First Nations and local artists’ works and equipped with a kitchen that served tens of thousands of healthy, gourmet meals each year. The food was indeed delicious, the abundant fresh fruits and greens a welcome sight to long-distance sailors.
Peterson and Munck had backgrounds in healthcare, specifically diagnositic imaging, and botany, and they were interested in environmental management and land conservation. They had become passionate about how best to deliver health care in poorer countries, where, as Peterson said, “all of the equipment and supplies in the world won’t do any good if you don’t have competent people in place.” They started a family organization they called the Tula Foundation; its first aim was to enable the delivery of primary nursing care in key communities in Guatemala.
Meanwhile, Munck had started to work on the Central Coast with the Nature Conservancy. Her interest had been in securing land that had been abused industrially, but that had high enough “ecological attributes” that it might be recovered and made usable again. She had gotten involved in sorting out what to do in Rivers Inlet during the collapse of the wild salmon stocks. Rivers Inlet had had the third largest salmon runs, after the Skeena and Fraser Rivers, but it was the first large salmon fishery in BC to collapse. This devastated the Oweekeno First Nation, now a fishing people without fish or boats. During the course of conversations about what sort of science or new undertakings might happen in the wake of the collapse of the fishery, one elder remarked to Munck and Peterson that his community was in need of primary nursing care too. Suddenly it began to seem as if all of their interests—in science, healthcare delivery, and ecological recovery—might be converging. They began to look for a base around Rivers Inlet, an old fishing lodge perhaps.
Indeed, Munck had once visited Hakai while it was still a fishing lodge for a conference, and was stranded there by bad weather. She fell in love with the place, with its access to the protected waters of the inside passage, as well as the open sea, and with its mix of wilderness (wolves on the beach!) and a history of human uses, including its status as traditional territory and an important sacred place to the Oweekeno and Heiltsuk First Nations. When the lodge was put up for sale in late August 2009, she and Peterson bought it, and began to establish the Hakai Beach Institute. “We are stewards of this place,” Peterson told us. “We don’t really own it. We provide a neutral meeting ground for members of the four First Nations of the Central Coast (Oweekeno, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk and Kitasoo/Xai Xai); we use our boats to bring people together to meetings.”
We recalled seeing one of the Institute’s boats speeding through the southern end of the Grenville Channel. When we mentioned that, Peterson said, yes, that was some elders from Hartley Bay we’d picked up.
Since 2009, the mandate of the Institute has expanded so that it brings together members of the First Nations, university researchers, government agencies, and the Coast Guard. The place thus engages teaching and research in a variety of areas from scientific monitoring of climate change and marine fauna, to archeology, the earth sciences, and the arts. As a stewardship zone, the Hakai Beach Institute has provided a neutral, casual meeting place for First Nations people from communities in Bella Bella, Bella Coola, Klemtu, Rivers Inlet and Hartley Bay to get together to strategize around key issues such as the Northern Gateway Pipeline, or how to further protect important species such as the Spirit Bear. According to Peterson, traditional enemies sometimes find that a casual encounter at Hakai with good food, trails, beaches, and facilitation, can lead to reconciliation and agreement on some key issues. Hakai has provided leadership training for First Nations youths, and has begun to expand the network of Coastal Guardian Watchmen begun in Haida Gwaii. Hakai also collaborates with Parks BC in order to carry out basic science and monitoring and to build trails and boardwalks along the ocean side of Calvert Island.
Peterson was especially proud of the physical plant of his Institute. He described himself as a “city manager,” and gave us a tour of the waste and electricity systems of this off-the-grid ecological village which employs 20 staff members on each rotation, as well as housing its owners, visiting scientists, and others. Hakai is an experiment in green technology and recycling: even the grease from the kitchen is disposed of through microbial grease eaters, and then becomes compost for the gardens. The electricity plant is increasingly solar, taking over from generators. Power is stored in huge battery banks, and a state of the art water purification system is set to go online this year.
We enjoyed our conversation with Eric Peterson; perhaps most of all, we were engaged by his musings about how the Central Coast was not a pure wilderness, but rather bore the traces of a time when the area was more densely populated. The land had been greatly culturally modified over centuries, not just by now defunct freeholder fishing, or hand logging, and mining industries, but far earlier by First Nations clam farms, as evidenced by middens, and forest cultivation.
We were struck by the resonances between our observations, what Peterson had been saying and what we had been reading in a book entitled the Last Great Sea by Terry Glavin. There Glavin marshals an abundance of archeological evidence to suggest that, contrary to what many of us have been taught, the First Nations of the North Pacific rim were never nomadic hunter gatherers who, on some date after the last ice age, marched across the Bering Strait and then spread across the Americas. Rather, the specific character of Pacific coasts and various Pacific First Nations communities from Japan and the Koreas to Alaska and British Columbia, suggest that coastal dwellers have been mariners, and seasonal farmers of both sea and land for the last 9000 to 12,000 years. There is evidence of clam farming, permanent settlements around these clam beds, habitations, art works, and short migration routes along the coasts and islands following salmon and oolichan runs, and other seasonal foods. There is also quite a lot of archeological evidence of trading between these First Nations and others, both to the West and in the North. Salmon fishing technology more than 9000 years old—a small grooved stone sinker for a salmon line–was found in Namu, on the Central Coast, “the oldest known piece of fishing gear in British Columbia….” Glavin says (32). Beneath that find was more human detritus. As Glavin reports, “The antiquity of the site established Namu as one of the first fishing villages anywhere on earth” (33).
