A previously bypassed area of northern B.C. and spirit bears are the highlights of a summer on the water.
Photography by Pam and Mick Bacich
It was the darkest of dark nights. The half-full moon had set behind the hills. At 2:30 a.m. we were anchored snuggly in Cameron Cove on Princess Royal Island on the remote North Coast of British Columbia — no towns or villages within many, many miles. The black sky was peppered with thousands of Milky Way stars. The bright points of light were doubled as they reflected in the glassy calm waters of the bay.
We sat back in the silence and made wishes on the many falling stars. Out of the quiet night came a series of deep breaths in the water near the boat. We could hear something but couldn’t see anything in the darkness. Suddenly a hungry seal appeared next to us, lunging in and out of water as he fished in the starlight. It was a pretty perfect night.
That was just one of many magical nights last summer as we explored the northern reaches of British Columbia in the area known as the Great Bear Rainforest. We’ve traveled to Alaska on our Fleming 55, Mola Mola, four times, and have passed through the Great Bear Rainforest with interest and awe — the popular anchorages such as Khutze and Lowe Inlet have always taken our breath away — but our goal on past trips was always to get to Alaska as quickly as possible and spend the maximum time in the grandeur of that wilderness state. This summer we decided to go no farther than Prince Rupert and to concentrate a month of our summer boating in the area from the top of Vancouver Island to the very edge of Alaska.
The Great Bear Rainforest is also known as the Central and North Coast forest. It is a temperate rainforest eco-region that encompasses 19 million acres and is part of the largest unspoiled, intact coastal temperate rainforest in the world. Coastal temperate rainforests are unique because of their proximity to the ocean and the mountains. The moist airflow from the ocean collides with the mountain ranges and results in large amounts of rain. It is this magic collaboration between the ocean and mountains that produces and supports a healthy population of unique water and land animals and creates deep fjords and anchorages of staggering beauty. Here, trees are up to 1,000 years old and as tall as buildings. Visitors will see wolves, black bears, grizzly bears, and the rare and mystical white spirit bear.
Boat owners who explore the remote inner reaches of the rainforest — rivers, streams, inlets and islands — should expect to go days without cell or internet service. In some areas the fjords are so high and steep that VHF radios have limited functionality and even satellite phones can be worthless. Be prepared to be alone. Many of the anchorages are cut deep into the mountains and take some time to reach. It is the definition of “off the beaten path.” We almost always had anchorages to ourselves.
Anyone who’s tired of the usual hot spots and wants this kind of adventure should check out some of the areas we enjoyed exploring.
Kumealon Inlet is on the north side of Grenville Channel and surrounded by towering mountains. It is easy to enter and has plenty of room, and anchorages can be found behind Kumealon Island and in the much larger Kumealon Inlet. We took a long dinghy ride back to check out Kumealon Narrows, which connects to a large lagoon that we never made it back to thanks to rapids that were boiling on both attempts. We timed our approach to high tide in Prince Rupert, but we were way off. Slack was going to be at least another 45 minutes and it was getting dark, so we had to head back. Now we have an excuse to return to the area.
Over the years we’ve made some of our favorite memories at Cameron Cove. It’s where saw our first spirit bear, with our guide from Hartley Bay, Marven Robinson. The spirit bear is a subspecies of black bear that has naturally white fur and can only be found in the Great Bear Rainforest. About 10 percent of the black bears born in this area carry the recessive gene, and experts estimate there are fewer than 400 spirit bears in the world. It is the thrill of a lifetime to see one.
On another visit, we watched Robinson teach his grandchildren to hunt for seals for a village feast. It was fascinating to watch this centuries-old tradition be passed down to the next generation. This year we watched enthralled as three thin, long-legged timber wolves scoured the beach for food. Wolves can be difficult to spot, and these three blended almost seamlessly into the colors of the rocks and kelp on the low-tide beach.
