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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

17 October 2009

❖ STEAMING TO TOFINO (2001) ❖

RAINBOW, 1987.
Steam powered whaleboat with new Scotch boiler with
author John Campbell in West Sound, WA.
Photo donated by steamer John Campbell.

Steaming to Tofino or 
On the Road with the RAINBOW

In order to attend the Nanaimo Steam Meet, the RAINBOW elected this past summer [2001,] to cruise the nearby western sounds, Barkley and Clayoquot.

Barkley Sound is most easily reached from Port Alberni with a splendid Provincial launch site for the local salmon fishing. The week before the Nanaimo meet was spent among the Broken Islands in Barkley Sound. These are a National Park of tiny islands facing the (so called) Pacific Ocean. My fears of being overwhelmed by sport fishermen and kayakers were unfounded. It is an easy steam down the Alberni Canal with the morning outflow wind to the Sound but, once there, the Broken Islands are all little islands and snug coves, nearly deserted. A few camps and lodges are along the mainland shore but not many.


The Broken Islands are probably closer to paradise today than in 1787 when Robert Barkley and his 17 year old wife Frances looked in for furs and found inhabitants everywhere. Evidence of those first inhabitants are the middens and canoe landings we see. Later the islands were logged of all but the greatest of trees which remain today. These are not the lofty specimens of the Macmillan Cathedral Grove but squat, wind blasted stumps with multiple trunks reaching only 50 feet in height but 8 to 12 feet in diameter. Survivors. In the lee of the seaward islands the water is clear, the kelp alive with rockfish and the bottom shows big moon snails and sea cucumbers, those giant echinoderm cousins of the little nudibranches, urchins and even starfish. Ashore on Wouwer Island a hundred sea lions arf and ark and terrify the kayakers. The feeling, apparently, is mutual.

At this point the RAINBOW is still burning dense, dry Orcas Island fir but water must continually be found. It is no problem as these little islands have many springs, even hoses to the beach!! On a sunny summer day it is a pacific paradise. Of course when the fog sweeps in, it is more like summer in San Francisco. Cold.

The first week was over too soon and the 25-mile steam back up the Alberni Canal, failing the afternoon sea breeze that sweeps the little outboard skiffs home, seemed longer than we remembered. RAINBOW does not pull much of a stern wave but the little Semple-5 just keeps turning, year after year, and we get there.

Once in Port Alberni we haul out, unship the rudder and dinghy, strike the mast and head back over Alberni summit to Nanaimo where we ship the rudder, launch the boat and dinghy and reset the mast and head to the dock full of steamers and push in alongside where Bill Jackson is distributing beautiful Arbutus firewood which we take on greedily. Two days later we once again back the pickup hubs awash into the saltchuck and haul out, unship the rudder, throw the dinghy on top of a fresh load of firewood, and head back over Alberni summit and on to Tofino.

I enjoy steaming on the British Columbia coast but not towing 8000-pounds of boat and trailer to a launching place. The Perils of the sea, according to my old Lloyd’s policy, include:
“Sinking, Stranding, Fire, Enemies, Pirates, Rovers, Jettisons, Takings by Kings, Princes and People of what Nation or Quality soever, and Barratry of the Master and Mariners that the underwriters do contentedly bear,” but they conspicuously do not include the road to Tofino, the town at the mouth of Clayoquot Sound on the western shore of Vancouver Island."

The old Chevy is doing pretty well on the grades in low range, the temperature just rising slightly and holding steady. The road is narrow but the traffic is light so we do not need to pull off at every chance. It is serene really, but I remember Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family, and all they possessed in a careening trailer hauling over the Tehachapis in August, vapor lock, flat tires, wailing babies, angry pregnant women, but maybe I am confusing memories. No gas the next 80-miles but both tanks are full and August on Vancouver Island is a far cry from the Mohave desert. We pause at a wide turnout beside the Kennedy River to let the traffic pass, relax and check the trailer for the unforeseen.

It was a good thing we did as the left rear trailer wheel is adrift and just about to leave. Studs are almost gone and the holes big enough to slip over the nuts. On a road that is mostly 24 feet from sheer rock to the edge this is a handy place to make repairs. How long was the wheel loose? I know this is a danger yet at Nanaimo with all the hauling and loading I failed to torque those lug nuts. The dual axle trailer puts a terrific sideways torque on the wheels and any nuts not seized beyond hope are at risk. The crew asks why I do not have a checklist. Noted.

Jack up the trailer, pull the wheel, bearings and brake drum. Mark Fortune, Tofino Air pilot arrives. Is that a Steamboat? Is it for sale? What will you take? “Right” says his wife holding a baby in one arm and his brother who is trying to crawl out the window in the other “we only have two airplanes and a dump truck in the front yard now and who wants to see grass or flowers around the house you have exactly two minutes to get back in this car before it leaves.”

That is time enough to learn that Ucluelet is the place to find a new wheel; Serge Noel Towing, open tomorrow. The next Samaritan confirms Serge and recommends grease in salt water. “Rust works 24 hours a day, use plenty grease.” Unhitch trailer, split firewood while we wait and walk along the river until bears appear. Make supper in the boat, relax, and have a homebrew.

