Cruising British Columbia’s divine coastal waters in a compact motorboat last month, two boomer siblings had a splendid wilderness adventure.
Andy Ryan, from Kenmore, Wash., planned the excursion and captained the Osprey, a sturdy, 22-foot C-Dory. Brother Bill Ryan, a New Yorker, took photos and helped navigate.
Canada opened to Covid-vaccinated foreigners in August, creating a small window for travel to the Great Bear Rainforest before harsh weather set in. A lifelong boater, Andy had taken Osprey in 2019 up the Inside Passage from Washington to Alaska’s Glacier Bay and back, and was keen to revisit the renowned nature preserve. Novice Bill had crewed on an Alaska leg of the earlier voyage and eagerly agreed to come along.
BY BILL RYAN
On Sept. 7, we trailered Osprey across the border, onto a ferry to Vancouver Island and up to Port Hardy before launching into Queen Charlotte Strait. Our first challenge was rounding unprotected Cape Caution, where wind- and current-driven waves mix with Pacific swell in a tricky chop. Stay alert, peer through thick boat-length-visibility fog and watch for floating logs!
Over the next three weeks, we made our way north through picturesque passages between forested islands to Prince Rupert, near Alaska, and back again. At night we anchored in sheltered inlets recommended by prior mariners using the Active Captain app. Mountains with stunning waterfalls ringed some of the anchorages.
Along the way we spotted more than a dozen humpback whales, their blows visible from far across the water. Some traveled in processions. A few appeared close by; one broached near our starboard side.
Near Klemtu, tragically, we noticed a mass of seaweed in motion. Approaching, we saw a humpback whale, apparently trying to free itself from a tangle of fishing net and kelp. We circled helplessly as it floundered; there was nothing we could do and we motored north in search of help.
A few miles further up the east coast of Swindle Island, we spotted a Kitasoo/Xai’xais Guardian Watchmen boat. Pulling alongside, we reported the trapped marine mammal and its location. The young Watchmen seemed to believe there was a good chance of saving the whale, and sped off to the rescue. Andy has attempted to find out what became of the hapless cetacean, but thus far has not been able to connect with the Guardian Watchmen. He will keep trying. Bill shot video of the whale, and it is awful to watch. But we don’t see any good reason to sanitize our account. The video is posted here.
We only ventured ashore a few times in the Great Bear Rainforest, and always at places with docks. The shores were rocky and slippery, and there weren’t many good places to land. The pristine area, now mostly protected from logging, is home to white “spirit bears,” a subspecies of the American black bear, revered by local native people. We did not see any, but did sight one of their black bear cousins on a beach as we motored by.
During a normal summer, these waterways would be thick with pleasure boats and cruise ships. But this year, post-season, we rarely saw another boat—an occasional tug pulling an enormous barge or a big BC Ferries ship. We had days of wooded solitude between far-apart fuel stops.
Sadly, due to Covid, Klemtu, Bella Bella and other First Nations communities on our route were closed to visitors. But we spent several days at the welcoming Shearwater Resort, newly aquired and managed by the Heitsuk Nation, while we waited for a strong gale to pass.
With Klemtu closed and our gas running low, it looked as though our trip might be cut short; fortunately, the fuel dock at the village of Hartley Bay—a two-day trip, 66 nautical miles north of Klemtu—was open for business. With our gas tanks now full, we headed up gorgeous Grenville Channel—waterfalls on each side for 45 miles—and on to Prince Rupert, the farthest north city on the B.C, coast.
We were now just 24 miles from the Alaska border … but Prince Rupert was the end of the line for us. Summer was but a memory on the north coast. The wet, windy season had set in, with one low pressure system rolling in after another, and we decided not to risk a crossing of notoriously rough Dixon Entrance, with Ketchikan just a few more hours to the north. Instead, we hunkered down in driving rain for a couple of days, rocking gently in a slip at the Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club. (Hot showers and a laundromat! Sweet!) Then we headed back south.
