Touring the Broughtons

Touring the Broughtons

August 2017

Fred (finally) retired in May and we’ve just returned from our first big trip: a boating adventure in the Broughton Archipelago in British Columbia. We were joined by good friends and fellow C-Dory owners Jon and Cynthia Beltrami from Port Angeles. Their boat is called C-Lou (for Cynthia Lou) and ours is the Anita Marie (for Fred’s mom). Jon and Fred finally got to take the fishing trip they’d always dreamed of, and as Jon said afterward, “It was the trip of a lifetime.”

That means it’s a long story. So here are some quick links to the important bits:

Potts Lagoon
Lagoon Cove
Echo Bay/Pierre’s
Kwatsi Bay
Sullivan Bay
Joe Cove
Billy Proctor
Brown Water
Fishing
Floating homes and marinas
Logging and salmon farming
Wildlife
Lessons learned

The sturdy adventurers!

Jon, Cynthia, Fred, and Robbin

 

Where we went

Anacortes to Sidney

Arriving in Sidney

The first part of the trip was getting from Oak Harbor to Port McNeill, where we put the boat in the water. It took 11 stressful hours. Given a reduced schedule, we were lucky to get on the Port Angeles/Sidney ferry. The ferry was PACKED and it took two guys several minutes to maneuver Fred into a position to exit the ferry without taking out the right side of the boat trailer. The boat was just a couple inches from the wall, master driving on Fred’s part. I couldn’t watch.

Campbell River Walmart

Campbell River is about halfway up the island, and the easiest place we could find to “boaterhome.” I’d always resisted the notion of spending the night in the boat on land, let alone in a parking lot. But after the grueling trip, it was the Ritz. This Walmart is the only easy (and free) place to park over night we could find, and it was a four hour drive after getting off the ferry at 6PM.  There are many, many campers here, some even sleeping in a tent on the ground and others sleeping right on the god-knows-how-many-dogs-have-peed-on-it grass.

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Port McNeill, night before the trip.

Free beer!

Pouring rain, but very lucky to get Jon and Cynthia on the dock by us thanks to a last-minute cancellation at a busy marina that serves as a gateway to the Broughtons. We should have stayed at the public marina in Port McNeill, as we did on the way back. But it all worked out OK, who cares if the bathrooms were in the auto parts store? (Well, we did, actually, so that’s why we stayed at the public marina on the way home.)

We had dinner at a place called “Gus Pub” (why not Gus’s I don’t know). Poutine is a Canadian delicacy consisting of fries, cheese curds, and brown gravy. If ever there was a time to say “don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” this was it. A whole new kind of comfort food. We even scored a free pitcher of beer: it was a big night at Gus Pub: An Ultimate Fighting Championship was blasting on all the TVs. Gory stuff. We were lucky to get a table. It had just been vacated by folks who didn’t want to watch the fight. They left their beer!

Speaking of beer, given the constraints on bringing liquor into Canada, we took time in Port McNeill to stock up on enough to last two weeks as well as last minute groceries. Much less expensive than buying the same stuff after it’s been hauled out to the islands.

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Finally under way

Where ARE the Broughtons?
Pretty map of the Broughtons

So, one night at Walmart, one night at Port McNeill, and at last we were ready to head off into the remote cluster of islands, islets, channels, inlets, harbors, bays, coves and passages known as the Broughtons.

Entering the Broughtons: Magical

Potts Lagoon

We spent the first night at Potts Lagoon. On the way in, we passed one of several large logging operations we’d see during the trip. They are quite a sight, and this one was just outside our idyllic anchorage. (I describe logging and fishing operations below.)

Once we got into Potts Lagoon, only the noise and a glimpse through a narrow channel revealed the truth about the logging. We were surrounded by pretty views, cute float houses, and just a couple boats. We didn’t know at the time, but floating buildings are the norm in this area.

 

Jon took this opportunity to try out his new Big 5 $25 raft. It all ended OK, just a couple stickers in his feet and tiny puncture in the raft.

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Lagoon Cove

This was my favorite part of the trip. Lagoon Cove had all the stuff I like: funky atmosphere, free coffee, good t-shirts, a great happy hour (with free shrimp) and fun stuff to do on shore. It also has a great back story.

Happy Hour patio and workshop

The people who own the marina and huge acreage around it bought it on the spur of the moment last year. They’d never considered such a business, but they were up here on a boat and fell in love with the place. They heard that the marina and land was about to be sold to a timber company as a logging camp and were very sad to hear it. So, they bought it on the spot.

