My Secret Inlet

June-July 2003

This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.
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by Trish Smyth

Paddlers head off from the Ocean Light to explore. Trish Smyth photo

There exists an inlet on BC's north coast, so protected, with so frightening an entrance, few dare to enter. I am one of a lucky few who have penetrated its mouth to discover the spectacular beauty of this secret inlet. Narrow, and with only 8 feet under the keel at high tide, this entrance can roar at 10 knots with 5-6 foot standing waves. However, when you round the last corner to reveal the end of this inlet, everyone is awed - even the guides!

Water cascades down granite cliffs over a thousand feet into the forest and flows out into a grassy estuary. Snow-capped mountains and giant spruce trees draped in moss and early morning mists reflect in the mirror of this inlet's perfect, still water. The mournful cry of a loon and the soulful howl of a wolf penetrate the calm. Deer graze in the long grasses of the estuary and black bear prowl the beach for a snack.

When I take a deep breath, I smell the pristine, earthy, old growth forest and, in the next breath, the sweet smell of the sea. When I look skyward, a long ribbon of water seems to fall from the sky over 1200 feet of polished granite - my favourite waterfall on the coast. The air is still, I feel calm, at peace and wrapped in the arms of mother earth. We were excited to be coming back to this special place on a spectacular September morning two years ago, approaching the entrance on our 67 foot charter sailboat, the Ocean Light. On board were guests from the USA - a group from the Great Bear Foundation, led by world-renowned bear biologist Dr. Chuck Jonkel. Co-leading the group were Ed Martin, a Heiltsuk elder, and our Captain, Eric Boyum. Katie and I were along to prepare the meals and treats, and help Eric out wherever needed.

As with previous trips led by Chuck, the air was filled with laughter. We all enjoyed Chuck's unique way of showing the behaviours and habits of bears. As we approached the entry to the secret inlet and circled outside, awaiting slack tide, everyone was on deck, planning what each would do when we reached our destination. Some were going to hike up the stream filled with spawning salmon to witness the ancient ritual. Some would stroll the grassy flats in search of wildlife. Some would take the kayaks, go for a paddle and discover the true meaning of serenity. We were all absorbed - our guests day dreaming and the crew paying utmost attention to the risky entrance.

In the midst of assessing conditions in the entrance, Eric heard a conversation on the VHF radio about a plane flying into a high-rise in New York. He called our friend Marvin in a nearby village to say hello and let him know we were going into the inlet, where radio contact was minimal. Marvin gave Eric the news no one wanted to hear. That was when the harsh reality of the outside world penetrated the calm on board. Time stood still.

Everyone became still, lifeless, as they dug inside themselves for an explanation of how the madness of this day, September 11th, could happen. In this wild setting, it seemed surreal - even the idea of such large buildings as the World Trade Center seemed unreal, never mind that they could be toppled by two planes! We passed through the entrance as if in a daze. Once inside the inlet, the mists and rain seemed to envelope us - all was gray and heavy. Instead of being filled with calm and beauty, all we felt was fear and apprehension.

The next morning, our friend Marvin arrived in the inlet with a group of First Nations people on an archeological expedition. With them came more stories of death, destruction and fear.

In the midst of this, a small brown bird appeared on the deck of our boat, apparently looking for a handout. When Chuck and Eric eventually took the guests to shore, the bird showed up again. It walked and hopped alongside them as they wandered the beach in search of tracks. They called their new little feathered friend "Imutu" - Heiltsuk for "shadow".

Paddling the estuary of the secret inlet. Trish Smyth photo

Walking up the salmon stream, the group witnessed spawning salmon - unaffected by 9/11. As Chuck, Eric, Ed and the guests neared the falls, they decided to rest for a while and wait to see if any bears showed up to feast on the salmon. Chuck (having been a bear in another life - and that's another story) started demonstrating what bears like best to eat (other than fermenting salmon). Roots were exposed and sampled, berries tasted and finally a sleep in the grass by the creek.

As Chuck dozed off and the guests rested, a big black bear, known for his unpredictable behaviour, approached, fed and rested nearby. A little while later a Blue Heron alit on a nearby rock. The stately bird, well known as shy and reserved, stood perfectly still as the group approached quietly to within 25 feet!

As the group returned to the beach, little Imutu rejoined them, hopping along. With everyone loaded into our zodiac to return to the Ocean Light, there was tiny Imutu again, perched on the side of the zodiac, even coming back on board and staying awhile before flying off. Later, a similar story of Imutu was shared with us by another group - the returning archeological expedition.

I stared up to those ancient granite cliffs with the ribbon-like waterfall dropping from the sky, then closed my eyes to smell the earth and the old growth forest. I knew mother earth was trying to calm and steady us, and show us the way through this.

On the following days, outside our secret inlet, mother earth continued to reveal herself. A small female Spirit Bear appeared on a rocky beach, as if to reassure us. Humpback whales came close to the Ocean Light as we were drifting, bubble net feeding within 50 yards of us. Dahl porpoises played in our wake, and Orcas were spotted feeding near a beach. On our last evening together, the wolves sang their soulful song.

Where would we be without all of this: all the wild places and wild animals to excite us, calm us, heal us, replenish us and finally, to help us see the way back?

© Text and photos by Trish Smyth, who serves as chef and photographer aboard the Ocean Light during the chartering season. During off-season she markets her photos, writes, works with kids and teens, and is active in current environmental issues.

Ocean Adventures Charter Co. Ltd., Garibaldi Highlands, BC: E-mail: 604-815-8382,