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Desolation Sound

Created/Modified: 2019-08-11/2019-08-12

I've wanted to cruise Desolation Sound for many years, but something has always come up. Hilary and I planned to sail north last summer as part of our honeymoon, but I had one of those experiences that every sailor has precisely once: I'd left some maintenance a season too long, and the exhaust was gummed up to the point where I need to do some fairly major work. Getting anything done on a boat in Vancouver is difficult and expensive, so I opted to do the repair myself, which took a long time and bollixed the trip.

So this summer I was hell-bent on making the trip, although I wondered: now that I'm living in the Gulf Islands, which are easily one of the most beautiful places in the world, how big a deal could Desolation Sound really be? Could it be that much more beautiful?

As a matter of fact, it could.

The trip north was almost entirely under power. This is a shot of passing Entrance Island, just off the tip of Gabriola, at the outer limit of Nanaimo Harbour. The day was calm and hot. We'd got off at a reasonable time and the tide was with us for the first six hours north.

Entrance Island

Calm and tide were enough to get us to False Bay on Lasqueti Island in about seven hours, mostly under power. We did sail for a couple of hours, catching the Qualicum. I caught a glimpse of a humpback in the distance, our first major wildlife sighting for the trip. It would not be our last.

To get to Lasqueti from Nanaimo you have to pass through the Whisky Golf testing ground, which was inactive that day. There's a number you can call to check on activity, or you can hail them on VHF 10, I think. If the area is active, there are regular announcements on VHF 16, and you will be hailed if you look like you're going to stray into the area when it's active. If it isn't active, you can just pass right through. My preference is to keep close to the Winchelseas regardless, so it isn't a big deal for me, and I'm conservative about route planning, as it would be a pain to assume I can pass through it and then find out I can't.

False Bay
False Bay, Lasqueti Island

False Bay is a nice anchorage with pretty good protection. There were fewer boats than when we were there a couple of years ago. We didn't bother landing, although we did see sheep on the shore. Lasqueti has a healthy feral sheep population, and I'm sure there have been cases of 30-50 feral sheep coming into someone's yard with their children playing in 3-5 minutes. There were also Canada geese honking along the shore.

Shoreline north of Texada Island

The next morning we got away early and again rode the tide north under power with no wind. We headed up along the west coast of Texada Island and cut through the channel north of Harwood Island, whose name escapes me. The shoreline north of there is rough and steep and full of little nooks and caves. It would be fun to kayak along that way sometime.

Discovered that the chart plotter doesn't automatically update itself when it runs out of knowledge, which was a bit surprising and disturbing. The shoreline was still shown, but the depth information--which is rather the point--was not available outside of the current region.

It turns out you have to manually switch the region, and there's a change near the north end of Texada. I knew the previous owners had taken the boat as far as the Brougthons, so I thought the charts should be available--and of course I have paper charts as well--but the manual was silent on the issue, since it was a matter of which data card you had plugged in. There didn't seem to be any other data cards, so I figured there must be a way of changing the file being used.

After a bit of fiddling I found the list. I had been on the helpfully-named "SE Vancouver Island" chart, but there didn't seem to be any "NE Vancouver Island" file to go with it. There were charts from all over the world, including the Great Lakes, but nothing that looked especially likely at first glance. "BC Coast to Heckate Strait" was the north coast, and "British Columbia" was the lakes. I finally noticed "Johnstone Strait", which was in the right general area, and tried it. It was what I was looking for, but the user experience overall was... not great.

On the other hand, it was a clear marker that I was now "beyond the bays we know."

Cove near entrance of Grace Harbour

The second day was a reasonably long haul, but we made it! We cruised past Lund and up the channel that separates the Copelands from the mainland. I had wondered about the Copelands as an alternative anchorage if we were running late, which would have worked although they were pretty crowded. As it happened we didn't need them. We rounded Malaspina Point in good time, and found a nice little anchorage in the inlet, near the mouth of Grace Harbour, which we didn't go into. The current was running pretty fast, but the water was calm and there was good light. I poked into a couple of potential anchorages before choosing this one, which was mentioned in one of the guidebooks as a cozy one-boat nook. In fairness, with a shore-tie, another boat might have fit in, but it would have been tight. Fortunately no one tried.

