Log of the Salish Sea
18 March 2019
We've made an early start northbound this year. Here, once again, is our number one crew, Capt-Capt Wade Biggs (aka the notorious Mr Figgs) with another of his Fishwrappers to tell the tale:
Log from the Salish Sea aboard DAVID ELLIS, March 2019
Seattle, WA to Elfin Cove, AK
With apologies to Steinbeck for my title; I’m currently reading The Log from the Sea of Cortez. And my title isn’t accurate. We will be heading far north of the Salish sea before this particular adventure is concluded, nearly a thousand miles on the inside passage. Due to the difficulties in transmitting or receiving large files in BC and kkkAlaska I’m asking that any replies you may wish to send, and please do - I’m always excited to get them, be sent as originating messages and NOT as “replies”. Please start a new email to WadeBiggs@gmail.com (capitalization doesn’t matter) rather than use “reply”, or worse yet, “reply all”. If you use “reply”, my original message and any accompanying photos will unnecessarily be retransmitted back to me, and I will be annoyed. If you use “reply all” everyone else on this large mailing list will be annoyed at you too!
Departure day. David and Dorothy, whom I’m sure all of you know from previous FishWrappers, are heading to Alaska again this year. But unlike previous seasons in Southeast Alaska this one is starting much earlier than normal. D and D have agreed to work for the town of Elfin Cove for the next 18 months. The town is providing free moorage for DE and enough salary to make it worthwhile, they say, but they’ve not yet endured an Elfin Cove winter - I’ll be interested in their thoughts this time next year. Dorothy will be postmistress for the duration, an official employee of the USPS, and an agent for a local floatplane service in the off season during the winter. Alaska Seaplanes operates two trips a week from Elfin Cove to Juneau in winter, and several round trips a day in the summer, which necessitates their own full-time agent for a few months. David will run the fuel dock. But his largest responsibility will be to keep the diesel generators operating that supply the town’s electricity. Elfin Cove wants them there by April 1st. I think they understand that’s an unrealistic date considering DE had been undergoing maintenance and upgrades this winter and was in a considerable state of disassembly, but R2D2 (Rusty and Rascal, the dogs, and Dorothy and Dave) have told them we will be there as soon as possible. “We,” in this case, includes me, a somewhat reluctant crew who had every intention of staying home this summer for a change, and getting several projects done around the house. Those include finishing trim work remaining from the remodel done over the winter, building a camper in the interior of my panel van, doing some maintenance and modifications to my own 21-foot boat, cleaning the tools and leftover materials out of the house, and generally putting my life in some kind of order. Little projects.
Chaos appears to reign supreme, however. I was asked two months ago to help move the boat north in March. Having good intentions of getting some of my own projects done, I declined. I’ve been up and down the inside passage dozens of times, and every year the same thing happens: in the fall, I return, happy and replete with new Northwest memories, but glad to be back home and no longer feeling the pull of Alaska. The thought of a breaching whale or a bear scavenging under rocks on a beach brings a smile but no particular desire to do it again. Been there, done that. Later in the fall the fast-approaching holiday season keeps me occupied and time seems to fly. After the new year, life’s pace slows and I’ll get a few projects done, or at least started, but then Spring approaches. People begin talking about their boats, or working on their boats, or actually using their boats, and I begin to be drawn in. That breaching whale in the life insurance TV commercial evokes a stronger emotion now than it did late last year. My resolve weakened and I agreed to go, after some negotiations. The original plan was to leave mid-week but the boat was nowhere near being ready. A revised plan was to depart on Saturday the ninth of March. It was then that I agreed to go with them provided that we could leave on Sunday instead. I badly wanted to attend a ham radio event in Tacoma on Saturday, a kind of electronic flea market called a “hamfest” held once a year. David and Dorothy agreed to depart the tenth and I was defeated in my argument for staying home.
