The Broughton Archipelago draws cruisers back time and again.
The west coast waters of Washington state and British Columbia make up some of the world’s finest boating playgrounds, with stunning cruising destinations, dramatic scenery, abundant wildlife, and thousands of anchorages and marinas. Seven key regions comprise the overall area, including Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, the Gulf Islands, Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast, Desolation Sound, the Broughton Islands, the North Coast above Vancouver Island, and the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island.
For years, Arlene and I had heard rave reviews and stories about the Broughton Islands from other boaters, so a few years ago we decided to check it out for ourselves. What we discovered was as spectacular as advertised, and we have returned many times since.
The Broughtons, as the area is known in the boating world, is a vast expanse on British Columbia’s mid-coast between the east side of northern Vancouver Island and the mainland, ranging from Havannah Channel to the northwest end of Queen Charlotte Strait.
Boaters from around the world come to central British Columbia’s Broughton Archipelago each summer to see for themselves the beautiful islands and inlets approximately 350 nautical miles northwest of the U.S.-Canadian border up the Inside Passage. The draw is not only the spectacular scenery of towering mountains, majestic fjords and plunging waterfalls but also the good fishing, wildlife encounters, history and family-operated marinas.
From Puget Sound to the Broughton Archipelago, you’re protected from the open ocean. That’s not to say a cruise to the Broughtons isn’t without its own set of challenges: Tides and currents, reversing saltwater rapids, wind, and major bodies of water such as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Georgia Strait and Johnstone Strait offer plenty of excitement. Most boaters who make the trip, including us, believe the rewards are well worth the adventure and the preparation. Timing is the key to a safe and enjoyable cruise.
THE ADVENTURE OF GETTING THERE
For us, half the adventure of going to the Broughtons is getting there. It’s a long way, and it looks intimidating on paper. There are a few challenges to making the trip, which many boaters believe are insurmountable or too difficult to justify the reward, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The second, and arguably greater, deterrent to heading north is that no matter which course you take it’s impossible to get to the Broughtons without transiting major sets of rapids. The route we take from Desolation Sound to the Broughtons takes us up Lewis Channel and through five rapids about 50 miles below the Broughtons. The rapids must be treated with respect, requiring good planning and on-the dot
timing of slack water, and involve skillful boat handling. Three of the rapids — Yuculta, Gillard and Dent — are only a few miles apart, and it is impossible to pass each precisely at slack. Most boaters aim to traverse Dent, the northernmost and most dangerous of the bunch, at slack water. North of that trio are two more areas of fast water, Greene Point Rapids and Whirlpool Rapids. The slack water rule applies. Once you have transited the rapids, you’ll wonder, “What’s the big deal?”
The other variable in cruising to and in the Broughtons is weather. A helpful tool is the VHF radio weather report broadcast on a 24-hour loop and updated every six hours by Environment Canada. Our rule is to never chance it. When in doubt, stay put. If the wind is kicking up or predicted to get stronger, we will hold up and wait for a favorable weather window.
We enjoy wilderness areas and being self-reliant, which is the name of the game when cruising the Broughtons. You’re on your own, with the exception of the helping hands of fellow boaters and marina operators. There is little cellphone service in the islands, though satellite phones do connect. Even so, we’ve rarely been more than an hour away from a spectacular anchorage while cruising the Broughtons, most of which offer excellent protection. The area is filled with winding waterways and places to anchor and explore. A boater could spend months — years — discovering new anchorages. We have discovered many excellent ones not identified in cruising guides.
With the excellent weather forecasts from Environment Canada, we’ve always had plenty of time to seek shelter
if the wind is predicted to pick up; that’s not to say we haven’t made a bad decision along the way! This past year, for example, we spent an uncomfortable night swinging on the hook. We thought the anchorage would provide protection from the predicted westerly 25-knot wind, but to our surprise that didn’t happen. The hook held fine, but a nap was on the schedule the following day.
The scenery is beyond beautiful, and around every bend the vista changes: thick forests running to the shore, waterfalls splashing down rocky slopes, snowcapped mountaintops well into the summer months and so much more. Clear nights are a stargazer’s delight. The sunrises and sunsets appear to be more vibrant.
But what good is all the scenery without days long enough to enjoy it? At the height of the summer solstice, visitors enjoy 19 hours of daylight, which means cruisers have plenty of time to move from anchorage to anchorage and still explore new surroundings.
