Exploring The West Coast of Vancouver Island on the Freighter Uchuck III
With the thin first light of day just illuminating the high ridges around the head of Muchalat Inlet, the crew of the Uchuck III, with a big load of freight and 30 passengers, throws off the lines and we slide out past the log rafts and head down the long and winding inlet. There’s coffee and fresh baked cinnamon rolls in the galley as the dramatic landscape of the inlets and islands of the West Coast of Vancouver Island slides past the windows.
And in less than an hour, our first stop: a green metal building on a big concrete float set close to the steep hillside – one of the many salmon farms tucked into coves and remote inlets. The winch starts up, we swing over a few pallets of freight, a big propane bottle, and then we back away and head down the channel.
The skipper throttles up, the sun gets a little higher, we slide into another fish farm and so the day goes. Here a fish farm, there a logging camp with a three story bunkhouse on a huge barge, then a tiny Christian camp set on a rare few acres of flat land on the shore, next a 2500$ a day sportsfishing for the very well heeled. We slide through the narrowest of channels, pass a raft of sea otters swimming lazily on their backs, picking through the remains of a mussel lunch on their bellies.
Then in the late afternoon, we pass out of Esperanza Inlet and along the much more somber ‘outside’ coast for two hours. There is not much wind, and the visibility is good, but for all that, it is a humbling vista: row after row of steep hills rising back from the water, big ocean rollers booming into the reefs along the shore and nowhere, nowhere, a sign that man even exists.
In the late afternoon we close with the land and gingerly enter a passage between a dot of an island and a breaking reef that seems little wider than our small ship. A cove opens up with a handful of houses clinging to the shore and we slide in to a long dock: Kyuquot, British Columbia, one of the few settlements along this remote and rugged shore, home to a few scattered fishing lodges, now closed up for the long wait until the salmon begin to run again in the spring.
There are no overnight passenger accomodations on our ship, and no lodge is big enough for the 30 of us, so four outboard skiffs from around the cove appear to take us to our lodgings for the night. One lucky couple gets to go to a sweet looking bed and breakfast on an tiny island and the rest of us are scattered among the three lodges that have opened their doors to us. A chill wind sweeps across us on the outboard trip, and we are glad for the radiant heat from the woodstove in our lodge. And before we are released on our own to wander and explore before supper in the biggest lodge’s dining room a word of caution: there are neither roads nor vehicles here, and being late in the season, many of the seasonal residents have left. And so we might be sharing the trails with bears; it might be best to have the skiff pick us up for supper rather than chancing an encounter in the woods with one of the big boys.
So cautiously we explore; the trail winds along the shore, an old log cabin slumps next to a shiny but empty three story fishing lodge, dodging fishing skiffs pulled up on the shore, gardens with whale vertebrae decorations.
And in the woods behind, now and again a tree that makes us stop and just look up in awe: big Doug Firs, easily 10 feet in diameter at the base, and shooting up most of a hundred feet before the first branch. Probably in the dark hills behind the cove are even bigger ones: the rivers of moisture that sweep in from the coast onto these hills for most of the year create ideal growing conditions for big big trees, only the remoteness of the spot and perhaps the impact of digital media on the demand for pulp have saved them; loggers have worked most of this coast for generations.
In the morning we meet aboard the boat at 8 for a huge breakfast: fruit, sweet rolls, eggs, oatmeal, coffee, for there is none in the lodges; we sensed last night we were lucky to get a meal at all – the cook ran out of propane for the big kitchen range and had to improvise by finishing searing the ribs and heating the spuds on the picnic grill on the deck.
As we eat, anxious eyes scan the harbor outside where violent gusts from the heights above darken the water, move our little ship back and forth, even tied to the dock, and drive the rain against the windows. From the crew’s lounge forward of the galley we hear scraps from the radio weather forecast and it hardly sounds good. One fellow passenger is a retired mate on a tug, he shares laying in here one winter with a fuel barge – waiting almost a week before it was safe enough for them to go out. And then with a word from the skipper about being careful when moving around the boat, the lines are off and a half hour later we are totally surrounded by the dramatic power of the West Coast of Vancouver Island in all its glory. For the most part our group was older and stayed put at the booths and tables in the big comfortable cabin. But this is what I came for and I move carefully up the stairs to the upper deck, and make my way forward, grab a post for support and just look around.
For it’s a grand sight: the hills hidden by low mist and racing clouds, and the wind blowing the tops off the seas. In one place our course takes our little ship between two breaking reefs, and I am glad for twin engines, as there is no room for error. This is the coast that was the last resting place of so many big sailing ships in the days before the GPS and electronic navigation that we take for granted.
Sometimes, in more modern times, Northwest sailors, in preparation to taking their boats on an around the world adventure, start with a trip around the outside of Vancouver Island first… just to test their boat and gear. And a few never go any further, discovering here that the sea can dish out far more than they wish to take.
In the late afternoon we steam up a long inlet and lay at the wharf at Tahsis, one of the very few settlements among this remote coast. Once again we are paired up with locals and taken to our scattered accommodations. I walk past a tree and shrub filled ten or fifteen acre concrete pad of what was once some sort of industrial facility, and end up at the little community museum that tells the tale. Just two decades earlier this sleepy settlement of 300 souls had been a bustling town of 2500, where life was good, all driven by the big sawmill with millions of board feet of rafted logs waiting in the bay, and three or four 800’ ships loading the mill’s output. Then the mill’s owner found a better deal somewhere further down the coast, and just like that mill was gone – loaded onto barges and towed away – along with the jobs and a pretty nice way of life.
A three hour steam the next morning takes us to Yuquot, or Friendly Cove, near where Captain Cook spent a few months repairing his vessels in 1781. For the natives that casual visit was the beginning of the end of a culture that had lasted for thousands of years, a life where the forest and the sea provided shelter and food, where the mild climate and abundant salmon, halibut, berries, deer, and crab allowed them the luxury of permanent village sites, the time and the energy to create abundant art: wonderful masks for dances and the totems that were story tellers in a culture without a written language.
For Captain’s Cook’s crew and the fur traders that followed brought disease. Smallpox, measles, even just the flu spread through the native tribes like a wildfire across a dry prairie. Some estimates have 75% of the native population of the Northwest Coast dying in the first century after Captain’s Cooks arrival.
In the little mission church a curious blend of the traditions of two cultures: on the lectern was a Bible, open to the last reading given to whatever congregation that community of some 20 souls could muster. And behind, dominating the space, two elegantly carved and painted totems.
And finally in the afternoon the skipper pulls the throttle back, the crew gets out the tie up lines, and the Uchuck III eases in to her home berth next to a modern looking, yet obviously abandoned sawmill. At the sawmill dock an immense freighter, the Indian Ocean, loads bundles of logs from the water: exporting jobs to Asia. We thank the crew, walk down the gangplank to our cars, and start up the long winding road through the dark forest that leads eventually back to civilization.