For locals of the Discovery Islands, Bute Inlet is a place of almost mythical proportions. Rarely kayaked, it penetrates 50 miles into the heart of the Coast Mountain range, and is surrounded by peaks that tower to more than 9000 feet. The glaciers and ice fields that cap these mountains feed tributaries of the Homathko, Southgate, and Orford rivers, where grizzlies can be spotted in late summer and fall. So much freshwater flows from the rivers and streams that the inlet takes on a milky teal colour, the result of suspended glacial sediments.
Anabatic and katabatic (inflow and outflow) winds are common occurrences in Bute Inlet, but it’s the notorious “Bute Wind” of winter that makes the inlet really scary. Arctic outflow air settling over the interior can lead to frigid winds in excess of 200km/hr that hammer outlying islands and knock boats from their moorings. Fortunately, the inlet is much more amicable in summertime!
Although it may be surprising to think that humans could make a home in such a place, Bute Inlet remains the traditional territory of the Xwemahlkwe (pronounced “Homalco”) First Nations people who lived in a series of seasonal camps throughout the inlet and surrounding islands. The Xwemahlkwe somehow managed to coexist peacefully with the winds, waves, currents, and bears that frequent the area for thousands of years, but fared less well against the disease, religion, and, mistreatment brought by white settlers. Forced from their traditional ways of life, most Xwemahlkwe now reside in Campbell River, but they still maintain a camp in the inlet, and operate a thriving grizzly bear watching business.
Of all the outcasts, adventurers, and madmen who have been drawn to Bute Inlet, none can match the sheer greed of Alfred Waddington. It was the start of the Cariboo gold rush in 1864, and there was a fortune to be made off of those who were doomed to misfortune. Conventional wisdom suggested a route to the gold fields via the Fraser River, but a glance at a map was all that Waddington needed to be convinced that a much shorter route existed from the head of Bute Inlet. A wily entrepreneur, Waddington began construction, but was almost immediately stymied by the steep and unforgiving topography of the Coast Mountains. The undertaking ended in tragic failure when a foreman threatened his Chilcotin First Nations workers with smallpox. The incident sparked a Chilcotin uprising in which 14 white road workers were killed and four Chilcotin leaders unjustly hanged. To this day, nearby Mount Waddington, (the tallest mountain in BC) inappropriately bears his name.
In the 1930’s, the inlet provided a livelihood to German trapper August Schnarr, a man renowned for his toughness. Once, when asked by a visitor how to deal with grizzly encounters, Schnarr explained that they were no problem. “I just stare them down”. He is well known for once returning home with a pair of cougar kittens, as pets for his daughters. It’s not known what finally became of the cougars, but we’ve been assured that they, as well as all three daughters survived to adulthood.
It was in 1925 that the inlet was first used for true recreation. Don and Phyllis Munday spied the spire of Mount Waddington and set out for the summit via Bute Inlet. It took them two attempts, and five years but both eventually stood on NW summit. It was a remarkable achievement, especially in an era when female mountaineers were hardly the norm.
Embodying more of the spirit of Alfred Waddington than Don and Phyllis Munday, most human activity in the inlet is now focused on industrial logging. Excavators, chainsaws, and feller-bunchers, do their best to subdue a land that as of yet, has proven un-tamable. As paddlers who love the inlet and its wilds, we feel a duty to bear witness to the destruction and advocate for its preservation, while also celebrating the remaining pristine wilderness.
A person travelling by powerboat could be forgiven for thinking that Bute Inlet is unfit for kayak travel. From a distance, cliffs and steep hillsides appear to drop straight into the sea, leaving few viable landing spots for kayaks. It’s definitely not recommended for the self-guided paddler. It wasn’t until we travelled the inlet by kayak that we began to see its gentle side. We found pebbly pocket coves and perfectly spaced beach campsites. We discovered the stretches of shoreline sheltered from current and wind, old growth cedar stands, creek mouths and rivers begging to be explored just a little further. We learned when the winds were likely to blow, and when we could expect calm seas, and fell in love with the mystery around every corner, the porpoises, black bears, and birds that pop up when we least expect them.
To this day, Bute Inlet remains one of our very favourite places to paddle and explore. We hope you’ll join us sometime!
Written by: Albert Keller