Discovering the Hidden Gem: Desolation Sound, Canada’s Best-Kept Secret

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Desolation Sound Exploration

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If you ever find yourself sailing into the heart of British Columbia’s Desolation Sound Marine Park on a slightly hazy afternoon, you’re in for an unforgettable experience. I recently had the pleasure of navigating these waters, even amid the backdrop of more than 900 wildfires raging across Canada. But let me tell you, Desolation Sound lives up to its name, not as a desolate place, but as a well-guarded secret of natural beauty.

As we dropped anchor in this marine paradise, the first thing that struck me was the importance of respecting nature’s power here. The colossal tides and the ever-changing weather patterns demand your attention. Despite being known for having some of the warmest waters north of Baja, Desolation Sound remains untamed.

And nature is quick to remind you of that fact. Just an hour after settling in, a curious seal paid us a visit, playfully slapping its tail against our boat, drenching my laptop in salty seawater. The following morning, a massive humpback whale made an appearance, exhaling what can only be described as spectacularly foul breath. Rafts of sea otters lazily floated by, soaking up the sun’s warmth.

Having explored the stunning British Columbia coast for months aboard our trusty sailboat, the Heron, I even penned a book about our adventures, titled “Uncharted.” Among all the remote and watery wonders we’ve encountered, Desolation Sound stands out as the most dramatic.

Recent years have witnessed a remarkable resurgence of life in Desolation Sound’s Salish Sea. More humpback whales are gracing these waters, dolphins put on dazzling aerial displays, and masses of seabirds fill the skies. Mountain peaks majestically oversee forested fjords, where stringent environmental laws have contributed to cleaner water and a resurgence in wildlife after decades of decline.

While the Pacific Northwest boating community typically flocks to Desolation’s granite-cliffed coves in the summer, fall holds a special place in our hearts. It’s a time when salmon return to spawn, and the air turns crisp with the promise of adventure. Allow me to guide you through what you need to know to make the most of this quieter off-season.

The Hidden Treasure of Desolation Sound

Desolation Sound emerges from the northern reaches of the Salish Sea, a mere 90 miles north of Vancouver. The absence of a road within 20 miles underscores the park’s remoteness; the Pan American Highway concludes in the quaint fishing village of Lund to the south. This means that Desolation Sound can only be reached by boat or floatplane. Most boaters tend to migrate south after Labor Day, and that’s when nature truly takes over, with migrating birds reclaiming the skies. During the off-season, Desolation Sound’s dense forest of cedar, fir, and honey-barked madrone reverts to its traditional role as the territory of four First Nations, a status it has held for thousands of years.

According to Captain Colin Griffinson, owner-operator of the classic 1943 expedition yacht Pacific Yellowfin, the real secret to appreciating Desolation Sound is to visit during the quiet months if you’re seeking unspoiled wilderness and wildlife. “My ideal times are September into October, and May through early July. We have one of the biggest bald eagle shows in the world then, and nobody knows about it.”

“At low tide, a beach in Desolation Sound is full of food,” he continues. “Because of the temperature of the water, mussels, mollusks, and oysters thrive. This place was a huge food source for Indigenous people for 10 thousand years. The bears know all about it, too.”

Unveiling the Mystique: How Desolation Sound Earned Its Name

Back in 1792, when Captain George Vancouver and his crew sailed through these waters, they were taken aback by the remarkable depth of the water, even near the shoreline. Little did they know that Desolation Sound boasts the most dramatic drop in altitude from mountain peak to ocean floor in all of North America, with glacier-carved fjords that reach depths of nearly 2,000 feet.

“Vancouver was looking for rolling hills to farm and good pastureland,” says Griffinson. “The soil here is so bad you can’t grow crops; of course, he found it desolate.”

But what George Vancouver considered desolation in his time has transformed into a thriving wilderness today, especially during spring and fall when wildlife activity peaks.

The Resurgence of Wildlife in Desolation Sound

Two decades ago, whale sightings in Desolation Sound were a rarity, but now they’re relatively common. Humpback whale populations have made a massive recovery in the past decade. Orcas have also made a return, with the exception of the endangered southern resident killer whales. This resurgence is primarily attributed to the cessation of harmful whaling and orca-capture practices.

“Bears were being trophy-hunted in B.C., and now they’re not,” says Maureen Gordon, co-owner of expedition cruise company Maple Leaf Adventures, “so their behavior has changed as well, and we see all these animals feeding in fall and spring.”