The marina is crammed with artifacts and flowers.  The rusty tools were actually used here and the workshop where they host happy hour really is a workshop. There are games up on the lawn, a fitness circuit (splitting wood and mowing the grass with an old manual mower), a tree swing, and more. Read this and you’ll see why I’m so eager to go back. Tomorrow.

The insidious tab

Lagoon Cove was also our first experience of the deadly effective marina practice of having guests “run a tab.” All the marinas do it. Rather than pay for each service as you use it, you’re encouraged to just have the owners jot down each of your expenses, from dock fees and showers to ice cream and tshirts. It’s easier for everyone and very clever. Those fuel bills, t-shirts, showers, and $10 Haggen Daz pints that you just “put on the tab” can add up. Hooray for smart marketing!

Big boats

Lagoon Cove gave us a first taste of what it’s like to dock by bigger boats. We were able to fit two boats into the spot normally required for one typical Broughtons boat.

Helpful boaters

The boat towering behind us at Lagoon Cove was owned by Doug and Linda Hare. We first spotted the beautiful Selene at Potts Lagoon. Doug is a super nice guy who we ran into three times over the course of our trip. At Lagoon Cove, he gave Jon and Fred fishing advice and picked up vital supplies (Canadian Club) for me on his trip to Port McNeill for boat repairs. He dropped off the bottle at Pierre’s where we ran into him for the third time at the pig roast.

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Goat Islet

You threw me an ONION? One pissed eagle

We anchored here one night. Great, brief, sunset. I was blinded by it while out for one of just a couple paddles I managed on the trip. Jon tried to catch crab, no luck. Fred towed Jon around with our Kaboat, as the motor was still working at that time. Adorable.

This is where we pissed off the eagle by throwing out an onion. He or she thought it was dinner and wasn’t at all happy to discover it was not an otter’s head. The eagle flew within a foot or two of the boat and scared the crap out of us both. How great is that? After two passes at the onion and a lot of screeching in the trees, the eagle flew off in disgust.

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Echo Bay/Pierre’s

The most famous of the places we went, Pierre’s is also the most ambitious business undertakings we saw. Pierre and his wife Tove (pronounced Tova) are savvy and hard-working beyond belief. The place is beautiful. Pierre is reserved, always moving. Tove runs the store and business. I watched Pierre wench docks together, roast a pig, and haul in supplies. He towed a guy with a broken starter back to safety (not sure where, Pierre didn’t offer much detail.)

Theirs is a short season to make a year’s income. But Pierre spends full time working on the collection of floats that make up this large, comfortable marina. He stays all winter, and I got a glimpse of his “man cave,” which makes it seem almost bearable. Tove has a flair for fun, offering dog races up and down the dock and keeping the party going at the pig roast.

About the pig roast…

We went for the pig roast and it was quite a production. They start cooking the pig at 3AM and by 8AM you’d swear every boat on the dock (and there were about 50) was cooking bacon. Then you’d look around and say “oh” and continue wondering what to take to the potluck given you were one of the four smallest boats in the whole place. (Mashed potatoes and stuffing. Should have taken Wheat Thins…I brought three boxes and about 4 cups of cream cheese home.)

Tove keeps a firm hand on crowd control. Rather than a stampede to the buffet line, each table of about 8 people drew a number from a basket. That determined when you got to go through the line. People were (firmly) asked to go easy on the portions so everyone could have some. (“No one brings salad for 100 people,” her son Christian said.) Tove is not, however, fussy about what you bring. “One time everyone brought beans,” she laughed. “It was great. We called it a hoot and a toot.”

This night, the food, pig and all, was totally wiped out. All of it. As I left the potluck, a flock of seagulls was attacking the carcass, which Pierre simply had to toss off the back of the dining hall float. Just like we do at home.

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Kwatsi Bay

The most remote place we visited, Kwatsi Bay was also the simplest. It had to be. Built from scratch and run by Anka and Max for nearly 20 years, this outpost is a fine balance between comfortable, well-maintained docks and minimal amenities. Anka is one of those people you love at first sight. Insanely capable, she was running the place by herself while Max was away.  (No ice, fuel, food, showers, laundry, but endless beauty and cordiality.) They’re making dock repairs using cedar lumber harvested from their own land.

Kwatsi Bay is very remote and small

Fred and Jon cooked a fish Jon caught earlier in the day for the potluck. Very peaceful.

This was Cynthia’s favorite spot. Even though she needed a ladder to get in and out of her boat, the dock we were on weren’t designed for moorage and when we looked out of our boats we saw people from the knees down.

