Beyond Nakwakto Rapids

By Réanne Hemmingway and Don Douglass
Pacific Yachting, December 1999

 

HIDDEN behind the world's fastest tidal rapids lies a totally landlocked area, little-known to cruising boaters. Here, two major fjords--Seymour and Belize inlets--cut deep into the mainland coast range off the southern end of Queen Charlotte Sound. Although the area is only 28 miles north of Port Hardy, it has largely been ignored as a cruising destination, because its entrance, guarded by Nakwakto Rapids, has been turbulent enough to discourage large numbers of pleasure craft.

Study the charts of this area (3550, 3552, 3921) and you'll notice the many fingers that spread out northward, eastward, and southward from Seymour and Belize inlets: from Lascelles Point east through the rapids, and from Lassiter Bay to Seymour River is a distance of over 50 nautical miles. Here you see a series of lagoons, there an arm, a long sound, and numerous bays. Four major watersheds drain an area of roughly 1,000 square miles through Nakwakto Narrows, a passage less than 400 meters wide where the rapids can attain a velocity of up to 16 knots on a spring ebb tide. How can you not be intrigued? This is a true wilderness cruising destination, worthy of at least two weeks' exploration.

One of the last areas to be explored along the British Columbia coast (1865) these waters, which were only partially surveyed in the 19th Century, were a holdout for indigenous natives who penetrated further into the backcountry as Europeans arrived. Chart 3552, issued in 1987, was the first chart to show details of Seymour & Belize inlets. Prior to that, the inlets and sounds within this area were shown by dashed lines. It is here, too, that an exceptional, little-known rock painting documents the last European encounter with the native holdouts.

Chart 3552, issued in 1987, was the first chart to show details of Seymour and Belize inlets. Prior to that, dashed lines denoted the inlets and sounds of this area. Both inlets were named in honor of Frederick Seymour wh, in1865, was appointed governor of B.C. The unlikely name, Belize, comes from the fact that Seymour had previously served as lieutenant governor of British Honduras where he was based in the capital city (the name of the now-independent country). He died of acute alcoholism about four years after his appointment, but no one thought it appropriate to rename the inlets.

TWO CHANNELS From Queen Charlotte Sound, entry into this wonderland of fjords and lagoons lies through Schooner Channel or Slingsby Channel. Since all the water behind Nakwakto Narrows flows in and out of these two channels, tidal streams are strong on all tides, sometimes reaching 5 to 9 knots. In fact, so much water empties out of the area that the tidal range inside Seymour and Belize inlets never has a chance to fluctuate more than four feet before the outside tide--more than 14 feet in range--comes roaring back in.

Schooner Channel--the more direct route if you're approaching from the south--leads directly north between Bramham Island and the mainland. This is the channel used by small tugs towing log booms out of Seymour Inlet. Although it is much narrower and more intricate than Slingsby Channel, the current is not as strong here. If you use Schooner, navigate with vigilance and be sure to post an alert lookout on your bow.

Slingsby Channel, northwest of the Fox Islands and Bramham Island, leads directly east from Queen Charlotte Sound into Nakwakto Narrows; it is much wider and deeper than Schooner Channel. Although the Sailing Directions favor Slingsby, beware of large threatening waves at its entrance during west winds and spring ebb tides. (Once, during such conditions, we renamed it "Slingshot Channel!")

When heading northward upcoast, we usually enter through Schooner and exit through Slingsby, using favorable currents on both passages. Although we don't recommend doing so, we have even transited in heavy fog using radar. To avoid high anxiety, better remain at anchor until the fog burns off!