The bottom of the cove slopes up pretty steeply, so you have to get fairly close to shore to anchor at a reasonable depth. Holding was good, and based on the slope and the jerkiness of getting the anchor off when we left the bottom was loose scree.

I sail in part to get away from it all, and was curious to see how crowded this area would be. The answer this summer was: moderately. It was early July, and over the week we were there there was a noticeable increase in traffic.

Working boats

There is a moderate amount of industry in the area, mostly aquaculture of one kind or another: fish farms and oyster farms, in particular. We saw this tug hauling oil tankers and other vehicles into the inlet, and come out a few hours later with a much larger load.


We had mixed weather over the first few days, including some pretty heavy rain a couple of times. The thing is: everything about the place is beautiful. Even the rain. It was magical.

Happy wife, happy life

Hilary and I have sailed a good deal before, but this is our first trip since our marriage, and it was pretty wonderful, I've gotta say.

We spent the next day anchored, and hiked around the point to the cove on the other side. We disturbed a nighthawk on the ground, which worked hard to distract us from its nest. I didn't know they are ground-nesting birds, and it was interesting to see its behaviour. We steered well clear of it.

Desolation Sound

After a day in the cove outside Grace Harbour, we headed up to Tenedos Bay, where we spent the next few days. The wind was again absent. Every time I "sail" on the coast I think about the benefits of a power boat. Kingston, with its rock-steady 15 knot south-westerlies all summer long, spoiled me. When I was a kid out here I guess the weather was as variable, but I was mostly canoeing or in power boats, or day sailing.

Photos don't really capture the beauty here, at least not when the photographer is me. Some of these shots had a wonky white-balance setting, I think, as I managed to fat-finger that at one point. I did get it reset to "auto" at some point. But even with my lousy picture-taking, hopefully you can see how the light, the landscape, the mountains and islands, the surface of the water, are all trying to out-do each other, and succeeding.

Keeping a lookout

The whole landscape was breathtaking, and we both had plenty of opportunity to just let it soak in.

Other places have micro-climates. In BC we have nano-climates, or maybe pico-climates. There are days when I think every tree has its own weather. The bluffs above our anchorage in Tenedos Bay had clouds in one tiny cleft, and not elsewhere.

smoke cloud over trees
summer rain tap-taps outside
boat tugs at anchor

Tenedos Bay

There's a nice sheltered moorage in the north-east corner of Tenedos Bay, and we found a quiet spot to drop the hook. I set a shore-tie, carefully climbing the steep rocky beach that was full of mostly dead oysters, their shells making a sharp obstacle course, then went for a swim in the gorgeously warm water. Hilary came in too and we floated joyously for a while, then had lunch, then I did some snorkeling along the shore. There wasn't a lot to see, and the water was a bit murky, being deep in the bay and relatively shallow.

When I got back to the boat I decided I didn't like our position so much now the tide was coming back in, and repositioned a bit and went ashore to reset the shore tie. It was a half-tide and and coming back down I slipped and quite comprehensively sliced my right forearm open on various sharp oyster shells stuck to the rock.

Hilary tells me I said, "Ouch" in a perfectly calm voice. I tend to be noisy regarding incidental harms, but if I think something is serious focus on getting help, not making noise. She knows this now.

I got into the dingy still holding the free end of the shore-tie--because no matter what the boat needed to be secured--and paddled quickly back to the stern. I handed the painter up to Hilary and let her secure it while I scrambled up the ladder, bleeding all over the place. It was at that point she realized something was wrong, and I told her to get the first-aide kit from the cupboard in the head and got myself below the start the process of cleaning and inspecting the damage, which looked horrible but turned out, after a couple of days, not to be as bad as I initially feared.

There was one deep cut that I was worried might really need a stitch or two, and some extensive but basically superficial scraping. I was a bit worried about infection, given how murky the water was, and while there is a no-pump-out zone in the park, who knows what had really been dumped there by less sociable boaters?

In any case, I cleaned things up with Hilary's help and got a sterile non-stick pad on the worst cut, held on by a couple of wraps of one inch adhesive tape. My father--a surgeon--used to say that if you couldn't fix it with a roll of one inch adhesive tape you probably needed a hospital, and I've found him generally correct over my years of misadventure.

