Southing in the Inside Passage

When the fog lifted, I rowed east along the upper reaches of Johnstone Strait into the Broughton archipelago through the churning currents in Blackney and Whitebeach passages. In the fluky wind filtering between islands and along channels, I changed from sail to oar frequently as I navigated through a few dozen of the archipelago’s hundreds of forested islands, tree-capped islets, and bare rocks. I measured time now only by the tides and the amount of daylight available, and because I wouldn’t be returning to my starting point near Port McNeil, there was no need to think about when to head back, only where to go next.

A Fringe of the Wild

The next day brought clear weather at last. The wind had swung around to the southwest, bringing some fierce gusts, but it wasn’t enough to keep us ashore. We launched our boats and tacked down to the southern tip of our island, where we started to beat our way southward through the biggest stretch of open water on the flowage. Again I waffled back and forth: one reef, two reefs, no reefs. Gusts. No gusts. Strong wind. Light wind. Light wind, strong gusts—an interesting combination, impossible to reef for. Lance pulled ahead steadily in the Phoenix III. I tried not to notice.
We worked our way toward the southern reaches of the flowage, taking time to stop at several islands along the way. A few more thumpings of the centerboard when I cut too close to shore at one point reminded me too late of the “abundance of rock bars” the map had warned about. Still, no harm done. At least, not this time.

Barron Canyon

The three of us picked up our packs and set off on the first crossing along the sun-dappled path, winding through the thick bush of pine. While I could see clearly ahead over 50’, I kept my focus downward, and stepped gingerly over rocks and roots, sometimes hidden by a thick layer of dried pine needles. We maneuvered down some rock steps, being careful not to lose our footing on the uneven ground and tumble down a rocky granite slope. We passed through a valley and crossed a small creek on a narrow bridge made of four long, springy 2x6s. In the lowlands around the creek, swarms of mosquitoes attacked us and we picked up our pace. As we got close to the end of the portage, we could see the sun sparkling on the water through the trees. It was a welcome sight because our packs, fully laden with gear and provisions for four days, were at their heaviest.

Running on Sunshine

I knew of only one solar-electric boat, an American multihull, that had traveled the full distance from Lock 1 in Trenton to Lock 45 in Port Severn, so they were the first. I’d be the first Canadian using only the sun to charge my batteries. SOL CANADA’s hull was based on the Greavette Dispro, manufactured by the Disappearing Propeller Boat Company from 1915 to 1958. An enclosed motorwell holds a Torqeedo Cruise 2.0 electric outboard, and in a compartment under the seats are four 6-volt batteries wired in series to provide 24 volts with a capacity of 221 amp-hours. I expected the boat to be capable of an average speed of 5.4 mph. The batteries are charged by four flexible solar panels on the canopy. They have a rated output of 860 watts.

An Uphill Battle

I had first paddled the trail five years previously, a solo trek of over 750 miles in twenty-eight days, in a 14-foot cedar-strip canoe that I designed and built. To ring the changes, I was now paddling from east to west, from Fort Kent, Maine, to Old Forge, New York. If successful, this would be the first recorded such through-paddle. Of the trail’s thirteen major rivers, the conventional direction – west to east – involves nine downstream and four upstream. Nobody in their right mind would go the other way. Or would they? Part of my motivation was to be the first. The challenge would involve many miles of upstream, including rapids, and also prevailing headwinds.

Dallying Downeast

We’d started at Deer Isle, where we had lived and worked for 14 years, and we planned to paddle a big figure-eight: first down to Portland and back, and then up to the Canadian border before returning to Deer Isle. We’d have time to linger in our favorite places and visit many of them twice. It wasn’t until our sixth day of the trip though, when we decided to take a foggy day off and do no traveling at all—what we called a zero day—that it began to feel like the trip we’d imagined. On Ram Island, a tiny islet west of Vinalhaven in Hurricane Sound, I pitched my hammock between a couple of scraggly spruce trees while Rebecca dug her art materials from her kayak.

Lessons from Penobscot Bay

But conditions were worse than ever. The wind had continued to increase, and again and again I was knocked down, releasing the sheets and regaining control only with the utmost effort. Closing in on Sears Island, the inevitable happened. I could no longer risk a jibe, and as I hardened the sheets and came up into the wind to tack, a gust hit, and we were over.

Now, I had capsized this boat may times in pursuit of thrills, and normally I could get her right back up. As ACE went down, I would climb over the windward gunwale, stand on the daggerboard, haul her back, scramble aboard, and be off again. This routine depended, of course, on the daggerboard being there. This time, it wasn’t. In my haste and trepidation on the launching ramp, I had neglected to secure it with its bungee cord. Now the daggerboard had slipped out of the trunk, and began to float away as the boat continued to roll until she had completely turned turtle.

Zaire, 1986

In the morning we got our first look at the pirogue Ted had commissioned. The barefoot, barrel-chested boatbuilder was still whacking out chips with his adze. The boat, a six-man canoe, measured some 33′ long, 3′ in the beam, and less than 20″ deep amidships. The sides at the sheer were 1” thick and thicker a bit closer to the bottom. There was no flare to the sides. The bow and stern each angled up from the flat bottom for 3′ or 4′ and tapered stylishly. Inside the hull were wedged three hardwood sticks used as thwarts. We christened the canoe ALICE MAY, after the derelict Yukon stern-wheeler used to thaw Sam McGee. Ted paid the builder with a shotgun forged near Bulape and shells for it. 

Roll on Columbia

The morning passed with steady rowing on a quiet river. Around noon, the sun came out, burned the fog away, and brought in the wind. It happened in a matter of minutes, and the world of gray was suddenly light blue. I stowed the oars, keeping them in the oarlocks and sliding the handles all the way to the stern where I strapped them to the quarter knees. I unfurled the bundled sail and spars, stepped the mast, and set the boom and sprit. A quick haul on the boom vang and the snotter to snug them up and cleat them, and in 60 seconds I had the sail flying. I settled into the stern, took the tiller and the sheet, and KIMCHI scooted along in the building breeze.

Downriver

Downstream from the city, the banks became heavily tree lined, and we made our way between small wooded islands and past the mouths of numerous back channels. A pair of bald eagles, perched high on a leafless tree, peered down on us. This was more like it, but what wasn’t more like it were the pleasure boats. It was Labor Day Sunday and they were out in force, enjoying the last weekend of summer. There were cruisers and houseboats, pontoon boats and jet skis, and even some I would call yachts. The one thing they had in common were motors and speed. Pulling with our oars at 3 mph, we felt we did not belong.

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