In the manner of these things our departure from home port didn’t resemble the plan at all. Somehow another task had to be done first, another item located and stored aboard. I had driven my van to the Tacoma hamfest early Saturday morning. In the afternoon on the way back I looped by David and Dorothy’s condo in Ballard, north of Seattle, and we filled the truck with duffel bags, boxes, sacks and sacks of dog food, an exercise machine - two, actually, dog beds and all manner of items needed for eighteen months in Elfin Cove. Riding the Seattle ferry and feeling a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies I delivered three people, two dogs and a household of goods back to the marina in Poulsbo where the David Ellis had spent the winter. While this pile of stuff was being stowed I called around to several marinas inquiring as to the current price of diesel fuel. The recording at Poulsbo was good news: theirs was the cheapest price of any nearby marina, twenty cents a gallon less expensive, and it was close by. Eventually we cast off, hours later than we had hoped, and motored over to the Poulsbo fuel dock where we discovered that they were out of diesel fuel, something the phone recording neglected to say.
Plan B - we’d stop at Port Townsend on the way north and pay the extra hundred dollars that that twenty cents a gallon cost us and get our fuel there. But we arrived after the fuel dock had closed for the day and had to spend the night. Already we were a day behind schedule, short a hundred dollars in additional fuel cost plus fifty more for moorage, and had only gained about thirty miles out of the thousand to go. If there was an upside to this, it’s that we got to have breakfast the next morning with two friends of ours who live in the marina on a seventy year old wooden tugboat they’re restoring. Ben and Hillary are both thirty-something and have put years into this old classic. The last time I saw Hillary was a year ago. She was hobbling around with a cast and crutches. She had slipped off the last two rungs of a companionway ladder and landed hard on one foot, tearing her Achilles’ tendon, and apparently this is a serious injury. She’s just finished her course of physical therapy a year later and is walking gingerly without crutches for the first time. She said that as she was checking out of therapy for the last time the nurse was laughing. Asking why, she was told that, according to the therapist’s records, Hillary was their most accident prone patient - this was not her first visit. Failing to see much humor in the situation, she asked the nurse why she was laughing. The nurse said, “According to your chart your middle name is Grace!”
Breakfast consumed too much valuable time, in my opinion, compounded by the requisite stop at the tugboat to examine the progress made toward restoration. Ben is an excellent marine carpenter and it shows in the quality of his work - but there’s so very much of it to do in a 60-foot-long 70-year-old wooden tugboat with no operable engine. The two of them swung by our slip in their elderly Subaru and drove us to the restaurant. My breakfast was superb - Seafood Omelet with big flavorful shrimp and generous clumps of crabmeat, and I’ll have that again sometime, but the morning’s ceremonies of food, fuel, and fraternity delayed our departure from Port Townsend until noon. Once under way we crossed a flat calm Strait of Juan de Fuca, threaded our way through the Gulf Islands, and by 7pm we were side tied to the Canadian customs pier in Sidney, north of Victoria. The whole marina was deserted and hardly a light showed in any of the hundred boats moored there. There was a cold drizzle under low clouds and nobody was around to check us in to the marina. But the direct phone line on the pier to Canadian Customs was working and Dorothy, as usual, handled the formalities for us. We’re used to this process and to what is required of us. Our three passports were open in front of her, ready for her to read passport numbers and other info when asked. When she reached the agent in Ottawa on the phone he asked for the vessel’s documentation number. Hearing it, he asked, “Is this Dorothy?” (We’re all listening on speakerphone.) “Yes.” “Is David with you?” “Yes.” “Is Wade with you?” “Yes.” “Anyone else?” “No, but we have our two dogs.” “Are their papers current?” “Yes.” “Do you have any weapons aboard?” “Yes, two shotguns.” (We carry one whenever we land the dogs ashore in the wilderness, usually twice a day.) “Are these the same two shotguns that you declared last year?” “Yes.”
“Okay, welcome to Canada. You folks are good to go.”