As I write this, almost a month later, things have healed to the extent that while the skin is still red in places, I don't think there's even going to be much scaring, and my immune system dealt with whatever bugs it encountered nicely. I took the kayak out into the deep, clear, part of the bay the next day, removed the bandage, and soaked my arm in the water for a while, though, as salt water bathing is generally a pretty good way to deal with superficial infections.

Rain in Tenedos Bay

The rain returned later that day, so we'd had sunshine, swimming, and rain in the course of a couple of hours. The climates are nano- in time as well as space. But again, even in rain, the place is unspeakably beautiful.

Good food

It's easy to over-eat on board. "Murrelet" is a Bayfield 29, which is a nice pocket cruiser designed for two people. The one big problem with it when I bought it was the ice-box, which was essentially un-insulated. I ended up stripping it out entirely and modifying the locker that fronted it so I could slide in a big Coleman cooler that will keep ice from melting for a solid week. I also use frozen bottled water as ice, which has multiple advantages: the ice you purchase in either block or bag is really low density, so it takes up a lot of space for not much cooling power. The bottles also keep the water in place as it melts. No messy slop in the bottom of the cooler!

Hilary also pre-cooked a bunch of meals and froze them, and I had some pre-cooked meat on board as well as a steak I did for myself the first night out. So we ate well, but managed to keep the portions down to a point where I actually lost about a kilo over the trip, despite pigging out in Lund on the way back.

After my fall, and with the rain pounding down, I was feeling a bit shaky, and this amazing dinner of vegetarian chili, salad, and toast was just the thing. I don't usually post food pics, but this was too beautiful to pass up.

Evening Kayak

To me a sailboat is mostly a mobile platform for swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking. I originally had a couple of skin-on-frame canoe-like boats on board, but an open boat is just not a great idea if you're going to travel any distance, and I like to travel distances, although we didn't this trip. So a few years ago I bought a 17.5 foot tandem kayak from Delta Kayaks on the North Shore, and it's been a great boat, which Hilary calls "Moppet" to match "Murrelet". It's in a canoe bag on Magma racks attached to the port stanchions, inboard, where it's reasonably out of the way. It's still only 12 feet shorter than Murrelet herself, so it can still be a little awkward, but totally worth it to get up-close-and-personal with the shoreline.

Pacific White-sided Dolphins (really!)

You never know what you're going to see when you look. Rationalist philosophers think we can predict the universe from a single principle, and if we could only figure it out we'd have deductive certainty about everything. Rationalist philosophers are idiots.

In this case, we simply wanted to circumnavigate the island (at high water) that sheltered our cove, but once out in Tenedos Bay proper a dozen or more pacific white-sided dolphins came zooming by, porpoising along, and swirled around like they were corralling fish beneath the surface. It was amazing, but I didn't get a picture that actually shows them in action. We were too busy watching in wonder.

Fractal Beauty

Fractals are characterized by scale-invariant structure. Desolation Sound has fractal beauty. Look at the mountains. Beautiful. Look at the islands. Beautiful. Look at the bays and inlets. Beautiful. Look at the trees and cliffs. Beautiful. Look at the water just off of the stern. Still beautiful. Everywhere you look, everything you see, sunshine or rain: beautiful.

Rainforest: 1

Hilary and I spent some time on the island of Dominica a few years ago, and this hike up to Unwin Lake, off a southern cove in Tenedos Bay, reminded me of that experience a lot. While not quite as warm, it had the same wet, prolific sense of life everywhere, limned by impossible sunshine.

Rainforest: 2

As you near the lake the forest feels primordial. I half-expected a diplodocus would come browsing through the ferny undergrowth. I made two hikes up to the lake, once to the west shore where there are some old half-submerged rafts, and the next day to the east shore, where people swim and sunbath, often without benefit of clothing, and why not?

Unwin Lake

Unwin Lake provides one of several opportunities for freshwater swimming in and around Desolation Sound, which I guess people are keen on. Me, I'm a child of the ocean, but took a dip anyway. Hilary, being an inlander, really enjoyed it.

We ate lunch watching the loon in the middle of this picture. It kept diving and re-surfacing. At one point it was down for a long time, and then re-appeared in the shallow water right below us, moving at about a million miles an hour just beneath the surface, its wings slightly out. Then it popped up with a fish in its mouth, maybe ten inches long, which is proceeded to gullet whole. You never know what you're going to see when you start looking.

