Saturday, August 15, 2009
Back on Canada's Mainland and Heading South
The Inside Passage:
We are in Shearwater/Bella Bella. After 75 days of sailing in these waters, we finally joined the Inside Passage for the first time on August 12 (just north of Klemtu). Since then we’ve seen more boats than we’ve seen on our entire trip. Even the oceans have highways, byways and remote trails. Although going off the beaten track takes more effort and requires a bit more self-reliance, it’s worth it. Currently we’re experiencing a slight re-entry shock at all the civilization here in this village, but our laundry was beginning to speak audibly from its dank corner, we ran out of fresh vegetables, meat and ice, and we wanted to check in with the world. It would be nice to be able to send and receive email and hear the latest news from remote anchorages, but that would require a ham or single-sideband radio. It’s on the list. Jim’s investigating getting licensed and we’re trying to figure where we might fit the radio on the boat. Meanwhile, here’s a catch-up:
Fond farewell to the Queen Charlottes: Can you see the sleeping figure in this photo?
While we were anchored off Queen Charlotte City, we wanted to transit the intricate Skidegate Channel to the west coast, but nearly a week of 40-knot winds after we last wrote kept us from doing that. Even the fishermen told us we shouldn’t attempt it, because the seas that met them at the other end were, they said, huge. And if a fisherman tells you the seas are huge it’s probably wise to believe it. This is a photo of relatively protected waters during the gale. So we rented a car for a day and drove to the far north side of Graham Island, through several interesting villages to the body of water known as Dixon Entrance, across which lay Alaska. Dixon was living up to its wild reputation that day, and we photographed the surf explosively hitting a rock blowhole at a beach. The people along the way were very friendly, the totem poles in several villages were exquisitely carved by the late, beloved Bill Reid and other Haida artists, and the brand new museum at Skidegate Village was breathtaking.
The weather finally moderated. We arose at 0430, got ready, turned the engine key, and... nothing. By the time we replaced the ignition switch it was too late to go that day, and we'd lost our good-weather window for another few days. Still, once it moderated again it wasn’t easy to leave a place like that. Such warm people, such history, scenery and beauty.
Photo: a Haida canoe awaiting its crew.
The Outside Passage: The 73-mile crossing of Hecate Strait took only one long day, starting with the anchor up at first light, and ending 15 ½ hours later. In the photo you can see a sunrise optical illusion, where the sun loses its roundness and becomes columnar--it did this for about ten minutes.
It was also a terrific sail, with beam seas of only 1-2 meters and a nice northwest wind that eventually increased to about 30 knots and saw Sockdolager double-reefed and going like a scalded cat, but comfortably. We actually sailed a bit north on this leg (to the north side of Banks Island) because we wanted to see the little-known “Outside Passage” and sail down Principe and Petrel Channels, with their little-used harbors.
One of the best things about cruising is the people you meet, and this area was no exception. A 30-foot sailboat with the intriguing name of “Wild Abandon” sailed in to the inlet we were in, and within two days we had gone fishing (and caught fish!), had a couple of dinners and many laughs together, some cribbage lessons, and one Big Adventure. “We’re going to Buchan Inlet,” said Marty and May, who are from Prince Rupert, when we discussed whether we’d meet again that night. “We might go there too,” we replied, as we left a couple hours before they did. The cruising guide gave a tiny mention, in its description of Buchan Inlet, that a boat might want to enter the beautiful back lagoon, which is more sheltered than the outer bay, at high slack water. However, it declined to say why. It did show the entrance to be narrow, but lots of entrances are narrow.
So, thinking that Marty and May knew the place and had gone in there a bunch of times, we reconnoitered it and then blasted through the narrows. The outgoing current was around 4 knots and rocks were visible close by, so this qualified as the most hair-raising entrance we’d ever done. Later, Marty zoomed in on his dinghy with eyes wide. ‘HOW THE HELL DID YOU GET IN HERE?” he said. We told him, then said, “We thought you’d done this before and meant to come in here as your anchorage.” “Good God no!” he said. “I’d never come in here after looking at those narrows!” They anchored in the outer bay, and after dinner aboard their boat we had one of the scariest dinghy rides imaginable back to Sockdolager, skimming over a spot that was bare rock shortly after. Here's a photo of the entrance at mid-tide, but wait'll you see the video when we figure out how to post it.
Even the inner cove was not spared from current. Sockdolager was spinning around her anchor like a compass in the Bermuda Triangle. It was muggy and buggy, and there were uncharted rocks and no crabs in there. We decided that this chapter of the cruising guide should be thrown out.
Exiting Constipation Cove would be tricky, so we decided to wait for high water slack the next afternoon. That day we rowed over to the narrows and were shocked: whitewater rapids foamed and surged and flowed into the cove at 7 to 9 knots. Yeeks! We climbed a rocky island in the middle of the channel and filmed them, because it will be hard to believe you could get a sailboat through there, and we intend to prove we did. Finally, with hearts thumping, we threaded the narrows at high tide and got out of jail free. UPDATE: At the end of this post we've added 4 video clips to give you an idea of what the entrance to Buchan Inlet is like. Rest assured, we will NEVER try that again.
Continuing our nautical ramble, the pace of which Jim has described as “Progress akin to that of a wounded snail,” we spent a couple of days riding out a gale anchored on Campania Island among a gorgeous maze of tiny islands stuffed with noisy crowds of ancient murrelets, mergansers, Sabine’s gulls, and eagles that in any other place would be a national park. Did we mention noisy? It sounded like a ballfield at the World Series where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is trying to teach everyone “The Messiah” after too many beers and a no-hitter. Those birds could sing. The transit through Laredo Sound went through a bit of open sea, and we met big swells again, but by the end of a long day the sailing was good and we navigated a little-used channel called Meyers Passage, an inland cut that avoids the open sea.