Human cultures in the North Pacific were shaped not only by the sea, Glavin argues, but, overwhelmingly, as even the landscape itself was, by salmon. The abundance of the salmon made for bountiful, massive forests and human societies of great richness and development:
“North Pacific cultures were composed of self-sustaining, densely populated societies marked by rigid hierarchy and social rank, based in large, permanent winter villages. And nowhere else on earth were human societies so fully integrated within marine ecosystems. Nowhere else were people so dependent upon fish. Among some North Pacific cultures, the isotopic signature found in human remains is exactly the same as that found in dolphins.
“The next thing you see is salmon.
“From the very beginnings of human history in the North Pacific, salmon were involved. Salmon were there at the close of the last ice age, and for most of history since then, salmon—not human beings-were the species most responsible for altering the shape and form of the continents around the North Pacific….Every year, millions of tonnes of energy was brought up out of the depths of the North Pacific and deposited deep within the continents surrounding it…” (Glavin 9-10).
In fact, as we had been sailing along this coast, the three of us had read a number of other books loaned to us by Dawn Burkmar, part of her now two-year project to educate us about the land and history of her beloved British Columbia. Most of them pointed to a much more crowded, inhabited coastline than the one we found. Here, as in Nova Scotia, the coming of white settlers had destroyed First Nations health and communities. Then increasing mechanization, urbanization and the arrival of huge commercial fishing and logging operations diminished and destroyed the white settlements scattered along the coast, leaving behind ghost towns, rusting ruins and timber that rotted and returned to the forest.
We read Up Coast Summers, by Beth Hill, which compiled the journals and photographs of Francis Barrow, and described summer voyages in the 1930s and early ‘40s from the Gulf Islands to the Broughton by Francis and Amy Barrow, amateur archeologists. They were constantly stopping off in various communities to visit with settlers along the coast or making detours for social gatherings. Three’s A Crew, by Kathrene Pinkerton, described cruising the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska in the 1920s and 1930s. We were struck by how many people living along these coasts were involved in sustainable farming, fishing, logging or commerce. There was a hospital ship–the Columbia—that ran the coast and visited each port. People knew each other, welcomed voyagers, and shared food and news. A young woman, Betty Lowman Carey, upon completing her first year of university, paddled a dugout canoe she called Bijaboji, after her brothers Bill, Jack, Bob and Jimmy, from Puget Sound to Alaska during the summer of 1937. In her memoir, Bijaboji, she, too, recounted stopping off in many places where there were families and gangs of loggers or fishermen and women. The boat traffic up and down the coast seemed to be fairly regular, and included supply vessels, the hospital ship, and an American Scout training ship.
Even more recent accounts like Alexandra Morton and Billy Proctor’s book, Heart of the Raincoast and Proctor’s second book, co-authored with Yvonne Maximchuck, Full Moon, Flood Tide, about the Broughton of Billy’s childhood and young adulthood, both attest to a time when that part of the coast was far more active and inhabited than it is now.
This is also true of the place where we live in Nova Scotia, the Eastern Shore. It is also a place of First Nations middens, and white settler coastal communities once far more connected to distant places and much more populous than they are now. Before the highway went through in the 1960s, the Okay Steamship stopped in communities along the coast to take passengers, fish and provisions to and from Halifax. The islands in the Bay of Islands contain remains of little houses where the fishermen would stay once they rowed out to their grounds. A fishing smack would motor around pick up their catch each day and take it to the canneries or to a larger vessel to get it to market. Now those canneries and fish plants are all gone, the cod fishery is dead, and schools and churches and communities are shuttering, as their older inhabitants die, and the family houses tumble from their stony foundations.
We were very interested to find that Eric Peterson had been thinking about the Central Coast in ways that resonated with our own reflections on rural coastal Canada as we’ve encountered it on both east and west coasts. The work of the Hakai Beach Institute, its emphasis on how human and natural histories intertwine, fits right in with other research that we have been doing on the depopulation and corporate exploitation of marginal rural areas in this country.
As we were ending our interview, a boat full of children from Bella Bella, supervised by a young woman who had taken the youth leadership course at Hakai, arrived for a day at the beach. We too were eager to return to the beach once we had fetched Elisabeth. At low tide we took a long walk to several other beaches connected by trails and boardwalks.
We had no trouble understanding why Hakai Beach and Pruth Bay in the Kwakshua Channel, is and has been for centuries, a sacred place.
For more on the Hakai Beach Institute, see http://hakai.org/
29-31 July, Kynoch Inlet, Fiordland Conservation Area
We weighed anchor in Bolin Bay on an ebbing tide and sailed up Sheep Passage, doglegged into Mathieson Narrows, and then into Kynoch Inlet, a true deepwater fjord, where the fog laced steep granite faces and snowfields.
Kynoch Inlet is the historic homeland of the Xai’Xais First Nation, which moved to Klemtu around 1875 to join with the Kitasoo Nation there, after both groups had been devastated by disease. Klemtu was chosen as the site for their joint village because of its proximity to shipping routes.
Since 2006, Kynoch Inlet has been part of the 91,000 hectare Fiordland Conservation Area and recently, nautical charts for the area have been updated.We were glad because we knew we wanted to go there.
As we motored into Fiordland, cascades tumbled down thousand meter granite cliffs. Thousands of birds gathered in the trees and on the water; the water was black in the fog and drizzle, the air chilly. But we didn’t care. We were in thrall of this vast landscape; we kept popping out of the protection of the cockpit to stand in the mist and take photographs.
We motored slowly up into the inlet—there was no wind that day—pushing birds aside with our bow wake. The marbled murrelets scooted away, bobbed underneath the water and popped up again nearby.
