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Voyages North
Chaatl, Buck Channel, West Coast of Moresby Island. July 23.
08/17/2009, 53 07.7N, 132 23.9 W

Photo: "Mosquito pole" at Chaatl.

Lines of sea foam stretched across the inlet and surf broke on rocks ahead of us. Osprey rolled and tossed in confused seas. We were entering Buck Channel, an uncharted inlet just south of Skidegate Inlet, where we had crossed from the east side of the Queen Charlottes the day before.

Buck Channel was our first experience with the West Coast's uncharted inlets: only an outline with a large blank space showed on the chart -- no soundings. This is less dangerous than it sounds: the waters are deep and the Sailing Directions describe the dangers. Don Douglass and Reanne Hemingway Douglas have also described the inlets and given a few soundings in their guide, Exploring the North Coast of British Columnbia, 2nd Edition.

But the entrance to Buck Channel looked terrifying. The chart showed a tiny dot of an island at the entrance near the north shore. Instead of the wide channel with a little island that we expected, we saw a narrow channel and a big island -- and rocks leading south across the inlet. We headed for the south side of the channel, as the Douglasses recommended, and a smooth patch of water opened up. We motored through into calm water as the rain began to fall. We anchored in a small cove, called Nesi cove, on the south side. The chart showed the cove but not the island in its entrance. But the island helped protect the cove and only a low surge came in.

We were lucky, the best weather for going into Buck Channel is southeast winds and that's what we had. (West winds funnel right in from the Pacific).

Buck Channel's main attraction is the site of the former Haida village of Chaatl and its two remaining totem poles. The next morning the channel was absolutely calm and we took the dinghy across to a pebble beach and walked into the forest. We didn't know exactly where the poles were, only that there was a trail to them and they were somewhere near this beach. We walked among beautiful spruce and hemlock trees on a forest floor of springy moss, past a small waterfall tumbling down a rock wall. I saw the first of the two poles standing among a group of trees, visibly separate from them only by the shape of its carvings. Nearby we found the remains of a frontal pole with the door opening still visible and a fallen mortuary pole with its top carved to fit a box for human remains. The second pole, the mosquito pole, was further east on a trail leading along the edge of the forest. Like the first it stood surrounded by trees larger than it, all grown from nothing since the village had been abandoned sometime in the 1850s. Both poles faced south towards the water and the halves of the figures on the west side of both poles were still clear and new looking. The halves on the east side were badly eroded. It's not hard to figure where the bad weather comes from.

Cape Kuper to Kootenay Inlet. July 25.

Photo: Entering Kootenay Inlet

Thick fog obscured the nearby shores of Kuper Cove the morning we planned to run down the coast to Kootenay Inlet. We'd come to Kuper Cove, a small bay near Cape Kuper outside Englefield Bay the evening before, thinking an anchorage near the ocean would be more scenic as well as closer to the ocean for departure. But although we had passed sea caves and sea stacks on our way into the cove, now we saw nothing but gray. We waited until 9 o'clock for the outlines of rocks and trees to emerge from the fog so we could leave. Once we were in the ocean, fog closed in again and Northwest winds came up strong. Soon we were sailing under main and small jib, Osprey surfing down the waves in a gray world of fog.

I was sitting behind the wheel, making small corrections to our course on the autopilot when I heard a clunk underneath the seat. Immediately, the boat rounded up into the wind. I jiggled the controls but nothing happened and finally had to turn off the autopilot and steer by hand. Steve took over, but couldn't get it to work either. I tried not to think about what the rest of our trip would be like without an autopilot if we couldn't fix it. Although we can certainly hand steer, no autopilot means only one person to raise, lower, and reef sails -- a hard chore in strong winds.

We caught only glimpses of the land through the fog as we sailed south -- the peaks of mountains looming out of the fog. As we neared Kootenay, Steve adjusted with the radar and announced, "If we can see land when the one mile ring on the radar touches it, we can go in. Otherwise, we'll have to go on to Tasu Sound." Kootenay is an uncharted Inlet with rocks at its entrance and we needed to see the rocks to enter it while Tasu Sound is charted with an easier entrance. Fortunately, the fog cleared just in time to reveal mountains rising out of the sea at the Inlet's entrance and we headed in.

I thought it was insane to sail in strong winds into an uncharted inlet among rocks and reefs so Steve rounded the boat up so I could take down the sails to let us motor in. Osprey plunged and rolled as I struggled to bring the sails down in 35 knot winds. I finally got them down and more or less stowed and we motored through rough seas, putting two small islands to port and a reef to starboard. The seas flattened and the wind diminished as soon as we rounded the first island and I realized it would have been better to have sailed in and taken the sails down in protected waters. Sheer cliffs towered above us with mountains behind, warm air flowed out to meet us and blue skies were visible above. In just a few minutes we had gone from frightening fog and chaos of seas and rocks to this amazing summer paradise. We anchored in the North Arm of the Inlet in one of the most beautiful settings we had seen in the northwest.

The definition of cruising is doing boat repairs in exotic places and that's what we did for the rest of the day. We emptied everything from the port seat locker so Steve could crawl in and look at the steering and autopilot. To our dismay he found that the 5/8" bolt that connects the tiller arm to the hydraulic steering ram had sheared off. Naturally, we had no spare for a bolt we couldn't imagine breaking. Our only hope was to file the broken threads, reconnect and pray there was enough of the bolt left to hold things together. Steve did that, then discovered that when the bolt sheered, an internal fuse had blown. That meant taking everything out of the quarter berth to get at the electronic unit. When Steve opened the unit up, he found corrosion inside. We cleaned it up, replaced the fuse, fussed some more, and finally it worked. We would have to wait to find out how well.

"You're on your own out there," a fisherman in Rose Harbour had told us. Now we understood what he meant. If we hadn't been able to repair the autopilot ourselves, we would have had to do without; there was no one to help us.

Kootenay Inlet. July 27, 28, 29.
08/17/2009, 52 51.5 N, 132 15.49W

Photo: Osprey anchored in North Arm of Kootenay Inlet

"We deserve a day off after all that work repairing the autopilot," we told ourselves and spent the next day fishing, relaxing, exploring the river at the head of the inlet and generally enjoying the sun and the scenery. The mountains around us blocked the VHF weather report but with sun and calm winds around us we didn't worry.

We learned our mistake the minute we put our bow out of the inlet next morning to find screaming winds and mountainous seas. "Let's go back," said Steve. "We can wait another day."

This time we anchored in the larger east arm so we could get weather. "Northwest gales, 30-40 knots," said the radio. A good time to do some laundry while we were waiting, I decided, so we went ashore to a small creek and filled our water jugs then returned to the Osprey. But by afternoon the wind was blowing so hard, I had to take the laundry in before it was completely dry to stop it from blowing overboard.

"Northwest Gales, 30-40 knots" repeated the weather radio the next morning. We stayed put but noticed that the wind in the anchorage never blew as strong as the day before so we thought surely the gales were over. But more were ahead of us.

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Voyages North on SV Osprey
Who: Steve and Elsie Hulsizer (author of Glaciers, Bears and Totems and Voyages to Windward)
Port: Seattle
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