Small Ship Cruises on Canada’s East and West Coasts

Close encounters of the Canadian kind. On both the west and east coasts of Canada, Toby Saltzman cruises on small ships that allow a deeper immersion into the wonder of our country’s ancient nature.

West: On Outer Shores’ Passing Cloud
“Hishuk ish Tsawalk, Hishuk ish Tsawalk, everything is interconnected.” The words, softly spoken with spiritual veracity by Nuu-chah-nulth elder Denis St. Claire, reflected the spirit of our jaunt to Benson Island, a remote isle at the wild, windswept edge of Pacific Rim National Park.

Perched on a rock in a clearing amid towering cedars and spruce with deer grazing nearby, St. Claire, who is legendary on Vancouver Island’s west coast as an archeologist and ethnographer, explained: aeons ago, this village in the Broken Group archipelago was populated by the Tseshaht people who thrived by foraging and fishing in a symbiotic relationship with the land and sea.

After we had travelled to this spot by Zodiac boat with him from the schooner Passing Cloud, left anchored in Barkley Sound, sailing by scattered islets where trees grew from rocks with seemingly indomitable strength, this elder’s stories gave the region historic and cultural credence, and our little band of sailors an authentic appreciation for what may have been taken for a simply scenic place.

I had imagined that sailing on Outer Shores Expeditions’ 70-footer (21-metre) designed by William James Roué, the famed designer of the iconic schooner Bluenose, would be a caper, with sails puffed on the breeze en route to idyllic islets. But when I boarded the sleek wooden vessel in Ucluelet Harbour, and met owner (and captain) Russ Markel–at 47, an ecologist and environmentalist with a PhD in marine biology–I sensed this voyage would have a serious, though decidedly delightful, course.

After introducing first mate and marine scientist Joel White, chef Devon Carr, also a marine biologist, and St. Claire–whose presence would allow access to sacred ancient villages–Markel introduced the passengers, ranging from a 70-something couple from Santa Barbara, Calif., to a 30-ish woman who would be my cabin mate and sleep in the upper bunk.

After exploring the beautiful interior–its classic wheelhouse decorated with awards, including several first class racing prizes; its skylit salon panelled in gleaming Douglas fir and wrapped with a leather banquette facing a cast-iron heater; its three double-berth staterooms, each with a vanity and sink; and the communal head with shower–we gathered on deck for a gourmet snack, a harbinger of meals to come.

Next: “We have no set itinerary”

Male sea lions "sunbathing" on rocks in the Broken Group Islands area off the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada.
Male sea lions “sunbathing” on rocks in the Broken Group Islands area off the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada.

Markel primed us for serendipity. “We have no set itinerary. Our route will flow with the weather, the tides and wildlife we encounter. We’ll see where the wind takes us.” As he spoke, bald eagles soared above the masts. “Feel free to participate as much as you like–steer, hoist the sails, pull the lines or wash the deck.”

Sailing from Ucluelet Inlet–named after the First Nations Yu-clutl-ahts, which means “people with a safe landing place”–we headed past hundreds of sea lions basking on rocks and flipping into the water. Barkley Sound is a deep groove on Vancouver Island’s coast, Markel explained, sheltering some 300 islands and islets in the Broken Group.

As we passed a rocky outcrop with ravens squawking on western hemlock, their shapes chiselled by salty breezes, he added, “Expect to see great diversity, like the California coast, the redwood forests, a cold-water Great Barrier Reef, Galapagos Islands and Alaska all in one area.” After stopping on Benson Island, where Carr foraged for edibles, including stinging nettles to spice up fresh halibut for dinner, we sailed to a protected bay at Village Island where the first Europeans arrived in 1787 to get sea otter pelts for the fur trade. After dinner, Markel opened a map for the first of our daily chart chats.

Our morning wake-up call was the sound and sight of loons dipping in the glassy water. Sailing past a range of 10 tooth-edged mountain peaks, St. Claire said they symbolize the First Nations father who married off 10 daughters to ultimately relate all people and expand his population.

Uncovering our aboriginal past would be a common theme on the trip: at Jake-Jarvis lagoon, St. Claire showed us three ancient intact fish traps that prove the cultural heritage of a village that existed before the 1800s. Apparently 30 remain among the Broken Group, and a village discovered on Dicebox Island dates to the 1500s.