When we reached the head of the inlet we saw a narrow marshy area filled with yellow grasses and white birds, a winding river pinched by a steep bank, then a narrow opening into Culpepper Lagoon—we’d been told you could anchor in there. A large trawler and a ragged Alberg 27–aptly christened “Scrapper”–were anchored some distance to either side of the passage into the lagoon. Elsewhere, steep stony margins separated sheer mountains from the sea; every surface was tinged with green in the afternoon drizzle. On one shore, at sea level, was a gigantic mound of snow, large as an iceberg; we could see where it had tumbled from the mountain top. Frost rose from the snow pile; the air felt distinctly cooler here than anywhere else we’d been. We motored around for a bit, searching for the edge of the marshy shelf to one side of the lagoon, and finally dropped the hook in what seemed a satisfactory place.
We saw a young lad rowing around the Alberg, waved, and he came over to talk. He was English, on his gap year, although he said “he didn’t like to call it that.” He told us he’d seen grizzlies–a mother with a cub–and heard wolves along the river. We asked him about the lagoon and he looked over our boat. You might want to move anchor, he said in a musing tone. There will be something like a river that runs through here when the tide ebbs out of the lagoon. Then he shrugged—Oh I guess it will be okay, he said.
Still overwhelmed by our good fortune, and our freezer overstuffed, we gave him some halibut, which pleased him. And then he was off, back to his boat to read. We debated for a bit if we should move, but we didn’t. We’d anchored in front of a falls in Lowe Inlet, and in very deep water in Bolin Bay. It seemed that we were far enough off to the side of the entrance to the lagoon not to worry, and so we didn’t.
The people on the trawler were from Campbell River, on Vancouver Island. They puttered by to greet us, interested in a boat whose port of hail was Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. We chatted for a long while about the differences between the east and west coasts, about landscape and scenery, art and fishing. Finally they asked if we had crab traps; evidently they were catching excellent crabs in this harbour. When we said no, we didn’t, they insisted that we fish one of their traps, which they handed over to us, baited and ready. Then they snuck into Culpepper Lagoon for the night. Like or not we had become crab fishers.
It was chilly outside, so as evening fell we read and dined below decks, coming up now and then to listen for the wolves. Exhausted by the cold, the fog, and the drizzle, as well as the prospect of returning “to land,” we went to sleep early.
Karin, a worrier, woke at 2 am to the sound of water rushing by the hull. The anchor chain began to rattle and bang as the big metal hook on the anchor bridle bounced against the chain. She went above decks to see what she could see, but it was so dark and so foggy that she felt completely disoriented. Where were we? Where was the little boat with the English chap who’d said it would feel like we were anchored in a river? Why hadn’t we listened to that?
She turned on the chart plotter, calculated the distance we were riding from where we had set—267 feet, the outside edge of the same circle, so no, we hadn’t dragged anchor.
She sat in the dark for awhile and watched until she got her bearings, listening to the water rushing by. We were indeed in a river. She decided to go forward and check the anchor: the bridle was pulling hard and a huge ball of seaweed had mounted up on the chain.
Karin’s footsteps on the deck woke Marike. What are you doing alone out there? Marike demanded. Make sure I’m awake and know where you are before you go on deck!
She was right of course. “Do not leave the cockpit unless someone knows where you are” is one of the basic rules of sailing, especially at night. The water was just 8 C in Kynoch Inlet and the current was rushing by. If Karin had tripped and fallen overboard, that would have been it.
Now Marike was up, and the current was picking up. The chain rattled harder, the bridle lines creaked and pulled at the bow cleats. The boat swayed and moved, the propeller began to turn, the hull shuddered.
Karin got out the tide book and began to calculate when the current might begin to diminish: by 4 am, she thought; the tide change is just after that. But it was not so; if anything, by 4, the current had sped up.
We sat up, and watched and listened and waited. We got cold, and wrapped ourselves in blankets. Marike turned on the knot meter, which measured how fast the water seemed to be flowing by: 2.5 knots, 2.8, 3.1, 3.7. Rattling and rattling and whirring of the propeller and then bit by bit an easing of noise, tension, current readings. Maybe we can go to sleep, we thought; the worst is over. And then Marike looked at the chart plotter and said, we’re in 92 feet of water, could that be?
Oh no, definitely not, Karin said, racing up onto the deck. We’ve dragged!
The water was too deep to be sure the anchor would set itself properly again, so we woke Elisabeth (who, being hard of hearing, had slept through all of the commotion), started the engine, turned on the windlass, decided where to re-anchor, got our bearings in the dark (thanks to the huge patch of snow on the nearby shore), and hauled up the chain. Then we crept about confusedly in the dark, found the spot where we thought we wanted to be (glory be to chart plotters and GPS—you can fly by instrument if you must), and dropped the hook again. 0.0 current. 5 am. Light was just beginning to brighten the sky behind the mountains.
We went back to sleep and slept late, then had a big breakfast of blueberry buckwheat pancakes with bacon and eggs. Lesson learned: we won’t do that again, set the anchor in the outflow area of a narrows or lagoon.
The day when we clambered out was quiet, the sky still overcast, the air near the little snow glacier running into the sea freezing cold. It seemed that the marshy flats stretched out almost to the boat. Karin spotted a red throated loon, and the seagulls and seals were feeding with fervour, splashing wildly near the shore.
The trawler came back out, fished their crab trap for us, giving us the eight crabs they hauled up. Like us, they hoped to see this place in the sun. Dan was a marine artist, Wendy told us, and wanted to paint Kynoch beneath clear skies. Not this year.