This is the place where the gaggle of Wi-Fi deprived kids stormed the dock twice a day when Anka turned on the Wi-Fi, in an effort to keep costs under control. It’s a heck of a battle. She works in social services in the off season, giving her background that’s doubtless useful as she grapples with Wi-Fi crazed youth and cranky yacht captains. And tiny boats like ours.

Cynthia and I watched a mom and baby seal for the good part of an afternoon. I also saw a kingfisher up close.

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Sullivan Bay

Dock mate at Sullivan Bay 86′ Nordhaven

Quaint, colorful, comfortable, wealthy, and fun. Sullivan Bay is designed to be a floating town. As such, it is the fullest manifestation we saw of communities built by lashing together floating structures. Some of the houses exceeded 2,000 square feet. One had a float plane in what would have been its back yard. But the store felt more than 100 years old and the attached building, which held the ice and liquor, floated at about a 15 degree tilt from the main building.

 

Could have been the ice and booze, but I think the rotting float syndrome (described below) had more to do with the sag. Sullivan Bay is where we found the brownest water (also described below). I discovered an outdoor tap on one of the houses that dispensed clear water, but felt guilty taking a resource that someone clearly didn’t intend for general use. In other words, it likely cost a ton to filter water out there.

The people we met working at Sullivan Bay were delightful. A guy named Chris runs things overall and a woman named Laura takes care of the store and fuel dock. Both of them treated us like family, and we’ll remember them fondly for ever.

Jennis Bay

One in a million, Jennis Bay was our refuge up Drury Inlet when Jon had engine problems. The manager was cordial and helpful as could be, and while Fred wanted to stay over, the sense that the operation was hanging by a thread made me sad and uncomfortable.

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Joe Cove

Looking for adventure? Tie up to the derelict dock in Joe Cove. See the photo of C-Lou and Anita Marie at the top of this page. The anchorage is one of the prettiest spots we saw. The old float, with marine life growing right up through the boards (the jellyfish were mesmerizing) added a bit of adventure beyond the usual risks of floating docks (see Floating Marinas and Homes, below).

When Fred tried to tie the boat to the picnic table, one of the table top boards popped off. We used it as a doorstep covering the holes by our boat.

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People we met and things we saw

Billy Proctor

By far the most memorable experience of the trip was a brief visit with this amazing 83-year old life-long resident of the Broughtons. I’m reading several books he’s written about living there, which have helped inform this post a great deal. (Particularly about the floating homes.)

More than explaining the logistics, Billy demonstrates the strength of body and purpose it takes to have a successful, happy life in such a remote and harsh place. One story involves him hanging over the side of his boat, stuck in his tackle, unable to free himself until the salmon hook in his thumb worked its way out. A lifelong fisherman, Billy can’t swim and the option of going over the side of the boat was worse than the hook through the thumb experience.

He’s a total delight to talk to, and gave out at least two long “Jeeeezzzuusss Chrrrissts” when Cynthia or I said something he found silly (I told him he had a beautiful smile, which he does) or stupid (going through his 100’s of lures looking for pairs we could make into earrings).

We did a quick tour of his museum of local artifacts, particularly bottles, which he’s collected for years. He also had a lot of first nations artifacts, fishing gear, tools, and daily-life stuff. In fact, if you think about it, he had the kind of stuff a hoarder might have, but nicely arranged.

This page about Billy focuses more on his life as an appealing tourist attraction than on the deep knowledge and intense passion of his work trying to save local salmon runs. On the other hand, he IS a great tourist attraction. I’ve enjoyed going much deeper into his history by reading his books. So far, I’m nearly finished with the first of them, called Heart of the Raincoast and am looking forward to Full Moon, Flood Tide.

If you’re considering a trip to the Broughtons, I highly recommend you read his books. They will greatly enrich your appreciation for the area and local history.

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Brown Water

Oh. My. Goodness. Fresh (treated tap) water can be scarce in the Broughtons, and for general purposes on the boat you take what you can get. I took a lot of fresh water for drinking, and was very glad I had. All water sources had government advisories declaring the water non-potable, as it isn’t treated for bacteria. It also isn’t filtered. It seems to bubble up from springs that are enriched by tree roots that impart a distinct color. The locals call it “Cedar Water” but I called it brown. We pretty much only used the local water for flushing the toilet, or boiled it before using.

I will NEVER complain about our hard tap water again

And, oddly, at each location we found the color of the local fresh water supply an even more alarming shade. At Lagoon Cove it seemed merely yellow. It was darker at Kwatsi Bay. By the end of the trip, at Sullivan Bay, it had darkened considerably.