Cameron Cove is also where we first met Janie Wray, who, along with her partner, Herman Meuter, founded the North Coast Cetacean Society, in 2001. Wray has an education in marine biology and a lifelong passion for whales. NCCS has established three research stations near Cameron Cove in the very heart of the Great Bear region and has numerous hydrophones placed along the islands, to closely monitor the comings, goings and activities of whales in the area. NCCS was the first organization to identify humpback whales “singing” outside of Hawaii and has now recorded hundreds of hours of their magical songs.
Another important part of NCCS research is the monitoring of marine vessel activity and the effects of its noise on the cetaceans. Wray and Meuter are moving forward with plans to use drones to study the health of the whale population. There are more females arriving without calves and they hope to figure out why this is occurring. Wray told us that their most surprising findings have involved the way humpback whales and sea lions are socially connected and how they often hunt in the same area. Their research is privately funded and driven by a need to protect this fragile environment.
Kent Inlet is part of the Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy, which is co-managed by the Kitasoo Nation and the Province of British Columbia and is the world’s only protected area for the white spirit bear. Wildlife is abundant throughout the conservancy and the highest concentration of spirit, or Kermode, bears is found in this area. Philip Narrows is the tricky (read: scary) narrow entrance to Kent Inlet and it commands watchful attention. The narrows is short and straight but very narrow, maybe 60 feet wide, and includes ominous rocks. I can’t imagine a boat much bigger than our Fleming 55 going through. We wouldn’t want to get caught sideways in there.
During neap tide there seems to be a pretty long window of calm water. We never encountered more than one and a half knots, and we ran it at several different times in the dinghy. We used Meyers Passage slack as our guide and Bella Bella high and low water. Inside, the anchorage is back in a lovely round bay that feels more like a lake. A tidewater waterfall is fed by a beautiful large lagoon and a smaller waterfall at the head of the bay. We were there in late August and salmon were performing acrobatics all around us.
Aristazabal Island is the largest of a patchwork of islands and islets that lie southwest of Princess Royal Island. We dropped into Weeteean Bay on the southern end of this remote and pristine wilderness. The western shore is fully exposed to the Pacific Ocean and the island is surround by islets and wave-cut rocks. It is remote and wild; we felt like we’d been dumped into a flooded rock quarry.
We spent the afternoon exploring the area and saw some of the largest lion’s mane jellyfish we’d ever seen. Lion’s mane jellyfish — the largest known species of jellyfish, whose stinging tentacles can grow to more than 100 feet long —range in color from light orange to vivid crimson and were an awesome sight as they swam past our dinghy.
The next morning our trip out of Weeteean Bay and across the channel back toward Princess Royal Island was one of the strangest in all our travels. We headed into an odd, gloomy, brownish fog at 7:30 a.m. The sun was a giant orange ball that reflected a broad orange swath across the sea. The waves crashed over the imposing rock piles that surround the western shore of Aristazabal Island. An eerie, apocalyptic air chocked the skies. We could hardly see where we were going, and though the water was quite calm, the overall scene was unsettling and uncomfortable. Unnerving.
We had been out of communication range for quite a while and had no way of knowing that more than 600 fires were burning in British Columbia. The winds had shifted and the smoke had moved to the coast. Gone were the towering mountains, the distant green islands and the brilliant blue sky. In their place was a dirty brown emptiness. It was a thick mixture of fog and smoke. It was cold and creepy, and we didn’t like it!
Alston Cove is off Laredo Inlet and features an easy, open entrance that is surrounded by mountains, which, on the day we arrived, were shrouded in fog and smoke from the fires in British Columbia. The smoke from the fires turned everything an unnatural, otherworldly orange but made for a beautiful sunset. A large, drying flat would provide sedge for bears in the early summer, but none were visible in late August.
We took the dinghy up Blee Creek on the north side of the bay. Chantal Pronteau, a First Nation’s Watchman from Kemtu, told us fish traps stretched across the entire bay where the creek comes in, and that we’d only be able to see them at low tide. Partly because of the history of the fish traps, Alston is her favorite anchorage.
Just south of Alston, at the start of Thistle Passage, is the magical anchorage of Quigley Creek Cove. We wound through a string of enchanting islands and dropped anchor in the basin at the mouth of Quigley Creek.
