North Island’s treacherous water highway

  • Apr. 28, 2017 10:30 a.m.

By Erika Anderson

The waters around the Discovery Islands have always been a highway linking people on the Coast. This, however, is highway with a history of tragedy, for in few places are the waters as dangerous as these. Some of the local tidal rapids are the most powerful in the northern hemisphere, and have taken many lives and many vessels.

Tidal rapids are a natural occurrence where a fast moving tide passes through a narrow passage, creating waves, eddies and hazardous currents. Tidal rapids are so strong in some areas that bottom feeding fish are pulled up from the sea bed and find themselves on the surface with decompression sickness, making them easy prey for eagles that will gather in these places. Some of the most notorious tidal rapids in the Discovery Islands include Yuculta Rapids, Dent Rapids, Greene Point Rapids, Arran Rapids, Gillard Passage Rapids and Okisollo Rapids.

Arran Rapids mark the eastern end of Cordero Channel. An anonymous journal from the Spanish Expedition in 1972 describes their experience navigating the rapids. The journal describes that as the ships Sutil and Mexicana approached the Arran Rapids near Stuart Island, local First Nation people told the crew to wait until the sun had reached a certain mountain peak before attempting to approach the rapids. Despite waiting some time, the crew misjudged when they should depart, and got caught in the whirlpools. Eventually both vessels made it to safety, but it was a harrowing evening for the crew. The same Spanish Expedition tried for a few days to navigate Dent Rapids. The same people that had given them advice on when to get through Arran Rapids came to help them again. This time the passage went smoothly.

Despite the well-known danger, the Arran Rapids were the site of a tragedy in the summer of 1972. Four Americans, one of which was a writer for Life magazine, attempted to pass through the rapids in a 40-foot outrigger canoe. The boat was pulled into one of the deep whirlpools and all of the passengers were thrown from the vessel. Three of the passengers drowned. This is only one of many tragedies in this area that have taken the lives of not only visitors to the area, but of many locals who were all too familiar with the dangers that the waters posed. In an interview with Jack Innes from 2007 he explained about his two brothers who drowned in Yuculta Rapids. “We were logging in Florence Lake and they didn’t wait for me to come back with the camp boat; they were in a hurry to get down to pick up the mail. They ran the rapids in a 20 foot power boat with an air cooled engine in it. They borrowed the boat and took the guys word for it that it had gas – they didn’t check it. Ran out of gas and drifted through the rapids, got in a whirlpool and that was it. A lot of people – Stuart Chapman, I don’t know if you know the Chapman family on Stuart Island – he drown there too. There have been a lot of drownings there. People speak of the Seymour being so dangerous – the Yucultas and the Arran Rapids are way worse – worst whirlpools.”

Whirlpool Point, at the north end of the Yuculta Rapids, was formerly owned by a man named Watts who built a fishing platform that extended out over the water and a raft, attached to shore by a cable that could be pulled into the current for fishing. Fishermen use a technique called ‘mooching’ to fish in tidal rapids. The fisherman looks for the back eddies where the herring are trapped and then catch salmon using herring for bait.

This hooks the large salmon, who are then brought into the rapids to tire them out more quickly as they fight on the line. This is a dangerous way of fishing and many boats have capsized fishing in the rapids. Thrill-seeking fishermen today still fish Yuculta Rapids, although today they are accompanied by powerful boats and experienced guides.

The Museum at Campbell River Historic Boat Tour to Sonora Island visits some of these rapids and allows guests to enjoy the thrill of viewing rapids from the safety of Discovery Marine Safaris’ boat.

For more information go to www.crmuseum.ca/historic-boat-tours