When it got to the point where I couldn’t tell the difference between the water coming into the boat and that leaving the head, I stopped looking. I keep jugs of flushing water on hand, and started adding a bit of chlorine to it for esthetic purposes. I noticed that the local folks at Sullivan Bay (there’s a community of float houses there) filter their water to a clear color. I think that’s a marker of relative affluence. Since I doubt we could afford such a luxury, I don’t know if I could ever get used to that color. But the isolation would surely run me off before the water would.

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First Nations

We saw a couple First Nation villages from the shore but have heard that most have dissolved back into the earth. If you find a shell beach, that’s likely a first-nation midden. We didn’t go ashore on any shell beaches. One place I wanted to go but didn’t was the remains of one of the last settlements, called Mamaliliculla. To go there we’d have needed to anchor and row ashore, not feasible on the day we were nearby. I subsequently heard that all that’s left of the village are mounds where wood posts used to be, and that you needed a machete to hack through the nettles. Nonetheless, I want to go the next time we’re there.

I’d need to study the situation more to be clear about the relative condition of the first-nations cultures in BC versus here in Washington. What I did see was a number of very poor people who appeared to be native born and some cultural landmarks (totem poles, long houses) that acknowledged their existence.

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Fishing

For the guys, the central point of the trip wasn’t cruising around. It was fishing. I doubt they did near as much as they’d have liked. If they didn’t have to deal with finding anchorages and keeping us company, I bet they’d have spent more time chasing the elusive salmon. Nonetheless, Fred and Jon did get some nice fish. They went out a few times, including one little trip in the dinghies they’d hooked together. It seems the fun is as much in the fishing as the catching, but for me, the fun was in the eating. Of course.

They did seem to have fun buttonholing experienced boaters and locals for advice on where to go, how deep to run their gear, and what kind of stuff to stick on the end of their lines. (Hootchies, anyone?)

Shrimping and crabbing were total washouts. We got 20 shrimp in two pulls, in spite of being in places where the locals said we should get great catches. The crab were all too small. It looked as though the whole area had been swept clean.

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Floating homes and marinas

When you step ashore at a marina in the Broughtons, you’ll find that nothing is particularly level. That’s because most of the major structures we encountered were built on rafts of huge logs called “floats.” In some cases, land-based buildings are jacked up, put on skid logs, then hauled down to the water where they’re winched onto floats. As the float logs decay over time, new logs are shoved under the raft, and in some cases there are multiple layers of logs. You can see how this could result in a building that lists notably to one side or another. And the angle of the building can vary depending on the tide.

Getting onto actual land isn’t the norm. At Kwatsi Bay and Sullivan Bay, we never touched land. At Echo Bay, we only did so when we went overland to visit Billy Proctor (though the marina does offer land-based services, including a wood-fired hot tub.)

Walking around on the floats is kind of like walking on a boat, things move under your feet. Marinas are often made up of multiple floats, not only as docks for the boats, but for each building: the store, the bath house, the fuel dock, happy hour tent, and any number of other services or buildings you’d find on land are jigsawed together. But the puzzle pieces don’t quite fit, so walking from one float to another is only as seamless as the quality of the floats and joining-skills of the marina owners. In some places, you merely walked over a carpeted ridge. In others, you risked a 2X6 plank at a random angle with a wobble on one end.

Plants and algae thrive on and around the floats. There are few railings to prevent falls, you need to be able to access a float from pretty much any side. Some of the walkways are only 18″ wide. In short, I don’t know how come I wasn’t seeing Life Flight helicopters hauling injured tourists out of these floating hazards every day or two. Especially after the traditional happy hours hosted at every marina we visited. Nostalgic and cool looking, for sure. But if you stop and think about what you’re doing, you realize you really need to stop and think about what you’re doing as you walk the docks.

So why DO they build on floats?

The local geography of mostly sheer cliffs and long inlets or passages has a lot to do with the prevalence of floating versus land-based structures. But the floating structures are also indicative of the impermanent nature of life so far from civilization and so challenged by precarious business prospects, from fishing, logging, and tourism. Each of these businesses is subject to forces far beyond people’s control. The fish don’t come. The government changes logging regulations. From marinas that have disappeared (though remain on the map) to those made up of parts from disbanded businesses (such as Pierre’s, which even includes part of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge!), nothing has a sense of real permanence.

