An early-season week in British Columbia desolation sound proves that you can still get away from it all.
It wasn’t until our third day of cruising Desolation Sound that we began to feel, well, desolate. We’d overnighted in two anchorages that were almost empty by East Coast standards, but full by British Columbia measures—i.e., we still had other boats within earshot. The scenery was as majestic as we’d expected, but there was a comforting amount of human activity around us. In short, if we’d needed to borrow a cup of flour or an onion, there’d have been someone to ask.
When Lieutenant George Vancouver sailed through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Strait of Georgia in 1792, he found not only thriving native communities dotted around the shores but also plenty of other Europeans to share a convivial drink with. Spanish explorers were well established here, and Vancouver was to share the waters with them for the next three years—which accounts for the mixture of English and Spanish names that grace the islands.
Vancouver had been sent from Britain to survey the coastline and to find out if there actually was such a thing as a northwest passage from the Pacific into the Atlantic. He never found the Northwest Passage—even then, you couldn’t win ‘em all—but what he did find was one of the world’s great cruising grounds, protected from the ferocity of Pacific storms by the 280-mile length of what was, logically enough, eventually named Vancouver Island. Vancouver and his crew could hardly have failed to be overwhelmed by the raw beauty of the maze of islands, bays, inlets, creeks, and rocks that make up the present-day Desolation Sound National Park. So why did he refer to it as “that dark, gloomy place”?
Now, as Corvus, our chartered Catalina 36, proceeded at a steady 6 knots up the middle of the Homfrey Channel, I began to see where Vancouver was coming from when he scrawled the words “Desolation Sound” in his journal back in 1792. A mile to our right, the thickly forested slopes of the mainland’s mountains rose nearly 5,000 feet to peaks still frosted with snow. To the left, the great hump of East Redonda Island sprouted a heavy coat of conifers. Aside from the corrugations of our wake, the water was a sheet of black glass. The only sounds were the muted purr of Corvus’s diesel and the rhythmic hawk-and-spit of the exhaust.
After the first hour the stillness began to feel a little spooky, a kind of post-apocalyptic vibe that was in no way mitigated by the occasional sighting of a dwelling on the mainland shore. Inspection via binoculars revealed these isolated summer houses to be as devoid of life as the hillsides around us. In three hours, the only living things we saw were a couple of black dots high above in a sky so blue it looked as unforgiving as iron; even the eagles wanted to keep their distance, it seemed. For a while I sat at the bow and stared down to where the stem cleaved the dark water. Unlike Vancouver’s survey crew with their short leadlines, I knew the bottom was over 2,000 feet below me, and I gripped the pulpit rail a little harder. I’ve been to some truly desolate places—the Australian outback, the Iranian desert, the North Atlantic—and found beauty in their haunting emptiness. In the Homfrey Channel there was a haunting emptiness in the beauty. We were glad we had taken the time to experience it and glad to turn the corner and head south again, to the less desolate parts of Desolation Sound.
We—Ian from Michigan, Mike from Montana, and me from Massachusetts—had set out from Comox on Vancouver Island, the home base of Desolation Sound Yacht Charters. The week had begun inauspiciously with two days of southeasterlies, bringing horizontal rain and winds strong enough to blow the checks off a lumberjack’s shirt. We could have made the crossing to the mainland, for the wind would have been on the beam, and we’d have been sheltered once we’d turned the corner into the national park, but hey, we were on vacation. We applied Cruiser’s Rationale #1—“If you must be weatherbound, do it where there’s a good pub.” And there is no shortage of good pubs in Comox.
Naturally enough, we paid the price by having to motor across the strait, slathering on the sunscreen and rigging the bimini as the temperature climbed up into the 70s. They call this part of the mainland the Sunshine Coast; it certainly worked for us, as we couldn’t fault the weather for the rest of the week. In fact, it was a little too faultless. Although we dutifully raised the main every morning, the Northwest’s reputation for light winds at this time of year proved well founded. We had a couple of good sails, but most of the time motive power was provided by the trusty diesel.