Then, just as the tide rolled in, Markel navigated an incredibly thrilling course through an arch carved by wind and waves, veering us into a kaleidoscopic “forest” of starfish clinging to the rocks. After lunch, I stayed on board for lessons on unleashing and hoisting the sails while, on shore, Carr led an excursion to Turret Island (known as Mukwah) to harvest fresh oysters for dinner.

Flocks of cormorants flew overhead–cackling as if to alert our daily intrusion in their world–as the Zodiac skimmed over choppy waters to Ayapiyis, a rocky, barrier-reef island once inhabited by the Tseshaht. On land, a long-orange-billed oystercatcher was obviously distressed. Figuring its nest was nearby, we moved below its tidewater line location where we were regaled by stories and the lore of the region’s canoe battles.

In spite of rain and hail, we navigated through estuary channels to Yasiyis, a glassy lagoon on the edge of Vancouver Island’s rainforest, to take a hike and look for bears. Silently hunkering down on wet grass, we watched, breathless, as a white-tailed deer nibbling grass at the water’s edge swiftly vanished when a black bear lumbered out of the forest. It was an exquisite sense of immersion in nature, somehow made even better with what was to come: en route back to the ship, we took pause to take in the view. Sunshine illuminated the sea floor, exposing brilliantly hued starfish, sea anemones, giant red sea urchins and moon snails.

On our last night, at dinner, the one-with-nature experience culminated with pure joy as my cabin mate slurped an oyster and felt something hard on her tongue: a tiny pearl.

Next: Travel the east coast on the Ocean Endeavour 

HR _DSC9442-JH copy
Margaret Atwood participating in the Floating Book Club on board Ocean Endeavour.

East: On Adventure Canada’s Ocean Endeavour
Sailing from Newfoundland’s scenic St. John’s Harbour, we came to see three UNESCO World Heritage sites: Red Bay, L’Anse aux Meadows and the remote Torngat Mountains. But it was more than just to see them; we wanted to know them.

Started by their parents in 1988, Adventure Canada was inherited by siblings Alana Swan Faber, Matthew James Swan and Cedar Bradley Swan, with her husband, Jason Edmunds, and embodies the spirit of exploratory expeditions. The staff, too, on board Adventure Canada’s Ocean Endeavour reflected this and included a slate of scientific researchers, cultural experts and notable resource people including “GoogleGuy” John Bailey–who would map the terrain with a 15-camera headgear for 360-degree panoramas–and Gilles Garnier, Canadian Geographic publisher.

And the roster of writers participating in the ship’s Floating Book Club included Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, who were on our sailing, as well as Terry Fallis and Kathleen Winter and their publisher Doug Gibson. Clad in an embroidered vest, Mi’kmaq First Nations Chief Saqamaw Mi’sel Joe introduced us to Inuit culture. He extolled the people’s innate connection to the land: “We must believe ‘two eyes see: see the past and see the future.'”

Dazzling photo ops proved easy. Lacy mists over the French archipelago of St. Pierre and Miquelon inspired Impressionist-like seascapes. Sunlight bouncing off the 1873 granite lighthouse and quintessential fishing village of Rose Blanche facilitated luminous images as we sailed past, en route to Gros Morne National Park. As the narrow fiord opened ahead of us to Bonne Bay and Woody Point, its gateway, there was silence, apart from the sounds of cameras snapping.

Spanning 1,805 square kilometres of western Newfoundland, Gros Morne is part of the towering Long Range Mountains. A Parks Canada guide led us to a place seemingly born of two worlds: on one side, a barren U-shaped valley tinted in palettes of ochre and orangey-red rises to a mountain plateau; on the other, verdant turf thick with shrubs, juniper and larch trees sloping to the sea.

This is a rare place, we are told, where the earth’s mantle rose from 70 kilometres below the earth’s crust to lie on the planet’s surface. The guide showed the children on the cruise how Newfoundland’s floral emblem, the pitcher plant, traps insects. As we sailed away from Bonne Bay, pods of minke and pilot whales frolicked in our wake.

Morning fog couldn’t spoil the mystic enchantment of Red Bay and Saddle Island. “We are sailing past 9,000 years of aboriginal history and 500 years of European exploration,” explained archeologist Lisa Rankin. The ancient domain of Ancestral Inuit, later inhabited by 16th century Basque whalers, it is considered the world’s most important and best-preserved testimony of a pre-industrial whaling station. To Rankin’s point, L’Anse aux Meadows, the only verified Norse site in North America, speaks volumes of global human migration. Arguably settled by Viking Leif Eriksson, its original wood-framed buildings are meticulously preserved with peat turf growing over their pointed roofs.

