Why go to Ocean Falls? I have a history with the place, having moved there as a small boy in 1959 and lived there until 1962. My memories are a little fuzzy, but I do have a few and I was interested in revisiting some of them.
My father went to Ocean Falls to work in the pulp and paper mill as a new recruit and was later transferred to Campbell River as a junior steam engineer. He often walked the mile from home in Anderson Valley to the mill each shift, day or night, and then walked home after the shift. Black bears and grizzly were a common enough sight that I’m sure made him uneasy sometimes. The rain was always part of life in Ocean Falls and that meant he often arrived home soaked to the bone.
My mother has fond memories of a simpler time with an easy social life with neighbours and friends. She had four kids to keep life busy and she liked her home and the little town. By the time I was six, I roamed around freely, usually with my younger brother, and would be gone for hours at a time. The rule was that we stay within hailing distance and come home before it started to get dark.
In August 2021, Cheryl and I chose Ocean Falls as our sailing destination and we gave ourselves a month to get there. She has 25 years of power boating experience and I have been a sailor for 38 years. Our boat was new to us, a 2005 Island Packet 445, purchased in April. We also had Dax along as our crew, a 10-pound Shih Tzu.
We set off from Cowichan Bay on August 2 and anchored in Maple Bay that first night. On the following day, motoring and sailing brought us to Pirates Cove on DeCourcy Island, which allowed us to get through Dodd Narrows at slack current the next morning. Heading north, we ducked behind a freighter in Northumberland Channel that was loaded with BC #1 fir. An overnight slip was obtained at the Nanaimo Yacht Club reciprocal dock.
The following morning, we managed to get in a good day of sailing as we crossed Georgia Strait en route to Jedediah Island, which is tucked in behind Lasqueti Island. This place is a gem and is one our favorite islands to hike and explore. We anchored in Deep Bay with 55’ of depth and plenty of chain. There is a herd of feral sheep that has survived for many years since the old homestead was abandoned, and a small herd of mountain goats. The sheep are a common sight when wandering the trails, but we were fortunate to encounter the goats near the shore as well.
Before heading out I try to be very diligent about checking the weather forecasts, using Predict Wind; I also check the local conditions on the Weather Network for a local flavour. The forecast for the Strait of Georgia North was for light winds from the southwest at 6 to 10 knots. We were heading towards Campbell River and we were able to sail along at 3 to 5 knots for several hours before arriving at the southern tip of Quadra Island. We motored very slowly for about an hour, waiting for the current change before entering Discovery Passage in front of Campbell River. The flow through this area is 6 knots at full ebb and even under power the entry into the Discovery Marina is a bit challenging. It’s easy to be swept past as one turns broadside to the current to enter through the breakwater, so we approached at an angle and made the final turn at the last moment.
After visits with friends and family, we replenished our stores and headed north. Our 0500h departure had us motoring toward Seymour Narrows in the dark and against the flood. The current in the narrows frequently exceeds 15 knots, so was not to be taken lightly. By the time we arrived, an hour later, the sky was brightening and we were ready to pass through with the slack.
In doing so, we crossed over the famed Ripple Rock, which was dynamited from below the sea bed on April 5, 1958. There had been more than a year of underground tunneling, followed by drilling blast holes up into the rock from below. These were loaded with explosives and upon detonation the rock was removed as a hazard to navigation. Even today, this event is said to be the largest non-nuclear, peace-time explosion ever and was quite a sensation. Prior to the explosion, Ripple Rock had been a major hazard to navigation, with less than three meters clearance over the rock. There had been numerous ships sunk in the narrows, resulting in the loss of more than 100 lives. Today, there are 14 meters of water over what remains of the rock.
Traveling north in the ebb flow early in the day avoids the wind-over-current condition that has made Johnston Strait so infamous. We were able to travel at speeds as high as nine knots on flat seas and ducked into Port Neville before the afternoon winds had really filled in. During the summer, these winds often blow down the strait at 15 to 20 knots and if you are caught in the Strait with an afternoon ebb tide, conditions can be horrendous.
We decided to focus on reaching our destination and so continued north, passing the Broughton Archipelago, Telegraph Cove, Alert Bay and Malcolm Island before arriving at Port McNeill. Our slip was at a mostly empty marina. COVID was keeping many BC boaters at home and the US boaters were not permitted to cruise BC waters. We spent a couple of days provisioning and exploring the town before heading out.
Our next stop was Alexander Bay on Nigei Island where we planned to sit out a blow. The bay is deep, but we were able to anchor in 60’ near its head and with a 5:1 scope – we had 200’ of chain and 100’ of anchor rope deployed. The wind howled overhead, buffeting the boat, but we held firm and were quite comfortable. A tree near the shore blew over with a great crash and splash, startling us out of our sleep on the second night.