We had planned on gassing up again at Hartley Bay, but—oops!—the fuel dock was closed that day. We reduced our speed to save gas (Osprey doesn’t have tremendous range) and crept south. After two nervous days we made it back to Shearwater … on fumes … just in time for another powerful storm that kept us pinned to the dock for two days.
On our way south from Shearwater, we made a stop at the Hakai Institute on Calvert Island, where scientists study the ocean’s DNA and carbon levels. From there, we stretched our legs and walked to a gorgeous beach.
OK, let’s wrap this tale up in one paragraph.
Another big weather system was closing in, and we took advantage of a momentary calm and dashed back across Queen Charlotte Sound at 20 knots to Port Hardy, pulled Osprey out of the water and began the long drive home.
And then there was that surreal late night incident at a decrepit motel in Nanaimo, where a scary tweaker threatened us, convincingly, with a homemade sword he’d had hidden under his coat. But that’s another story.
ALASKA’S FAUNA WERE ON FULL DISPLAY as the Osprey made her way to Juneau from Wrangell. Brown bears, seals, eagles and ice animals practically posed as we went by, a photographer’s dream.
We stocked up in Petersburg, a scenic, orderly fishing town proud of its founders’ Norwegian and Native heritage. Sally Dwyer, a longtime civic leader, gave us a fascinating VIP tour.
For the next five days we cruised into the wilderness to see animals, snow-capped mountains and glaciers, on a blessed run of sunny days. At night we anchored in protected coves, after reading reviews by other mariners and gingerly sounding the surrounding depths.
Entering Stephens Passage from Frederick Sound we crossed a virtual whale highway. We heard spouting and saw dozens of plumes in all directions, and from afar glimpsed a few tails reflecting sunlight as they flopped into the water.
Near shore, eagles were constantly overhead.
At Hokham Bay we first encountered jagged icebergs calved from glaciers at the ends of Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm. Gleaming in the morning sun, some odd shapes suggested birds, lizards or dragons.
Rising at 4 a.m. to meet the tide, we made our way up to the challenging entrance of Ford’s Terror inlet—named for a frightened sailor who navigated the roiling rapids in a rowboat—and at slack water went through carefully, into a secluded paradise enclosed by stunning high cliffs and waterfalls. No gargantuan cruise ships here.
We stayed long enough for two short kayak rides to a beach at one end of this idyllic basin. Rounding a bend, I suddenly came upon a mama brown bear and two small cubs digging for crabs or clams. After backing off to avoid notice, I took pictures from the kayak, rueing my lack of a longer lens. The mother and cubs then swam across a rising creek and vanished in the woods.
When the tide was higher, I paddled back to their digging site, now an island, and found bear tracks and multiple holes in the sand.
The next day we continued up Endicott Arm to Dawes Glacier, weaving through a maze of small icebergs. Seals basked idly on many of these floats.
We got as close as we prudently could to the massive ice cliffs where the glacier meets the water, sharing the awing experience with kayakers from a swanky yacht.
We anchored for the night near the entrance of Tracy Arm, another fjord famous for icebergs, sharing the cove with tour boats and pleasure craft. As we pulled in, we spotted a brown bear family walking along slowly along the shore, as I and other tourists in inflatable rafts snapped pictures. Then they saw us and slipped behind the tall grass.
A trio of eagles watched from a rock as we pulled out into windy Stephens Passage, where we faced two- to three-foot waves from several directions. Our ride toward Juneau was bumpy but manageable, and the mountains on all sides were magnificent.
On our last night out in this leg of Osprey’s journey we anchored by a beach in a tranquil cove off Admiralty Island, reputed home to North America’s largest brown bear population. No creatures were sighted onshore, but in a sunset that lasted past midnight we listened to a nearby whale’s spouting and splashing, sounds that boomed across the water. Suddenly there was a commotion, and close behind our stern up popped two seals swirling in a close embrace.
After a couple of days’ respite and a crew change in Juneau, brother Andy and his cozy C-Dory will head off to the natural glories of Glacier Bay. Bon voyage. Quelle aventure.