A Sourdough on the Sunshine Coast: Swanson Bay, A Ghost Town
Captain Rick Cousins and myself, Dawn Kostelnik are onboard the 33’ C&C sailboat Starduster.
This is a maiden voyage on this new to us sailboat. We are travelling the inside passage of the B.C. West Coast from Kitimat to Powell River, B.C.
After spending the night in Bishop Bay Hot springs we were reluctant to haul anchor this beautiful still morning. Now we glide through mist, surrounded by rainbows and the vibration of whale song. The peace is ruptured by 8 – 40 plus foot Grand Banks Ships charging into serenity with flags blazing and wakes disrupting.
Bobbing like a cork on the Ocean there is nothing that we can do to stop the clatter and clang as dishes smash and possessions roll around the cabin. It is amazing how quickly solitude can crash to an end.
Breathe deep of the briny air, breathe deep and be calm. What I really want to do is blast a hole in the damned hulls of these invaders. It is not socially acceptable to think such thoughts anymore, never mind doing the actual blasting, but sometimes my friends I want immediate Karma… so I can watch.
Roaring engines dissipate as we round a majestic corner, a very different page.
Huge green mountains topped with glaciers and snow caps drop deep into the steely blue of the Sea. Screams of eagles echo along the ridges as we watch them fall earthward with claws extended for the kill. A giant Golden Eagle challenges the distinctive white-headed Bald eagle for his breakfast. Into the bluest of skies they climb in soaring fight, screams and slashing talons relay the serious job of filling a gullet. They become black dots on the horizon.
We are roughly 100 miles from Prince Rupert and 100 miles from Ocean Falls, in Graham Reach across from Princess Royal Island. Passing by Hartley Bay and Gil Island, the infamous site of the sinking of the B.C. Ferry, Queen of the North in 2006.
Black, black seas surround Gil Island or thinking of human bones at the bottom of the sea darkens my perception. Butedale on Princess Royal Island is still on a down ward slide into the sea, more so since our last cruise here in 2007. We are heading toward Klemtu for the night.
Growing up we were told to ‘watch for things that don’t fit’ in the landscape when you are hunting. That oddity that doesn’t disappear totally into the landscape may be your quarry. Mist and fog are rolling up Graham Reach from the south, a storm is closing in. Squinting through liquid sunshine the Captain notices a red smudge against the deep and dark greens of cedars along the shoreline. ‘What is it?’ I ask following his eye. ‘Lets find out!’ his usual reply.
Our tender is an 8’ Zodiac. Like a fat lady with a small girdle, we attempt to squeeze our ‘not so small anymore’ bodies into this rubber tube with oars. So we fit, but we can’t row. I sit with my butt hanging over the transom and we are off, the mighty adventurers that we are. We will make to the shoreline if there is no wake or wave to swamp us. Looking like a puffer fish with stubby fins we scramble, I fall, ashore.
Wow, what is this place? The red smudge is a 40’ brick chimney, barely visible above the rainforest canopy. Remnants of docks, yes docks, line the shore. Rotten stumps of a former civilization are moss covered and sprout trees that have grown skyward.
Glistening black mussels are fastened to the bases of the posts that have become a garden of shrubs and foliage living just out of reach of the raging sea. A crystal clear creek runs through rusty rocks and rubble. Bits of chain and chunks of machinery litter the beach.
Looking for fresh water I walk up the creek, which is also the path of least resistance. Glints of colour flash, magnified by the brilliant clarity of the water. First I notice only the white, then the white with blue and then with brown. More and more of the pieces become apparent as my eyes adjust to the sight. Dishes, broken dishes litter the bottom of the stream. There must have been hundreds once. I find words on smooth, rock rounded and ground china.
Forever a forager, I fill my pockets. I know that I will be limited hauling treasure back in the rubber puffer fish, tender. I hope the Captain won’t notice if I add 20 pounds to my pockets. Closer to the tree line the red brick chimney disappears into the tangle of rainforest. Sliding on mossy covered rocks we have to refocus our eyes to the deep green shade of giant trees. Standing still we let our senses take in the surroundings.
It is quiet in this place, strange in a land that vibrates with life. Soft green humps and bumps kinda look like old buildings or machines. A round, moss mounded corridor runs through the trees, we cautiously follow it. Our pathway through the forest feels spongy, the road beneath our feet begins to take shape, another rounded corridor, we have walked upward and are now10 feet in the air. A dark spot a few feet ahead of us on our path grows in size.
‘Stop!’ yells the Captain. We are closing in on a large hole in the top of what we now know to be a wooden staved corridor; its broken ribs jut into the air much too close in front of us. ‘Stop!’ ‘Back up slowly, distribute your weight if you can!’ (I am wishing now that my pockets weren’t full of old broken china!) The rotten ancient wood feels like a soft platform that will give way under our weight. I know that we will fall at least 10 feet, but into and onto what? My mind has ‘refocused’ and my mouth goes dry, this is a very dangerous situation. Should we survive a fall into the bottom of nowhere, there would be no rescue, no call to the Coast Guard.
Backing up slowly, I am on my hands and knees, clink, clink goes my pockets, I am glad he is hard of hearing. We reach the end of this precarious trail. Eyes alerted to danger. Fears of falling through rotten floors and platforms are real. Looking for deciduous trees to mark a trail we head off into the rainforest again. Birds have began to call signals as we get deeper into the jungle.
Almost bumping into a giant concrete fortress, we look up and know that this is the platform that supports the red smudge we first noticed from Graham Reach.
Perched on top of a 80 by 40 foot concrete structure is the huge red brick chimney.
Snaking away in all directions are wooden staved corridors, which we believe to be water works for this old paper mill. The Captain pokes his head through a hole that was once access to the inside of this structure.
Things are feeling hinky, I want to leave. Leaves rustling in the breeze become hundreds of voices cursing our intrusion. Branches are snapping in the squall, they cause me to start. ‘Come on, the wind is coming up!’ ‘We will never make it back to the sailboat with any waves!’ I don’t want to be stuck here over night!! What makes a town disappear I wonder? This must have been a fair sized community judging by the remnants of the buildings.
‘Just one more minute’, the Captain yells as his curiosity is caught by another rusted pile of metal. My caution is thrown to the wind as I notice what appears to be the collapsed roof of a house, the walls slanted back at a rakish angle. Thank goodness most of the houses in Dawson City were caught before they turned into this. I clamber over rubble and watch the ground for treasure. When we were kids in Dawson we stumbled on old glass bottles and tin cans, eagerly turned upside down looking for forgotten gold nuggets.
High humidity on this coast has reduced much of everything to melted metal and a nursery for a myriad of plants, most of them armed with thorns. Another hour passes as we poke mossy mounds with sticks. I am not shoving my hands into mushy piles of stuff! Wood lice are thick, squirming red centipedes skitter on the forest floor. Giant pale green Banana Slugs blend in with the foliage, difficult to see.
You don’t want to stick your hand into a slug slime trail…it is worse than it sounds.
Our curiosity is now screaming high, but the wind dictates we travel. We will soon be nearing an old nemesis, Milbanke Sound. Almost losing our lives and our ship in a previous adventure at that location, we don’t want a repeat. Our weather window is closing in.
With a sigh we both head for the beach, ghosts wave us away…
P.S. The first wood pulp mill in BC was at a place called Swanson Bay, operated by BC Pulp Company, which subsequently built Woodfibre and Port Alice. It presumably would have been the only mill running in 1903. It was located about halfway between Ocean Falls and Kitimat, on the mainland coast. The date and process are lost in the mists of time. Local folklore says it was abandoned when Port Alice was built in 1918 or so. See more here.