Spiller Channel & Roscoe Inlet

By Don Douglass and Réanne Hemmingway-Douglass
Pacific Yachting, October 1996
Photos by Herb Nickles


IMAGINE exploring a newly-charted area of the coast in your own boat. The release of CHS Chart 3940, covering previously uncharted Spiller Channel to Roscoe Inlet, the area north of Bella Bella, has opened up 300 square miles of wildemess, and the cruising community is rushing to visit this pristine area for the first time ever.

For years, only a few intrepid individuals ventured into Spiller Channel, Spiller Inlet, Ellerslie Lagoon, Bullock Channel, Briggs Inlet and Briggs Lagoon. Early native inhabitants knew the area, and local fishermen and loggers visited it from time to time. But recreational boaters have been reluctant to cruise the 50 miles of uncharted waterways. Lacking information about depths or hazards such as shoals, rocks and tidal rapids, most felt too uncomfortable to chart their own way. But starting in May of this year, many boaters began snapping up the new chart and have already used it to explore this unique cruising ground.

This season's explorers were not disappointed with their discoveries. Spiller Channel, Spiller Inlet and the inlets to the east have beautiful scenery and some fine anchorages that promise to become favorite destinations of those who want to strike out on their own, leaving ferryboat and cruise-ship routes behind.

Close to the popular facilities of Shearwater and Bella Bella, this region offers challenges within the abilities of most cruisers. Although Spiller Channel and Roscoe Inlet are somewhat remote and out of radio range for weather broadcasts, they have what visitors to the north coast are looking for—waterfalls, tidal lagoons, lakes, primitive hiking trails, solitude and quiet.

GEM Spiller Channel begins amid the low cedar forests at Seaforth Channel east of Ivory Island lightstation. The channel is wide and has depths to nearly 1,600'. Sixteen miles from its entrance the channel splits: Spiller Inlet leads north on a less overpowering scale for another 10 miles; Ellerslie Bay lies at the northeastern head of Spiller Channel.

The gem of the region, Ellerslie Falls, lies at the head of Spiller Channel, inside Ellerslie Lagoon. This roaring cascade, one of the largest and most beautiful we've seen on the B.C. coast, drops from Ellerslie Lake 100' above, then takes a final plunge of 30' into the lagoon. You can approach the falls as closely as you dare by inflatable or small cruising boat and anchor temporarily in the stream for a closeup view of the roaring water. However, the shallow, rocky bottom here has poor holding, so for a quieter, safer anchorage, move out of the stream a short distance to the northwest where holding is good in 12'.

Hikers can enjoy a 20-minute walk through rainforest to Ellerslie Lake on an overgrown logging trail that skirts the falls. The trail--unmarked and a bit difficult to locate--starts from a small mud beach on the south shore, about 200 yards west of the falls. You can land and haul your dinghy onto this beach. Since much of the trail is muddy and slippery, you need to wear boots. If you take children or animals on the trail, supervise them carefully--it's possible to climb down directly along the edge of the falls where a slip or fall could be fatal. There's pleasant swimming to the south of the falls but when you wade into the lake, be careful to avoid old logs.

Narrow tidal rapids at the entrance to Ellerslie Lagoon restrict entry to high-water slack, with a minimum depth of about 5' on an 11' tide, or 8' on a 14' tide at Bella Bella. When the lagoon is ebbing, the rapids become turbulent white water. If you want to take your boat inside, it's best to reconnoitre first with your dinghy. A quarter-mile east of the entrance there's a shoal with the same or possibly less water than in the narrows themselves. Favor the north shore as you cross the shoal, and treat the depths shown on Chart 3940 with skepticism--it's difficult to see the bottom due to the muskeg water. (Tidal range in the lagoon is less than half that of Spiller Channel.)

If your boat has twin screws, a draft over 4' or is over 40' in length, you can avoid the rocky sill in Ellerslie Lagoon and anchor two miles away in East Anchorage, then take your dinghy through the narrows near high water, spend the day exploring the lagoon and climbing the trail to the top of the falls, then come out again near high water.

PROTECTED ANCHORAGE One of the more protected passages and anchorages at the upper end of Spiller Channel lies 1 l/2 miles south-southwest of Ellerslie Bay, between a large, unnamed island and Coldwell Peninsula to the east. These two land masses create a large body of smooth water sheltered from both southerly storm winds and prevailing northwest winds, as well as the occasional katabatic winds of Spiller Channel itself. We refer to the restricted passage between the island and Coldwell Peninsula as Nash Passage in honor of Dr. Roderick Frazier Nash, environmental historian and author who, with his 26' diesel trawler Forevergreen, helped us gather information for this article. Anchor in the middle of Nash Passage, off the creek on the mainland side of the S-turn in 6'. The bottom is sand and mud with good holding.

About 1 1/4 miles south of Nash Passage, in what we call Fish Weir Cove, we discovered a small fishing weir--a man-made stone "fence" used to trap fish, perhaps the best preserved of any weir we've seen on the coast. Natives took advantage of a natural curve at the north entrance to the cove to create a semi-circular barrier, and the stones, all still neatly in place, form an almost perfectly horizontal line. Study the chart and you'll understand why this spot was chosen: a series of inland lakes and creeks that feed this cove were probably great spawning grounds for salmon.

