Two hundred and fifty miles north of Seattle and 3,400 miles from home, our crew of six was more than a little slaphappy after a long day of travel. As we drove toward Comox, British Columbia, we decided to create a wish list for the charter trip ahead. We wanted to eat raw salmon, sail beneath a waterfall, shuck an oyster and meet a Canadian a day. This all seemed achievable until we realized that, at least in North American terms, we were sailing to the middle of nowhere. A Canadian a day may be pushing it…
For a video on our charter, click here.
DAY 1: BOB
The first Canadian we met was Bob Stevenson, who co-owns Desolation Sound Yacht Charters (DSYC) with his wife, Lois. They were welcoming and energetic, and Bob’s chart briefing was the best I’d ever attended. We assembled under a willow tree, where Bob paged through charts on a huge easel, striking a nice balance between educating and inspiring us as he spoke about the area we’d be exploring.
“You’re about to sail into some of the prettiest waters on the planet,” he said, pointing to Toba Inlet and beyond, “but be sure you stay keenly aware of your position in the 14-foot tide.”
Bob and Lois have operated DSYC for 25 years, so he knows the navigational tricks, history and secrets of every hot spot on the chart. First he pointed out all of his favorite spots, then instructed us on how to anchor stern to shore.
DAY 2: ROMNEY
After crossing the Strait of Georgia and anchoring overnight in Gorge Harbour Marina—with its trendy restaurant and manicured lawns—we sailed a bit north to rendezvous with Romney, a fishing guide and Desolation Sound native. He came alongside Passages, our 42-foot Jeanneau, in a 25-foot trawler bristling with fishing rods, tackle boxes and a couple of comfy-looking captain’s chairs. Romney planned to take us fishing two at a time while the rest of the crew sailed around Cortes Island and into Teakerne Arm.
Matt and Sparky (a childhood friend who earned her nickname from her endearing pyrotechnic antics) took the first fishing shift while Passages coasted north in the light wind. The slow movement of the boat and the quiet lapping of the waves made for a peaceful, easy morning, until we heard Romney returning to swap out the crew. Matt and Sparky beamed as they displayed their catch: a 13-pound salmon and a 12-pound lingcod. Romney went straight to work filleting the salmon and sliced out some bite-sized pieces from the belly, which we all devoured gleefully (check!). He put the roe into a Ziploc bag for later and gave us tips on local cooking methods, including plank smoking. To see food images and recipes from our trip, go here.
The rest of us were not so lucky. Andrew and Jamie spotted a bald eagle, but barely got a bite. All Lauren and I managed to catch were two dozen rock cod, two sea cucumbers and a starfish. I guess we can’t all be natural-born killers.
Romney has lived on Desolation Sound his entire life and regaled us with stories on the area’s history, nature, people and culture. In addition to running Cortes Fishing Adventures, he’s been trying his luck as a jeweler, crafting nautical-themed satchels from softened lengths of wood.
DAY 3: SIMON
We met Simon at the top of the falls in Teakerne Arm, where a few of us had set up to practice yoga. He came up the path, black and silver hair falling in ringlets to his shoulders, carrying a kayak that he planned to paddle across Cassel Lake. “It’s real pretty around the bend there,” he told us, gesturing across the still water. His friend Steven pointed out some nearby oyster beds, but warned that they tasted “like burning.” None too anxious to learn what he meant, we decided to just shuck the oysters (check!) and skip the tasting part. Simon and Steven were anchored in the middle of Teakerne Arm on a beautiful 60-foot schooner, which they told us was “owned by some crazy American who likes blowing things up.”
We were anchored stern-to, with a line secured around a tree to hold us in place against the tide. Directly beside our tree-anchor was a modern-day replica of a traditional First Nations totem. In all likelihood it had been placed there within the last six months, but the historical effect was palpable.
The water in Teakerne stays warm well into September, so we went for a swim with Simon. All was peaceful, until we heard what sounded like a cannon firing from the schooner. “See?” Simon shook his head, “you crazy Americans.”
DAY 4: DAVE
After leaving Teakerne Arm, we had a pleasant downwind jaunt through Lewis Channel and into Refuge Cove, known for its high-quality provisioning facilities. Refuge is run like a commune, with 20 families operating the shops and services ashore. Among the residents is Dave, who owns a garbage barge in the middle of the cove. “Garbage barge” was not in my vocabulary prior to this trip, but it’s exactly what it sounds like: a floating platform for collecting sailors’ trash. Dave lives on board and receives garbage for $3 a pound. When his barge fills up, he takes it to Campbell River on Vancouver Island and donates the money he makes from the recycling to local schools.