We’ve also observed a booming sea otter population. In the 1970s, 89 sea otters were reintroduced to the outer coast of Vancouver Island after being hunted to the brink of extinction by 19th-century fur traders. This year, for the first time, we witnessed great romps of them in Desolation Sound and the inner coast.

Desolation Sound beckons those who seek to disappear, from 1960s Vietnam War draft dodgers to today’s summer boaters, who cruise up the coast in July and August, anchor their boats, and savor the solitude. It’s cherished for its unchanging nature, where the only constants are the ebb and flow of the tides and the capriciousness of the weather. Save for a new restaurant in Refuge Cove, a two-year-old Indigenous lodge in Toba Inlet, and a trendy new glamping destination on Kinghorn Island, Desolation Sound remains a place where time stands still.

As a northwest wind gusts, it sweeps tumbled clouds across the sky. Rain taps on the cabin at night, lulling you to sleep. When you wake up the next morning, the mist lifts off the water, and the edge of the continent reveals itself, bathed in refreshing blue hues.

Top Experiences in Desolation Sound

  1. Aboard Vintage Vessels: Jump aboard a 1912 tugboat or a 12-person catamaran with Maple Leaf Adventures. In October, their 1912 tugboat Swell and 12-cabin catamaran, Cascadia, are based in Desolation Sound, offering an alternative to the Great Bear Rainforest with dramatic landscapes and snowy peaks rising straight from the fjords.

  2. Classic Yacht Adventures: Experience the B.C. coast aboard the 114-foot classic wooden yacht Pacific Yellowfin, which offers charter expeditions. Captain Colin Griffinson promises sightings of grizzly bears, sea lions, eagles, humpbacks, and orcas during your stay.

  3. Indigenous Cultural Exploration: Explore Toba Inlet from Klahoose Wilderness Resort, which offers immersive Indigenous cultural experiences along with wildlife viewing, kayaking, and grizzly bear expeditions. Witness nature through Indigenous eyes as you view bears from the resort’s platforms.

  4. Salmon Fishing at Dent Island Lodge: Anglers can fly into Dent Island Lodge via floatplane to fish for all five species of salmon. The lodge offers rustic luxury cabins nestled in the cedar and fir forests, accommodating up to 26 guests.

  5. Eco-Cabana Adventure: On uninhabited Kinghorn Island, Cabana Desolation Eco Resort features five cabanas handcrafted from locally milled western red cedar and Douglas fir. With room for only 10-12 guests at a time, this is B.C. glamping at its finest. The resort is open mid-May to mid-September.

  6. Sea-Kayaking and Wildlife Exploration: Spirit of the West Adventures has been leading guided sea-kayaking tours of the B.C. coast for more than 25 years. Their five-day Desolation Sound trips in June and September include warm-water paddling, forest hikes, and tent-camping on scenic bluffs overlooking the sea.

Seattle-based Kim Brown Seely, the author of “Uncharted: A Couple’s Epic Empty-Nest Adventure Sailing from One Life to Another,” invites you to embark on your own epic journey and discover the magic of Desolation Sound.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Desolation Sound Exploration

Q: How do I access Desolation Sound?

A: Desolation Sound is accessible only by boat or floatplane. The nearest road ends 20 miles south in the village of Lund, where the Pan American Highway concludes.

Q: When is the best time to visit Desolation Sound?

A: The best times to visit are in the quieter months of September into October and May through early July. During these periods, you can witness incredible wildlife and enjoy pleasant weather.

Q: What wildlife can I expect to see in Desolation Sound?

A: Desolation Sound offers a chance to spot humpback whales, orcas, sea otters, bald eagles, grizzly bears, and various marine life. The resurgence of wildlife in recent years has made it a prime destination for nature enthusiasts.

Q: Are there accommodations in Desolation Sound?

A: Yes, there are various accommodation options, including yacht charters, Indigenous-owned resorts, fishing lodges, and eco-cabanas on Kinghorn Island, catering to different preferences and budgets.

Q: What activities can I enjoy in Desolation Sound?

A: You can engage in activities like sea-kayaking, fishing, wildlife viewing, Indigenous cultural experiences, and exploring the dramatic landscapes of this pristine marine park.

Q: Is Desolation Sound suitable for families?

A: Yes, Desolation Sound offers a range of family-friendly activities, from wildlife encounters to kayaking adventures, making it a great destination for families seeking an outdoor escape.

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