All Good Things

Eventually it was time to head home. We spent a tonne of time in the water, hiking, and kayaking, and saw kingfishers, eagles, ravens, gulls, vultures, and more. Even a few murrelets! But one morning we upped anchor and headed out, with Desolation Sound looming gloriously behind us. Although the bay wasn't too crowded most of the time we were there, there were 19 boats, including us, on our final night. I think we just missed the really busy season. We missed the jellyfish, too, which can be a problem later in the year. There were a few around, but not so many as to interfere with swimming, and mostly little ones.

Surreal Islands

I've long contended that surrealist artists are actually high realists, if you pay attention. The world is full of wildly improbable things, like this island that looks like the top of someone's head... if this was a Monty Python movie a giant would stand up and do something absurd at this point.

Too Punk 4 Powell River

Lund is sometimes described as a "fishing village" but it's mostly a machine for extracting maximum value from people like me, which it did very pleasantly and efficiently. Everyone was was friendly and helpful, prices were pretty reasonable, the showers were clean and water was hot, and we had a really good time in the sixteen or so hours we were there.

The food at the restaurant on the boardwalk was good, the blackberry cinnamon buns at Nancy's were amazing and the books at the Pollen Sweater Company (which also sells sweaters) were really well-curated, as advertised. I bought The Highest Tide, by Jim Lynch, and you should too.

We walked around the "Lund Loop" to stretch our legs and wound up talking to the guy at "Rare Earth Pottery" (I wanted to ask for some lanthanide pieces) who is a serious tai chi practitioner, so he and Hilary had loads to talk about. Fortunately, though they are followers of different styles and masters, they had enough in common to avoid an on-the-spot death-match. We bought a lovely little erratic teacup and got a great view of Savary Island from his driveway.


In Canada you can buy Kinder-eggs without a license, but need actual training to buy a gun. We are weird country when it comes to safety, in part because we kind of assume people aren't idiots and expect them to teach their children to behave at an early age. This leads us to causally put a bucket of nice sharp fish-gutting knives right beside some kid's for-play fishing sets. Because what could possibly go wrong? I love this country.

Many Busy Bees

Lund had a lot of beauty on offer. I dunno if you can see the bees in this shot, but there are about a zillion bees in this plant. Fractal beauty, man. I'm telling you.

Sunlight on Water

We were rafted up on the dock, but the people outside of us agreed to leave at the time I wanted to get away, so we were off to an early start. I've never rafted before, but it was no big deal. Everyone understands what's needed is a certain tolerance and amiability.

Point on northern tip of Harwood Island

There's a name for this kind of geological formation, where opposing currents form a swooped point of sand. Cape Canaveral in Florida is one such, and while I recall my geology prof in first year telling us about it, I can't for the life of me remember the name.

The first hour or so was easy running, although there was no wind. After that a stiff sou-easter came up and we ran into it all the way down Malaspina Strait, pounding away. We saw arctic terns in what looked like mating flight, and a family of killer ways--male, female, and young--heading north along the Texada shore, which made the day less miserable, but it was pretty nasty overall. It took us almost twelve hours to get to Rouse Bay on Lasqueti, which is my favourite anchorage in that area. There was one boat in the mouth of the bay, but the Bayfield 29 has a shoal-draught keel, so it was easy to tuck in behind them.

Rouse Bay

Rouse Bay isn't renowned for its beauty like Desolation Sound is. But it's still incredibly beautiful.

More Micro-climates

Looking back at Texada you can see a little micro-climate at work. Whiskey Golf was active that day, so we had to run along the open corridor adjacent to Winchelsea Island. There was at least one boater warned off while we were passing through.

The second day of the run home was shorter and less bumpy than the first and we got into Silva Bay mid-afternoon. It was a wonderful trip. The new composting head worked wonderfully, and along with the cooler made the boat go from "adequate" to "amazing" as a way to travel the coast. The lack of actual sailing was too bad, although we did get another hour of Qualicum-time in between Lasqueti and the Balenas, and I'm still thinking there may be a power boat in my future, but for now, I am content.

Is there a word for "beyond content"? If there is, I am that.

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