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Racing through Canada, II

October 3, 2012

September 10 – 18

Some may contest that given my mode of transport I cannot possibly be racing through anything; that whether it be 140 miles noon to noon in boisterous trades or eight under similar suns in the doldrums, Murre is a slow goer by any meaningful measure. Doubly so, it could be argued, since averages are currently down to forty miles a day and every night is spent at anchor. But within the context of this cruise, where a month on the hook in a charming bay is the norm, our forced march through this network of intricate channels and narrows bordered by landlocked bays, deep fjords, snowy mountains feels a blur of speed.

The cause is winter’s approach and the only cure is southing. In summer the North Pacific High standing between this coast and the low pressure systems that spiral down from the Bering Sea shoulders north the worst of the wet and chill wind. But sometime after the solstice, after the sun begins its recession to the line, the High follows. The year matures; the High falls away, and without obstruction the lows lay in upon the land. As we moved along glassy Chatham Strait in mid August, a gale boomed up in Cross Sound; in early September we rounded Dixon Entrance as Chatham blew; when we rested in Prince Rupert, strong winds overtook Dixon. Each week that we make southing the southerlies are but one week behind. We are pushing to outpace winter and cannot afford to dawdle.

Mornings of this migration follow a ritual progression. Rise before sun-up into a cold cabin and argue with self which should come first: lighting the heater or dressing warmly. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other, but both occur before the cooking of water for coffee. Next, listen to the weather radio while topping off engine fluids, oil and coolant. Start engine. As it warms, prepare coffee and oatmeal and consume both while entering the day’s course in the chart plotter. Then switch on running lights, hook-up Wanderer, don boots, more sweaters, gloves, weigh anchor and put Murre out into the channel.

*Wanderer* is the electronic autopilot, a portable, low-power technology designed for small boats with tiller steering and adapted to Murre because of its price: cheap. I clamp the body of the Raymarine Tillerpilot to the aft rail and the head of its ram to the Monitor’s vane mount, and voila, we steer without wind. But badly. Murre’s forty year old wheel has some play in its worn bronze connections as do the gears in the twenty year old windvane. These combined with a necessary flaw in my Tillerpilot installation–it’s mounted backwards–means that our closest approach to a fair course is a lazy “S”. Thus the name.

In this way we pass down high-walled Grenville Channel, straight and uniform as a canal, to Kxngeal Inlet for the night; then next day we cross Wright Sound, passing close to port a floating Fir tree so large I learn of it first from a “hazards to navigation” bulletin on the radio. It includes green boughs and a root ball and appears freshly plucked from a nearby hillside. A seal rests on its trunk. The weather is deteriorating now, the sky lowering with wind from the south, some rain, and I fret over our night’s anchorage, Angler’s Cove. A mere scrape in the coast, Angler’s Cove was called Fisherman’s Cove until recently, renamed so as to disabuse first-timers like myself who might think that professional trollers would call it safe. They wouldn’t because it’s not. All night Murre swings close to the rocks as winds whip the water.

Wind eases to calm as we push next day down Fraser Reach past the collapsing cannery at Butedale then down Graham Reach by the Indian village of Klemtu and down Jackson Narrows, more rocks than water, to anchor in landlocked Rescue Bay whose complete protection is a wonder of nature. Next day dawns thick and foggy and we motor blind, except for radar, down Mathieson Channel and through the rocky turns of Perceval Narrows without seeing a thing. An hour into Seaforth Channel the sun has burned through, and the various blips on the radar screen become a tiny fleet of cruisers. Each passes Murre in turn, making our way feel all the slower as we round Dryad Point for the Indian village of New Bella Bella, so crowded with boats we opt for Shearwater, the next town on.

At the fuel dock I meet the harbormaster.

“I just saw a tug pulling a Swiss Chalet across the water on a barge,” I say in amazement as Murre kisses the dock and the man takes my lines. In fact, behind the tug was not only a Swiss Chalet, a brightly painted building of several stories topped by a steep roof and dormer windows, but also a barge carrying a large farm house and a barge carrying containers and a barge carrying heavy equipment, all behind the same tug.

“Just a fish camp,” he replies. “They move them around.”