We are stunned. Entry to Canada is simple and invariably pleasant but the brevity of the process this time caught us by surprise. No reading of passport numbers - he didn’t even ask our last names - no forms or $50 annual registration for the weapons, and what concerned us the most, no authorization number was issued, to be printed out and ScotchTaped to the pilot house window attesting to the fact we entered legally. Tempting fate, we asked about that. Not having a clearance number made us uneasy. No worries, we were told. “If you’re stopped just tell them to call Ottawa and we’ll vouch for you.” What about the inspection and the $50 fee for the shotguns? “Listen- it’s late and it’s raining and Sidney is a long way to drive. Nobody wants to go there tonight. Have a nice cruise.” And that was the end of that.
So now we are in Nanaimo, British Columbia, on the way to the northwest end of the inside passage, to Elfin Cove at the west end of Icy Strait. It’s supposed to be a quick passage this time. No time for lingering in scenic anchorages or interesting towns, and Nanaimo is one of the most alluring, but we shouldn’t be here at all. We had, in fact, passed it by an hour before in the middle afternoon but increasing winds and building seas prompted us to turn around for a short downwind run back to shelter. By the time we made the decision the wind had increased to 25 knots on the nose and the tide had turned to oppose the wind, producing steep faced short period waves that threw spray completely over the pilot house as we butted into them. I went to the forward cabin to retrieve something and was almost lifted off my feet by the plunging bow. Back in the wheelhouse David asked “What do you think?” I said that if it was just him and me we could press on and make some additional distance that afternoon, but we had Dorothy and Rusty to consider. Dorothy had already retreated to the aft cabin, cocooning herself under the blankets on her bed, and Rusty, no sailor at all, tunneled so far under the pile of foul weather gear on the floor of the pilot house that only his tail was visible. “Misery is optional”, I said, and David repeated “Misery is optional” as he put the wheel over and reversed course. The change in the ride was immediate. No spray flew over our heads. The bow stopped plunging and the boat ceased shuddering from burying itself in a wave. Waves, coming from behind now, lifted the stern smoothly, slid forward down the sides, raising and lowering the bow gently. With the wind behind us the noise decreased noticeably, and our speed increased from five knots to seven and a half. Thirty minutes later we were in the shelter of Nanaimo Harbor, calling the harbormaster (wharfinger, in Canada) on the radio for a slip assignment. Happy as I am to be in Nanaimo, a charming place and undoubtedly my favorite town on the entire BC coast, my mood is tempered by the knowledge that this will be the briefest of visits, just a port in a storm. There will be no time to visit the ramshackle second-hand book store where I’ve found so many treasures in the past, nor time to search out Nanaimo Bars in the bakeries - look them up on the internet. Nanaimo has a floating restaurant done up in a tropical island theme complete with plastic palm trees, and reachable by one’s own boat or a water taxi. The town has miles of improved waterfront walks and trails, and a real antique cannon that acknowledges noon with a bagpiper and a bang and an expanding cloud of dense white smoke. I will enjoy none of these since tomorrow’s forecast is favorable and we will depart at 6:30. Time and tide, you know...
We left Nanaimo on time and with little fanfare, picked our way through the remaining small islands in the area and set out north on the open waters of the Strait of Georgia. This day was as beautiful as the previous day had been awful. The remnant of wind from the day before was light and had reversed direction overnight, coming now from astern and easing us along our way. The sun was out and as the day progressed the wind died out completely. We cruised through mirror-flat water, surrounded on all sides by distant snow covered mountains. For the first time since leaving Washington the dogs were outside curled up on the foredeck basking in the sun. There was a lot of marine traffic to keep us interested on this busy water route. It’s herring season and the Canadian purse seiners we’re out in large numbers, pursuing small fish. Large ocean-going ships passed occasionally, some going north, others, south. The largest we saw that day hailed us on the radio to ask politely if we could squeeze a little further to the left so he could pass us from astern. The data stream on our computer indicated that he was just under a thousand feet long, 984 feet to be exact, with a 164-foot beam. We were happy to get out of his way. Fish processing vessels heading to Alaska for the season passed us too, we being the slowest vessel out there. Of the variety of vessels we saw on that day, actually on the whole trip so far, one type had been conspicuously absent - pleasure vessels. We were alone in that regard.
