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Day 26
August 12, 1999
Inside Passage

More than half of the nine hundred miles of the Inside Passage is in Canada rather than Alaska, and I have been very much looking forward to traversing this part of the waterway. During prior ferry trips this far south, my final destination has been Ketchikan and Prince Rupert, respectively, so other than excursions into the Straits of Georgia just north of Vancouver, I have never sailed the Canadian Inside Passage.

What I just determined, not long after leaving Ketchikan, is that I still won't see much of the Canadian Inside Passage. It's 7 P.M. Wednesday evening when we cross into Canada, and we arrive at 6 A.M. Friday in Bellingham. That's thirty-six hours later, with much of it in the dark. I'm irritated at missing this wild and mysterious coastline, but quickly remember that I've always wanted to skipper a small boat from Seattle to Skagway, Alaska, the entire length of the Passage. So by missing so much of the British Columbia coastline, I still have an excuse for that trip. As if I needed an excuse!

While we sleep, the Columbia steams first down Grenville then Princess Royal Channels, avoiding one hundred miles of sometimes treacherous open ocean through Hectate Strait. These narrow cuts of very protected waters are only a few hundred feet wide in places, and I'm sorry I'm missing them.

By 6 A.M. I'm awake and anxious to determine our position. Throughout the voyage I've monitored our progress on the maritime charts displayed in the ship's observation lounge, and at times with the aid of a common road map, but I'm surprised when we swing sharply to starboard as we round two navigational markers and the village of Bella Bella, B.C. appears on our starboard side. In fact I am perplexed. When you skipper small boats, villages, towns, navigational aids and distinguishable landmarks, must all show up in precisely the correct place and at the appropriate time. There are no road signs out here to help you find your direction, so these are critical components of dead-reckoning coastal navigation. On my maps and charts, Bella Bella should clearly be on the port side of the ship as we steam south.

Now Bella Bella is the only village around here for a hundred miles, so even though the name is not spelled out in neon, I haven't found the wrong town. I'm quite sure the ferry is on course, and equally certain that I can navigate these waters without error. I really am perplexed, but other markers come into view as required in their proper positions, ensuring that the ferry is indeed on course, and I'm left to ponder my mistake. In fact, left to ponder it for many days, wondering how Bella Bella could possibly be out of position. Two weeks pass before I purchase a Canadian Hydrographic Services chart, and am astonished to find "New Bella Bella" appropriately cited on the starboard shore. Hey, they moved the town!!

We steam across the dangerous open ocean of Queen Charlotte Sound, but apart from a long groundswell rolling in from the west that gently rocks the Columbia from side to side, the Pacific is placid today. Small boats sometimes wait out storms for several days before tackling this exposed run, where the next point south is the Hawaiian Islands, but the ferry rarely has a problem with these waters and we have an easy crossing today.

It's lunchtime as the first peaks of Vancouver Island come into view across the ship's starboard bow. I've spent much of the morning writing and wondering why Bella Bella was misplaced, as the other's read, but in the afternoon, Eric and I are front and center in the forward observation lounge. Binoculars in hand, we scan the shores of Queen Charlotte and Johnstone Straits for both the beautiful scenery that still entices us after thirty days up here and for signs of civilization.

Other than a few days in Anchorage which is a small city by any definition, and a day or two combined in Whitehorse, Fairbanks and Ketchikan, we have spent the bulk of the past four weeks in a wilderness bisected first by a paved, then a marine highway. I'm amazed at how quickly you get comfortable with nobody around. Gas stations seventy miles apart become the norm. A restaurant and motel every hundred miles or more seems not unusual. One or two fishing boats in the course of the afternoon feels just about right.

So it's appropriate that civilization creeps back into view slowly. At first I notice more boats, both pleasure craft headed north, and smaller fishing runabouts. At first it's just a couple every hour or so, but by late afternoon as we sail down Johnstone Strait, we often see two or three in our view at once. Small boats need a home port, and sure enough the occasional fishing lodge shows up on either side of the narrow channel. Three quarters of the way north up 350-mile long Vancouver Island, these lodges are still remote by virtually all standards, but in Alaska and the Yukon, we've been used to a different standard. Two fishing lodges and a handful of boats all visible in the course of a half hour seem positively urban. It's obvious that this month-long adventure is drawing to a close. We are approaching civilization.

Fishing boats in the evening sun. Inside Passage, British Columbia

Over dinner, as cumulus clouds build over Vancouver Island and the sun hangs low in the western sky, we transit Seymour Narrows, a treacherous cut of some five hundred feet separating Vancouver and Quadra Islands. The tide can rip through here at ten knots, so small boats treat this passage with great respect. With its raw horsepower, the Columbia takes less care, but still times its transit for about an hour before slack water so the current will be under five knots.

Seymour Narrows in late evening. Inside Passage, British Columbia

There is little sign of human habitation here, and it seems we have been given a brief reprieve, but as darkness falls the lights of Campbell River shine brightly across the starboard rail. We will steam all night to reach Bellingham, but for all intents and purposes, we are home. I sit on a bench partially protected from a torrential downpour, and watch as the lights of houses, villages and small towns dot the eastern shore of Vancouver Island. In the distance I see the dull glow of both Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia reflecting off the cloud cover.

It's 11 P.M. when I head to the cabin, mindful that the ship docks at 6 A.M. and we need to be up an hour early to shower and pack.

Day 27
August 13, 1999
Bellingham to Auburn, WA

Bellingham is a fitting end to the ferry ride. Nestled along the shore of Bellingham Bay, on the southern reaches of the Strait of Georgia, Bellingham appears to have one foot in the Inside Passage and the other firmly planted in urban Washington State. Its brick fish storage warehouses and pulp mill still line the waterfront. The fishing fleet lies at anchor or tied up at the working marina. But two miles away on Meridian Avenue, fast food restaurants, shopping centers and strip malls all vie for the consumer's attention as Bellingham dons its urban hat. Indeed, it is a vivid transformation. They've had a good rain last night, and Bellingham looks and smells fresh, aglow in the morning sunshine.

The purser gives her permission and we race down to the car deck, anxious to pack and untie the lines that have secured our bikes for the past three days. In a few minutes it is our turn to drive off the boat, and we say our good-byes to Eric and Julia as we all pull over in the ferry terminal parking lot. As Randy was during the first three weeks of our adventure, they have been great company. We wish each other a safe ride home and are off.

Jan and I eat breakfast in Bellingham, mostly to avoid downtown Seattle at the height of rush hour. We are safely home before noon, having ridden some 4,400 miles over the past four weeks. Life is good.