A Cathedral in Nature

Princess Louisa Inlet is out of the way but well worth the effort to visit.

Sheer, forested mountain slopes rise 6,000 feet above us as we glide by on Prince of Wales Reach. Our chart indicates a depth of 2,100 feet! The weather is calm, sunny and warm. Princess Louisa Inlet, our long-dreamed-of destination, is close at hand.

Good friends. Good weather. One of the most beautiful places on Earth. That’s a recipe for a perfect cruise.

From our earliest days dreaming about cruising in the Pacific Northwest, we were aware of Princess Louisa Inlet. Boating acquaintances who had traveled extensively talked excitedly of the remote gem. So as we researched potential cruising destinations, Princess Louisa Inlet quickly rose on our priority list.

The inlet is shrouded in legend and intrigue, and stories abound of its beauty, remoteness and awe-inspiring scenery. We credit the magical inlet, featuring whimsical Chatterbox Falls, as one of the primary reasons we became interested in the liveaboard lifestyle. We had to experience Princess Louisa Inlet from our own home.

Malibu Rapids are the last obstacle before reaching Princess Louisa Inlet, but before they could get there, the crew of Still Waters made a stop in Vancouver and visited Granville Island.

My wife, Barb, and I were in our first year of living aboard Still Waters, a 48-foot aft-cabin power cruiser. We had explored the U.S. San Juan Islands, the Canadian Gulf Islands including Butchart Gardens, and other amazing places, but Princess Louisa, our Holy Grail, was still on our list to discover. So we made a plan.

September finally arrived, as did our good friends Lynn and Colleen St. Pierre from Kalispell, Mont. We set off to discover our long-anticipated destination, Princess Louisa, about 150 miles north of our Blaine, Wash., homeport.

Day one, under sunny skies and in calm seas, took us 47 miles from Blaine, around the Fraser River Delta and into False Creek at Vancouver, B.C., where we checked in with Canadian Customs. After clearing customs, we moved Still Waters to an anchorage in 12 feet of water at low tide just east of the Granville Bridge. We waited long enough to feel confident our anchor was set well, lowered the dinghy and motored to the public dock on Granville Island.

A fun, bustling, eclectic neighborhood, Granville Island lies under two huge bridges that funnel traffic in and out of Vancouver. It is also home to one of our favorite restaurants, the Sand Bar, a unique establishment announced by a replica fishing boat and whose top-level patio area opens to the gorgeous Vancouver skyline. Heaters and blankets are available, but we didn’t need them on an early September evening. We arrived before dusk and dined into the evening, accompanied by the magical city lights that sparkled on the skyline.

Back on Still Waters, we sat on the aft deck and marveled at the urban beauty, located in the middle of one of North America’s most majestic cities.

We made provisioning plans over breakfast the next morning, and afterward we again took the dinghy to shore, aiming for Granville’s Public Market and its abundance of fresh vegetables, meats and fruits. Our dinghy’s waterline was definitely lower as we carefully ferried our goodies back to the boat.

Once on board with our provisions stowed, we retrieved the anchor and made our way out of False Creek and proceeded north on calm seas up the eastern shoreline of the Strait of Georgia. The area is called the Sunshine Coast and on this glorious day in September, we all agreed it was well named.

On our way to Pender Harbor, a trip of about 50 miles for the day, we passed many attractive bays and mountain vistas. And then…
“Whales!” Someone shouted.

I stopped the engines so we could observe a pod of four humpback whales off the Sechelt shoreline. They were in no hurry, rolling and lunging, but we had Pender Harbor to reach before nightfall, so I reluctantly started the engines and idled away.

Around 8 the next morning, we cast off the lines to travel up the reaches, or arms, of Jervis Inlet. Capt. George Vancouver initially believed this waterway was the entrance to the fabled Northwest Passage, only to be disappointed when he sighted the upper end after three hard days of sailing and rowing under bad weather conditions.

At 50 miles long, Jervis forms one of the largest fjords within the extensive fjord system on the west coast of British Columbia. It is made up of three main reaches: Prince of Wales, Princess Royal and Queens Reach. Off of Queens Reach lay our goal, Princess Louisa Inlet, some 40 more miles up the reaches from Pender Harbor.