ADVENTURE If you still want adventure after you've mastered the entrance to Ellerslie Lagoon, you may want to visit the unnamed inlet that cuts three miles into Don Peninsula, about three miles north of Yeo Cove. Although the entrance is rock-strewn and somewhat hazardous, you'll be rewarded inside where fish and wildlife abound.

Briggs Inlet, another beautiful but seldom-visited fjord, has a narrows that flows at 5kts or more, with moderate turbulence. Emily Bay, just north of the narrows, provides good shelter. For a short but physically challenging hike, take the primitive trail to Emily Lake that starts at an old fisheries cabin at the head of the bay. Cross a roaring creek on a sagging log bridge and scramble up through waterlogged trees to the outlet of the lake. Again, wear boots and watch for slippery surfaces. Take along a pair of binoculars--the bird life at Emily Lake is spectacular.

At the head of the inlet, Briggs Lagoon has narrow, fast-flowing rapids with a "hole-in-the-wall" entrance that should be attempted only at high-water slack. Favor the south shore to avoid a dangerous rock, awash at low water, that extends from the north shore to midchannel. Width of the entrance is less than 30' at low water. Inside the lagoon you can find several well-sheltered anchorage sites.

A short, ill-defined animal trail connects the head of Briggs Lagoon to Boukind Bay in Roscoe Inlet, but demands good route finding skills and some agility. Wear boots and carry a whistle or harmonica to announce your presence to resident bear. This particular spit of land allows you a view of Roscoe Inlet within 15 minutes; by boat, it takes several hours to reach the same spot.

The north side of Briggs Lagoon is only 3/4-mile from the south arm of Ellerslie Lake. Although we have not found an easy way to hike up the creek from Briggs Lagoon, determined cruisers or portaging kayakers might be able to push through along the west side of the creek that feeds the bitter end of the lagoon. Until an easier route opens up, some "pioneers" are having their kayaks flown in from Bella Bella so they can explore the upper reaches of l0-mile-long Ellerslie Lake.

An important caveat: until the entrances to Ellerslie and Briggs lagoons are better documented, you need to develop your own strategy for timing a passage through the tidal rapids. Arrive well before high water and reconnoitre first. This is part of the fun!

ROSCOE INLET Roscoe Inlet--shown previously only on small-scale Chart 3729-- appears in larger scale on the new Chart 3940, and it too will receive the interest it deserves. Roscoe Inlet has some of the most scenic and striking granite faces and domes that you'll find just miles off the Inside Passage. The head of Roscoe Inlet receives little tidal flow, and swimming off your boat is a real joy where the fresh surface water reaches depths of 3-4' and attains temperatures of 24° C during long summer days. As you swim, you can watch bear combing the beach, staring with curiosity at these "blond, tanned salmon."

On some days this summer, we encountered a half-dozen boats; on past trips, before Chart 3940, boats were a rare sight. And as we were completing our research in July, we met the crew of the Greenpeace vessel Moby Dick, headed into the area to determine its ecological importance. So don't miss the fun--plan now to be part of the first contingent to explore Spiller Channel and experience the excitement of opening up a newly-charted wilderness.

Don Douglass and wife Réanne Hemingway-Douglass have cruised 150,000 miles from 60° N to 56° S. Their fourth cruising guide, Exploring The North Coast of B.C., to be published this winter, will include a detailed chapter on the Spiller Channel region.



Uncharted Waters


Several areas of the B.C. coast still remain uncharted. Most are relatively small; 12-mile-long Griffin Passage, off Mathieson Channel, is perhaps the largest.

Cruising either in uncharted waters or in charted waters without a chart is a mental challenge that carries substantial risk to your life and boat. You may choose to accept these risks just to feel the excitement of discovery for yourself. You can reduce the risks of cruising without proper charts by being ever vigilant and by taking some precautions.

• Develop a keen sense of observation by studying the lay of the land along shore, the surface of the water, tide level and current, or the movement of floating objects such as attached kelp and flotsam.

• Use to the fullest whatever instruments you have aboard–especially a depth sounder. If you don't have an electronic sounder, make your own lead line. (A large crescent wrench on parachute cord can serve as an emergency lead line.)

• Station someone at the bow to watch for isolated rocks or reefs, shoaling, attached kelp, turbulence, floating foam from streams and so on. (For safety's sake, they should be seated so they aren't launched overboard if you do hit something.)

• Study the shoreline for an indication of tide level, and direction and strength of the current. You can often determine underwater visibility by examining the kelp attached to submerged rocks and along shore.

• Reduce speed and proceed with caution wherever visibility in the water is less than the draft of your keel, screw or rudder. At critical times, keep your hand on the throttle (or mainsheet and halyard) and be ready instantly to hit full reverse.

• Have your bow anchor ready to drop on a moment's notice, and have a kedge or lunch hook ready at the stern should the current carry you into danger or you suffer a loss of power or steering.

• Reconnoitre by dinghy all possible shoal or foul areas, narrows with limited visibility or tight spots where you may not be able to tum around. You can check depths with an oar, if with nothing else.

• Transit tidal rapids or narrows at high-water slack only where strong currents or shoals may be encountered. Where quick stopping may be critical, it's better to buck a tidal current than be propelled into an unknown situation by a following current.

--D.D. & R.H.-D.

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