The docks of Refuge were a lovely place to spend the afternoon. The mouth of the cove framed the setting sun, whose warm light fell on a group of cruisers playing horseshoes on the docks. In a café up the boardwalk, other transients nibbled on cinnamon buns, while on Passages we discussed how best to cook the salmon that night.
DAY 5: KYLE
Rather than staying in Refuge Cove, we sailed on to Roscoe Bay so we would be in a better position to sail into Toba Inlet the next morning. Entering and exiting Roscoe must be timed with low water, so our departure of 0930 was predetermined. Sailing up Waddington Channel, it was already apparent we were in for a treat. The farther north we went, the more majestic the mountains became, the taller they loomed, and the more waterfalls we saw springing from their summits. At its deepest, the inlet’s seafloor is 600 feet beneath the keel; at its most shallow along the coast, it’s 50 feet, allowing boats to safely nose their bows directly under waterfalls (check!). As we continued up Toba inlet, the sun shone bright and the breeze picked up to 18, then 20 and 25 knots. We put in a reef and relished the power of the wind as it propelled us through the canyon.
The most sensible place to stay after a rollicking sail up and back down Toba Inlet is at the Toba Inlet Wildernest Resort, where Kyle presides over a lone dock with the help of Teddy, his grizzly-like dog. Along with docks and ice, the Wildernest offers a few other treats for transients: cabins, a hot tub and a pleasant hike to a small hydro-plant that is powered by a modest stream.
At first, Kyle struck me as a hermit-lumberjack type—a quiet giant with an overt disdain for civilization (he deplored the lone channel marker two miles offshore for ruining his view). But not more than an hour after we’d tied up he invited us to check his traps, which were teeming with fat and juicy prawns. He showed us how to snap, cook and season them, and then helped us enjoy them around his fire pit. I use the term “fire pit” advisedly—it was an old washing-machine drum he’d turned on its side and placed atop a lawn mower. He explained, “I knew I wanted a fire pit, but I didn’t know where, so I made it mobile.”
The only thing brighter than the stars that night were the hordes of bioluminescent plankton that swarmed near the boat, lighting up the small fish as they swam away from the big fish.
DAY 6: WILLIAM
On our way back south we cruised down Homfray Channel for a night in Melanie Cove, which is part of the Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park. With depths reaching to 2,400 feet, Homfray is the deepest channel in North America. The Marine Park was pretty, but crowded, so as per Romney’s original suggestion, we made a final-day stop at Mitlenatch in the middle of the Strait of Georgia, where we met William.
“This place is an anomaly,” William explained. “The weather patterns here create an arid climate in an otherwise temperate locale, so the land is low, the trees don’t grow, and the whole island just erupts with birds.” William was living on Mitlenatch for the week with his family as part of a BC Parks warden arrangement. The wardens stay in a tiny hut for free and, in exchange, greet guests ashore and help keep tabs on the wildlife.
William told us he’d landed on Mitlenatch after “skiing my way around the world” and that he couldn’t ask for a nicer place to spend his summer vacation. He provided us with a hand-drawn map of the walking trails and displayed his week’s collection of bones, shells and artifacts. “We’re off for a snorkel!” he said, and jogged away to join his daughter and her friend in the warm waters, which—judging by the well-fed sea lion population dotting the shoreline—were teeming with fish.
We bid the family farewell and dinghied back to Passages to begin the quiet sail back to Comox.
In part, this trip was a tribute to our dear friend Ty who died in a sailing accident the previous May and was meant to be there with us. If there was one thing Ty loved more than traveling and being on the water with friends, it was meeting new people and learning their stories. As we explored this vast wilderness, surrounded by natural beauty and fascinating characters, I knew Ty was loving it.
Driving back across the border, we looked over our wish list, pleased to see progress. Raw salmon—consumed. Waterfall—sailed. Oysters—shucked. A Canadian a day? Success.
A special thanks to Jamie Kwasnieski, Andrew Prince and Kate Abraham for their fantastic photography.
Contact: Desolation Sound Yacht Charters, 877-647-3815