Time for an excursion. We dressed warmly—it was the only time we needed our long johns all summer–and dinghied over to the enormous mountain of snow. Then on to the estuary by the shallow shelf. At slack tide we dinghied into Culpepper Lagoon, cautiously, lest the tidal rush start again and trap us inside with our dinghy. It was a perfect hurricane hole in there, utterly quiet. Neither radio nor telephone worked in these zones: the crevasse of fjord between mountains was too narrow and too steep even for the single sideband radio. Incommunicado. Tall trees, green water, loons as tame as though this were an arctic Galapagos.
Such solitude was perhaps too much even for us. We used our fire ax to slay the crabs onshore, hacking them in half and dumping out the stomach, offal and lungs, then washing them in the water. We offered some to our young Brit, but he wasn’t fond of crabs. So we steamed them, ate as many as we could, picking the meat from the rest for another day. Then we readied the boat for an early start to Shearwater. Like Dan Telosky, the painter we’d met, we’d be back. We’ll hope for a sunny day.
28 July 2012
Where Sheep Passage bends north between Pooley Island and the mainland, steep mountains run down to the sea. We were aiming for Bolin Bay for the night, a narrow slit between mainland peaks, named, like many of the smaller inlets in the area, after a young soldier from BC who had died during World War II. These English names (First Nations’ place names rarely make it to our maps) were still all about commemorating wars of territorial expansion, colonial conquest and repartition: at least, however, they weren’t about settling English naval battles or nineteenth-century “great men” onto a landscape they had known nothing about. Had Bolin ever been to Bolin Bay? It seemed not, but at least he was a British Columbian.
By late afternoon, Bolin Bay was already dark, shadowed by steep mountains with sheer rocky faces. The dark cliffs towered above a stony fringe of beach; behind the beach a mountain lake fed a river and a small lagoon surrounded by grassy flats. Waterfalls and the sound of running water were everywhere; snow was still piled in the hanging valleys overhead. Now and then the clouds pulled back far enough to reveal broad snowfields, then a line of granite peaks against the sky.
The cleft where we anchored was dark, deep and vast. We found a shallow spot of 75 feet to set the hook, and that seemed very close to shore, though the enormous scale of the place contributed to that impression. We imagined we would see grizzlies and wolves here along the grassy flats—indeed, when we were anchoring, three small metal boats roared in and everyone aboard them jumped up and began staring at the shore. Were these grizzly watching boats? We could not see what these people were looking at, nor really where they were from. No one lives anywhere nearby save the few workers at the massive Ocean Harvest feedlot operations that seem to be creeping up Sheep Passage. One man started howling like a wolf; everyone on the three little boats stared at a spot on the shore a bit more, then they climbed back inside their boats and roared away.
Loons and Bonaparte’s and Mew gulls were all around; fish were jumping, but not salmon. We saw eagles and ravens but not bears, not wolves. It was peaceful, beautiful. Karin scanned the beach with binoculars, Elisabeth settled some things down below, and Marike began to fish. Again. Although, in truth, she was about to give up fishing altogether. It seemed obvious fishing was not one of her great talents; she hadn’t had a bite since Viner Sound. Still jigging could be relaxing, especially while waiting for the rest of the crew to get themselves organized. It gave a body something to do.
But after ten minutes, nothing had even nibbled at the line. This was hopeless, Marike thought. No sense carting all this gear around on the stern. We should get rid of it the next time we were at dock. Feeling a bit defeated, she started to reel in the line. This was it, this would be the end. Suddenly the line snagged. Darn, she thought, she was caught on the rocky bottom.
But then the rocky bottom started to pull back hard, really hard! Really really hard! Harder than anything Marike had ever had on the other end of fishing rod. She shouted out to Karin and Elisabeth, I’ve got something big! I’ve caught something. They came rushing over. Indeed she had; the rod was bent double, the line running out.
Maybe it is a salmon, Marike thought. Maybe she should pay out the line, play it or the fish will break the line and get away. Suddenly it seemed as if the line were going to run under the boat. Don’t let it do that! Karin yelled. Stop that fish before it wraps the line around the rudder or the propeller!”
With all of her force, Marike began to reel in like crazy. Whatever was on the other end fought and thrashed and finally broke the surface. It was still for a moment and then began thrashing again. A halibut!!
Marike hauled up on the fish and Karin leaned over the lifelines and, and after a false try or two, succeeded in scooping the fish into the net. Now there were two of us holding the thrashing fish up out of the water against the hull, Marike with her line and Karin with the net. Stories of halibut breaking everything around as they fought for their lives ran through our heads. Elisabeth got the shot hammer and Marike took aim.
But where is the brain of the halibut? Because the fish is flat, with one eye that has migrated over so that both eyes are closely set and near the top of the head, it is hard to figure out where a halibut’s brain is. Not between its eyes. Marike clubbed the fish on the head hard a few times. It put up a good fight, but soon it was clear that the halibut was dead. We had to cut the line to disengage our pole—that halibut had swallowed our hook, that’s why it hadn’t managed to get away.
Squeamish as usual about washing the decks in fish blood, we decided to fillet the beast on shore. While Elisabeth held the net, Karin and Marike lowered the dinghy and gathered knife, sharpening stones and oil, and a bucket for the fillets. Then Elisabeth photographed, while Karin and Marike rowed to shore, dragging the heavy beast in the net in the water. They found a place with large flat rocks, dragged the dinghy up the beach and the fish to the rocks; then, while Karin carved, Marike brought over a bucket of water for washing up.