We made Campbell River at seven o’clock, just before sunset, and found an empty spot on the marina pier to tie up to. There’s a restaurant/pub at the head of the pier that we like so we treated ourselves to a rare meal out. Nobody was feeling like cooking dinner and washing dishes. Afterwards, we rearranged a few chairs in the cabin for “movie night”, something we frequently do before going to bed. This trip we’ve been enjoying episodes of Boston Legal in the evenings. Also aboard is the complete collection of MASH and of Northern Exposure as well as a couple hundred DVDs of movies. We wouldn’t want to be bored, after all. There’s nothing as satisfying after a hard day’s cruise than sitting in front of the diesel stove in the cabin, watching a movie and enjoying a Nanaimo Bar - yes, we found some before we left.
Tomorrow we transit Seymour Narrows (Look it up - it’s very interesting) about an hour north of Campbell River. Our timing for the transit must be carefully calculated for slack water, when the tide is neither rising or falling. Otherwise the immense volume of water that must pass through the Narrows each tide could be dangerous because of its speed and the eddies it generates. The wrecks of two hundred vessels lie at the bottom of Seymour Narrows. Personally, I’m not overly concerned; David and I have made dozens of transits here over the years. We’re cautious, and besides, the Narrows is not quite so dangerous as it was when the majority of those wrecks occurred, before the underwater top of Ripple Rock was blown off with the largest non-nuclear explosion in the history of the world. Still, the transit could be “interesting” this time, not for the actual passage through the narrowest part, but for the approach. We must leave Campbell River early enough to arrive at the Narrows at slack water. That means we will be fighting the considerable current still flowing southward right outside the marina breakwater. With the wind forecast to be blowing 30 knots from the south in the morning that means we will have that wind-against-tide situation for about an hour and a half as we approach. It will be a rough ride until we make the transit, then the tide will be turning and we’ll have wind and tide behind us for the rest of the way to Port Neville.
Time to go. The wind is howling out of the south as forecast, and frosty whitecaps are visible beyond the breakwater. After we leave Campbell River it may be a few days before I have connectivity again.
Passage through Seymour Narrows was anticlimactic. Our tidal current calculations were correct, just the way we like things to work - but it doesn’t always for reasons we’ve never figured out. The hour’s ride from the marina at Campbell River to the Narrows wasn’t bad at all in spite of the whitecaps all around. The wind was from behind but the waining tidal stream still flowing from the north lacked the energy to pile the waves up very high. It did knock a couple of knots off our speed but we had allowed for that and arrived at the Narrows right on schedule at slack water. Twenty minutes after transit our speed began to pick up as the current reversed direction and soon we were cruising at seven knots with the throttle reduced a bit, saving fuel. The fuel flow gauge indicated just one gallon per hour and speed over the ground varied between seven and eight knots the rest of the afternoon, topping out at ten once in Race Passage shortly before we arrived at Port Neville. Incidentally, I got the timing wrong once, northbound in HONU, and encountered a fast southerly current in Race Passage. HONU went slower and slower, and I kept pushing the throttle higher and higher, and soon the engine was running wide open. I knew from sea trials that at wide open throttle HONU could make a little over eight knots, nevertheless, I watched the speed over ground drop to near zero at times. It took an hour and a half that day to pass through Race Passage, a distance of about three miles. This afternoon, by getting it right, we did it in twenty minutes in a vessel with nearly identical performance.
Port Neville was little changed from the last time we were there last fall, except the pier is a bit more decrepit. The pier was installed decades ago by the government when Port Neville was a thriving logging camp, long before I first stopped there. In my early trips through Johnston Strait, long after logging had been abandoned, there was a population of two living in Port Neville, in the log cabin near the top of the pier: Lorna and her teenage daughter Erica. Both came aboard SILVER GIRL, bearing homemade chocolate chip cookies. Over decades Lorna has become legend, welcoming cruisers overnighting at a pier conveniently located a day’s cruise from anywhere on either end. In the height of the summer season there’s usually six or eight boats stopping nightly, sometimes having to raft up to each other - it’s not a large pier. In a conversation among Northwest boaters it’s not unusual for Lorna’s name to come up. She’s been known to walk down the pier in the evening organizing a spontaneous dessert pot luck and I was fortunate enough to be there for one. Stories of the people I met that night would fill volumes.
