© Copyright 2014-2017 David Dilworth
“It can’t be done” declared Don, the sage, well-respected, commercial fisherman who’s fished these British Columbia’s coast since a child, almost daily. He announced it, not so much an opinion, more as an unarguable fact, like gravity.
His rock solid view of my proposed sailing expedition was echoed by every other local expert I posed it to: six offshore sailors, five fish-er-men, four commercial guides, three wildland rangers, two kayakers — and a tug captain in a bear tree. (just kidding, about the bear tree.)
What were they all so pessimistic about ?
Well, I love waterfalls !
So, determined to photograph Canada’s tallest waterfalls in a remote wilderness alluringly nicknamed “British Columbia’s Crown Jewel,” I’d sought advice from local experts about getting there. It turns out that due to the near vertical terrain, there aren’t any dirt back roads.
Worse, the “easiest” hikes take you through some serious Grizzly bear front-yards with lots of moms and cubs. (I only refer to these beloved megafauna due to their occasionally inconvenient sense of humor/lunch.) In addition —“There is no water along the trail and it is defended by legions of voracious bugs.”
Not to mention you need to climb several five to six thousand foot rugged, near-vertical, glacier packed mountain passes; off trails of course. At the time that didn’t sound quite enough fun for me.
So should I fly in by floatplane ?
Or I could go by boat . . .
Rapidly that idea captured me – the most fun would be to sail there in a small catamaran, a Hobie cat.
An 18 foot, Southern California sunny-day, sandy beach, no-cabin catamaran.
That meant sailing a long way from towns and roads, through often treacherous wilderness Fjords to see and climb to the top of British Columbia’s Crown Jewel, Princess Louisa Inlet. From there I could admire and photograph its record-setting half-mile fall-cascade called James Bruce Falls; the highest measured waterfall in North America.
Sailing a catamaran to get there is what invoked the experts’ unanimous, adamant, impossibility opinions. Perhaps in part because it had never been done. Well, I truly did appreciate their warnings about specific problems. However, despite their collective expertise, that wasn’t quite good enough for me. I’d enjoyed sailing in some fierce winds and large ocean swells in few difficult places; and no one had managed to raise any problems I felt insurmountable.
Why Princess Louisa Inlet and James Bruce Falls ?
My original draw was to simply photograph our tallest waterfall. As I studied it, the whole area set fire to my imagination, soon blazing into a passion; here’s why.
“Splendor without Diminishment” is British Columbia’s marketing motto.
The first half is unarguably true — British Columbia unarguably fits the definition of Splendor.
The sad remainder of that motto is pure, calculated public relations. However, if you can turn a blind eye to BC’s heart-wrenching horizon-to-horizon clearcuts on a landscape scale — essentially the rest of BC’s thousand miles of coastline is truly spectacular, breath-making and feels endless.
With that as a starting point, you are now ready to appreciate how majestic Princess Louisa Inlet (or PLI) stands above the rest – both physically and aesthetically.
PLI is widely recognized as the coastline with the most grandeur among all of British Columbia’s many amazing Fjords.
Shooting straight up from the seawater — granite cliffs, peaks, sheets and domes four thousand feet, five, six (take a breath), seven, and eight thousand feet high.
Topped by actual icing of gleaming glaciers. All clothed in forests; somewhat impenetrable forests. That would be rain-forests. So when the mountain tops aren’t fully covered in snow, and it isn’t raining right this minute, you can make money betting it’ll be raining soon.
Since few people, including locals, have ever visited this magical fjord, lets compare it to something more familiar: Ansel Adams’ backyard hosts Yosemite’s famously breathtaking and magnificent El Capitan, the renowned sheer granite headwall which rises about 3,200 feet (or 1,000 meters) above the valley floor and the lovely river wandering through the Park.
OK, got that towering vision in your mind ?
Well, Princess Louisa makes Yosemite’s El Capitan look small; really.
When you are standing at her sea-level trail, you have to tilt your head way back. This is so you can gaze far enough up above the roaring waterfall to see the distant top of the sculptured granite face which rockets a neck straining and disorienting mile above your slack jaw. (~5,200+ feet or 1.6 kilometers)
And it keeps going up. Though not quite as vertical after that. Mt. Albert, the mountain right behind it, separated only by a shallow dip of 500 feet, spears clouds another half mile above, a nose-bleeding 8,300 feet above. Looking down from on high, what appear to be tiny waterbugs leaving wakes are actually boats carrying people about the sea level saltwater inlet.
The Inlet’s granite walls also keep going down, plunging near vertically another six hundred feet underwater. On the long passage in from the ocean, the fjord’s sea depth quadruples that and dips some two thousand four hundred feet to boast as British Columbia’s deepest “wishing well.” (Should be no surprise the Canadian Royal Navy secretly uses it for submarine exercises.)
Since this is a rainforest, this terrain inherently produces dozens of cascades, including North America’s tallest waterfalls. Yes, higher than Yosemite Falls.