Along the way is Egmont, 15 miles from Pender and just at the entrance to Skookumchuck Narrows, whose rapids can be terrifying at full flood, as speeds can reach 18 knots. The rapids at Skookumchuck are claimed to be the fastest tidal rapids in the world. Many boaters stop here to watch the impressive overfalls and whirlpools.

Princess Louisa Inlet is accessible only by plane or boat. No roads offer access to this remote gem. To make it even more inaccessible, Malibu Rapids present a final challenge to boaters, who must successfully transit the rapids before arriving at their goal. Our boating plan was to reach the rapids, a trip of 40 miles, in time for high slack, at 2:30 p.m.

Malibu Rapids can run faster than 9 knots at peak, so timing is important. Anyone who wants to run the rapids must arrive ahead of slack water and successfully navigate the rapids into the inlet, because there are few places to anchor outside the inlet for owners who miss the tide change. After a boat transits the rapids, its crew still has to travel four miles to secure a place on the dock at the base of Chatterbox Falls, at the head of Princess Louisa Inlet.

We arrived about 30 minutes before slack water. I shut down the engines, and Still Waters drifted with the slow-moving tide as we waited. From our vantage point, we enjoyed a great view of Young Life’s Malibu Camp, a Christian youth camp that is one of Young Life’s most popular camps among more than 30 worldwide. The story of Malibu Camp and the area in general is a good read; I highly recommend “Through the Rapids,” by Charles William Hitz. It documents the history and antics of the colorful characters who pioneered this fascinating area.

Malibu Camp’s buildings are visible to boaters waiting for slack tide at Malibu Rapids so they can transit the rapids and enter Princess Louisa Inlet. At Pender Harbor, visitors get directions to locations near and very far.

Chatterbox Falls, at the head of the inlet, live up to their name.

A camp boat from Malibu Camp came roaring up and through the cut, thus loudly announcing the beginning of slack water. The pilot obviously knew what he was doing and had power to spare. We joined six other boats that were also awaiting their chance to enter this intriguing inlet.

Captains are asked to announce a “Securite” via VHF radio before transiting the rapids, and it’s obvious why. The cut is definitely one-way only, so good communication is a must, to avoid a potential catastrophe. Remember, boats leaving the inlet have the right of way.

Exiting the rapids upstream, we were awestruck by the scene that opened to us. Huge granite-topped mountains, capped with snow, surrounded the serene waters of the inlet. The head of the inlet, our destination for the next couple of days, was situated four miles to the northeast of Malibu Rapids. The inlet and surrounding land comprise Princess Louisa Marine Provincial Park, established in 1965 and managed by BC Parks with the cooperation of the Princess Louisa International Society.

A 250-foot guest dock is large enough for several boats, depending on their size — 55 feet is the maximum — and dockage is free; however, the park encourages a $20 donation to help offset costs, and space is available on a first-come, first-served basis. There is no electricity, and non-potable water is available on the dock.

Anchoring is limited, because the sheer drop-off of the mountainsides continues to depths of more than 500 feet. Anyone who wants to drop the anchor must do so close to shore, and many boat owners prefer to anchor at the mouth of Chatterbox Falls.

Fortunately, our timing was good. We found room at the dock, tied Still Waters securely to it and went off to do some exploring.

Chatterbox Falls is beautiful and boisterous; hence, the name. On its way to the ocean, the runoff drops 5,000 feet from the mountains above, finding its way over numerous falls and pools until emerging above the inlet and dropping more than 100 feet — within misting distance of the dock and the anchored boats.

Photo opportunities abound at the base of the falls. The teepee-style MacDonald Memorial Shelter is nearby and offers two picnic tables and a fire pit. Toilets are also available, and so is non-potable water. For the hardy hiker, a trail leads up the mountainside to Trapper’s Cabin. The steep trail is strewn with tree roots and boulders, and for most of the year, mud makes it a serious challenge. This is not a hike for the timid.

I first became aware of the old cabin while reading Muriel Blanchet’s “The Curve of Time,” a great book set in the 1920s and ’30s. It chronicles the story and adventures of a woman and her children who explore the coastal waters of British Columbia. She doesn’t mention ever meeting the “trapper,” and I have not come across any more detail than “a cabin’s remains sitting high above Princess Louisa Inlet.” Signs warned of the difficult and potentially dangerous trail; however, the challenge was irresistible.

Lynn and I decided to give it a try and see how far we could make it. We loaded our packs with water, snacks, cameras and layering clothes, and we set out at 10 a.m. Up and over, down and around, we made our way. The trail wasn’t long, but it was steep, rising around 1,800 feet above the waters of the inlet.

