Monday, October 26, 2009

A Trip Through Time: Port McNeill to Friday Harbor DAYS 1-3

Last month we joined Captain Ronn Patterson of Dolphin Charters and Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society for a picturesque cruise from Port McNeill to Friday Harbor through the protected waters of Vancouver Island's inside passage and beyond. Living on a small boat for 8 days with 6 other passengers, we were treated to our first glimpses of the beauty of the world that lays just beyond the San Juan Islands. This is a region with both history and a natural magnificence that is’s an adventure that takes you through thickly forested mountains that rise up from the sea and whose walls are almost perpendicular to the surface of the water, through inlets of historical significance and opportunities for wildlife viewing that can leave you awestruck. I kept some notes and wanted to share the adventure in photos---so here we go!


Our journey begins in Friday Harbor, where we awoke to a beautiful sunrise offering a surreal pink light cloaked in fog- a fog which shrouded most of the Islands with the exception of the northernmost tip of San Juan. Our departure from Roche Harbor was uneventful, flying about 1/2 hour to Nanaimo, Vancouver Island's second largest city which sits centrally on its coastline. After a brief stop at this town which boasts residences scrolling up the hillsides and evolving across the hills greeting the lapping waters of the Straits of Georgia, we departed for Pt. McNeill. As our travels continued north, the blue green seas met the rolling hills of deforested islands, interrupted with occasional pens of salmon farms dotting the inlets. I was finally witnessing first hand the salmon farming industry's impact on the region which Alexandra Morton has spent tireless years trying to erase from this landscape. Tucked in between the islands which have not escaped the logging industry by any stretch of the imagination, the pens reminded me that our society's footprint travels into the what most consider pristine environments throughout the world.

Three hours after our original departure, we were greeted by Port McNeill, a small village on the shores of the Queen Charlotte Strait, situated on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. We were embraced by rain (and lots of it!), fog and a beatitful harbor nestled in the landscape.

Port McNeill provided us with some great hiking opportunities as we took to the trails in search of bears and wildlife. Lots of scat, no bears to be seen- although we were alert to the cougar population (once warned by locals). We toured the harbor access road watching the loons rest on the water's edge, visiting the Logging Museum for an overview of the area's logging history and made our way through the little shopping village on the waterfront.


The second day of our trip would convince us that our all-weather gear had been a good investment- the day began and ended with 30 knot winds and uninterrupted rains. We spent the early part of the morning hiking on a trail nestled in the southernmost side of Port McNeill, bear scat teasing us every 50 feet or so. At the end of the trail's intersect at Miner Road we headed left towards the rocky shoreline and proceeded along the beach headed back into town. Tide was rapidly changing- the exchange was amazingly fast- within 15 minutes of our venture's end, the pebbled shoreline path was no longer visible, the beach now hidden by the ocean's waves. And for the record, we were dry! On to Port Hardy.

The trip on a local bus to Port Hardy lasted about 35 minutes along Highway 19, a richly forested road heading north. The town boasts itself as "the last bastion of civilization on the north side of Vancouver Island," and true to the promise we were greeted by a bustling harbor with all the amenities- a mall, a main street, restaurants, coffee houses, bookstores and a proximity to ocean adventure on both land and sea. This sizable community is slowly moving away from the resource-based economies of fishing, forestry, and mining and the town is gradually developing an economy based on tourism. We spent the afternoon touring the town in the wind and rain- our final interaction with "civilization" for days to come.


We awoke to something we had yet to experience in our brief travels- clear skies. The rain stopped for a brief interval, just long enough to capture a beautiful sunrise along the pebbled shoreline. As you can see, fog would again eclipse the day which would take us across the Queen Charlotte Strait in just a few hours.

The water was abosolutely calm, not a ripple on the shorelines. We met the Delphinus at the harbor, boarded and headed east to Malcolm Island, destination: Sointula and a meet and greet with Alexandra Morton, Rob Williams and Erin Ashe.

Billing itself today as a "Taste of Utopia," Sointula has a rich history that began at the turn of the 20th century when a group of Finnish immigrants founded the area, beginning an experiment in cooperative living. According to history, Finnish immigrants who had long been oppressed in the Island's mining industry founded the town, naming their newfound respite "Sointula," meaning "a place of harmony." The town was designed around communal living and equality, everyone participating equally. Eventually the idealism waned and the group sold its assets to the bank. However, remaining settlers would later purchase the land and return to a fishing and logging lifestyle. Today, Sointula still attracts individualists who remain true to the original dreams.

Did I mention we had the chance to meet some of the most prolific and truly passionate people in the region? I was beside myself as Alex Morton boarded the boat- Listening to Whales was a book I read at least 5 times on our wait to finally move to the islands. The title drew me in and I found her words to be a gift- I was and still am enchanted with her creativity and stewardship and have followed her Salmon Farming mission since my arrival here. What can I say? Some people you admire, some you show respect for what they stand for and Alex, to me, is both. Rob and Erin carry on the same torch of integrity and honest regard.

We spent several hours with the group discussing Alex's most recent efforts to impact the Salmon farming industry's impact on the region and Rob and Erin's work in wildlife distribution and abundance as well as impacts of human activities on behavior and energetics of marine mammals. May sound pretty geeky to some but I was in heaven. The talk also laid a good foundation towards understanding the tenuous nature of regional sustainability for the other passengers, not all from the area.

And then we were off to Echo Bay, traveling down the Johnstone Strait to Billy Proctor's dock house by the sea, just down the island and around a cove. On our way, we passed a band of traveling sea lions, foraging and swimming alongside the boat, glancing back at us now and again to ensure our whereabouts.

Echo Bay can only be accessed by private boats. This is a world not visited by ferries, trips for supplies must be planned and expect to last all day. It is here we met Billy Proctor, who runs a small museum of beachcombing finds, has written a few books, and has lived in this area for a very long time, watching the landscape and scenery change. Billy has carved out a life of adventure on this coast as a former logger, fisherman, and do-it-himselfer and he's on the list as one of the seven wonders (people) of Canada. If you're ever in the region, stop by if you can- it will be worth the trip.

Our first day on the water was over as we moored at Billy's pier and prepared for our fist night at sea. The cove was protected and the rain was beginning to fall as a light misty fog rolled in. Next Stop: Bears and Berries in Knight Inlet. Stay tuned!

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