Fiordland continues to be one of our favorite parts of the world. It is a large marine park that encompasses two spectacular bays and estuaries, Kynoch and Mussel inlets. Sheer granite cliffs climb more than 3,200 feet and are dotted with dense coastal forests and imposing waterfalls. In Muscle Bay we were greeted by two Watchmen from the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation, which co-manages the Conservancy with B.C. Parks. Pronteau and Serein Basi-Primeau — young women who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic guardians of the Conservancy — boarded Mola Mola and explained the limitations of river exploration in the cove. They told us only 14 people are allowed up the river at any one time and only one small boat. If the tour boat from Spirit Bear Lodge in Klemtu arrives, it has priority. Even when that has happened during our visits, we have had plenty of time to explore the area at other times of the day, and we’ve enjoyed great bear viewing from our anchorage.
We dropped anchor at the head of the bay and spent an hour or so floating in the dinghy and watching a grizzly munch on the grasses on the shore. The salmon were just beginning to appear, so the protein from the sedges would have to do. We spent the next day exploring Kynoch Inlet and Culpepper Lagoon. Both bays have shallow areas that extend farther out than is indicated on the charts. At low tide we could see a light-colored border under the shallow water that clearly indicated the edge of the sandbar and changing depth.
In Culpepper we looked on as a hungry seal wrestled with a huge salmon. He dove repeatedly under the surface and rose out of the water to yank a juicy bite. Seagulls floated nearby and hoped to catch any leftovers while a dozen seals barked from a nearby log.
It takes quite a commitment to visit Roscoe Inlet, which is a deep cut into the mainland of British Columbia and goes the opposite direction that most boaters are traveling. We had to motor 22 miles in and 22 miles out in order to see the long cul-de-sac that’s rimmed by giant mountains and forested green walls that defy description. The entrance to Roscoe Inlet is at the intersection of Return Channel and Johnson Channel.
The first 10 miles of the inlet were beautiful, but no more so than several other inland passages and anchorages we visited in the Great Bear Rainforest. We named such places JABA: Just Another Beautiful Anchorage. After days and weeks of exploring the area, we almost began to take this beauty for granted. It lay around every corner and we had to pinch ourselves periodically and remind each other how special it all was. But the beauty coefficient was boosted tenfold when we crossed through Roscoe Narrows. From this point, the mountains were taller and more numerous, the peaks were more dramatic and sheer rocky stone faces came straight into the channel. The water was a deep emerald green, and the stunning reflections looked like islands in the still water. It was simply unlike anywhere else we have been. On our journey up the inlet, we poked into each bay along the way. All six of the potential anchorages had their own uniqueness and would serve a boater well, depending on the wind. We anchored for the night at the head of the inlet in about 80 feet of water. The quiet stillness of the night was magical.
8/KWATNA ESTUARY CONSERVANCY
Kwatna Estuary is approximately 22 miles east of Bella Bella and 22 miles southwest of Bella Coola, off Burke Channel. At the head of Kwatna Bay sits the largest of the river estuaries and tidal flats we visited. It is a vast sedge-filled estuary and Sitka spruce floodplain forest that is surrounded by giant snowcapped mountains. At low tide the drying flats come almost half of a mile into the bay and span the entire width.
We launched our drone at the lowest tide, so we could try to locate a path through the remaining shallow water. Our electronic chart showed a wide-open trench that makes it look easy to take a dinghy ride all the way up to the river. Over time, however, the trench has slowly filled in and the obvious route no longer exists. Only by following a slow meandering course were we able to explore about a mile into the estuary. I’m sure at a higher tide we could have gone even farther. It required patience and a watchful eye.
We saw river otters, sea lions, geese and a variety of seabirds. While the Conservancy serves as a feeding area for grizzly bears, the salmon were just starting to run and we didn’t see any bears. We anchored in about 90 feet on the northwest side of bay and found Kwatna a fascinating place for a day’s exploration.