Lorna Hanson isn’t there any more. Several years ago she moved to Campbell River and remarried. Her daughter too is married now, and long gone. When we pulled in last night there was no light in the cabin window, no cruising boats already tied to the pier and waiting to see who else might be arriving during the evening.
Lorna’s cabin has seen occupancy since. For two years a couple representing the Coastal Mission Church lived there, running a boat up and down the Strait in the summer spreading the Word. Several years ago I wrote a FishWrapper describing the incident of the preacher and the bear, how he had to shoot a big grizzly to protect his house and wife, and how the government took a dim view of that.
I understand a couple from the Hanson family are occupying the cabin during the summer now. The Hansons have owned the property for generations and Lorna used to be the postmistress there in logging’s heyday. But this night no other cruisers joined us, no lights showed anywhere except one seen dimly through the opening to our cove: a faint flashing white light on a buoy far out in wind-tossed Johnstone Strait. It was a gloomy night and we retired to the cabin to watch some Boston Legal in front of the fire before going to bed.
We have company. I’ve been up since 6:30, keeping schedules on the ham radio in the pilot house while R2D2 still slept in their stateroom. After finishing a brief conversation with friends down south I noticed some new arrivals on the pier.
A family of five or six river otters were playing on the dock right outside the pilot house windows. After running below (quietly!) to wake up Dorothy and David I managed to get some pictures. They aren’t the best quality but I was afraid to open a window for fear of scaring them away, so the photos were taken through salt-encrusted glass. They stayed with us for fifteen minutes or so and during that time they slid across the slippery pier planks, head butted each other, knocked each other down with flying tackles, rolled on their backs and wiggled their toes in the air and generally had a good time. It was quite a show and at times we were only five or six feet away. It ended when an outboard skiff came around the point and landed at our dock. Its sole occupant was a salty character that we got to know a little after he eased himself onto the dock and opened the conversation with “I came by hoping to get a cup of coffee”. We invited him in but he chose to find a seat on the pier instead, pointing to his knee-high rubber boots and the pier-crud adhering to the soles.
At first I didn’t know what to make of him. Returning from the galley with a hot cup of tea - none of the three of us are coffee drinkers, and we have none aboard - I listened to him talk a while. He lived alone, across the estuary that formed the sheltered Harbor at Port Neville. In spite of his sourdough appearance his speech revealed an educated man. He said he’s lived here since Erica was a baby, and she must be in her thirties now. David asked him how he made his living, and he said he had been with the university in Vancouver. In his words, he was “kind of middle management”, and that was all we could get out of him about himself. He talked at length on other subjects, however. He recounted stories of the Hansons, of Lorna and Erica in particular, and of other people who had, at one time or the other, lived here. I mentioned Chet (the preacher) and the bear, and he reacted to that. “Did he mention me when he told you the bear story?” I said no, no mention of him at all. He said “I killed the bear. And I got fined for it.”
