Friday, September 19, 2008

Bella Bella and Beyond

Myles Inlet was our first stop after leaving Vancouver Island, and we lost a crewmember on the way. Early afternoon and little Finbar gave up the fight. I didn't really expect it; It had been a week since their birth, and Finbar and Finnigan were considerably smaller than the other two, but I thought they were doing alright. We were hours from our next port, and Effie was mourning, so I decided it was better not to wait for a land burial, so we buried him at sea. It didn't feel very natural to drop him into the water, but eventually I did, and for a moment he looked no different from the moment he'd been born. Then our thoughts immediately turned to Finnigan. We tried to feed her warmed egg and milk, but she refused to eat. The next morning, she was gone too. A Schooner Match box was the perfect size, and we left her behind in Myles Inlet by the tidal falls. Effie was lost for a while, searching the boat for her lost kittens, but she seems to have let go now. She's very protective of Jacob and Mary-Anne, and doesn't let them get very far from their box before taking them by the scruffs of their necks and dragging them back to safety.

The next jump north was wide open to the Pacific swells. With a name like Cape Caution, the passage seemed a bit more intimidating than it was in reality. We had good wind, and despite dozens of floating logs scattered around, they were easy to spot thanks to all the seagulls resting along them. Once north of the Cape, we were back on the protected Inside Passage. An overnight stop at Pruth Bay was recommended by Charlie, the author of our 1986 cruisers guide we picked up at a sailors exchange a month ago (it's as good as the day it was written, not much has changed). Charlie's Charts, as far as were concerned, have been an essential for this trip, having purchased American published 'charts', which, upon closer inspection, are 'not to be used for navigation'. There's a reason why friends don't left friends shop at West Marine.

In Pruth Bay we spotted wolf tracks on the white sandy beach which was a short hike from the anchorage. The island is the site of a sportsfishing lodge, which had just closed for the season. Caretakers had just arrived by float plane to look after the property for the winter, and told us of the wolves, and details of the lodge, and pointed out an old cabin where John Wayne stayed when he visited the lodge many years ago.

Each day, the scenery has steadily changed. We've become completely spoiled with humpback whale sightings, and often stop and drift as they come up for their displays. Usually we see a fin, followed by a huge tail that swoops up, then falls beneath the water without a trace of a splash. A more impressive show is to see a lone whale somersaulting and slapping the surface with its long flippers, sometimes repeatedly for 20 minutes or longer. The sound it makes, in such a wild environment, is difficult to describe. When the wind and seas are calm, the only sound you hear is the ringing in your ears. It hasn't been unusual for us to go for days at a time without seeing another boat, or plane, or any other sign of civilization. I had no idea before setting out on the trip that there would be such long stretches of desolation. I do have to wonder how many outlaws seek the remoteness of this area, and live up in the mountains where, chances are, they would never be found.
Bella Bella was the first community we encountered since leaving Port MacNiell. As charming as the name sounds, I found the walk around town a bit depressing. The kids were friendly, the teens looked angry, and the shopkeepers were helpful, much like any other town big or small, but I could feel a difference. The consequence of a community that is so isolated from the rest of the province, I guess. True, BC Ferries makes a stop there ever few days, and there's nothing to stop a float plane from landing just off the shore anytime, but I think I would find it difficult as a young adult trying to find my life's calling in such isolation. Then again, perhaps growing up with a greater sense of community and having a greater reliance on one another than the average city-dweller, knowing what's important comes into focus more easily. We were easy to spot as we wandered around, not only as sailors, but as non-Natives, and sometimes I find it hard to read how people feel about tourists in their town. The reception in Bella Bella and all of the communities since has been very welcoming, and when it comes to opinions on the salmon fishery and fish farm disputes, many are eager to share their point of view.

On our way to Klemtu, I recall reading on the chart 'Waterfall Point' on the American 'chart', and I slandered the chart once again for being completely wrong. I assumed a place named Waterfall Point would have a waterfall there, but one should never assume. It eventually began to make some sense though in the following hours when we started counting waterfalls by the dozens. This would continue for many days and miles. We learned in Klemtu about the 'Spirit Bear'. On rare occasion, two recessive genes combine and a Brown bear is born white. There had been sightings in the last week, so we spent much of our time the next few days scanning the shores as we sailed along, hoping to see him. It never happened.

The only fault we have found in Charlie's Charts, which we only began to understand in Klemtu, was that most of the native communities are dry towns. Charlie was a sailor, we thought, so he must know that such information might be considered important and would deserve a mention. After 2 weeks, I began working on a design for a flag, that when hoisted would unmistakably suggest to any passing ship that our flag was the International Distress Signal for Wine and Baguettes, and to assist if possible.