A 40-mile slog on day one brought us to Squirrel Cove on Cortes Island, where we amused ourselves by recapturing a halyard that escaped to the top of the mast and amazed ourselves by checking out the variety of trawlers anchored around us. “Trawler park?” mused Mike. “Or trawler trash?” Actually the white-haired husband-and-wife crews of the immaculate trawlers were very friendly, and their boats, unlike the planing monstrosities that can infest these waters during the summer months, made neither excessive noise nor excessive wakes.
Most anchorages around Desolation Sound are deep and steep-to the shore. Usually you have to get in close, drop the hook, and take a line ashore in the dinghy so you can pull yourself close to the beach. Holding doesn’t seem to be fantastic anywhere, but, fortunately, well-sheltered anchorages are plentiful. You have to adapt to some weird tidal shenanigans too. Two tidal streams meet in the Strait of Georgia, as water makes its way from the Pacific around the ends of Vancouver Island. The 16-to-18-foot tidal range would mean some vicious ebb currents in most any other part of the world, but because the current flows north and south there is little discernible effect around Desolation Sound; the water level just rises and falls imperceptibly, as in a big lock. You have to know how to use tide tables to survive here with your keel unscratched. The really hairy tidal areas are farther north and west, where rapids form and charterboats are forbidden to venture, but looking at the number of rocks and reefs marked on the Desolation Sound charts was enough to make me very cautious indeed.
A welcome side effect of this tidal curiosity is that the waters of Desolation Sound are remarkably warm. In summer they can reach a tepid 75 degrees. In late May, of course, they were nowhere near that warm, although still more congenial than the Gulf of Maine in August. We’d read of warm freshwater lakes, too, but found that rumor exaggerated. Ian believed the publicity and jumped gleefully into Cassel Lake on West Redonda Island, only to jump straight out again. If you’ve seen footage of Polaris missiles erupting from the sea, you’ll get the picture.
We spent three nights in and around Prideaux Haven, the postcard-pretty anchorage that seems to provide the definitive backdrop for Desolation Sound images. We loafed around in the dinghy and explored as much of the shoreline as we could. One afternoon we walked for an hour through remnants of an old-growth forest, dodging the rotting 6-foot-wide stumps of fallen giants that still showed the axe cuts where the logger had cut footholds. The canopies joined 80 feet above us to filter the bright sunlight to a dim green glow. We felt very small, and very alone.
Mike, a keen wildlife photographer, kept his trusty Nikon at the ready throughout the week. By the third day he’d had enough of eagles; seals, basking everywhere, were hardly worth a mention; but we still hadn’t glimpsed an elusive otter, not a bear, nor an orca. We’d bought fishing and shrimp permits and rented a shrimp trap at great expense. Our first attempt—300 feet down— netted a basketload of bright red alien-looking critters that were too odd to eat. The second brought a couple of dozen juicy shrimp that served nicely as an appetizer; net cost, about $2 each. Our only attempt at fishing resulted in a frisky dogfish that we ended up releasing because we’d just dined on steak. You could probably live off the land here, especially if you like seafood. At low tide, plump oysters were there for the taking.
So much done, so much left undone. We needed another week, which we didn’t have. We spent our last night in Lund, on the mainland, in a beautiful old pub swapping stories with a bunch of British soldiers who’d shadowed us on another charterboat—eight of them on a 35-footer. They’d been doing “adventure training” prior to shipping out for Iraq. Now that’s what I’d call desolation.
At A Glance
Destination: Desolation sound
Why go: Beautiful scenery, warm water, friendly people, accessible wilderness. This is one of the best cruising grounds in North America.
When to go: May to October. Summer temperatures are mild—it never gets much hotter than the mid-70s—and prevailing winds are westerly.
Access: By boat or floatplane. Major airport is Vancouver.
Cruising guide: Desolation Sound & The Discovery
Islands: A Dreamspeaker Cruising Guide, by Anne & Laurence Yeadon-Jones; available from online booksellers.
Charter company: Desolation Sound Yacht Charters; 877-647-3815; www.desolationsoundyachtcharters.com