Mothership Meanderings: Estero Basin
This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.
by Alan Wilson
Wonderful reflections on the still waters of Estero Basin
Photo Alan Wilson
The older I get, the more I find my life organizes itself around themes. Just as each issue of WaveLength has a special focus, each trip seems to fall into a certain pattern.
Last year's cruise developed a theme of 'inner waterways', as we found ourselves paddling and pulling our indestructible Gannets through many different narrow, rushing entry-ways, to access calm inner sanctums.
I've already written about our exploration of Hidden Basin on the Sunshine Coast (Oct/Nov 99). In this issue, I'll tell you about an even more remarkable spot, uncharted Estero Basin.
Estero Basin (named by Spanish explorers in 1792 from the Spanish for 'estuary' or lagoon) is at the end of Frederick Arm on the BC mainland, north of Sonora Island. Sonora is just north of Quadra Island which marks the northern extent of Georgia Strait, the place where the Strait narrows, funneling between the islands until it opens back up into the Pacific Ocean.
Frederick Arm is one of the shorter indentations in the BC coast, only 3 miles long compared with neighbouring Bute Inlet (38 miles) or nearby Knight Inlet at 40 miles (the longest on the coast). But it's one of the prettiest... or was before logging and fish farming took over.
We were dismayed to see three active fish farm sites, and a very active logging camp. There would have been little to draw us here but for the good anchoring depths and enticingly uncharted freshwater basin which, according to Wolferstan's Cruising Guide was accessible by boats at high water.
One fish farm was located under the spectacular sentinel of Estero Peak, right at the mouth of a creek. This is typical of fish farm siting, despite the risks to endangering returning salmon. The farm was noisily pumping water, perhaps to combat an algae bloom-plague of fish farms. The generators whined away all night, powering the pumps and intrusive night light arrays which never shut off. (Fish farmers have been accused of using the lights to attract prey into the nets to reduce their feed bills. Some species such as oolichans, have experienced devastating crashes since the farms arrived.)
We anchored as far away as we could from this commotion and from the bustle of forest machinery at the logging camp.
To top it off, that night we were hit by rain and wind and regretted our exposed position, open to the southeast winds raging up Nodales Channel from Johnstone Strait. Fortunately there was good holding ground-unusual in coastal inlets. We weathered the night, but we were second guessing our plans.
Fortunately the next morning dawned with clearing skies and spectacular clouds lifting off the surrounding peaks. After breakfast we paddled to the entry point of the Basin with a renewed appetite for adventure.
Although Wolferstan reports access by boats at high water in what he calls "The Gut", this is no longer possible except perhaps by skiff at very high water. It seemed that logging (intentionally or otherwise) had diverted the nearby river into this channel, and sediments had washed down denuded slopes, clogging the entry. In any case, we had a hard go of it, pushing and pulling our kayaks through the rapids which at times threatened to sweep our feet out from under us.
But the effort was well worthwhile. Once inside, the industrial desecration was forgotten behind us. We paddled into the hush of calm water, in awe of the sheer precipitous cliff rising hundreds of feet on our right, craning our necks to scan the heights, feeling our stomachs churn with the rise and the drop.
To our left rose a forested slope and snow-spotted peaks. Here and there was the flash and splash of white water cascading down cliffs. Otherwise quiet... just the dip and drip of our paddles.
We stroked towards the end of the 4 mile long Basin, reveling in the scenery, exploring the shoreline, snapping photographs, marvelling at the quiet beauty of this placid jewel.
We paddled in pure delight until we found just the right spot on a little islet near the end of the Basin. There we had a leisurely picnic lunch on a sun-baked, glacier-smoothed rock, followed by a much appreciated, freshwater bath.
A trailhead nearby, at the end of the Basin, indicated that we could likely hike through to Bute Inlet. It would have been tempting... if we'd been equipped for a night out, and grizzly bears!
On the paddle back Laurie checked out a waterfall on the south side of the Basin, while I paddled to the islets in the center. I landed on a smooth rocky shore and climbed to the grassy topknot. Perfect for a tent or two.
As I crested the islet, my eyes met several other sets of eyes-seals and seal pups in the shallows and rocks on the far side. With a great flurry of spray, the startled seals dove.
Equally startled, I reflected in amazement that seals lived in the freshwater Basin. We hadn't seen fish. On the other hand, with the number of pups here, perhaps I'd stumbled on a summer nursery. The quiet Basin would be an ideal place to raise one's young.
Although the islet looked inviting, it would be an intrusion to camp there. Fortunately there is another set of islets near the mouth of the Basin where we saw no seals, so these would be more appropriate.
After a great day of paddling, we arrived back at the head of the Basin at high tide, and shot through raging whitewater back into Frederick Arm where our boat waited at anchor.
Estero Basin is north of the major tidal passes joining the northern end of Georgia Strait, where islands squeeze between the BC mainland and Vancouver Island. These tidal passes, which can run up to 15 knots in places, tend to filter out most boaters and paddlers.
Anyone attempting these passes must consult tide guides diligently to ensure transit as close to slack tide as possible to minimize often violent turbulence.
Paddlers: Possible launches for paddlers include Brown's Bay, Elk Bay or Rock Bay north of Campbell River on Vancouver Island, accessed by secondary roads from Highway 19. Paddle across Johnstone Strait (very busy marine traffic route and can be rough) to Quadra or Sonora Island, and then up Nodales Channel to Frederick Arm. A logical first night on this route could be Thurston Bay Marine Park on Sonora. The small islet at Thurston Bay might be best for camping, as we saw a mother grizzly and cubs on the beach of Sonora. From there it's an easy second day to Estero Basin. An alternate campsite would be the islets tucked inside Chameleon Harbour just south of Thurston Bay.
Alternately, one could launch from Quadra Island (10 minute ferry from Campbell River) at either Granite Bay, for the above route, or for a longer trip, from Heriot Bay to paddle north through Surge Narrows (if you're experienced in transiting tidal passes) to camp at the Octopus Islands Marine Park. The next day would take you through Upper Rapids and down Okisollo Channel to Johnstone Strait where you would carry on as above.
Boaters: Boaters can access Frederick Arm via Nodales Channel, Cordero Channel or through the Yuculta Rapids. Stuart Island in the Yucultas offers moorage, fuel, ice, food, showers and other services, at Big Bay Marina. Shoal Bay on the north side of East Thurlow Island has a good dock, food, showers, etc. Other nearby anchorages include Thurston Bay and Chameleon Harbour on Sonora Island, or Hemming Bay on East Thurlow Island.
Cautions: If you are transiting Surge Narrows, Hole in the Wall, Upper Rapids, the Yucultas or other rapids in the area, you must be extremely careful. No matter whether you're cruising or paddling, study your tidebook carefully, consult locals where possible, and try to make the passages no more than half an hour either side of slack current.©