A few last death throes after the first cut—halibut are formidable creatures—and the filleting went easily. Karin’s chief worry, it being early evening, was that a grizzly would amble out of the woods and run us off of our fish. So Marike kept watch, while Karin separated flesh from bones, feeling her way through an anatomy that, until this moment, she’d only seen in pictures. She removed two large filets, then cut each into numerous substantial chunks. Our fish had been at least 25 or 30 pounds—luckily for us, it was small as halibut go. A larger fish might have snapped our pole. Our tiny freezer compartment would be full.
Once the fish was filleted, we dragged the carcass to the top of a rock visible from the boat; we wanted to be able to watch the creatures that would come to pick at it. Ravens and eagles surely, but, we hoped, perhaps, a bear.
Nothing is so delicious as freshly caught halibut fillet grilled on the barbecue and seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and a little butter at the end. Yes, we had mocked the fishing frenzy, the raging fever that caught so many of the people we’d encountered from Gibson’s Landing to northern BC, but in truth, we were very thrilled by our big catch. That night we sent a sailmail to our fishing teacher, Rick, asking if we might graduate now. You’re on your own! he told us. You always were! That’s not true of course. Without Rick, we’d never have gotten started. Nor persisted.
Later we realized that we had been anchored in the perfect spot to catch a halibut–at the edge of a ledge that drops off very steeply. The timing was perfect too, we were at the point of a changing tide. Halibut like to lurk on such ledges at the tide changes, in order to catch smaller fish that are being washed in or out by the current. We admit it; we will try again to catch a halibut although we will have to club it to death, not just because we are hungry, but because fresh halibut is exquisitely delicious.
After supper the tide was high enough that we were able to row along the shore, into the lagoon and back up into the river until it got so shallow we could continue no further. Night was falling.
The rain came in the night, a soft patter on the deck. Then the fog slipped in too, drifting and hanging about the shoulders of the mountains like a cape.
The whales came in the night too. At least, that’s what we’re calling this phenomenon, this visitation of strange movements and sounds. There was a gurgling at the through holes, a gentle rocking and slapping, and then the singing began—high pure notes like the music produced by rubbing crystal goblets filled with water. Then on the other side of the boat a deeper sound, then another in more middling tones. Three voices in call and response, long clear notes, other-worldly and utterly beautiful.
We tried to stay awake to listen but were lulled to sleep. Karin dreamed we’d seen the creatures who were singing. In her dream, they were oddly jointed enormous dinosaur fishes in lovely shades of rust and aquamarine. But when we reported on them, no one believed us; they just went about their daily lives, filling their gas tanks and worrying about which footnotes go where.
We awoke again and heard the music, the slap and gurgle at the hull, a soft bouncing as if something had come up beneath the boat and rubbed against it, then a slow lyrical dance in just a few long notes, echoing and resounding through the hull.
We wondered what sorts of beings were making these sounds and if we could sing back to them, and what they would say if we did.
Once morning came, we stayed in bed for a time just to listen to the eagles sing, almost musically, a high rushing flutter with just a tinge of rust. Pure happiness.
Karin wrote a poem about the whales in Bolin Bay–if that’s what they were, and her peculiar dream. You can find that poem here, along with links to whale songs and crystal goblet music: http://visiblepoetry.blogspot.ca/2013/04/the-whales-came-again-last-night.html
27 July 2012 Klewnuggit Inlet; Butedale
Homeward bound. The low clouds suited our grey mood: we didn’t want to turn back just yet, but the concerns of our land life were calling; we’d been conquered by the calendar. At least we’d timed things right and got the push with the tide back down Grenville Channel. Fog rolled in, then turned to rain as we headed back into Wright Sound; the weather pushing in from offshore up Squally Channel could clearly live up to that channel’s name.
We sailed quickly through choppy waters of Wright Sound, into McKay and then Fraser Reach. (Click on the link to watch a 2:25 minute video of Quoddy’s Run sailing in McKay Reach.)
Around us in the fog and damp, we heard the sounds of small sports fishing vessels moving about, motors stopping and starting, voices. Mountains towered over us, their peaks lost in the clouds. Blue-green light. By evening, the fog had lifted; by 8:30 pm, we were tied up at the dock at Butedale again.
All day, a parade of commercial fishing boats almost as thick as the salmon they were seeking came back down the Fraser Reach from the Skeena River. Many were hurrying south to try to position themselves for an opening on the Fraser River. (In fact, that fishery would never fully open in 2012 because the salmon counts were so low.) Some fishermen seemed pleased with their catch, like the antique Finnish skipper and his crew on a stout, sparkling shipshape vessel from Sointula that we helped to tie up to the rickety docks at Butedale near midnight.
Other fishermen were less pleased. A Heiltsuk skipper from Bella Bella whose boat was moored in front of ours told us the government shut the fishery down too soon and didn’t let the Bella Bella fishermen get their share. He also told us that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had set up an electric wire and was killing the salmon as they jump back up the river. He claimed the DFO was composting fish carcasses, emptying the river of fish so that there would be no further habitat or wildlife barriers to the oil and gas industries. (In fact, in the fall of 2012, the government removed these barriers by federal fiat, passing laws that removed habitat from the Fisheries Act, and vastly reduced the numbers of waterways protected from industry by federal regulations. These new laws, federal omnibus bills C-38 and C-45, have triggered massive First Nations and settler protests across the country, and birthed the Idle No More movement.)