Some of the building migration is simply practical: folks follow the fish or logging. Others are more capricious. Someone stole one of the floats at Kwatsi Bay (yes, stole it!). Another one sank (and there went our showers). Losing the showers is inconvenient, of course. But we heard of worse. Recently, the popular store and restaurant at Port Harvey both sank. (This website shows the prior business.) Not shocking when you look at the map. Word is they are rebuilding. I have to wonder what it’s like to try to insure floating businesses perched near one of the stormiest stretches of water on this side of the continent.

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Logging and salmon farming

Salmon farms used to be uglier, I hear. They paint all the metal buildings green now, and the netting and booms are discreetly designed. But there’s no mistaking a salmon-farming business. The logging operations are no where near as subtle as the fish farms.

Harvesting logs on the steep sides of the inlets and islands is hard to do and hard to hide. They build roads and landings and leave acres and acres of slash and bare rock behind. Devastatingly obvious or subtly green-I-fied, because they’re in otherwise pristine, unpopulated areas (I mean, NO populations other than a few float houses) these harvesting businesses pose a visual and moral jolt.

That’s a very big boom

Salmon farms blend into the scenery a bit better. But they do still stand out. Jon found one on the way to Kwatsi Bay. Of course, the fish are locked up like, uh, chickens, but the visual was sure fun.

Jon fishing at the salmon farm

Do we decry the business or face the facts that such things are going to exist? Their impact on the environment seems incontrovertible, but less clear is the net impact on the local economy. It sounds like most of the income from these businesses ends up in large businesses far away from the Broughtons. Not a new story or an easy one.

It’s a long discussion, with both political and philosophical underpinnings. Given his history on both sides of the issue (he’s a former fisherman/logger/trapper who has tried for decades to restore the salmon runs) Billy Proctor offers insights ideal for deeper consideration. The short story is that the salmon runs have been reduced dramatically by habitat destruction and further cut by over fishing. Proctor encouraged the government to outlaw commercial fishing in highly impacted areas, where he’d made his living in fact. But he says the sports fisherman, a key source of revenue, are doing as much damage as the commercial fleet had done.

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Our marine version of a GPS, called a chart plotter, did a great job of telling us where we were on the water. But it didn’t always tell the names of the islands we were near, even huge ones at time. I used the Garmin GPS from the truck, which did a terrible job of telling us where we were on the water (it always said we were in Queen Charlotte Straight, which we never ventured near) but it did show names of most major islands. Eventually, unless it was a destination or a key waypoint, I got used to not caring about the name of land masses. Clearly, it would have bothered me even more if I was piloting the boat. I do think it helped that we were traveling with people whose chart-plotter had more complete information.

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Prices

The dollar was in our favor by about 20%, so overall the trip expenses weren’t bad. But if it’d been on par, we’d have been appalled by the costs. The ferry was around $500 round-trip (in US dollars). We spent roughly the same amount on fuel for the boat and truck. Total moorage costs were a bit less, I haven’t done the math. We spent about $23 to attend the pig roast. Ice averaged $5 a block. T-shirts and hats were generally a bargain, we got nice ones for about $20 Canadian. The most expensive shower was $7.35. It cost up to $15 to wash and dry laundry. I paid $7.50 for an apple turnover. On the other hand, I got a fifth of Canadian Club for $27. The most money I spent was about $130 at Billy Proctor’s for books and a hat. Billy doesn’t take credit, so I pretty much wiped out our Canadian currency. Worth it.

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Really Big Boats

Naturally, when you’re out boating you’re going to encounter some pretty large boats. Some private boats verge on being cruise ships. One of the smaller luxury yachts I saw was owned (I presume he owned it) by a senior Microsoft exec. Others appeared to be owned by oil barons.

Biggest boat we saw, Polar Star

During a chat with Tove at Pierre’s I mentioned something about most of the other boaters being much more wealthy than us. She very seriously (almost sternly) told me that we are all wealthy. Although there is clearly a HUGE discrepancy in the taxable value of our boats, she said “you are all mariners, you all should be treated the same, and treat one another the same.” And, she said, “You are all wealthy.”

In a way, she’s right, if you can afford to be out there at all, you are, by definition, not abjectly poor. It costs too much just to get there if you’re simply going for fun. On the other hand, at Pierre’s and Sullivan Bay in particular, it was hard not to notice the fact that some of the boats could readily have used ours for dinghies. Seriously. We’ve actually seen a C-Dory mounted on a yacht with a davit for dropping it into the water. Granted, it was a 16-foot boat and the yacht was owned by the then-owners of the C-Dory business, but still, it makes you think.

But, why leave home?