We explored the shoreline with Dax sniffing along and, quite by accident, stumbled onto a paddle nailed to a tree, which marked the head of a trail. We wandered along a rough path that was occasionally marked with flotsam to keep us on track and arrived at another bay on the opposite side of the Island. It was such a lovely walk that we hiked across four times during our two-day stay.
We also encountered a lone sea otter who swam around us at a distance a few times during our stay. Sea otters were nearly extinct a few years ago, but have been successfully reintroduced and now flourish on the north island coastal areas. Before the sea otter fur trade began in earnest in the 1800s the global population was estimated in excess of 150,000, but by the time an international treaty was signed in 1911 to protect them, there were only 2000 remaining, primarily in Alaska. A program to reintroduce sea otters on the BC north coast began in 1969 and an original group of 89 were released. At first, there were concerns as the initial population dropped, but now there are more than 7000 individuals. Males often travel alone, but the females follow and a lone male has been established as far south as Race Rocks off Victoria.
I am very diligent about drawing a detailed course on our electronic chart plotter. I admit that I do not bother to do this around the southern Gulf Islands since I’ve memorized almost every hazard, but in any passage making, I never fail. I mark a waypoint near every hazard, even if we are passing on a straight course. That way, I know to look out for the hazard and if my crew is on watch, she also knows that when we are approaching a waypoint, there is a nearby hazard to avoid. The course is really a reference line and we do not follow it exactly, particularly when we’re under sail. I also detail the entrance into our next anchorage to within a few feet. I find that entering an unfamiliar bay is stressful enough without the additional pressure to navigate on the fly.
Queen Charlotte Strait
Queen Charlotte Strait is a notorious stretch of water to cross and it did not disappoint. We set out from Alexander Bay early to make the 40-mile crossing in placid conditions, heading north towards Fury Cove, located at the south end of Fitzhugh Sound. It was a beautiful sunny day and there were a lot of seabirds of all kinds in the air and on the water. We also encountered humpback whales working their way south early in the passage. In the afternoon, a breeze set in from the north and increased to 15 knots on the nose. Still later, the current switched to an outflow. Although not strong, the wind over current in open water made for very uncomfortable conditions and we were very happy to complete the seven-hour crossing.
We followed our charted course through the narrow twisting channels to arrive in Fury Cove. There is a small provincial park on part of the Cove, with a cabin and a small trail around the peninsula. There was a midden and a sandy isthmus that allowed views to Queen Charlotte Strait beyond. We found it funny that we were the only boat around, but Parks had signs posted along the beach indicating the area was closed due to COVID.
In the morning, we headed north through Fitzhugh Sound towards a new destination called Kwakume Inlet. The entrance is hard to spot and is very narrow, with a fair current flowing through it. As we worked our way into a small bay at the head, we found anchorage with a couple of other boats. The residents of Ocean Falls had discovered this delightful jewel of a place many years before and developed a trail up a steep grade and into a lake. There was a beautiful fresh water beach, with silky soft sand and a quarter of a mile long. The water was lovely and good for swimming.
We enjoyed this spot for a couple of nights and in the morning before leaving, I took Dax for a last walk up to the lake. There, we discovered several wolf tracks in the sand along the shore. We were definitely in wild country.
We headed out to make the short passage to Ocean Falls. Conditions were good, although there was a bit of misty rain limiting visibility. As we turned northwest and entered Fisher Channel, we passed the Northwest Expedition, BC Ferries’ replacement vessel for the Queen of the North. We turned north into Cousins Inlet and headed up the last few miles to Ocean Falls.
Ocean Falls started with the purchase of a square mile of land at the head of Cousins Inlet in 1906. The hydro dam was completed to create Link Lake in 1912 and the mill started producing pulp and paper. Homes were built in the town site for a population of 250 and by 1950 the population had increased to 3500, including those residing in Martin Valley. In the early 70s, the Crown Zellerback Company concluded the old mill was past its prime and not worth the cost to retool. However, the provincial government of the day decided to buy the mill for $1.0 million in 1973 to save jobs by continuing operations, but after losing money every year until 1980, the mill was finally closed for good. By 1990 only 70 permanent residents remained.
Most of the buildings in the old town have decayed and many were bulldozed. The old hotel and a large apartment building remain as concrete hulks against the skyline. A few commercial buildings are still in use, along with some of the industrial buildings and a few homes. When we walked through the town, we saw several buildings collapsing inwards as the decay took over.
Some 30 years ago a fisherman from Kodiak, Alaska, named Herb Carpenter showed up in Ocean Falls with his three trawlers, looking for a place to settle. He thought the little town still had potential and he stayed. He sold his boats and leased the old shops building. He stripped out the workings, clearing the way for a small boat storage business for the seasonal residents. His wife ran a little gift and novelty shop in the corner and he allowed ‘Nearly Normal Norm’, as he was called, to run a very eclectic museum on the second floor. The boat docks were in desperate disrepair, so he applied for a federal government infrastructure grant and was able to oversee a complete rebuild.