Steven Harper won’t be getting our vote again, the Heiltsuk skipper asserted; people are waking up to what he’s about. No apologies will fix what he’s doing. We wondered how many First Nations people really did vote for the federal Conservatives because Prime Minister Harper gave an official apology for the destructive (we would say genocidal) cultural policies of past governments towards First Nations people, and offered a compensation program for survivors of the residential school system, the aim of which had been, officially, to “take the Indian out” of First Nations children. Did the apologies—a minimum of decency and the smallest of gestures towards taking some historical responsibility on the part of settler governments–really trigger gratitude?
At first, we thought that the story about the electric wire was a metaphor, a way of pointing to and underlining the fact that removing habitat from the fisheries act and other such gestures of the current government were, in effect, wantonly wasting the resources of the wild fishery. But so was gillnetting, we thought, which was how all of those fishermen racing south by us had been fishing. Where was the sport in that? Or the “resource management”? But as usual, there was quite a bit going on we knew nothing about. When we met Alexandra Morton some days later on the dock in Sointula, she confirmed that indeed, the DFO did have a management practice of electrocuting smolts in order to limit their numbers and give those that did mature a better chance to grow out. Do such policies really work? we asked. Alexandra couldn’t say.
Butedale Louis was glad to see us again, as was his cat. We scrounged more rhubarb for another crisp, and later a rhubarb cake.
We left early the next morning in order to have the tide with us through the Heikish Narrows. Many more small gillnetters cruised by us as the morning wore on. As we ran down Graham Reach, we saw an enormous old vessel re-commissioned as a platform for logging operations tucked into a creek bed near the opening of Green Inlet. It was named, aptly and hilariously, the “Trailer Princess.” Tongue-in-cheek woodsmen. Clear cuts ripped through the region. With the binoculars, we noted that porters were parked in the bow of the vessel, while houses and offices were stacked in the stern, and a little tug and some other vessels were rafted alongside. Tolmie Point was cut in wide swaths all along the water. Beautiful BC! Beautiful cruise ship route! Is anyone paying attention?
Eagles sat in the cedars along Heikish Narrows, watching the salmon jumping. Two large open pen salmon feedlots were nearby in Sheep Passage. We wondered if the salmon we saw jumping were wild or escaped farmed Atlantic salmon. As we passed the fish farms, we watched a crew power-spraying nets in open water. You wouldn’t get away with that on our coast, but who was watching here? Just us, and what did we know?
24-25 July 2012 Grenville Channel: Lowe Inlet Marine Provincial Park and Klewnuggit Inlet Marine Provincial Park
Grenville Channel is a straight narrow deep chasm that runs some 45 miles northwest from Wright Sound almost all the way to Prince Rupert, part of the Inside Passage to Alaska. So straight and so narrow (just 500-600 meters wide in places) is the channel that it seems a human-made passage, a canal, which is, indeed, how it is used by vessels both large and small. But it is also deep (deeper than 90 meters in most places) and surrounded by peaks that rise to 3500 meters; digging this groove was a glacial, not human-powered feat.
Despite all of the charts and tables and Coast Guard officers we consulted, we didn’t get the timing of the tides in Grenville Channel right. Once we turned into the channel, we slogged forward at just 2.5-3.5 knots, with both wind and current against us for hours, trying first one side of the channel and then the other to see if we could find more favourable currents. Obviously, we were still missing some important information about how to time our passage through the Channel—but what was it? Did the current change a full two or three hours after the tide?
Early on, we crossed wakes with a large cargo vessel, the MPP Triumph, and hailed the bridge to inquire about the nature of its cargo: it was bringing heavy steel from Hong Kong to the Rio Tinto Aluminum Plant at Kitimat. The Countess of Dufferin Range (yes, the wife of the same Dufferin honoured in our home town of Port Dufferin, Nova Scotia, a Victorian British gentleman and one-time Governor General of Canada) rose above the eastern side of the channel, a bald-headed granite-faced moonscape of a range.
Finally we arrived at Lowe Inlet, and decided to stop there for the night. Slack tide permitted us to negotiate the narrow entrance. Suddenly we were in another world.
At one end of the inlet, a roaring falls. Salmon jumped wildly everywhere as we circled around looking for a place to anchor—they made huge whirling leaps clear of the water and then landed dorsal side to the water with an enormous smack. Overhead birds streamed and called: gulls, Bonaparte’s gulls, marbled murrelets, hawks, ravens, golden eagles, bald eagles, and their young. Scent and rush of blood in the air. We approached Verney Falls, and anchored some distance out, bow to the current, cedars arching over the water. Even the horseflies and black flies got in on the excitement, feasting on us despite the wind from the falls.
Everywhere we turned we saw salmon leaping and splashing, their silvery bodies flashing up the falls, more and more of them flooding into the inlet as the tide rose and the falls became shorter.
Marike decided to launch the dinghy and troll for salmon. She set up a flasher and a hoochie with two barbless hooks; Karin got the net, the shot hammer (our instrument of death) and the bucket, and climbed into the dinghy to row.
Up and back and across the outflow from the falls we went. Salmon jumped all around us. One smacked into the dinghy; we were splashed by jets of saltwater, but not a single fish bit. All we collected on our hooks were tangles of kelp when we got too close to shore.
What do you think the salmon are doing? Marike asked. Why are they jumping before the falls?
Practicing, Karin decided.
Marike decided she didn’t like Karin’s distracted rowing while salmon rubber-necking, so she took over and Karin trolled, with no better results.
We approached the falls, and tried to net a fish, but our efforts were without issue. Near shore, one salmon jumped up and hit the bottom of the boat so hard it stopped the dinghy. We were soaked by the splash and for a moment it seemed as if we’d run aground. Not at all; we’d been salmoned.
