Here’s our latest installment from Lynne Picard of about a gem on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Friends snapped a photo of us anchored near the entrance to Varney Bay. (Photo by José Luis Gomez)

It was magical, watching the seals swoop and dive in the crystal-clear water below our dinghy. Following one, we rocked our inflatable perilously, switching quickly from one side to the other as a pinniped darted beneath us along the smooth stone bottom of the Marble River.

For many cruisers circumnavigating Vancouver Island counter-clockwise, Quatsino Sound on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island will be the first major inlet encountered. With beautiful, protected anchorages, boaters can spend weeks here enjoying the calm waters and spectacular views. Marinas and some provisioning can be found at Winter Harbour and Port Alice, with bus connections to the outside world from Coal Harbour.

Quatsino Sound also might be your first encounter with sea otters, a delightful sight as rafts of them float around, eating and playing together. They are totally captivating and their rebound from extinction along this coast is a remarkable good news story.

One destination not to be missed is Varney Bay, into which the Marble River flows. The river, with its rock walls and caves, and frolicking resident seals, is enchanting.

Rock formations created by the flow of the Marble River.

The several places to anchor in the bay are more or less open to the northwest, and our inclination was to find the best protection from that direction. But winds from the south, over the drying flats at the mouth of the Marble River, tend to be the culprit, and caused several others to drag while we were there. This included tour boats left empty by guides who took their customers up the river in dinghies.

However, with adequate scope and a well-set hook, the anchorage can be quite secure. As well, if a strong southerly is forecast, the anchorage at nearby Kokwina Cove, on the other side of Quatsino Narrows is better protected, though the current can run to five knots in the narrows so it can present timing issues.

The view west from Varney Bay up Holberg Inlet, and into the glorious colours of a setting sun, is reason enough to make the 21-nautical-mile trip here from the open ocean at the entrance to Quatsino Sound. But the real draw is the Marble River, which over time has carved a rocky gorge with steep walls and caves. Moss hangs from the trees, and the thrush of drizzle on the water feels other-worldly.

Rapids fade to nothing as the tide rises in the river.

We were alone on a rainy day when we first puttered up the river in our dinghy. The water was so clear, despite the overcast, and fish skirted about. Seals eyed us from a distance, but soon began to play nearby, zooming through the water. We had never seen seals this way, every movement so visible. It was captivating.

As high tide neared, the series of rapids ahead of us one by one disappeared and we were able to row against them. A final set of rapids, just upstream of a large cave, was impassable in the strong outflow current with our little two-horsepower outboard. But it, as well, faded away with the rising tide.

Our upriver adventure soon became impossible as the hurdles turned into waterfalls and our dinghy was not so easy to portage over rocks.

And as quickly, the tide turned, and we drifted downstream in the silent, haunting beauty. Our company was a seal and eagles soaring just beyond treetops as they patrolled the gorge.

Caves are carved into the rock along the Marble River.

We arrived back at Silom, chilled and damp, and lit the diesel heater for the last time that summer. Sitting in our cockpit enclosure, we listening to the rain and to the wind as it piped up. We watched a small sailboat re-anchor several times in the gusts before they found a secure set.

We stayed on an extra day, and the weather warmed and tour groups from Coal Harbour returned. A few locals visited on jet skis. It wasn’t the same.

On your way to Varney Bay, south of Quatsino Narrows, is the anchorage at Pamphlet Cove on Drake Island, with its delightful tidal lagoon to explore. Another favourite nearby is Julian Cove, tucked behind Banter Point.

Looking west from Varney Bay and up Holberg Inlet.

Salish Sea Pilot’s new guide to the West Coast of Vancouver Island highlights over a dozen wonderful anchorages and marinas in Quatsino Sound.

You can also watch their virtual webinar about the West Coast of Vancouver Island that they gave during the 2021 Vancouver Boat Show.