Bears, Otters and Waves, Oh My! Boat-camping in British Columbia
The inlets, island and fjords of the Pacific Northwest invite exploration and while road access is scant, boat access abounds. For access, efficiency, speed and comfort I chose the smallest boat that would allow us to sleep comfortably in the cuddy, as well as one that would handle four or five foot swell/wave combinations safely. From the 25 or so boats on offer through the Freedom Boat Club we chose a Defiance 22’ with a 200 hp Merc and an adequate front berth sleeping compartment, and full weather protection. It was fully outfitted with the essentials of basic GPS navigation and charts, compass, radio, fire extinguisher etc.
Knowing waves build through the morning and we would face a 50 km fetch from the Northwest, we left at 5:30 AM in a steady rain but with calm seas to get through the Burrard Inlet to the Georgia Strait. From there we could whip and jostle our way around the exposed lighthouse point into the island-studded mouth of Howe Sound, the second protected waterway north of Vancouver, BC. So far, so good. We were one day past a full Super Moon so the flood tide had everything floating high and plenty of dislodged debris, flotsam lines. Every few minutes I would have to dodge a floating log lost from one of the half dozen the log rafts we saw being towed. Naomi enjoyed the scenery; my eyes were glued to the water 60 meters ahead as we held a steady 20 knots on step but at the ready for evasive action. The logging industry is hard at work and their debris is a navigational hazard.
First stop was Horseshoe Bay just below the sea-to-Sky freeway. There we coffeed up, collected our wits, and figured out where we might head. Light winds would have allowed a Vancouver Island run except that Covid restrictions prohibited visiting the Island Health Unit, thus, we opted for the 3-hour run up the narrow fjord the small fishing and logging town of Squamish, an Indigenous-named town between Vancouver and the ski town of Whistler. It was in our access zone though we took precautions of masking, distancing and eating outdoors.
Call it research but there is a method to our systematic exploration of the coast. In three or four years, we will have to make a decision on where to settle down and live our our post-work lives, thus, are focusing in on candidate locations. We know it will be BC, near the ocean, but what about islands? Inlets? Ferry access? Distance to hospital and airport? These trips allow time to visit various communities, heft them, talk to residents and get a feel for their vibe, facilities, growth patterns and services.
Squamish was impressive — overshadowed by the second largest granite massif in the world, it is a climbers mecca with dedicated rock climbing shops along Main Street, practice boulders in the city parks, and mountaineering murals on store sides. The marina owner was friendly and for $22 we had a world class moorage, hot showers, washrooms and a short walk to a hip and young main street collection of brew pubs and window shopping. This is the land of well-used Nissan Pathfinders and Toyota Tacomas, sporting kayak racks, paddle boards, ski racks, crab traps, and heavily-stickered campers.
The populace was cut from the same cloth as a 1980 Flagstaff, 1985 Telluride, 1990 Bozeman and Canmore in 2000– young, fit, and from somewhere else. Ski bum work in the winter, climbing or kayaking in the summer. These habits are, ironically, supported by evening shift work at the fine restaurants with lots full of BMWs and Mercedes, or swinging a hammer to build the luxury condos for vacation homes of the wealthy class. It takes about 15 years for a place to be swallowed by affluence in what sociologists call “Amenity towns”. The wild west nature of these towns evaporates under a tax base that can afford full-on policing, bylaw compliance and regulation enforcement. The rickety garage apartments that never met code are condemned and replaced by million dollar homes; and heli-skiing, river flyfishing outfitters, land leasing and remote lodge concessions, cater primarily to big tourist dollars. The footloose transients and penniless backpackers no longer set up tents in the city park for the night or rough-camp out of the back of their pickups. Go to the KOA.
Eventually the first cohorts of the outdoorish walkabout crowd age out; they either gets solvent and put down roots, sell their hovels for big bucks, or they can’t afford to live there. Over time, the Bohemian atmosphere no longer draws in the gypsy climbers, skiers and kayakers. The place is tamed. Squamish is in the teenaged phase of this evolution. It is blossoming, condos are popping up, and it is becoming the playground of Vancouverites as surely as Estes Park was populated by Denverites’ second homes.
Squamish will follow this path but likely more slowly than some because it is also home to active and grubby mining, commercial crabbing and logging industries that refuse to be forced to drink lattes, drive Teslas and revere veganism. A big part of the town still lives close to the earth and helps inoculate the place against being entirely paved with big outside money.
We enjoyed the cocoon of a dry cab in steady rain, hot coffee, gentle seas, and a deep solitude of a quiet outboard at a 3000 RPM drone. The new large-displacement four-stroke engines are marvels of power, quietness and efficiency. It was a good time to reflect and talk with my environmental sociologist life partner about where and how we want to live, what was important for an envisioned life and where we wanted to deposit our retirement time. The main ingredients we seek enumerate as:
(1) outside the commuter catchment of a major metro area;
(2) within an hour of a major hospital and airport;
(3) sunlight to combat winter darkness;
(4) some place our current equity will purchase an acre of land, house, water access or nearby dock;
(5) some semi-solitude but also -
(6) access to a cadre of interesting people who appreciate education (hey, we are two university professors), music, and social issues beyond their community confines.
