Beautiful Bute Inlet

The massive stone cliff thrust its way up from the water, shrouded at the top by the mist and plunging straight down into 300 feet of water, streaked by endless eons of rain and bleached nearly white in spots by thousands of summers of sun. This was the wild coast of Canada.

Bute Inlet, just a few miles away from the heart of Desolation Sound, is a 40 mile long fiord that has it all; waterfalls crashing from cliffs to the sea, isolated nooks for a single boat to hide in, verdant forests and a gigantic glacial icefield at its head. My daughter Meaghan and I were going to explore it all.

Stuart Island and the Yuculta Rapids are the place where most boaters pass through heading north from Desolation Sound. They also mark the edge of Bute Inlet. And you can escape into this wilderness inlet without passing through any of the infamous rapids of coastal BC.

Tokolosh at Refuge Cove,
West Redonda Island, BC
It was a cloudy morning when we headed up Calm Channel from Refuge Cove, the natural starting point, past the decaying church at the Church House Indian Reserve and made the turn right at Johnstone Bluffs. By favouring the south-east side of the inlet we avoided almost all of the tidal pull from Arran Rapids as they thundered through the narrow gap between Stuart Island and the mainland.

As we entered the inlet the water was wide and clear, offering fabulous views of the cloud topped coastal mountains. The deep waters of the inlet showed none of the milky colour that dominates the head of the inlet, where the cold fresh water from the Homathko Icefield tumbles into the sea through the dual rivers that it feeds.

Sailing into Bute Inlet is similar to sailing into the many inlets and fiords that line the crenulated coast of British Columbia. The wind pattern is fairly predictable, with inflows in the morning and outflows in the afternoon. But at 40 miles it is almost certain that the wind will turn against you at some point on your trip. Meaghan and I found ourselves motoring about half the time, and sailing with light winds the rest of the time.

Orford Bay is the half way point where you will find a private dock with no moorage and an open bay with indifferent anchorage. However just a mile before Orford Bay we discovered a tiny inlet where some kind soul had secured a log as a breakwater. The booming line from the logs dropped deep into the water and we were able to cross it into the inner sanctum of “The Nook”.

Looking in to “The Nook” while tied up on the log marina.
The Nook’s log marina had just enough room for two boats, one on the inside of the logs and the other on the outside. The inside offered relief from the light chop of the inlet, giving us an almost perfect resting space for the night and a fabulous view across the inlet to the mountains on the northwest shore.

We slept well despite the light rain that fell most of the night. Rain is common in these coastal inlets, which is why these forests are so green and thick. If you sail up here, you need to be ready for rain.

Our second day on Bute Inlet started with a light wind with just enough for easy sailing. We started up to the top of the inlet, drifting along lazily, dodging the driftwood that was now becoming more and more evident. Most of the logs were smaller, but there were a few large pieces and in one case a whole tree was making its way down to the open ocean.

Bute Inlet is home to a number of logging operations with bunkhouses and helicopter landing pads resting on barges or clinging to the few narrow strips of flat land that are flung along the edge of the inlet. The logging operations don’t mind you stopping by for a visit, but don’t expect to stay the night. These are busy places with no time for tourists.

Looking out from “The Nook” to the mountains on the northwest shore.
As we headed up we spotted three other small sailboats tacking and turning their way up the inlet. We followed along, eventually meeting up with them at a small private home in Bear Bay near the head of the inlet. They were students from a bible camp spending a few days exploring the inlet under sail. After comparing notes we headed for Waddington Harbour, the top of the inlet.

The head of Bute Inlet was once the jumping off point for a speculative plan to push a road through to the Chilcotin during the BC gold rush. The project came to a tragic end with the massacre of fourteen men by local natives on April 29, 1864. These men were the road crew working along the Homatco River, and their deaths marked the beginning of what would come to be known as the Chilcotin War.

The Homathko Icefield and the Homathko River
plunging down the mountainside.
Waddington Harbour is now the home of a couple of logging operations and the inflow point for both the Homathko and Southgate Rivers. These two rivers, fed by the ice from the Homathco Icefields, fill the head of the inlet with fresh water, turning it to the colour of milk and making it almost impossible to get a decent depth sounding.

We coasted round the top of the inlet, watching the eagles fly by, watching for bears on the shoreline. Bute Inlet is known for both its grizzly and black bear populations.

These massive and dangerous animals congregate along the rivers at the head of the inlet as well as along the Orford River halfway up the inlet. Local tour operators run bear watching tours in high speed boats up and down the inlet.

After coasting round the top of the inlet, we headed over to the logging operations along the northwest shore. The logging camp was on a barge and there was even a small dock. We looked but we didn't stay. They men were working and we were tourists; not a good fit.

The rain set in as we headed back down the inlet. It was 20 miles from The Nook to the head of the inlet and we had made it by about 2:00 PM. We decided to make the run back to The Nook and tie up for a second night in this delightful refuge.

Sunset, Desolation Sound, BC
Our trip out of Bute Inlet was a trip from the rain to the sun. The clouds that marched up the inlet were hanging on to the mountains, letting loose their rain and keeping the ambient temperature cool even in the middle of July. But as we headed down the inlet the sun broke through and the weather turned into glorious summer.

Instead of heading back to Refuge Cove, Meaghan and I headed for Heriot Bay on Quadra Island, a run of some 35 miles through the narrow Whiterock Passage and down Hoskyn Channel. From there we were able to head to some of our favourite Desolation Sound summer fun spots. But even in the warmth of July we could still feel the wilderness of beautiful Bute Inlet calling us, begging us to come back to its misty mountains one more time.

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