The trail wound through typically dense Northwest forest, where ferns, moss and lichen-covered rock abounded. Cool mountain air and fragrant earthy scents filled our noses. After two hours of climbing, including many breaks to enjoy the scenery and catch our breath, we were suddenly looking at the remains of the old cabin!

Congratulating ourselves on the successful climb, we ate lunch at the base of a waterfall not 100 paces from the cabin. We tried to envision the life of the cabin’s original occupant and how and why he lived in this most remote of places.

The view was spectacular. We could even see the mouth of the inlet in the distance. It truly was a beautiful spot that was worth the hike. We were fortunate to be there late in the season, when dry trail conditions permitted us to climb.

Lynn and Ed enjoyed cocktails after taking in the scenery and waterfalls while hiking to the old trapper’s cabin above Chatterbox Falls.

The next day, we were ready for some solitude. We found exactly what we were looking for about halfway down the inlet, behind MacDonald Island, where we anchored in 80 feet of water. It was Sunday, and we couldn’t think of a more spiritually symbolic place to reflect on how God has blessed us. The tall, steep surrounding rock walls reminded us of cathedral spires, and the intense quiet over the calm waters enhanced our morning reflection time.

Young Life’s Malibu Camp facility had intrigued us when we first entered the rapids, so in the afternoon, we decided to take the dinghy over and have a look. The staff was busy closing it for the year; however, they were cheery and happy to show us around. We marveled at the rustic log woodwork and native stone from which the buildings are constructed. A large swimming pool overlooked the entrance to the rapids, and hundreds of orange and purple sea stars lined the rocks in the clear water around the pool.

The main lodge houses a bookstore and an ice cream shop and deli. Luckily it was still open, so we purchased and ate some refreshing ice cream. We stood near the pool as we finished our treat and noticed a 16-foot Hobie Cat sailboat coming into view at the entrance to the rapids. We assumed the captain, who was expertly guiding the non-motored craft through the slack water of the cut, was a Young Life guide enjoying an afternoon sail. We realized, however, that two older men were guiding the boat. They had a backpack tied to the boom, and one of the men was sitting on a suitcase.

Curious to see what this was all about, we loaded into our dinghy and came alongside the Hobie, now becalmed in the inner bay. We hailed the men and learned they had sailed from Saltery Bay up Jervis Inlet over the course of three days, a run of about 45 miles. Barb and I had been introduced to boating on a 14-foot Hobie, so we appreciated what a feat that was. They were headed for Chatterbox Falls and the camping area at its base, but the wind had all but disappeared. There was no way they would make it before dark. We offered them a tow, at least to our boat behind MacDonald Island. We gave them some bottled water and grabbed their towline.

When we arrived at Still Waters, there was still no wind, so I dropped off our crew and had one of the Hobie passengers get in the dinghy with me, to lighten the tow. He told me his friend invited him on a boat trip but didn’t tell him the boat had no engine! The tow was interesting as I learned a bit about them — close friends in semi-retirement who thought it would be fun to have an adventure.

The captain was having a great time and encouraged me to go faster so he could surf my wake, back and forth, as we made our way to the dock at the falls. I admit I exceeded the posted speed limit for the inlet, but for a short time I couldn’t resist their joyful exuberance.

The following day — oh, how we didn’t want to leave our little piece of paradise — we timed our departure for slack and made an uneventful 42-mile passage down the reaches in mildly choppy seas to our destination for the night at Blind Bay, between Hardy and Nelson islands at the edge of Malaspina Strait. It’s a beautiful anchorage with many small nooks, inlets and bays.

Our next destination was Secret Cove, about 20 miles to the south. We stayed to port upon entering the cove, passed by Secret Cove Marina and chose an anchorage in front of the waterside homes at the head of the cove.

On our scheduled penultimate day, we planned to stop in Vancouver, a run of 40 miles, and take advantage of whatever reciprocal tie-up we could arrange. We called several yacht clubs, but it was not to be. Most members’ boats were back in port for the off-season and no tie-up for a boat of our size was available. The weather was good and the water fairly calm, so we decided to make the long passage — for us — of 65 miles to Blaine, making this our final day. After a cruise of 300 miles, friends at our home harbor helped us into our slip, a perfect ending to our travels.