Next: Moving on to Labrador!

South West Arm of Saglek Bay, Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador, Canada
South West Arm of Saglek Bay, Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador, Canada

In Nain, Labrador, a small Nunatsiavut community tucked at the base of Mt. Sophie, we were greeted by the mayor, a host of proud townspeople and kids showing off cycle wheelies. I sensed Nain is on the cusp of cultivating a revitalization of their cultural integrity by sharing it with others. Heading back with ornithologist Cam Gillies, his children raved to me about the Inuits’ traditional games. In contrast, the history of Hebron magnified the stunning remoteness of one of the Inuit people’s most culturally revered and sacred spots in Labrador.

The Hebron Mission Station–established by Moravian Christian missionaries in the 1830s–was disbanded in 1959, and its Inuit residents forcibly resettled. Today, the Moravian church is being restored, and Hebron is the base camp and research station for Torngat Mountains National Park, which sees barely 700 visitors annually.

Bleak in fog, Ramah Bay belied the intrinsic significance of its rocky landscape, oldest on the planet at more than 2.5 billion years. Geologist Tom Gordon prompted us to look for pieces of Ramah Chert: a rare crystalline stone Nunatsiavut’s prehistoric people used for tools 7,000 years ago. Graeme Gibson found a chunk. From Ramah Bay to Nachvak Fiord to Talk Arm, the scenery unfolded with dynamic splendour as 5,500 foot-high mountains appeared striated and swirled as if sketched by nature’s brush.

Cruising Saglek Fiord, we glimpsed first views of the Torngat Mountains. Atwood spotted a duo of polar bears. I gasped at their agility. On a 1.25-kilometre hike across the Torngat’s sub-Arctic tundra–over rocky elevations and stony streams–I strode alongside Graeme Gibson and Atwood. She wore a scarf tied under her broad-brimmed hat “so the bugs won’t bite.”

Gibson recognized every bird’s flight and song. Atwood nimbly pointed her walking stick to identify wildflowers and herbs. “How did you get such encyclopedic knowledge?” I asked. She replied, “Growing up in the woods, daughter of a scientist.” At a patch thick with violets, white bakeapple and pink dwarf firewood, she stopped to pull tiny green leaves. “Taste this,” she said, nibbling on it. “It’s sorrel.”

While anchoring in Eclipse Sound, no one anticipated the thrill of venturing to previously unexplored territory. Though aerial maps showed a waterfall exists at the end of the Eclipse River, no one had yet seen it by navigating the river to see it, as far as the crew knew. But we must. Bailey is here to map the terrain for the first time for Google and, after hiking the cliff with Inuit guides through ribbons of mist to a view of the torrential waterfall, we rushed back to the shore and jumped in a Zodiac.

Our leader navigated between sheer rocky walls close enough to feel the waterfall’s bubbling spray on our faces without even seeing it yet–and then the river turned, and it was there. I thought back to another moment, when, feeling rapturously high on top of a lofty plateau overlooking another waterfall and Ugluktok Fiord, I turned to Graeme Gibson and asked, “How many superlatives can I use in one sentence?” He quipped, “For this place, as many as you can fit in.”

Next: Book your trip!

HR Passing Cloud Sailing copy 2
Outer Shores’ eight-passenger Passing Cloud.

Ships’ shape
Outer Shores’ eight-passenger Passing Cloud tours Barkley Sound and the Broken Group Islands in British Columbia. www.outershores.ca

Adventure Canada’s 198-passenger Ocean Endeavour features an itinerary around Newfoundland and Labrador. www.adventurecanada.com

Size does matter here, as these ships offer accessibility to niche expeditions impossible for large cruise lines. Both vessels share commonalities. Sustainable environmentalism and culturally sensitive programs are intrinsic to their core and their owners act like ambassadors to Canada’s wilderness, giving a sense of its true nature. Passengers tend to be learned intrepid travellers flexible to spontaneous changes, knowing they are not masters of the universe. For the parks, go to www.parkscanada.gc.ca and whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/ca.

A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2016 issue with the headline, “Close Encounters of the Canadian Kind,” p. 58-61.