In Squamish we moored between a sport fishing boat and a live-aboard cruiser that was somewhere between derelict and normcore. Several elegant sailboats needing more use reflected in the small marina. I felt a dangerous vestigial itch to sail again and tried to ignore it.
Lunch was delicious as we forked into painfully West Coast salads filled with advocado and pumpkin seeds, gumbo served on quinoa instead of rice and all were pursued soutwhard by local craft brews. Delicious, reasonable and filling. The combination of a 5:30 AM start, boat jostling, a big lunch and no fixed schedule indicated a boat nap was required while we waited for the weather to break.
The rain abated and we did a boat tour for some photos of waterfalls and whatever else we could turn up.
We made a slow shoreline cruise to watch wildlife and try to get closer to the loose flocks of Surf and White-winged Scoters out ahead of us. While idling along I casually mentioned to Naomi that this would be a good place to spot black bears, thus, three minutes later when I said “There’s a bear” she was slow to believe me. A young black bear in dark cinnamon pelage sat munching sedges at the high tide junction. It took a moment to rule out grizzly but once the binocs were on it just wasn’t.
As we returned to the marina before the sun went down, the clouds put on a glorious still-water show for us. Boat riding on such glassy surfaces feels akin to flying.
After a walk around town, supper and some reading we settled into a still night of pattering rain with plans for an early morning departure to Gibson’s landing on the Sunshine Coast. Although there were too many clouds for stars, we did find a low-tide constellation of psychodelic purple stars to replace them beneath our hull
We enjoyed the cruising but eventually the mid-day winds near the mountains caught up with us and upon hitting the Georgia Strait, the 50 km fetch and 25 kph winds built swells of about 4 feet with a white cap chop on top and added to a strong following sea as the tide turned into the inlet.
I used the trim tabs and the motor trim to run bow-high and held 10 knots so I stayed ahead of the running seas and never stuffed the nose but it was slow going with frequent spray over the bow and some exciting little semi-surfs down the wave faces here and there. The photo really doesn’t do it justice. We never sensed any real danger but it would have been very tiresome running into or across those seas as well as a sea sickness risk to try to stop and bottom-fish.
We liked the quaintness of Gibson’s Landing but the requisite ferry ride for cars to reach Gibson’s dampens our retirement intentions since we hope to continue hosting friends and family without too great an access headache. Some people say the islands are for the “Newlyweds and nearly dead”. I thought I detected a filter on cultural diversity, at least if skin color is any indicator — Gibson’s is a rather white-bread place which brings up concerns of white flight and all the ugly conservatism baggage that comes with that. This sign along the town path though was its own form of exhortation to live fully:
We still had one stop left in Port Moody about three km from our home dock. While I lightly cleaned and organized the boat, Naomi went for coffee and ever the over-achiever, returned with coffee AND delicious ice cream cones. Notice the mussels on the pier pilings — low tide — and this is important for the next two things unfolding as we sat there enjoying all the stuff going on around us.
Because I had a savant-like reputation for wildlife spotting to uphold, I had pressed my luck yesterday and said “River otters are also quite common around here”. No dice on that in Squamish but here in Port Moody, bingo! A big male river otter was flushing groups of Canada Geese as he loped across a low tide mud flat toward us. Some with young turned and fought him or at least hissed and flapped some. He then put on a great show as he snaked around the rocks right by our boat foraging for who knows what, maybe crabs, mussels or clams.
A video clip of him hunting is posted here:
While we struggled to keep up with our melting ice cream cones — such a delightful problem — we watched the anxious Port Moody Police preparing to tow a truck off the boat launch ramp. Someone had launched their boat, motored off and forgot to pull their truck and trailer up the ramp. Now 3-meter tide was coming back in, inundating the trailer, the truck’s bumper and saltwater was heading for the engine. Who leaves their truck and trailer on the launch ramp? Must be hard on trailer bearings at a minimum.
Roxy had one overarching desire and that was to swim endlessly. She is now trained to never leap off the boat or dock without the command “Go ahead!” but she does mumble and lightly whine for swimming not unlike a pre-schooler.
This was a simple overnight boat camping trip and I am fortunate to have an enthusiast wife who loves camping and just being on the water. Yeah, we burned $125 per person worth of gas but we saved $170 worth of hotel fees, didn’t need a car, and got a great variety of views and solitude unavailable to the terrestrial. With marina showers and food nearby, it was dirt simple. Next trip we are thinking bicycles might open up the small coastal towns to us even more. Getting older doesn’t have to mean stodginess, and as legs, hearing and vision weaken, credit cards tend to get stronger with age. It is just money — trade it for experiences while you can!