North Beyond the San Juans
by Bruce Armstrong

Editor's note: Bruce took the trip described below in his Tolman Alaskan skiff - the same one described in Renn Tolman's NEW BOOK

Waters between Canada’s Vancouver Island and the mainland are divided into two parts at Campbell River. The area south of the city is well populated with summer homes, multiple recreational boating facilities, warm summer weather and tides that flood in from the south through the relatively wide, unrestricted Strait of Georgia. North of Campbell River the tides flood in from the North Pacific through passages made tight by many islands. Recreational boating facilities are few, summer homes as rare as municipal power, and the weather much colder and less predictable.

Kingcome Inlet

These differences make Campbell River the northern terminus for most small boat skippers traveling up from the American San Juans and the Canadian Gulf Islands. Another factor keeps boaters new to the area south of Campbell River: the whirlpools. There are two pinch-points on the way north through which non-planing hull boats must traverse at slack water: Seymour Narrows and Yuculta Rapids. At these two places tides roar during big seasonal runs.


Rumors that even the orcas await the slack and of small boats being sucked under have created a widespread respect among visiting skippers even if small, high powered skiffs are seen running the gauntlet at all hours. The amount of water held back in the many deep inlets and channels in the area makes it easy to understand the force of the 12-foot tides around Vancouver Island’s inland sea. Having visited the area below Campbell River on three different occasions, my wife and I decided to go north and explore the waters above Campbell River this summer.

First Mate

Launching at historic Telegraph Cove, one of the few back-down ramps on Northern Vancouver Island, we first struck out to find the fabled Orca. Luckily, we’d asked a whale-watch boat captain the night before where we might find the whales, never having seen them on previous visits. He gave us instructions based on tides and salmon movements. Sure enough. Within ten miles we were paralleling a herd with a big male and families trailing along behind.

Historic Telegraph Cove

A good start behind us, we headed for the Indian village of Alert Bay and the U’mista Cultural Center. The Center contains artifacts confiscated by government agents during the turn of the century prohibition of native potlatches. They were returned to their rightful owners by the government on the stipulation that a proper museum be built to safely maintain this historic treasure trove. It’s a wonderful place where outsiders can study the many historic and cultural pressures that have shaped this northern land.

Native canoe building - Alert Bay

After a fascinating visit with a native chief who was building a huge cedar canoe (no building molds, thank you very much), we got a late start up Queen Charlotte Sound toward Port Hardy, the uppermost port on the Island. It was a slow 20-mile ride -- (how else can I put it when traveling against the tide in a 20’ Tolman skiff?) -- into an unregulated chop. We got far enough offshore to be mixing with cruise ships and big draggers and got to wondering about cold water suits and the reliability of the Yamaha 100. I’m still thinking about immersion suits, but the Yamaha is as trustworthy as oars and a lot easier to use.

Queen CharlotteCrossing

Early the following morning, we made the 30-mile trip across Queen Charlotte Sound to Sullivan Bay and the island-crowded archipelago clogging the mainland side of Johnstone Strait all the way south to Campbell River. The few settlements that exist in this vast roadless network of channels and inlets are all on generator power, and many are built on floats and are connected to the outside world by float planes and water taxis.

Sullivan Bay floating main street

Few outboard-powered boats travel these waters, and we were always the smallest craft in any anchorage or harbor, and were asked on more than one occasion, “Is that your boat or your dingy?” During our eight days of boat camping, we covered nearly 600 beautiful miles, the trip made easier by a new 182C Garmin GPS and a Floscan which told me exactly how much gas I had used between widely-spaced fuel stops. Each stop -- Sullivan Bay, Greenway Sound, Quatsi Bay, etc -- was made unique by the owners who try to make a year’s wages during a very short season. Be it free shrimp during happy hours on the dock or the best cinnamon buns in the world, each stop brings back special memories of beautiful places and friendly people in protected waterways.

Lunch Stop - Cordero - My Tolman moored
with the Canadian flag in the background

We got as far south as Big Bay, just above Yucalta Rapids. My wife and I wanted to say we’d run them and went south through the Rapids at dawn 90- minutes after slack. Locals had looked at my Tolman skiff and said anything within a two-hour window would be a cake walk. Turning north through Hole-In-The-Wall was another thing. It was roaring, and the whirlpools looked quite serious. Going with the outflow of the whirlpools shot us out the backside in a very exciting fashion and we were on the way back up Johnstone Strait through another pod of whales to Telegraph Cove and home. Fantastic.

Homeward Bound


Click images to enlarge

Skeena River Seiner

Main St. - Alert Bay

Alert Bay Firewood

Dinner Time

Drury Inlet

Echo Bay

Last Old Totem - Mamalilaculla,
Village Island

Drury - Lone Pine

Mackenzie Sound Entrance

Mackenzie Inlet - Glass

Native Canoe

P.N.West - Protection


Main Lodge - Pierre's

Cordero Lodge

Shawl Bay

Sullivan Street

Tide Rips

Mamalilaculla - Villiage Island

House - Mamalilaculla
Village Island

Entrance - Wells Passage