Sadly, as you’ve learned, the best local experts strongly agreed it was impossible to sail a catamaran there and impertinent to even try. Here’s a sample of their more detailed concerns:
“There’s nowhere to anchor on the trip in because there are no sandy beaches; its all rocks. You’d have to make the entire trip in one day because there are only sheer granite walls.”
“Even worse, the tide goes up and down at least 14 feet every night.”
“Even if you get there, the 14 foot tide makes the narrow Malibu rapids at the mouth of Princess Louisa seriously deadly. Nine knots of current, real whitewater rapids with huge eddies. At low tide, the rapids passage is only one boat wide and from where you start you can’t see if a boat is coming out. You have to time it perfectly – or …
“Grizzly Bears are everywhere. They’re far more bold than your California “Yogi” bears, so you can’t camp ashore. You’re going in September ? Grizzlies will all be down at the water right where you’d need to camp; they’re gorging on Salmon returning to spawn.”
My own research turned up another issue: Strong winds could knock the boat over.
“Sometimes the wind is so strong, the chop stops small powerboats.” The winds can be so fierce they’ve earned a name: Squamish — “a strong and often violent wind occurring in many of the fjords.”
When a beach catamaran merely tips over, it’s fairly easy to get it back upright. However, if you take too long, a catamaran (without a floating mast) can turn totally upside down called “Turning Turtle“. Getting a Turtle back up is very difficult without a second boat with a sympathetic and competent power boat captain. On this trip, the nearest boat could be miles and hours away. Maybe not necessarily deadly, but rather inconvenient.
At this point its important to understand how “Because of the steep tall mountain wilderness, emergency radios don’t really work.” Cell phones can’t call out (cell towers in remote wilderness . . . uhh, no.) and marine VHF emergency radios only work line of sight. So in these magnificently steep towering granite canyons it could be many precious hours before anyone even knows you need help.
So to prevent my Cat from turning into a turtle, I prepared a mast top float. (And my friend Brent loaned me a VHS Marine emergency radio – just in case.)
Of course there was the opposite wind type – none. As in becalmed. “Often, there’s no wind on the way there. So what kind of motor does your catamaran have ?“
Answer – Sails and an oar.
Most realistically worrisome, if I fell off, my boat could merrily sail away faster than I could swim. Meaning, I’d have to swim icy water a half mile or so to the nearest cliff. Doable, but a rather unpleasant annoyance.
To minimize that, I would drag a 50’ line astern to give me a chance to grab it before the boat got out of reach. And to keep me from freezing in the water, I’d wear a wetsuit while sailing.
One last thing: Only Rocky Beaches, Big Sharp Rocky Beaches
Growing up on California’s North coast, sandy beaches were everywhere. Carmel’s mile long beach was my playground. Just north, a sand beach goes all the way from Monterey to Santa Cruz at least 30 miles long. So it just never occurred to me that other places do not have sandy beaches.
Like British Columbia.
BC does have a few sandy beaches. Like Savary Island they’re mostly remnants of glacier advances. But as soon as you coast North of Vancouver to mainland Fjords, the shore is all rocks, sand free. The problem with that is the boat I chose, a catamaran, has fragile fiberglass hulls which are too easily destroyed by a bad landing on a rocky shore.
First Time ?
Now, to put the rarity of this expedition in context, some new friends chimed in. A fun, generous sailing couple who met at Princess Louisa’s camp as children and have enviably visited Princess Louisa every year for 50 years. They’d never heard of a beach catamaran sailing to the breath-making PLI fjord. Moreover, they couldn’t actually recall anyone ever just sailing a boat (no motors) all the way to PLI and its headwaters. (Except, of course George Vancouver who arrived at PLI’s entrance in 1792, but was stopped by the rapids. It is unlikely his counterpart Spaniard Juan Francisco Quadra made it up the long approaching Jervis Inlet at all.)
So lets see – no one has actually sailed there before due to knockdown winds with unnavigable choppy waves, or totally windless calm keeping you stuck for days. Then, in the few tiny places where cliffs aren’t fully vertical there are only steep rocky shores with 14 foot tides and some powerful, fast currents. Starving Grizzly bears patrol the few cliff-free shores, and if I fell off into the icy salt water, its so remote no one could hear an emergency radio.
Oh, and – like your least favorite relatives, a rainstorm could show up unannounced, and stay for weeks.
How alarming !
How adventurous . . .
How delightful !
Well, as you can guess – in spite of all that, I decided to try it anyway.
- To see if I made it all the way there . . .
and to see more images from this adventure . . .
Come see the whole exciting Slideshow . . .
Saturday, December 16th at 5pm to 7pm.
In Charmel at the Barnyard’s LAB (formerly Henry Miller LAB)
Tickets will be available starting Dec 9th.
Sliding scale donations to help the Lab succeed and to rent the Projector.