Now, this is a totally different story than the one Chet told us a few years ago, and that I related in a FishWrapper at the time. According to Chet, the bear charged him from the woods across the lawn as Chet stood on his front porch. He even pointed out to me the spot on the lawn where he killed it, about 15 feet from the house. He elaborated by explaining that when the rangers came they couldn’t find the blood any more because “the rain had washed it all away.” Our new friend Ron gave us a different story. According to Ron, there was some excited chatter on the radio about a bear over at the Hanson place; he also heard two gunshots. Ron grabbed his rifle and took his skiff over. Chet met him at the beach and said he had shot the bear twice but only wounded him. The bear had run off into the woods. Ron followed the blood trail into the woods and eventually found the bear, very much alive and full of fight. The bear stood and turned and put his ears back, preparing to charge, according to Ron. Regardless of the bear’s intentions it was already wounded and had to be put down, which Ron did. Ron walked back to the house, reported to Chet that the bear was dead, got in his skiff and went home, expecting Chet to do the right thing and report to Fish and Game. But he didn’t. Instead, he took his lawn tractor into the woods, put a chain around the bear, and dragged it to the beach. He transferred the end of the chain to his own boat and dragged the carcass far out into Johnstone Strait and let the chain carry the evidence to the bottom. Nonetheless, F and G got wind of the incident, investigated, and fined both of them for, essentially, not reporting having shot a bear. As reported in that FishWrapper several years ago, Chet was penalized further for “taking possession of a bear” when he put the chain on it and for disposing of the bear in the manner that he did. This new version of the story makes more sense and explains why the Fish and Game people came down so hard on Chet, which seemed unreasonable to me at the time.
Currents in Johnstone Strait can run several knots at their peak, but even a couple of knots can make a big difference in travel time in a boat that only cruises around seven. I’d rather have one or two added to the seven, not subtracted from it, so as usual, using current and tide tables as well as observations I’ve made over the years, I worked out an optimal departure time for this morning’s journey from Port Neville. Unlike the many times mathematics has forced us from our beds before the sun is up, this time the sums were more civilized - 9am would be ideal. The tide at Neville should start ebbing then, and the current should start flowing northward. The duration of tidal currents is only a little over six hours on average. Then the tides change, the currents switch directions, and the advantage is lost. There is imperative in the old saying “Time and tide wait for no man.”
But Ron is sitting on our dock, a half-drunk cup of our finest Earl Grey in his hand, regaling us with stories of life, the universe, and everything else for the past hour. David is on the pier with his own cup too, swapping stories with this laid-back denizen of Port Neville. I’ve been pacing the deck for the last fifteen minutes, my eye on a big log lying on the sandy beach. Not so long ago the water was lapping at the log but it’s several inches lower already; our six hours of favorable cruising conditions are shrinking. How to remind the captain of the vessel of fleeting time without being rude? I pushed the starter button and the diesel rumbled to life. He got the hint, mission accomplished.
The run up the remainder of Johnstone Strait was uneventful. Johnstone widened out to encompass the Broughton Islands, themselves a beautiful and popular cruising destination, and changed its name to Queen Charlotte Strait. True to its reputation Queen Charlotte was windy; in fact the farther north we went the windier it got. We were grateful that it remained southerly, coming from behind us, because by the time we reached Port McNeil later in the afternoon it had reached gale force, blowing at 35 knots and tearing the tops off the whitecaps. We slipped behind the breakwater at McNeil, tied up at an open space on the pier, and later went to dinner at a pub on the beach where we’ve found good food before.
There were four of us now. Mark, a friend from Ketchikan, had flown to the regional airport at Port Hardy to join us for part of the cruise. After a half hour bus ride to McNeil he was waiting for us at the pier when we arrived. It’s a good thing he was - the high winds that evening made docking tricky and an extra pair of hands on the pier was appreciated. He and his wife Leah keep a sailboat at Bainbridge Island, and Mark joined David and me and another sailor friend John three years ago in Hawaii to take a sister ship of DAVID ELLIS from Honolulu to Seattle. It’s good to have him aboard again.
Woke up this morning about 7am to the sound of the halyards rhythmically slapping the aluminum mast and before I was out of bed I was pretty sure we weren’t going anywhere today. That sound and the little jerks of the hull felt through the mattress as DE snubbed at the end of the dock lines were good indicators the wind was still blowing hard. So I wasn’t surprised later when the forecast predicted gale force winds for the next 24 hours. Our day in port was quiet but productive and we got several small boat projects crossed off our list.
More to come later. I’m resending the entire Log again as some intended recipients didn’t get the first part, and I’ll try to append some photos too.