Suddenly, at eye level, a bear, stepping down into the falls, watching, watching, and then swoosh, its paw flashed in the falls and there was an enormous salmon, snagged by the gills. The bear clambered up the rocks and headed back into the cedars. Meanwhile, fins in the water, whirlpools, dark backs darting, flashes of bodies shooting up the falls, another splash next to the dingy, drenching us.
There, there! Marike cried, get that one! Net it!
Nope, said Karin. I’m done. Time to go back for the camera; we’re not catching any salmon this way. We’ll have better luck that way, though we can’t eat them.
Once we got the camera, another bear came, and then another and another. Later Elisabeth went to the falls too, and then Marike tried netting again, driving herself up into the falls, wedging the dinghy against the rocks as she reached around with the net. Nothing. Luckily.
For later, once we settled enough to consult our guide to the fishing regulations, we realized that we were not in a legal fishing zone: “Area 5. All finfish including salmon. Inside a line drawn from fishing boundary signs located approximately 100 meters seaward of the falls at the mouth of the Kumowdah River flowing into Lowe Inlet, is closed to fishing for all finfish July 1- October 31.” Whoops. So that’s what those triangular signs meant. Novice fishermen are a confused lot. Now we get it—we were in a BC Marine Park. And First Nations territorial waters. And the Kumowdah River is an important spawning grounds. No fishing by humans allowed.
As we watched the drama at the falls, we noticed that the large male bears fished from the left side of the falls, where it was easier to stand out on the top of a rock and reach into the water, while females seemed to fish the right side, where they had to drop down a series of rocks and stand in the flow to catch a salmon.
At one point, a small cub emerged from the woods, its mother behind it. Mother pushed the small bear forward, but the little one didn’t want to get her paws wet.
No wet paws, no dinner. Reluctantly, slowly, the little one went and stood in the water. In time, she noticed the fish leaping all around her. Finally she swiped a paw in the water. Nothing. Another swipe. Nothing. She lifted her paws from the water, shook them, and looked around miserably.
Suddenly she saw a fish, ducked her head in the water, and nabbed the salmon in her teeth. It writhed and flopped as the little bear climbed up the rocks, and managed to get away. Little bear went back down into the flow, tried again and again. Each time she caught a fish in her teeth, the fish managed to wriggle away. The mother bear slipped out of the trees to check on her cub, then melted back into the woods: things were proceeding as they should.
Finally the little cub managed to catch a smaller fish. She scrambled up the slope to a flat grassy area, killed and ate her fish. Victory! Thus heartened, she returned to the water for another try. This time she got her fish more quickly, leaped up the rock, and feasted on her prize.
The third catch was a little different. She took the fish to the grassy place, then sat down beside it. She didn’t eat right away, but put her paw on the fish and looked around proudly, as if to say, “I am a fishing bear! I can catch all the fish I want and need.” The eagles and ravens watched her, then one bald eagle descended and approached the cub. The two animals, bird and bear, made some sort of entente, and then together picked away at the fish, sharing this abundance.
We felt that we finally understood what Alexandra Morton meant when she said that the salmon were the lifeblood of the coast. We had finally witnessed the salmon forest in operation—as the salmon raced back up the rivers to spawn, some of them fed birds and other animals, who then carted the remains of the salmon deep into the forest, fertilizing the enormous trees and plant life of the rain forest. The decaying carcases of the salmon also nourished their own young, and made the rivers rich flows of nutrients for all sorts of other life. Truly, as the Coast Salish carving of a salmon we’d hung near the galley in the boat promised, a dwelling that contains a salmon is a place where no one goes hungry.
Sailmail that evening delivered two pieces of news that tugged at us. One was celebratory: our niece Katie and her husband David had just welcomed a healthy new 8 lb baby—Bobby–into the world. The other item was sobering; Karin had been appointed to the selection committee for the new president of NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), and the first meetings were already scheduled. She would have to get back before the end of August. We had hoped to make Prince Rupert, but now it seemed prudent to turn back soon. Klewnuggit, the next harbour off of the Grenville Channel, would be our last forward harbour—we’d have just one more day before we turned back “to the stable,” the airport, and Nova Scotia.
We learned, the hard way, that the flow of the tide did not split at Lowe Inlet, but rather near Klewnuggit, another provincial marine park. Jagged reefs guarded its entrance, and towering peaks covered in perpetual snow fields carved the sky into sharp angles. The water was deep and green.
At the foot of the East Inlet, a stream tumbled through cedars and across granite boulders. Mudslides everywhere down the steep slopes and stripes of white like the lines of a musical score, marked where the various tides habitually stopped.
We watched the clouds move in as the evening fell, our mood a bit gloomy. No one wanted to turn around yet; we were just getting going.
Still, we were also proud. We had nearly made it to the boundary between BC and Alaska. The coast of British Columbia with all of its inlets and the fine company had been too wonderful to rush any faster. Next year, we would make Alaska.
Lowe Inlet Marine Provincial Park http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/lowe_inlet/
Klewnuggit Inlet Marine Provincial Park http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/klewnuggit_inlet/
24 July 2012 Coughlan Anchorage, near Hartley Bay
We bid the Juneau kayakers farewell and left the hot springs of Bishop Bay. We headed north into Ursula Channel, which leads into Devastation Channel—one of two possible routes to Kitimat. But we’d found that we were missing some charts—whoops!– so Kitimat was off of the list of stopping places. Our new plan was to circle up Ursula and down Verney Channel towards Hartley Bay. This would send us around the top and along both long sides of the triangle-shaped Gribbell Island, where one of every three bears is a Kermode or spirit bear. Marike had taken to singing out “I want to see a Kermode bear!” every half hour or so as we were underway, so this was our last and best chance to see one before we exited Kermode territory.