THE PEOPLE YOU MEET
Whether you meet them in an anchorage or at one of the handful of marinas, the people in the Broughtons are the best. They’re generous, friendly, welcoming and trusting. We have found everyone eager to help and offer suggestions about where to anchor, to drop crab or prawn traps, or to fish (including tips for success in local waters).
Arlene and I enjoy getting reacquainted with other boaters who migrate to the Broughtons year after year and the hardy souls who are trying to carve out a living by operating small marinas during the brief cruising season. Those marinas are important to cruisers who need a spot of socializing after nights on the hook in quiet, maybe even lonely, anchorages or who require some provisions.
QUAINT LITTLE MARINAS
We enjoy anchoring Easy Goin’ in the many small, secluded coves, but the rustic marinas definitely call us back. Each has its own unique charm and special enticements, such as potluck happy hours, prawn feasts, potluck dinners, pig roasts, a pancake breakfast that’s included with moorage, a golf competition for free moorage and fresh morning pastries.
If you’re expecting five-star facilities, you’ll be disappointed. The marinas are simple affairs. The docks and other facilities can be rather primitive, but they are all tucked away in beautiful, picturesque coves. Many times, power is available via a generator that may be shut off during the day. Water on the dock may come from a well, an osmosis system, or a nearby stream or pond. The marinas share a Wi-Fi router with visiting boaters; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and it will definitely crash if someone attempts to transmit photos, use Skype or download a movie.
Some marinas sell gas and diesel and a few provisions, and their operators will do everything possible to help boaters with problems. First time visitors are often shocked at the premium price for fuel and provisions, but the cost of most everything has to be inflated, because it all comes in by barge or seaplane.
For additional amenities, Port McNeill — a waterfront community of about 2,700 people with a couple of grocery stores, two good marinas, several restaurants and boat repair — is a couple hours away, across Queen Charlotte Strait, on the eastern shoreline of Vancouver Island.
RICH IN HISTORY
The area is rich with the cultural legacy of First Nations People. Gleaming white midden beaches, whimsical stone carvings, primitive paintings, clam gardens, culturally modified trees or totems, and artifacts such as a trade bead, a hand tool or an old village are all awaiting discovery. First Nations communities also supply opportunities for cultural experiences.
Signs of the area’s robust logging history are everywhere, too, from abandoned machinery to boom anchors set in rocky shorelines to springboard notches in huge tree stumps. Museums and cultural centers allow cultural explorers to dig deep into the ancient, recent and living history of the area.
If the scenery isn’t reason enough to visit, the waters of the Broughtons are teeming with wildlife: humpback whales, orcas and Pacific white-sided dolphins follow the salmon runs. Orcas seem to rule, their distinctive white patches flashing bright in the sunlight. Early-season cruisers may spot gray whales and humpbacks migrating north to Alaska.
Brown and black bears, sometimes with their cubs, flock to the beaches early in the summer and turn over huge rocks in search of edible critters that will keep them sustained until berries ripen uphill and salmon return to the streams. Bald and golden eagles soar overhead, while blue herons, loons and mergansers guard the water (among hundreds of other species of birds). Bald eagles perch high in trees along the shore, their white head distinctive in the foliage. They scan the sea in search of fish to feed their young in bulky nests hidden nearby in the tangle of branches. Everywhere you look, there’s something new and exciting to see.
The area offers world-class kayaking, and it’s not uncommon to find small groups exploring for days at a time. As for us, we prefer to launch the dinghy and motor around the anchorage we happen to occupy on any given day. We have discovered many interesting things by leaving Easy Goin’ and exploring our surroundings. We do have one word of caution when going ashore: Remember, this is bear and cougar country, so go prepared and be cautious and aware of your surroundings.
FORAGING FOR A MEAL
We enjoy fresh seafood of all kinds, and the only thing that makes a meal better is catching it ourselves. Salmon fishing can be very good at times, but lingcod and halibut are always available. Most visiting boaters find their traps filled with Dungeness crab or prawns after only a few hours of soaking. It’s like having a large refrigerator filled with fresh seafood all there for the taking — as long as you have a proper license and the area you’re in is open to fishing.
Passing through Desolation Sound and on to the Broughtons is considered a challenge by many boaters, but brave the trip and you will be rewarded with unparalleled beauty and a perfect mix of social interaction and solitude, all of which continue to draw boaters back year after year.