The docks are now in good condition with water, power, and room for six to eight cruising boats in addition to the recreational fishing boats. The old bank in the middle of town has been converted to a home with rooms for rent on the second floor. The owner also runs an ice cream shack and laundry service, and we took advantage of both. There is a small post office open part-time, but the stores are all gone. The locals have arranged to have an old van loaded with supplies put onto the ferry each week in Bella Coola. These are unloaded and the van is sent back for the next week’s run. An open barge also comes in once every week or so to deliver additional supplies.
When we arrived, there were five other cruising boats and plenty of hands for the lines. We invited a couple of the neighbours to come by for appies and drinks. One couple had been coming to the north coast every year for the past 20 years and Ocean Falls was a favorite stop. The other couple had crossed from Haida Gwaii and were working their way back south to their base in Squamish. We traded tales and had a few drinks with a promise to share a dinner the following evening.
The following day no one left the dock. The wind was howling and rain and fog prevented any visibility. Later in the afternoon, we were able to walk the mile to Anderson Valley, where the majority of the homes are still in use. Some had full time residents and others had been purchased as cabins for fishing and hunting in season. If the homes are not heated for even one season the moisture seeps into the structure, whereupon mold and rot take over, and the building is soon uninhabitable. We found my childhood home, which I knew had been lived in only five years earlier. It had been sold and someone had started to make improvements but, the story goes, that one of the workers left a door open and a bear came in, apparently attracted by lunch scraps. The place was abandoned and was sadly beyond hope.
The next morning, we hiked the trail up to the lake and the old dam and wandered around what remained of the town. We happened upon Herb at the old warehouse and had a visit; he explained that he was in town for his last time and making final arrangements for the sale of his boat storage business.
We also met ‘Bear’ on the dock, a local man who guided tourists who came to fish salmon or the big rainbow trout from the lake. He was just back from a successful lake trip.
The dam was built to run the generators that powered the saw mill and paper mill, and it is still in place with two of the generators continuing to make power. A bitcoin operation was attracted by the power supply and moved into one of the old buildings. Also, a huge tank farm was built as a fish hatchery for raising the small salmon to go to fish farms. With the additional workers, the town has grown from a low of 28 to now having 51 full time residents.
Ocean Falls is no tourist mecca but it was a very interesting place nonetheless. We enjoyed it and I picture us stopping again another season.
The Return Trip
From Ocean Falls, we headed down Gunboat Passage, a narrow twisting waterway, to Shearwater, one of the few places on the north coast that has good supplies, fuel and water. There, we replenished our food and alcohol, washed our sheets and towels, and visited the chandlery. We were also able to go for a long hike up over the hills on old logging roads. We enjoyed an evening dinner out at the local pub before leaving.
In the early morning we headed south along Lama Passage in heavy fog. There is always the concern that we might run into the ever present logs or even whole trees floating in the fog. We didn’t see much of anything, but as the fog lifted, we came upon a deer swimming across the channel. An unusual sight to be sure, but not unheard of. We also saw many bald eagles perched in the trees near the points, looking for a dining opportunity. Sightings of humpback whales and Orcas are very common in this area. Seals were seen everywhere, but sea otters were a special treat.
Our next stop was the Hakai Institute on Calvert Island. This is a research facility that was established in 2009 with the purchase of the Hakai Beach Resort, primarily a fishing resort. Their purpose was to facilitate scientific research in the area to guide environmental stewardship. Researchers, often senior university students, are able to live in the facility and manage various field research projects.
The bay in front of the Hakai Institute is well protected and is a good anchorage. The Institute has several well-maintained trails leading off to five separate, spectacular beaches as well as a trail up through the trees to the barren hill tops. Visitors are welcome, but there are no services available. It is an amazing place to explore and we thoroughly recommend this stop.
From Calvert Island we traveled south along the mainland coast. The fog was thick and we saw only glimpses of the shoreline. We had to avoid a commercial fishing vessel as it emerged from the fog quite suddenly, close on the bow. Along this stretch of coast there are numerous opportunities to duck into safe anchorages for the night or to wait out weather. We stopped for the evening at Blunden Harbour, behind Robinson Island, and upon reflection, we decided that we will travel along the east shore of Queen Charlotte Sound in future trips to the North Coast, avoiding the open crossing.
The following day we sailed south to Wells Passage and entered the Broughton Archipelago under sail. Once in the channel, we dropped sail and motored north to Mackenzie Sound. We entered some narrow channels leading onto a remote anchorage called Turnbull Cove. This was a very beautiful place, but quite remote so we were surprised to find three other vessels already anchored there. The bay is very deep, making anchoring near the trees and backing into a shore tie the best choice. We stayed two nights and discovered a trail up a steep grade, which led to a beautiful lake with a rough dock. We ended up hiking the mile long trail a couple of times to enjoy the wild beauty of the place.