What this really brought to mind wasn’t the money so much as the totally different experience those people were having. This is one of the most beautiful places you could hope to see. But we walked by many boats where the people didn’t come out much and the TVs were as big as our bed. Kind of sad, really. I told one fellow that if I wanted to lay on a couch and watch TV, I’d have stayed at home. I don’t know if I’d turn down the chance to have a floating palace and plenty of money to maintain it, but I’d sure give it a few extra thoughts. There’s always a bigger boat. But there isn’t always a better time. Once I got a head (bathroom) I felt that a bigger boat’s amenities weren’t worth the tradeoff in cost and flexibility.

On the other hand, we never felt snubbed (or I just missed it)

What I was truly gratified by was the way the clearly wealthy people treated us boat campers. To a person, they were polite, upbeat, and seemed to get a kick out of our spunk. Also, when Tove ran out of ice at Pierre’s, I (who really, really needed some–having foregone Brown Ice at Sullivan Bay counting on getting White Ice at Pierre’s) brazenly went from yacht to yacht (one of which required a climb up a couple stair cases to reach the main level) carrying a black trash bag begging for ice. Many boats have ice makers that are clogged with old ice, and many of the people I met were happy to clean out their bins on my behalf. One of the contributors was a lovely woman on the 86′ Nordhaven we’d seen at Sullivan Bay. There is something about being out on the water that kind of levels things, I guess. I never felt condescended to, which was a real highlight of the trip.

That said, some of the happy hour gatherings felt a bit more “Seattle Yacht Club” than others. I skipped taking wheat thins to a couple of the gatherings as I just felt totally out of place. That’s me, not them, though. I’m sure we’d have been as welcome as anyone.

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Running a marina: life on the financial cliff

Making a living in the Broughtons used to mean fishing, trapping, or logging. There wasn’t much eco- or sport tourism 100 years ago. Making a living was hard then, but it was feasible to live a subsistence lifestyle with the resources at hand. It’s still hard, and you can’t always do it through sheer grit and local knowledge. And like 100 years ago, a financial set back could send you over the edge.

Marinas in the Broughtons are one of today’s versions of subsistence living. These people are not going to get rich. They’re lucky to live a decent life. Providing basic services is hugely expensive and to be competitive, the marina owners have to offer good service and a fun experience for boaters. The service side of the equation is the hard part.
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WiFi: woes for one and all

One of the biggest touchstones I saw for this situation was Internet access. It’s expensive and in high demand. Unlike the natural beauty around you, the fish in the water, or the logs on the land, you cannot harvest WiFi from the local resources. You have to pay for it. And tourists expect and demand access. The demand for internet is far outstripping small business owners’ ability to pay for the satellite service.

On the morning I left, Tove at Pierre’s showed me her internet statement. Satellite services throttle the bandwidth a subscriber can have, and once it’s gone, the cost for additional Gigs skyrockets. “Our Wi-Fi allotment is gone and it is only the 4th of August. From here on, we’re paying for it out of our pocket,” Tova said, looking as sad and frustrated as anyone would seeing their profits erode so quickly.

In addition to illustrating the financial challenges marina owners face, this also explained why we could rarely use the internet. Sullivan Bay has 13 satellite dishes, and still couldn’t keep up. I only got on twice there, for a couple minutes each time. Although the owners plead and remind guests that the wi-fi is for email, not Facebook or streaming, it’s clear that people aren’t great at restraining themselves from services they’ve come to take totally for granted.

At Kwatsi Bay, a huge charter boat with six staterooms and a dozen or so college age kids was anchored in the harbor. To keep a handle on expenses, the marina owner turns on the internet for an hour each morning and evening. We could tell when the time arrived as a large, fast launch would zip in from the yacht, a group of kids would burst onto the dock and immediately start chattering “I got a signal…No I don’t…did you?… I think it’s coming now…” etc. etc. They were like kittens scrambling to latch on to mom at feeding time. Us old farts were the ones who got edged off the nipple, as our Wi-Fi connecting skills weren’t quite as frenzied or honed.

The most painful examples were at marinas visited by enormous ships clearly equipped with their own satellite service. It was hard to say if they were using the marina’s bandwidth, but someone other than us sure was.

Everything, everything, everything is shipped in. And it’s not cheap.

Wi-Fi may be the most extreme example of the expenses marina owners have to cover, but when you think about it, everything they provide costs considerably more than services offered on land. Everything, from gas and propane to equipment, lumber, and food has to be shipped in. One owner told me that when their shuttle boat broke down, they had to pay a $700 water taxi bill to get to the mainland, where they rented a boat for the summer: for $7000.