Charlie never steered us wrong when it came to good anchorages though, and recommended one in Butedale next to an impressive waterfall. We entered the small bay, the site of an old cannery, where an old man name Lou is now the caretaker of the remains of the cannery and surrounding buildings. He lives alone, and advertises on a large piece of plywood by the shore that he sells ice cubes, ice cream, and showers. We tide up to his dock, which easily became submerged as we stepped off the boat, and hiked up to a nearby lake. Hundreds of felled trees remain behind in the lake, cut decades ago, and now gathered at the corner of the lake before the waterfall. Since arriving in British Columbia I've been dreaming about running around on the log booms and trying my feet at logrolling. Discovering that lake of huge trees has been one of the highlights of the trip for me, odd as it may seem. There was yet another degree of silence we experienced up there, as we made our way as close to the middle of the lake that the huge floating logs would allow. Night was falling so we began our hike back to Lou's cabin. Lou seemed delighted with the company, and after a lukewarm shower by the light of an LED headlamp strung above the faucet, we all sat around his TV to watch a very old Michael Douglass movie. Lou kept a running commentary on the film he's probably seen 2 dozen times, pausing only to top up his glass of vodka and purple Kool-Aid.

Before departing the next morning, Lou told us of a hot-spring off the beaten track. We sailed up to the end of the inlet, dropped the anchor and canoed up the river we assumed Lou was trying to describe. A short hike into the woods and we found the springs. A concrete pool was built around a spout, and the rate of flow was slow, so it wasn't as warm as we'd hoped, worth the trip nevertheless. By evening we were in Hartley Bay, another native town, and very unique in the sense that the entire town is interconnected by boardwalk. There are a couple of scooters, but the only other motorized vehicles on the island are the fishing boats. We followed one walkway up into the woods, where 3 young boys were walking back from the lake with a big salmon, and very thoughtfully and casually said, "Be careful of the bears". I still wanted to see a bear, so was eager to keep going, but Brian said it was time to phone his mom, so we turned and headed for home. I know the truth though, Brian.

Some days seem longer than others, especially when there's little wind, and we're just motoring along. There's a tendency to fall into a sort of highway hypnosis at the helm, and the boredom can lead to too much thinking. As a result, we've begun to take turns reading to one another to pass the time. I found a book in a second-hand shop in Squamish called Ralph Edwards of Lonesome Lake, about a pioneer in the Bella Coola area. Knowing we'd be sailing in the vicinity, I thought it might be of some interest, and its probably the best $1 I've spent since beginning the trip. His family became caretakers for the wintering Trumpeter swans which were dwindling in numbers and were dangerously close to extinction. He was credited for getting the species off the endangered list, which is just the beginning of his story. Suffice to say, it's a great read, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Most places we've visited, we've kept it to just an overnight stay, either exploring on arrival, or getting up in the morning for a few hours of canoeing or fishing before moving on to our final destination, Alaska. Hartley Bay had something about it, I could have stayed another day or two, but we carried on up Grenville Channel to find an anchorage in West Inlet, our final stop before the bustling town of Prince Rupert and the first pub since Vancouver Island. West Inlet was deserted aside from a large converted freighter on a mooring called the Heli-Forrester. It is a portable accommodation for a logging company that does all its logging using helicopters. We dropped the anchor in about 35 feet of water, and decided we'd like to canoe over to the Heli-Forrester and see who was around. Only one caretaker was aboard, waiting for the next crew to arrive in a few days. We talked for an hour or two, and he described the process of the helicopters plucking the felled trees from the hillside and dropping the trees into the water, where they'd later be transferred to barges and shipped away. We had a good yarn and it was pitch darkness paddling back to the boat. As we approached the boat, I was busy looking below the canoe, splashing the water to activate the phosphorescence. Once beside Nirmala, I thought I could see some leaves suspended about 3 feet below the surface, but then realized I was looking at the bottom. The boat wasn't floating anymore. "Brian, I think the boat is sitting on the bottom..." I felt terrible, thinking about how it was me that had dropped the anchor, so as I let it down I should have been able to estimate more accurately the depth of the water. The tide range is substantial here, but not quite 35 feet. Brian was really quiet for a while as he assessed the situation, and I got a bit nervous, feeling to blame, and knowing how I'd feel if I came back to Annie Laurie sitting on the bottom. I didn't know what to say, and then he started laughing, "Laura, to tell the truth, I can't believe we made it this far!". We climbed aboard at the bow, careful to keep her balanced on the keel, and made our way below. By morning we were floating again, and at 0630 the tide was falling rapidly, so we got an early start and enjoyed a good laugh at our own expense, after we were sure there was no harm done. I explained my feelings of guilt about it all, but Brian is very easy-going and understanding. He reminded me how I shouldn't worry my 'pretty little head' about such things, how I can't be expected to do a man's work, and how I'm really out of my element. A womans place is in the kitchen, not at sea! After Brian cooking blueberry waffles on the barbecue, and cleaning an inch of solidified bacon fat out of the frying pan using the cotton washcloth, I'm more than happy to take over the galley chores.

We regrouped for a couple of days in Prince Rupert, finding a shower for the second time since Port MacNiell, stocking up on groceries, doing a bit of laundry, and lowered the Wine and Baguette distress flag for the first time in 3 weeks.

Next stop, Alaska.