Motoring back through the channels, we entered Penphrase Passage on our way to Laura Cove – a tiny anchorage that found us all alone. This spot was a great place and was tucked around a peninsula just a few feet away from Penphrase Passage, but it felt very remote. We used the Dreamspeaker cruising guide, The Broughtons: And Vancouver Island–Kelsey Bay to Port Hardy, to research our destinations in this area and the location sounded intriguing. We anchored and tied to a tree on shore as recommended, but the following morning we were a little taken aback to look over the stern and find the bottom only a foot or so under the rudder with the bow still in deep water at low tide.
In the morning we moved the short distance to Echo Bay Marina which had been a popular stop before the COVID pandemic. The local First Nations purchased it during COVID. The resort and marina were pretty quiet, as all of them were, and the restaurant was not operating. The fuel docks and store were open, but there was no potable water. We did our laundry and visited a few fellow boaters during our brief stay.
From Echo Bay, we walked a half hour over a rough trail that arrived at Billy Proctor’s Museum. Billy is a Broughton character who has lived in the area for many years and has a lot of stories to tell. His museum is filled with relics from the old fishing and logging days. More recently, he has built a replica cedar loggers’ hut in the form that was used by hand loggers in the day. He has co-authored several books about the fishing and logging industries, which are available to purchase in a little gift shop beside the museum.
Quest for Water
From Echo Bay we travelled southeast through Retreat Passage, crossing Knight Inlet to a small bay south of Leone Island. In the morning, we decided to head north to Port McNeill to re-provision and fill our water tanks. Unbeknown to us, there was a water advisory in Port McNeill because of flooding in the reservoir, which contaminated the drinking water. So, we were not able to take water, but were able to re-provision, do more laundry and visit several shops. We also took the opportunity to take an hour and a half walk along the waterfront and a beautiful trail through the forest that wandered near the shore. We enjoyed a nice dinner at the local pub in the evening.
Before leaving, we stocked up on bottled water and put buckets of water beside our electric heads for flushing, just in case we ran our tank dry.
Just as we arrived in Port McNeill, the Canadian Government lifted COVID restrictions to allow American boaters to visit Canada. The following day, US boats began to arrive and a day later the docks were all full. In talking to one of the captains, we learned that he had been waiting in Friday Harbour and headed north for a non-stop passage the moment the news was officially announced.
We did some asking around and discovered that Alert Bay on Cormorant Island had potable water and they confirmed they would allow us to fill our tank. As we arrived at the Bay, we radioed the marina manager and were told there were no open slips, but we were invited to tie at the float plane docks as long as we kept an eye out for incoming flights. It was a bit unsettling but all went well.
From Alert Bay, we started our passage south on Johnstone Strait. We did a long day, with a delayed start getting water, and were quite late arriving at Helmcken Island, east of Kelsey Bay. We were starting to lose the light as we arrived and found that things had changed since my earlier visits. The shores were well marked with warning signs indicating this was private property, was video monitored, and there was no access. We checked a couple of possible anchorages and settled on Billy Goat Bay. The Bay is tiny and already had five boats at anchor, so we found ourselves dropping the hook among the bull kelp as full darkness engulfed us.
We had a crew member who had been on board for a solid 14 hours and was pretty anxious to visit a beach. I lowered the dinghy and we set off in complete blackness to a small islet that we had passed which appeared to have a beach to land on. As we approached, I heard the bellow of protest from a female sea lion who was lounging just above the water’s edge, unseen in the darkness. Apparently, she was the parent of a young sea lion I noticed as I rowed close to a rocky outcrop. I quickly made new plans to land on another islet across the channel. The landing spot had angular boulders up to the tree line, but it had to do. Dax hopped out on his own, scurried up to the tree line and was back in the dinghy before I had a chance to secure us. On the row back to the boat, I could hear the female sea lion bellowing and fin-slapping a warning on the water in the darkness. Also, there was a bull sea lion not far away, who was bellowing his thoughts. Dax and I were very happy to clamber back aboard.
We left Billy Goat Bay at 0530h, with just enough light to work our way out of the narrow channel and into Johnstone Strait, to catch a favorable current which would carry us all the way to Seymour Narrows. We enjoyed a beautiful morning and arrived ahead of schedule, so we stopped at Plumper Bay to wait for the slack. We also needed a place to get Dax off the boat to do dog things. When the slack came, we passed through the narrows without incident and motored against the building current to Discovery Marina in Campbell River.
The Broughtons and the North Coast were behind us. It had been a wonderful trip, with plenty of adventure and discovery. There was an abundance of fond memories and we had seen some incredible country. Both of us felt that this was a trip we would like to do again.