ANCHORAGES To approach Nakwakto from the south, leave early in the morning to beat the prevailing northwesterlies that build in mid-morning and produce an uncomfortable ride when they meet contrary currents. Spending the night in a nearby anchorage along the mainland shore gives you a better chance of avoiding these conditions. Blunden Harbour, 14 miles southeast of Schooner Channel, and Allison Harbour, off the south entrance to Schooner are the most "bomb-proof" anchorages. Shelter Bay North, the cove east of Wescott Point and the Southgate Group (Southgate and Knight islands) are also acceptable. Despite their daunting names, Murray Labyrinth (just around the corner to the northwest of Allison Harbour) and Skull Cove (west of Murray) can provide good shelter for small craft. However, be aware than not all hazards are indicated on Chart 3921. Enter in daylight and post a bow lookout.

Miles Inlet, between Bramham and McEwan points, south of Slingsby, is the safest, most secure anchorage along this stretch of the coast. Its entrance is narrow and if a following sea is running, you may get a little excited when you see waves breaking over the rocks. But the seas calm immediately once you enter the T-shaped sanctuary. To enter Slingsby Channel from Miles Inlet, we prefer the small channel leading between Bramham and Fox Islands. Although this channel is narrow, with shoals and some current, it is totally protected from seas and winds. Whatever current you encounter will certainly be weaker than at the entrance to Slingsby.

The preferred anchor sites closest to Nakwakto--ideal for awaiting slack water--are Cougar Inlet, just southeast of the rapids, and Treadwell Bay to the northwest. Treadwell Bay is straightforward with good protection and little current. If you want an easy start to cross Nakwakto, anchor in the outer entrance to Cougar Inlet using a stern tie to the steep wall on the north side. Boat names painted on this wall attest to previous visitors.

A landlocked anchorage south of Cougar Narrows provides very good protection and a place to leave your boat if you wish to explore by a high-speed dinghy. The entrance, which is tricky, requires advance planning because of its narrow width (45 feet) and shallow depth (3 feet at zero tide). Enter only during high-water slack. During neap tides, deep-draft boats should not attempt to enter. Inside Cougar Inlet, depths range from two to eight fathoms, and the calm water and cedar-lined shores give you a taste of the lagoons that lie inside Seymour Inlet. In addition, Goose Point Cove, just south of Nakwakto, and the area west of Anchor Island on its north side, are out of the main current and offer sheltered sites for one or two boats.

HIGH ADVENTURE A tiny islet called Turret Rock sits smack in the center of Nakwakto narrows. For high adventure, before you pass through Nakwakto, anchor your boat in a nearby cove, timing your arrival to coincide with slack water on a spring tide, and have someone drop you off on the islet and pick you up six hours later. When you feel this islet shake and rumble as the water roars by, you'll understand why locals call it Tremble Island!

You can also join the "club" of vessels that dared the rapids. The trees on the islet hold an esoteric collection of signboards, including that of our Baidarka. For the less stout-hearted, there more accessible and safer vantage point on the southeast corner of island IR [55] which forms the western edge of the rapids. A primitive trail that begins on the northeast side of the island climbs about 100 feet to a crude but strong viewing-platform built in a tree top. From here, you can observe the full power of the tidal torrent as it roars and foams a mile down Slingsby and Schooner channels. You can take your dinghy to the trailhead, but be sure to pull it well up into the trees to keep it safe as the tide falls.

In your excitement to watch Nakwakto Rapids, did you miss slack tide? If so, relax. You can spend another tidal cycle in the safety of your anchorage, and make your transit later. Be sure to time your transit time accurately to coincide with slack water. Slack water on spring tides can be as short as 5 minutes, but it is several times that at neap tides. The waters are never entirely still at slack, and we prefer to pass Tremble Island on the east side where the flow and turbulence are a little less pronounced.

LAGOONS Once successfully past this tidal "guardpost," turn east into Seymour Inlet and start your exploration with the large, remote lagoon-complex around the corner. Here, south of Wawatle Bay, lies a series of five major lagoons. The first, Woods Lagoon, calls for a quick passage--it has been the site of recent logging. But as you continue south and deeper into the complex, you enter another world: silent, still and eerie.