If the dock’s empty, so’s your pocket

Given the average moorage feel of about $1.40 a night, for every 100 feet of dock space a marina could hope to pull in $140 a night. When it’s occupied. Pierre’s was packed on nights when they had their famous pig roast. But on other days, most of the dock can lie empty.

To try to make a go of it, if not a profit, some marinas have notes everywhere reminding visitors to be considerate. Showers and laundry are on the honor system. Some places have signs asking people to be sure to note every shower they take and every load of laundry they wash. “Propane costs a lot,” the sign says. “If you do two 60-minute dryer cycles, please call it that.” Other places are more laid back about the honor system, but each one is facing the same conundrum: harp on your guests to pay up or risk offending them by harping too much. Honor, as shown by the high Wi-Fi usage, clearly isn’t spread evenly among all visitors.

At Sullivan Bay, which attracts some of the largest boats, the marina’s goal is to break even. I believe the operation is run by a homeowner’s association made up of the couple dozen high-end float houses that back up the docks and Main Street. The float houses are docked to “streets” with names like Coho Cul de Sac.

Nothing is permanent

The financial vagaries mean that things change fast. As of our visit Jennis Bay was the marina that looked the most likely to succeed or fail depending on the business skills of the current management. The guide book described this as a thriving operation with a great store and gift shop. Hate to admit how much I looked forward to those. Greenway Sound was known for a fantastic marina. It was recently closed and all the floats were dispersed throughout the archipelago.

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Smoke

We were cut off from news, but you didn’t need radio or TV to know there were hundreds of wildfires within a few-hundred-mile radius of the Broughtons. The mornings often start off foggy, but by mid-afternoon, when the fog cleared it was often replaced by smoke. Or, rather, the smoke was revealed by retreating fog. Many of the photos I took are gray or hazy in color. I’m trying to turn some of those into artsy black-and-white. But overall, the colors were often flat and vaguely sad.

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Sheer cliffs

In the San Juans, you generally see islands that include some shoreline. Places where you could pull a dinghy up onto a beach, or anchor your boat off shore. In the Broughtons, the landscape is much different. More like fjords, there are very few beaches. Knowing safe places to anchor your boat is essential, you cannot simply pull off to the side of the road, so to speak.

Just look at the photos, you’ll see trees growing all the way down to the water line, which is generally sheer rock. This not only gives the place a distinct look, it adds an extra sense of boating risk beyond what we feel in our more familiar waters.

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Weather

Everything we did was based on the weather. Fishing, cruising, and anchoring all depend on the wind and tides. Trouble was, while the tides are pretty predictable (they have tables for that info) the weather is old-school unpredictable. Growing up in Everett 50 years ago, we watched the nightly weather forecast for a laugh. Getting it right had to be a great day for the weathermen (and they were all men). Now, in Seattle, the forecasts and meteorologist diversity are much improved.

Up there, the robotic marine announcements are delivered by female voices, but the accuracy is “variable.” I didn’t pay close attention, as it got frustrating, but it seemed to me that listening to the weather discussion was much like Everett 50 years ago. Except now there’s a radio update every four hours. The forecast would go from “take the dinghy for a picnic, it’ll be fine” to “tie up on a dock and don’t move” in the span of four hours. That may be why we spent all but three nights on docks.
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Wildlife

Actually, the subheading for this section should be: The shocking lack of wildlife. We see far more animals in our yard at home than we saw in the Broughtons. Even my mom had a bear in her orchard in Oregon, so she’s seen one in her yard for heaven’s sake.

Which is totally not what we expected. We’d heard, in particular, about bears. Fred’s eye doctor even told him about all the visits she’s made to Harborview to try to save the vision of folks who’d been attacked. At first I was afraid we’d have to beat them off the boat, but eventually I was just disappointed not to get a glimpse. Fred says he got a glimpse of one, though. But his eyes were never in danger.

The locals were full of stories about what they’d seen. And here’s what we saw, in order of occurrence:

