Cruising: Vancouver’s Indian Arm

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Emil explores the shallows aboard his family’s trusty 12ft Puffer dinghy

Emil explores the shallows aboard his family’s trusty 12ft Puffer dinghy

I lost a third of my crew the moment we arrived at the boatyard. My middle son and second mate, Julian, took one look at the dark sky overhead and hid behind his mother’s skirt. I glanced at my oldest son and first mate, 10-year-old Emil, and said, “I’ll understand if you want to back out.”

The previous month’s sinking of our other dinghy in these same waters had shaken up these two young but seasoned sailors—me as well. My wife said I had never looked paler than when I returned from that rotten day out on the water. Still, we had talked of this summer adventure—dinghy-sailing Vancouver’s Indian Arm—for years. Sergeant Dan (U.S. Air Force, Retired) had arrived to join us from Minnesota, and our gear (minus Julian’s backpack) was already piled beside the boat.

“Dad, I’m in,” said Emil after a moment’s pause, and we kissed Mom and the other kids goodbye, set the time for a 1400 rendezvous back at the yard in three days’ time and waved as the mini-van drove off.

“And now a word of advice. Even if the weather looks uninviting if you possibly can start, do so. Of course, if there is bad weather and a bad forecast, it would seem wisest to postpone your departure. However, there are several reasons why it is better to avoid doing so. First of all, one loses spirit, and it is amazing how the passage continues to be postponed. Another reason is that you’ll be losing the available time for your passage. Also, if you do not get underway at the planned time, you may have missed a fair wind later on when it is most needed. It will most always be worth your while to go out of the harbor and have a look.”

The Yachtsman’s Vade Mecum, 1961—Peter Heaton

The author and his trusty first mate, Emil, bound for adventure

The author and his trusty first mate, Emil, bound for adventure

For five years this rather cavalier advice had proved useful in the inland waters of Indian Arm. From the launch ramp of the Burnaby Sailing Association’s boat co-op, I’ve launched dozens of successful trips: whether they be alone in our family’s Laser tending crab pots in search of winter crab, or with as much of my family and camping gear as our ancient 14ft Lazy-E could carry, bound for any number of remote campsites on nearby Twin Islands. My kids have been growing up on these waters and on these boats, which I’ve restored.

In addition to the basics of seamanship, they have also learned how to be patient when the wind cuts out and progress is delayed; how to be disciplined when it picks up again and we’re tacking through a narrow channel with five, six or even seven big and little bodies scrambling from side to side as ever-larger yachts toss us about in their wakes. Now, though, there had been this incident in the Valing log and a murmur of fear in our hearts.

The wind soon died down to a comfortable 12 or so knots as I conned our 12ft Puffer dinghy out into Burrard Inlet. We had packed light, yet conditions onboard were still crowded. Dan hung his legs over the side, and Emil nestled himself amidst the waterproof bags where he remained for most of the six hours that it took to make the passage. He killed the time watching for boats and seals and counting jellyfish until he lost count, then closed his eyes and listened to Dan and me catch up.

Dan told us about his most recent adventure bicycling across America, and I told Dan about Indian Arm: about Granite Falls and the Wigwam Inn at the end of the fjord; about the oddballs and recluses who once occupied sea-side shacks along its shores; and about the Indian River and future plans to hunt deer down there.

If you looked past the big houses and the big boat houses built to house the big yachts, all of which encrust the mouth of the arm, you saw much the same eternal beauty as witnessed around the turn of the last century by British novelist Malcolm Lowry:

“...sailing directly northwards into the snow-covered mountain peaks, past numerous enchanting uninhabited islands of tall pines, down gradually into the narrowing gorge and to the uttermost end of the marvelous region of wilderness known to the Indians as Paradise...”

Lowry came to Indian Arm to escape fame after writing Under the Volcano. Legend has it the sea glass that continues to wash up on local shores comes from the whiskey bottles Lowry hurled from his stilt-mounted shack into the sea.

The gorge narrowed, and the sun remained hidden behind layers of cloud. The wind pursued us across empty white-capped waters and past empty uninviting shores. Emil looked uneasy. I tried to look confident while silently thanking God Julian had remained on shore. When the white caps began to elongate, Dan struck the jib, and we began searching the shore for a place to land. One beach looked promising until Emil noticed the tide line would leave us no place to camp when the water came in. Reluctantly, I steered us away from the beach.

The author prepares to make sail (left); exploring ashore (right)

The author prepares to make sail (left); exploring ashore (right)

Although we didn’t make it to the campground at the base of Granite Falls, we did still make it to shore without incident, which came as a moment of great relief for all of us. The government campground at Bishop Creek was empty. After carrying the Puffer past the tide line, we established camp. Dan and Emil fought the wind while putting up the tent, and I fixed supper. Afterward, I hoisted our provisions into a tree to keep them safe from cougars and bears. We fell asleep with the wind and awoke with it still blowing. Rarely is it this windy during the summer in Indian Arm.

The next day we spent a few hours exploring Granite Falls, climbing its silvery-smooth walls, swimming in its icy pools and topping off our water supply before sailing back across the fjord to camp. As we made our way past the Wigwam Inn, which looked abandoned, I remarked how I’d love to be the caretaker of a place like that during the off-season to which Dan said, “That’s The Shining II waiting to happen.” I laughed, but couldn’t deny there was something eerie in the air. It was the middle of summer, but the sun was gone. The water was cold, and the Arm was as empty as in deep December.

Sailing the Pacific Northwest means plenty of overcast, but plenty of great scenery as well

Sailing the Pacific Northwest means plenty of overcast, but plenty of great scenery as well

Poor Dan also got a serious lesson in tacking that day, ducking to stay clear of the boom as came across over and over again. In all it took us two hours to beat through the narrow channel between the mainland and Croaker Island. We were spent by the time we arrived back at camp. The forecast for the following morning called for rain, promising yet more challenging conditions.

As luck would have it, no rain came. But when the sun popped out, it also brought more wind. My crew insisted, given the conditions, that we row instead of sail. But with the wind and current both working against us, we made little progress. An hour later we hoisted sail, which immediately put the Puffer on its ear. The amount of heel was manageable with just the main up, but without the jib our progress to windward was also minimal. Eventually, we devised a system in which Dan played the jib up and down depending on the wind strength. Although a bit amateurish looking, it worked well and gave us the forward force we needed while keeping the Puffer on its feet.

Late that afternoon we reached Twin Islands. “You’ll love it here, Mr. Dan!” Emil said, as he tied us off on shore. I had described Twin Islands to Dan in the letters I’d sent him and hoped he hadn’t Googled the place in advance of arriving, since places like this deserve to be seen with the naked eye first. With the sun up, we swam around the islands and sunbathed like seals on the southernmost rocks.

At one point Emil even jumped off Peeking Rock. He’d been begging me to do so ever since he’d first seen people jumping from the 40ft precipice years earlier. I didn’t think he’d do it—and didn’t much like jumping off myself! But the boy leaped off without hesitation. This both impressed and worried me.

Being a Saturday, the beach back at the rendezvous point was packed. We also arrived with a cockpit full of water, having been caught between a pair of powerboat wakes only minutes from shore. Nonetheless, we beat our planned arrival time by a full hour and had the boat washed and gear stowed when my wife arrived. Emil talked about our adventures all the way home. Everyone listened intently, especially when he got to the cliff jump. Julian, however, had no regrets about missing out. He had gone to grandma’s instead, where the only deep water was in the pool and the only strong wind was the one blowing the weather vane. 

Photos by Dan Dosedel

June 2021

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