07:00 head for Ucluelet, avoiding bears on the road, into the fog but no Serge. Try café, home of Lions, Kiwanis, Boy Scouts, Soroptimists, and Wednesday bingo, this is it. At least the waitress is it, no wonder the place is full. Yes they serve oatmeal and no it is not instant, they serve that stuff in Tofino but not in Ucluelet.

08:15 Serge arrives and notes it is a six-lug, 16.5 wheel which is why they don’t make them any more but thinks there is one on a wreck out back under the blackberries. There is and, after rounding up some new studs and nuts, we are on the way back to the Kennedy river to ship the hub, bearings, new (to us) wheel, hitch the trailer and roll on to Tofino. First, however, squeaking ALL wheel nuts.

The launch site in Tofino is very steep, crowded, without a float, and very busy. Fishing boats are barely afloat, loading into half submerged pickups about to speed fresh fish/scallops/crab to Victoria & Vancouver but we pitch in, shipping and loading too, and are afloat again. Tofino is surrounded by water and most of it is not very deep but it moves very quickly. And it is busy. Commercial fishing, wild and farm, sport fishing, and ecotourism are everywhere. Yamaha-250 outboards are the universal power plant, single and twins.

In all, RAINBOW will spend three weeks in and out of Tofino. The first is spent circumnavigating Meares Island, a passage any single Yamaha-250 can do before lunch but we find plenty to see. On the return we try fishing some kelp beds on the ocean side until the fog sets in. As the fog sweeps past we take a compass bearing on the harbor and start the fog whistle. The 250s fly by in the murk, with radar, I hope, and Tofino Air takes off on the right while I can barely see the crew on the bow who eventually sees the pier equally at hand where it should be. Trust your compass.

The second week Wolfgang Schlager is aboard, before the mast again after many years. It is nice to have crew that can understand the weather reports and be trusted not to put us aground if the skipper takes a snooze. In fact, there is too much to do for much snoozing under way. Wood firing and navigating is a two man job under all but ideal conditions. We head north to Sidney Inlet and the traffic quickly thins. There are no float houses or vacation houses, anywhere. The boiler is firing sluggishly and it must be time to clean tubes. Again.

Fire-tube boilers are good steady steamers but the tubes are not self cleaning. The previous boiler, a Semple vertical was easily blown clean with a steam lance but the present horizontal is a chore. It is not the tubes, five minutes does them, it is cleaning the engine room afterwards. Wet cloths everywhere to catch most of it, washing the cloths, then washing everything with Ajax, then the engineer. Wolfgang, who was sent ashore, returns in the dinghy in time for lunch and then underway into gathering skies. Rain.

Tuesday, rain. This is the time we miss a dry bookshelf to wile away the time with Calvin & Ricketts and Belloc and Captain Marryat. Consume bonded stores and Ovaltine.

Wednesday, overcast but no rain. Bail fresh rainwater out of the dinghy into tanks and get underway for Hot Springs Cove where the hot springs and the surf mingle. And where the float planes and twin Yamahas bring tourists for a genuine wilderness experience. Getting there means rounding Sharp Point at the mouth of Sidney Inlet and as we approach the wind and tide and sea all rise and the dinghy would be airborne if it was not half swamped and we reflect on the beam reach around the point and how bad we want a hot bath with twenty other tourists and turn back to quiet Riley cove and have a cold bath in the creek.

02:00 in the night, the thing that goes bump in the night is heard.
Whack…………………whack………………………..whack…………..…….whack. Some say it is spirits and others say it is a bird and it sounds like someone breaking rocks with a 12# hammer. Is it a bittern?

Thursday, overcast, Jiffy cornbread muffins with huckleberries, baked in the firebox, and maple syrup for breakfast. Rain. Kyakers, very wet kyakers, pass thru the cove and we proffer some dry firewood. Wolfgang notes that some people are paying a lot of money for less fun than we. Under way in light drizzle and immediately wrap dinghy painter around the propeller shaft. Eventually we pass thru beautiful Sulphur Passage, the scene of old environmental battles.

Friday, overcast, catch some rockfish and start a soup stock atop the steam dome. Underway into wind and chop, things sound rough and find it is the shaft which has loosened. We duck into a lee and tighten up all and away for Matilda Inlet. Here we find calm water and a little warm spring at the head of the inlet.

Saturday, the word on the water is that the Coho are running. It is not clear what the fishing rules are even to the locals but all the fisheries workers are on strike so we slip a troll astern. We must pass Russell Channel, wide open to the Pacific, today but by afternoon find only a gentle swell passing in under now blue skies–– COHO! A 36” fish is aboard. By nightfall Wolfgang has it home in the smoker.

In three weeks, RAINBOW had barely glimpsed the reaches of Clayoquot Sound and it was time to haul out again and head up the road for home. The road held no allure but home, after a month beside the boiler it did, and I was out of firewood again.

Did you have fun, people ask? It was rain and fog and sun, lots of firewood splitting, bears and birds and fish and fresh huckleberries and the unknown around every point. And an almost dry roof on a rainy day. Fun sounds carefree like a Princess Cruise with short pants, funny hats, dancing, and all you can eat and no dishes to wash. We grill in the boiler and wash the dishes in the ocean and when we catch a salmon we have more than we can eat and lots of smoke and hot iron too. It is insufficiently carefree to be fun. It beats working, however, so maybe it is just loafing.
John M. Campbell
Orcas Island
September 2001

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