Old-growth cedar, strewn with Spanish Moss, collects low-hanging mist that drips into a dark, tannic mixture of salt- and rainwater. The current flows quietly in and out, gently mimicking the great Pacific tidal swings. Pass through Bamford, McKinnon, Nenahlmai Lagoons, then on to Whelakis where--in spring and summer--pollen weaves strange patterns across the surface of the water. Here, at the bitter end of the lagoon complex, you are as far from the sights and sounds of the open Pacific Ocean as anywhere along the B.C. coast.

Although you can enjoy exploring the rest of Seymour, we recommend devoting most of your cruising time to Belize Inlet, because however inappropriate its name may be, Belize is a gem. Impressive, awe-inspiring, majestic, and surprising are the adjectives that spring to mind as your boat glides gently down this fjord and as you gaze up thousands of feet at sheer granite. Waterfalls pour down the rock faces, and horizontal cracks in the granite shelter lush gardens of tiny ferns, cedars, and firs. The inevitable comparison, of course, is to another of North America's treasures: Yosemite. But in Belize Inlet, you find no noisy buses or motor vehicles, no queues, no smog, no enervating summer temperatures. This is wilderness--pure, cool air, unexpected waterfalls, clear water and tranquillity. And to top it off, you may see just one or two other boats in a week's time.

DELIGHT Rounding into Belize Inlet, express your surprise and delight by giving a hoot and holler as you pass the overhanging rock on the north shore. When you hear your call bounce back, you'll know why we call it "Echo Rock." Continuing eastward, there are excellent anchor sites first in Westerman Bay, then in Mereworth Sound. Unfortunately, although much of Belize has escaped loggers' chain saws, Mereworth has not. Strachan Bay, however, offers an attractive, sheltered cove that allows you to explore nearby Pack Lake.

Heading east, four miles from the entrance to Mereworth, you pass "Power Wash Waterfall"--the combined outlet of five "hanging lakes" whose tumbling waters could wash a ship. Another four and a half miles east is a glacier-carved valley dominated by a spectacular half-dome, its perfectly rounded granite face towering upward for one thousand feet. In the foreground, a dramatic waterfall thunders.

Alison Sound, a third of the way to the head of 25-mile-long Belize Inlet, is the last and loveliest of the possible anchorages. (The remainder of Belize is straight and too deep for anchoring small craft.) Technically not a sound, Alison is really a series of three arms connected by turbulent narrows which for years discouraged sailing vessels from entering it. Two miles inside Alison Sound lies Chief Nollis Bay, a large, open bay with a grassy beach and a creek where a sizeable group of natives may have lived undetected by Europeans long into the 19th century.

ndeed, it is in this area, high on a vertical wall, that a remarkable pictograph documents the encounter which apparently caused the native inhabitants to retreat to this remote haven. Executed in ochre paint and well-preserved due to its location, the pictograph shows what appears to be a long boat with a dozen oars and a coxswain in a large hat holding a musket. In the background and above is a square-rigged sailing ship. Below is a dugout canoe, carrying several men with paddles preceded by leaping killer whales. We have been unable to discover any references to these pictographs or find anyone who knows anything about them, but this exquisite example of native art deserves to be protected for posterity.

You will see occasional signs of both early pioneers and recent entrepreneurs, but overall, you may go days without seeing anyone. If you are comfortably self-sufficient in true wilderness where no navigational aids exist and VHF weather broadcasts fade in and out, then come to explore this matchless area. But as the old-timer we met a few years back told us: "Don't tell the world what's behind Nakwakto!"

Réanne Hemingway and Don Douglass have written extensively about the coast of British Columbia and the Inside Passage. Refer to their book, Exploring the North Coast of British Columbia for descriptions of three dozen anchoring sites behind Nakwakto Rapids. The Douglasses would like to hear from anyone who has information or thoughts on the Belize Inlet pictographs.

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