Shearwater may be the only town in BC that has developed around a marine haul-out and repair facility. Even fifty years on the haul yard dwarfs the town, which includes a fine chandlery, a small grocery, a coffee shop that seconds as a book store, yoga studio and massage salon, and a store called Hodge Podge, where the inventory includes such things as lipstick, computer parts, Halloween costumes, extension chords, light bulbs, board games, greeting cards, and one pink and lavender tutu.

And of course there’s a pub.

Here I have a beer with the harbormaster that evening, a handsomely featured young man wearing a red flannel shirt and wool pants. He is a sailor too and has spent the last ten winters on his boat in Baja because “it’s cheaper to live in Mexico for six months of the year than to work in Canada for all twelve.”

I think to suggest that his salary for mastering a remote marina of twenty slips may be the cause of Canada’s expense, but he is obviously enamored.

“I got free room here.” he says. His diminutive two story, three room house is on floats at the head of the marina ramp.

“My commute is three minutes.” He rows the 50 yards to the fuel dock each day in an aluminum skiff.

“And when you yachties all leave, I shut’er down and go to Mexico.”

“But what do you find to do there each year?” I ask, suddenly forgetting my own occupation of late.

“Do?” He pauses. He seems not to comprehend the question. “Well, we snorkel some. Not much, I guess.”

“We” includes his girlfriend, who has just arrived. She is blond, dressed entirely in black, and her lips, tongue, nose and ears are pieced with silver metal. In my city she would be a commonplace, but on a small island whose town has 25 year-round residents and is 400 miles from Victoria, the nearest city, her appearance is strikingly unusual.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” she says. “I was the last white born on New Bella Bella. Now they like to fly pregnant whites down to Campbell River for the delivery.”

“Why?” I ask. She shrugs. “Better doctors I guess.”

“And the Indians are flown out too?”

“No. They have their own people.”

Fog is thick again next morning when I put Murre into Lama Passage and it clears by the time we reach Fitzhugh Sound. A group of four Sand Hill Cranes pass overhead. I spot a large log, but only after it is astern, and then two whales are ahead. A defect in the blowhole of one makes the heavy exhalations sound like a scream. Currents flow in our favor today, and at 4:30 we leave behind Addenbroke Island, our planned stop-over, and steam on until sundown, dropping anchor into landlocked Millbrook Cove off Smith Sound.

What do I mean by “landlocked”?

Millbrook Cove, for example, deeply set into a perfect circle of sheer rock, requires that Murre work in slowly and dog-leg fashion around two small islands whose channel is no wider than she is long. As she rounds the last of these it is like she enters an amphitheater. From the perspective of within, the two entrance islands overlap each other and the two exterior points of the cove and, like closing doors, shut off any view of sea beyond. Except that we had just entered, I would have said there was no way out.

The view from within is not what’s important, however. What’s important is that these islands that overlap the entrance lock outside any dangerous seas. Murre could ride out a hurricane in such a harbor and likely feel no effect but the wind.

There is not a single anchorage like this in San Francisco Bay, nor along any of the coastline between Cape Flattery and Cabo San Lucas. The Baja side of the Sea of Cortez has but one, large Puerto Escondido. Yet up here, with diligence, a cruiser can dig from his chart a cove or bay with these characteristics each day of his passage between Sitka and Victoria. It is enough to make a man weep at the injustice of such an uneven distribution wealth.

Next morning, the now usual fog, spun thick like cotton candy. The gillnetter Murre and I joined at anchor the previous night appears in no hurry, and the engines of our two boats tick over as we wait for the day’s intent to manifest. I am the less patient and weigh at ten when visibility in the cove is just better than nill. Today we will pass out into the open of Queen Charlotte Sound, and I want it done before the wind picks up to its predicted 20 knots from the northwest.

Out in the sound visibility is better than two miles. Seas are sloppy as we round Cape Caution. Rolling gunwale to gunwale as we are, I admire the stabilizers deployed on the gillnetter that has now departed Millbrook and is fast closing the gap between us without rolling at all. Ten hours later Murre and I are anchor down in Blunden Harbor, tucked behind Robinson and Edgell Islands, another landlocked anchorage.

Next day fog is thicker still as we cross Queen Charlotte Strait, dodging three tugs enroute to the town of Port McNiel where the sky doesn’t clear until late afternoon and just moments before the harbor entrance.

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