Exploring the Inside Passage

Steve Lorimer

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The Inside Passage, which runs along the northern U.S. west coast and British Columbia, Canada, has been one of my family’s favorite cruising destinations over the years. Just past the Canadian customs dock, a magical adventure awaits all who continue north, especially if you can cruise all the way to Southeast Alaska.

When cruising by small boat (ours is a mere 32-foot powerboat), you’ll need several crucial boating skills and plenty of knowledge to enjoy a comfortable and safe trip.

These skills include

  • the ability to skillfully anchor with one and sometimes two anchors in water depths ranging from shallow to 100 feet,
  • the ability to transit numerous tidal rapids,
  • the ability to cross major long-distance waterways, including over 50 miles across Queen Charlotte Sound and Dixon Entrance,
  • the ability to cruise in heavy fog for hours at a time, and
  • numerous other abilities tied to navigation and routing.

Each cruising vessel’s crew has different priorities, time constraints and scenic options. Some heading to Alaska cruise very quickly through British Columbia waters, taking the shortest and quickest route possible. Others veer off the busy, heavily traveled route to find an absolutely magical cruising experience.

Our travels include visits to Native sites containing petroglyphs and pictographs. We have hiked in the shoreside forest to see old totem poles and culturally modified cedar trees and have visited numerous former village sites. Each year we visit several sand beaches, taking note of bear and wolf tracks, and other beaches composed of ancient shell middens. Our favorite anchorage sites include those close to the open Pacific with craggy cliffs and stunted trees and those at the head of numerous inlets where we can anchor off the steeply shelving tidal flats to enjoy the frequent sightings of bears, wolves and schooling salmon gathering for their final run up the nearby river.

We have found Japanese glass balls along the open coast, survived gale- and storm-force winds outside our snug anchorage site, and listened to wolves howling in the night. Fishing for salmon is fantastic along the Inside Passage, but you can also catch halibut, other bottom fish, and copious quantities of giant spot prawns and Dungeness crabs.

A yearly highlight for us is to transit Higgins Passage, a short waterway that includes both the transit of tidal rapids and a shallow area beyond that goes totally dry at low tide. We go out of our way to transit several tidal rapids each year in both our cruising vessel and our skiff. Odds are we will be the only boaters enjoying the pristine waterways beyond the rapids. Once you reach Southeast Alaska, you will be able to cruise near icebergs and watch calving glaciers.

Every year we also investigate new anchorage sites. During our three-month cruise in 2019, we explored close to 30 anchorages that we hadn’t visited even after cruising the Inside Passage for almost 40 years. Anchoring in one of our favorite spots provides a great deal of satisfaction, but we have just as much fun carefully entering a brand new area, many of which aren’t mentioned in the cruising guides.

Safely reaching each day’s destination is but a small part of cruising. What you experience along the way—side trips and taking time to explore remote, less traveled routes—provides the utmost satisfaction!

Steve Lorimer

Steve Lorimer has been active in Bellingham Sail & Power Squadron/16 for many years, enjoying membership, teaching classes, and twice serving as commander. He currently teaches boating seminars focused on cruising the Inside Passage to squadrons in the Pacific Northwest and local yacht clubs.

The Ensign magazine is an official publication of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club,  a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.

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