At Sechelt, We Took the Inlet Less Travelled By

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Two arms branch off Sechelt Inlet and snake their way into the Coast Mountains just north of Vancouver. Narrows Inlet, the shorter and more intimate of the pair, attracts plenty of outdoor-loving visitors with its pocket parks and awesome vistas. Salmon Inlet has been hammered by industrial activity over the years and sees only the most determined tourists. People like us.

Both sides of the 23-kilometre-long fiord are scarred with transmission lines and clearcuts, though there's still plenty of drop-dead scenery to enjoy: sheer granite cliffs, tumultuous waterfalls, range after receding range of snow-capped mountains. Clowhom Lake, a 12-kilometre freshwater body at the eastern end of Salmon Inlet, reaches to the base of the highest peak in the region, 2,600-metre Mount Tantalus.

We consider kayaking into Salmon, but tent sites are few. One modest marine park, Thornhill Creek, is perched under a hydro line about halfway down. The best camping spots, however, are privately owned or occupied by the forest industry. One weekend in September, we decide to borrow a small outboard-powered open boat and spend a day cruising the inlet instead.

Few human signs mark the first portion of our journey: a decaying summer camp just east of Nine Mile Point, several fish farms nestled against the northern shoreline. But juvenile harbour seals are everywhere. Large flocks of up to 50 female common mergansers feed together on small fish. Ninety minutes later, without seeing another vessel, we close in on the head of the inlet.

To our left, a dramatic torrent leaps from a cleft in the rock: the mouth of Misery Creek. Just beyond is Misery Bay. I'm not sure what caused all the suffering; the area has seen heavy logging over the years. In the 1920s, crews used a locomotive to haul out the choicest trees but had difficulty getting the primitive rail cars down the last section of track, which was at a 45-degree angle. A huge "snubbing engine" with a three-metre drum was installed at the top of the incline, and each loaded car was attached to it by cable before being gingerly unspooled to the water, where the logs were dumped. The Gustavson brothers maintained a sizable camp here until 1934, running two engines and 17 cars over 11 kilometres of track.

On the opposite shore, outwash from Sechelt Creek has formed a sandy alluvial fan that almost cuts the inlet in half. A dock leads to a small forestry camp, and you can walk up a road beside the creek to a trail that leads past a series of artificial salmon-spawning channels.

Near Clowhom Lake the industrial presence intensifies. Interfor operates a large camp, and a network of logging roads runs back into the valleys to the east. And then there's the hydroelectric dam. I guess we're lucky not to have a pulp mill here as well, because Clowhom--one of numerous large, elevated lakes in B.C. that cascade almost directly into the ocean--is ideal for generating electricity. G Frank Beer of the Industrial Power Co. of B.C. wanted to build a pulp mill at Clowhom in the years prior to the First World War, but the Powell River mill opened first and there wasn't enough demand for a second facility in the area.

Clowhom Falls must have been a spectacular sight before the first dam was built, in 1950. It was quite the tourist attraction. In 1931, U.S. lumber king Frederick Leadbetter, who owned the pulp mill at Port Mellon, turned an old shingle mill next to the falls into Clowhom Lodge, which still exists. Other fishing lodges followed, and the Comox, a Union Steamships boat, ran day trips from the head of Sechelt Inlet to the falls, then through the Skookumchuck Rapids and back to Sechelt on the Strait of Georgia side.

At the lodge's dock, we tie up and go looking for someone who can direct us to the lake. Nobody is around. We cross the steep, landscaped property, climbing past old, unusual trees, quaint cottages, and the main lodge, a two-storey, six-bedroom cedar affair built in 1980. Soon we're right next to the dam, on a bridge over polished rocks where the mighty falls once tumbled. The dam and powerhouse were upgraded in 1958 and, although small by BC Hydro standards, still supply 30 megawatts of power to the provincial grid.

A road leads up to Clowhom Lake, where we watch a helicopter pluck logs off a distant hillside. In front of a little home beside the dam, the powerhouse operator and his wife are relaxing in their sunny yard. Modern pioneers, and friendly, they love the peace and quiet (when there's no nearby logging, that is), own chickens, and picked 300 peaches from their two large fruit trees this year. Once a week they head to Sechelt by boat to do the grocery shopping. It's a great life, they say, even in winter, for the right kind of people, and their contentment adds a human touch to this rugged, out-of-the-way place.