It feels pretty good to have been out for 75 days without being on any of the “beaten tracks.” Now we are, and there will be plenty of company. We look forward to meeting new friends and reuniting with old ones.
Potlatch! We heard our friend Roly Brown, of F/V Tropic Isle, on the radio and rendezvoused with him at the Bella Bella government dock. There was a huge potlatch going on and the entire town plus tribal members from other villages were there—perhaps two hundred in all. Someone invited us in, and we watched quietly and with awe as the long, emotional ceremonies unfolded. Although we didn’t understand them all, the dancing, drumming and singing were compelling, and we witnessed the giving of special names and gifts such as blankets. A revered elder, a woman named Shirley, was honored with a new carved hat and ornate set of Chief's robes.
In this photo Chiefs are dancing. Their carved wooden hats are hung with ermine skins, and some are topped with sea lion whiskers, which form a kind of cage for loose eagle and swan's down. The scattering of these white feathers as a Chief dances is a traditional sign of peace. Rattles and decorative attachments to the costumes are sometimes made of deer hooves, and they make quite a sound. Combined with drumming and chanting, the effect is hypnotic. In another ceremony, an elder named Al who had been forcibly sent to a boarding school in his childhood was honored and publicly enfolded back into the community. They literally wrapped him in a blanket and hugged him and then his entire extended family circled the hall as the rest of us stood to honor him. It was quite moving, and a real privilege to witness.
And that’s part of the potlatch tradition: everyone is a participant because the act of witnessing the passing of names, possessions, stories or traditions is as important as passing them on. Potlatches, which we learned evolved as a traditional economic as well as cultural system for First Nations in the Northwest, were outlawed in the 1880s and only recognized at mid-century. Of course, they continued to be held in private, called “church suppers” and other ambiguous names. This potlatch started in late afternoon and was to go well into the night. We three stayed for awhile, but reluctantly left to go rustle up some supper.
The Fishing is Ridiculous: Yes, you read that right. Adjectives are flying about this fishing season, including “obscenely good.” And you’ll be pleased to know that we finally have it figured out and can go fishing with reasonable chance of success. In fact, too much fresh salmon can be, well… no we have not reached that point yet but we’re close. Jim, observing hundreds of jumping salmon, could stand it no longer. He said, “I know we have a long way to go, but let’s go over to that reef and fish for fifteen minutes. Just fifteen, okay?” He sounded like an addict needing a fix. After a few minutes of trolling he looked worriedly at his watch and said, “Only six minutes left.” Then, BANG! “FISH ON!” Karen yelled at the zizz of the line. Jim reeled it in as she netted it: a dinner-sized pink. Now Jim is saying things like, “I just want to catch a fish. I don’t really want to eat more fish right now, I just wanna catch another one.” In the photo Jim is doing the traditional "kiss your first salmon" gesture, albeit three or four salmon into his new career. Is he hooked, or what?
Détente: Just as Americans take delight in pointing out differences in speech patterns, Canadians are no less enthusiastic about it. We say “huh?” while they say “Eh?” We end most of our sentences on a down-tone, while they end with up-speak. We have weird signs and so do they. (A TV Society? Wonder what the initiation rites are like...)
The BC accent has pleasant Scottish and Irish undertones, which delight our ears. Our flat pronunciations amuse and sometimes puzzle their ears, especially when we use place names, which are so unusual and fun to say that we wrote a song to the tune of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” BC’ers love to hear us rattle off a playful rhyming string of their place names as we sing “We’ve Been Everywhere (in BC).”
Occasionally a spot of politics will creep into conversations. Mostly, Canadians remain baffled by the last eight years and gently probe us to ascertain that we haven’t lost our marbles or been abducted by aliens or something. We assure them that most Americans, with a few notable exceptions, are perfectly sane and rational. We tell them we’re trying to get back to whatever passes for normal these days, as best we can. They are reassured by the individual, startled by the masses, when it comes to dealing with Americans.
But one international issue refuses all attempts to resolve it. There is no quarter given, no conciliatory détente, no mercy, and this is very troubling. It is serious. It is the price of Canadian beer. You think we’re kidding? The cheapest Canadian beer is three times the price of average-grade American. Shock and awe for the unwary. It’s a stealth technique for identifying Americans who might otherwise pass without notice. Unfailingly, the scene unfolds like this:
Jim and Karen, upon entering a liquor store: “GASP! GASP!”
Clerk: “You’re Americans, aren’t you?”
Don’t say we didn’t warn you. One hopeful sign is the rumor that the Canadian government is considering placing defibrillators at the doorways.
Dethump: Karen has developed the habit of whacking her head on any available part of the boat. She sits up in bed, whack. Fails to see the hatch is closed as she ascends the steps, whack. Throws her head back to laugh, whack. She even hit her head on the boat’s compression post, which thundered all the way to the cockpit and caused Jim to ask, “How’d you do that?” While all this whacking gives much amusement, it also gives headaches and lumps. Perhaps she has a case of Whackheimers. But why, after all this time of owning a Dana 24 herself, is this malady just now appearing, and on someone who’s only five-foot two? Karen’s only consolation is her newly minted word for the condition of repeatedly hitting the same body part on unyielding objects such as a boat: a whackadundant.
Depart: Tomorrow we’ll leave civilization to continue heading toward home. The challenge of going faster than a wounded snail is proving to be a daunting one, as temptation lurks at every bend in the channel. We’ll make stops in the Broughton Islands and will attempt the Dent-Yaculta rapids route instead of Seymour Narrows. But a rapids-infested channel named Dent does give a boat owner pause to wonder why it has that name…