As told by Jim Frantz
The wilderness doesn’t care about you or anyone else.
Maybe that’s why we find it so irresistible.
Last summer my wife and I took our 40-foot Nordhavn Albedos up to British Columbia to make a second attempt at cruising Bute Inlet—one of the most isolated fjords in the world. Ten years ago we attempted it, but had been blown out by the williwaws. Williwaws are winds that are unique to mountainous coastal areas. In unsettled weather you can get 100-mph, straight-line gusts crashing down from the mountains, due to the temperature differential between the high peaks and the water at sea level. They come around sunset and they are incredible to experience.
Bute Inlet, as you might imagine, is an inhospitable place. It has no marinas, no anchorages in the inlet itself, not even any shores. It’s just vertical walls rising thousands of feet above the water. There’s no cell or VHF connections, and satphones work only a few minutes a day. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to find yourself in trouble.
But because of that isolation, it’s also breathtakingly beautiful. Two rivers—the Homathko and the Southgate—dump milky glacial melt into the head of the fjord. Normally the tide would fill up a fjord like this, but these rivers are so powerful, that they overwhelm the 14-foot tidal currents the rest of the area experiences. So the water in Bute is always flowing out, which is fairly unique.
The Homathko is the larger of the two. It’s navigable for 26 miles, and on a clear day, if you can get that far up, you can see mighty Mt. Waddington, aka Mystery Mountain, because due to bad weather, it’s often not even visible. Then on clear days, like magic, there it is.
The Homathko itself is so, so beautiful. And still very much pristine, though there has been some logging done along it. But the Southgate River, the other one, is still a virgin river. You go up it and you would think you were the first person to set foot in the area. It’s all pines, just deep, dark, green woods as far as you can imagine. A true wilderness. There are seals, birds, and bear on the shores. And it’s unimaginably quiet. At night the stars are uncountable, and seem so close. But I have a saying about Mother Nature. She will draw you in close with her charms, and then turn into a demon.
Our first day back there last summer, we met up with our friends Frank and Deb, also Nordhavn owners. We spent the night in a bay near the mouth of the fjord. The next day we picked up our anchors and crossed over into Bute. The depth plunged to 2,000 feet. and cliffs shot 2,000 feet straight up overhead where glaciers perch, high on the mountainsides, waiting for the next ice age to begin anew.
Seeing this setup, it’s easy to think of Alaska’s Lituya Bay. And when you think of Lituya, you think of what happened there in 1958, when an earthquake triggered a landslide that fell down the mountains into the water. By some estimates waves that day in Lituya were 300 feet high, a terrifying prospect. Bute doesn’t have the exact same conditions, but imaginations tend to run wild.
By lunchtime the weather was holding, so we got in the tenders and raced to the Homathko, with visions of Mt. Waddington dancing in our heads. We found it flooded and rough. The pulverized granite in the river kills the visibility, and you have to guess the depth, which is risky. But the river was still narrow where we were, which means it was deep enough for our tenders, so off we went. The river was raging, whole trees floated downstream, and logs clogged the channels. After a few miles we were forced to turn around. Mystery Mountain simply wasn’t worth the risk that day.
We headed back to the Nordhavns feeling deflated, but eventually decided to give the Southgate a go. This river is actually wilder than the Homathko—both swifter and smaller, and thick with silt. We were about two miles up the river when we saw a small harbor seal pup making her way to us from the shore. She came so close we took our engines out of gear for fear of hitting her with the props. She was very curious about the little boats. And we soon found out why.
First she tried to nurse on my hull. Finding that impossible, she tried to climb aboard, but failed at that too. I remember her looking at me with these big, sad, eyes, and that’s when I realized she must have been separated from her mother. She followed us for a bit, struggling in the current, and then made her way back to shore, crying all the way. With the water visibility being what it was, I believe she had little hope for a happy ending. Sometimes Mother Nature can be indifferent. Not cruel or capricious—she simply doesn’t care.
It was then that we heard explosions echoing in the fjord, and a cloud of dust covered the river. It was probably loggers blasting into the cliffs above, trying to open up the Southgate for timber. And once you hear explosions on a river like the Southgate, you start to think of what else they might make possible, besides logging. A landslide perhaps … we hightailed it back to the big boats.
By the time we arrived the explosions had stopped. And we judged it safe to stay the night since the water was calm. So we spent that one amazingly peaceful night deep in the wilds of Bute Inlet. In the morning we could see high clouds in the sky through breaks in the marine layer. It was a telltale sign of bad weather to come. So we pulled anchors and left, just ahead of the wind.
Jim Frantz, 67, is a former commercial pilot, engineer, and farmer who splits his time evenly between his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, and his boat in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Guinness Book of World Records record, though he doesn’t want to say for what.
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.