  • Flies (thousands). These are vicious, malicious creatures that hunt you like prey. Which you are. They bite like crazy. I asked Billy Proctor why (to a gentle eye roll) and he said, “they eat your blood.”
  • Birds (dozens) Seagulls and auklets were dominant. But I only saw one Kingfisher, which are common in the San Juans.
On watch for a meal in Kwatsi Bay
Finally found the name of these birds: Rhinoceros Auklet. Said to be common to Northwest Waters, they are not common in bird guide books!
  • Eagles (three or four). Our best eagle sighting was an extreme close up. I threw an onion overboard and an eager fella flew within a couple feet of us to check it out. He left without picking it up while voicing a very loud opinion about our treachery. He took a second pass and set off a cacophony of outraged eagles. But we only saw him. Or her.
  • Humpback whale (two) Fred saw one while fishing with Jon. It slapped its tail repeatedly, which I hear was very cool to see. Fred didn’t have a camera, so I can’t show you what his looked like. Here’s what I saw.
  • Seal and pup (one each). Nursing in the back of Kwatsi Bay, right by our boats. This was an amazing sight to watch. The baby sleeps at times while mom is out getting a bite to eat. (I’d show a picture of the sleeping baby, but it’s a little disturbing as the pup appears to be dead in the water.) Mom kisses the baby a lot and they roll around while the little one latches on for a drink. See more photos in Kwatsi Bay section above.
Yes, sweetie, mom loves you
  • Sea Otter (one)

  • Bears (as mentioned above, one glimpse by Fred) No photo evidence.
  • Wolves (none) Ha!
  • Cougars (none) Ha! Ha!

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Tips for future trips

Here’s the part where we go over lessons learned.

Think hard about towing your boat

If you have time to motor your boat up from the San Juans rather than trailer/ferry it, you may find it worth the extra cost. By the time Fred drove Hwy 19 up to Port McNeill, his nerves were shot. The two-lane logging road with random stop lights and no pull outs for miles were a nightmare for him. And for me, the lack of bathroom breaks was not fun either. Plus, the only place we could find to spend the night on our way up was Walmart. Without researching a campground that could accommodate our truck and boat height/length, we weren’t well equipped to find better accommodations.

What to take more (and less) of

Most important!

Don’t take anything that’ll end up as garbage if you don’t need to. Get rid of packaging if you can and bring beer and other items in cans instead of bottles. Try not to use disposable stuff, such as paper plates, there’s no place to dispose of it.

Stuff I wanted to (probably should have) thrown overboard

Food. I went way overboard (pun) on canned goods in particular, but also dried stuff. Actually, thinking back, it would have been brilliant to drop off food in the laundry rooms and common areas of marinas. People would have grabbed them, because it’s a common practice for boaters to exchange stuff in some marinas. I got a good box of acrylic paints at one place.

I spent a ton of frustrating time juggling stuff. Fred just now hauled in a couple dozen cans and I’ve already pulled a few boxes of dry goods (more Wheat Thins, anyone?) off the boat.  I’d rather pay $8 for a can of chili if I needed it than spend another hour with my head crammed under the sink digging for the good stuff (beer). Speaking of beer. It’s super expensive in Canada. My favorite bang-for-the-buck beverage is Canadian Club. It’s fairly cheap and one bottle takes a lot less space than a six-pack.

Stuff I was glad to have a lot of:

  • Butter. Everything really is better with butter. I even (shamelessly) sold a cube. (I was running out of cash after buying books at Billy Proctors!) I took two pounds and we used all but two cubes.
  • Sodas and coffee drinks (see the entry on Brown Water). Coffee drinks saved the hassle of boiling water and sodas offered. something to go with the Canadian Club.
  • Flour tortillas. Great substitute for bread. I even put PB&J on them as well as making quesadillas and sandwich wraps.
  • Stackable snap-lid containers. Not expensive at Costco, priceless in a crazy cooler.
  • Fresh water. See “brown water” above.

What I’ll take more of next time:

  • Hand washable, fast-drying clothes. In layers. The temperature swung from 40 to 70+ with high humidity at times. We did OK, but I could have used more shirts and quick drying pants. Laundries are rare, expensive, hard to get into, and boring. If you DO need to do laundry, Sullivan Bay had the most machines. But the highest prices.
  • Used books for the book exchanges at most marinas. I often wanted to grab a book but didn’t have any to exchange. I’ll stock up on biographies, mysteries, and perhaps a couple bodice-rippers for the next trip.
  • Sweets for the potlucks. Most folks don’t bring sweets. Those with ovens in their boats frequently bring baked goods to the potlucks (Show-offs, I sniff, while grabbing as many brownies as I can get away with). I’m thinking Tootsie Rolls would go nicely with them. They’re cheap, easy to pack, and good emergency food. Right?
  • Garlic and onions. These are a great way to add a lot of flavor to the few packaged goods we’ll still take
  • Cash. Some businesses only accept cash, and it’s a long way to the closest ATM
  • Podcasts. Stuff to listen to at night when we’re too relaxed to read

If you read this far, then you clearly have the patience and tenacity to make it up to the Broughtons! Enjoy….

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