The landscape was exceedingly mountainous and steep, however—not ideal bear sighting terrain. With the exception of some shoals near the top the island, the waters were deep—no shallow grassy areas where we might drop the hook and watch into the afternoon. Happily, we were visited by some Dall’s porpoises, who rode our bow wake for awhile and tossed arcs or “rooster tails” of water into the air.
The shoals at the north end of the island were full of small fishing boats trolling for salmon. Inspired, Marike rigged a flasher and hootchie to her line and tossed them out behind Quoddy’s Run. Alas, the flasher spun in a wild spiral and the line snarled up, fetching nothing.
As we turned the corner into Verney Channel, the wind stiffened. There was a great deal to see, but no spirit bears standing on the peaks waving. (Really, what had we expected? This wasn’t a Disney cruise!) We gawked at the enormous expanses of rock above us, huge bald grey overhanging mountains and valleys and marked out shapes in the varnishing or mineral run-off on these faces—one looked like a painted thunderbird. Rotten snow tumbled into crevasses; the summer melt continued.
By late afternoon, we reached across Douglas Channel—the main route to Kitimat—towards Hartley Bay. We dropped the hook in Coughlan Anchorage, just off of Otter Shoal, in a spot where we might catch enough wind to avoid the flies. This would be a staging point to time our trip up Grenville channel.
Hartley Bay is a permanent home to around 150 people of the Gitga’at First Nation, members of the Tsimshian cultural group. In the middle of the night on 22 March 2006, the entire community responded to a distress call in Wright Sound and sent out its boats to rescue the shipwrecked passengers of the BC Ferry, Queen of the North, which had struck a rock on the north end of Gill Island and soon sank. They successfully saved 99 of the 101 passengers and crew on that ferry. Then Governor General Michaëlle Jean issued the entire community a commendation for outstanding service to thank them for their “initiative, selflessness and an extraordinary commitment to the well-being of others” in the rescue; the honour also cites the town’s “tremendous spirit and the remarkable example it has set”— quite unlike the example of those of the vessel’s crew who were not on watch when they should have been.
Wright Sound is a complex spot, a place where seven flows of water gather, from Douglas Channel, Grenville Channel, Coughlan Channel, Whale Channel, Verney Passage, McKay Reach, and the Lewis and Cridge Passage from Squally Channel. Where so many channels and reaches meet, one might expect chaotic currents and unusual waves in any kind of weather. It beggars belief that officers of a passenger vessel, while on watch and responsible for the lives of so many, would find Wright Sound or its approaches a reasonable place for a tryst on the bridge in the night.
We also find it astonishing that any government would think it reasonable to propose to send steady streams of ships laden with Alberta bitumen from the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline through these waters. As so many observers who know the area and these seas have noted, it is not a question of if, but when disaster would strike once tankers began to export bitumen in these waters. After 24 years, Prince William Sound in Alaska still has not recovered from the Exxon-Valdez disaster. It is no surprise that a significant majority of British Columbians are opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline project. They don’t want to risk damaging one of their most important natural resources, the health and beauty of the Inside Passage. And as reports by the Coastal First Nations have made clear, a tanker spill would have many negative environmental and economic impacts on the waterways and lands of which they are the stewards. This is why they have joined together to mount numerous legal challenges and an anti-oil tanker campaign. Having traversed these waters, we stand firmly with them.
The next morning we hailed nearby Coast Guard vessel, the Gordon Reid, which had also anchored in Coughlan Anchorage. We were trying to understand how to time the tides in Grenville Channel. Apparently, they split in the middle: the flood runs north from the bottom of the channel and south from the top. The tidal flows apparently meet somewhere around Klewnuggit Inlet, although we were told that that point could vary. According to our calculations, it looked as if we should wait out the morning until the tide began to flood north, then stop overnight in the middle of the Channel, in order to ride the ebb north the next day. We wanted to know if this made sense.
The officer who answered our radio call told us that the Coast Guard had been very busy that summer with search and rescue missions, including several rescues at sea in Hecate Strait, the infamously shallow waterway between the mainland and Haida Gwaii. We asked who Gordon Reid was; why had their vessel been named after him? It turns out he had been the first certified First Nations Master Mariner in these waters; he had helped to map out the north coast and his extensive knowledge informed the instructions to mariners in northern BC. We didn’t exactly get an answer to our question about tides and currents—larger, faster vessels don’t have to worry about a three knot current as much as we do, but the Coast Guard suggested that the flow of the tide split in Grenville Channel somewhere around Lowes Inlet.
And so we soon set off, into Wright Sound and then the Grenville Channel. Northward!
On the Gitga’at First Nation based in Hartley Bay http://www.gitgaat.net/index.html
Governor General’s commendation of the residents of Hartley Bay http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2006/04/28/ggawards-060428.html
BC Ferries report on the grounding http://www.bcferries.com/files/AboutBCF/815-06-01_DI_QON_Grounding.pdf
Coastal First Nations Great Bear Initiative Anti-Oil Tanker Campaign: http://www.coastalfirstnations.ca/programs/anti-oil-tanker-campaign
See also http://www.pipeupagainstenbridge.ca/and, on the impacts of an existing and ongoing spill of Bunker C from a shipwreck in Grenville Channel, http://www.thenorthernview.com/news/150038505.html