Saturday, October 22, 2011

Favorite Anchorages - Cullen Harbor, Queen Charlotte Strait

It's rainy, windy, fall mornings like this that have me dreaming of summer cruising both past and future.  As I sip my morning coffee I can imagine myself sitting in the MV Independence at some remote anchorage and watching the rain come down.  The image that many times comes to my mind is the anchorage at Cullen Harbor just at the entrance to Fife Sound at the far northeastern corner of Queen Charlotte Strait.  For all the anchorages between Puget Sound to Alaska this has got to be one of, if not my most favorite anchorage.  Oh so many memories of fishing nearby, playing in the tidal rapids in Booker Passage, exploring the many islands and bays, scuba diving, seeing wildlife - dolphins, whales, seal lions and bears, and meeting friends here.  How many times we said, "Let's just stay another day here."

Click on above to enlarge
Cullen Harbor is a great all weather anchorage.  Depths average around the harbor at 30'.  The bottom holding is good with a hard but pliable clay bottom with kelp that will really allow the flukes of your anchor to dig in.  I've never dragged anchor here.  The harbor has room for about 20 or more boats but I've never seen that many here.  It's especially well protected from any stormy SE winds.  We've hunkered down several times here to escape some pretty nasty blows.  If you want privacy there's a few little nooks you can anchor in.  If you really want privacy or protection you can anchor in nearby Booker Lagoon too.  No wind or swell will enter the lagoon.  And, not too many folks are willing to navigate Booker Passage to get into Booker Lagoon.  Traveling Booker Passage is easy during slack tide and you don't have to worry about any shoal water.  I've scuba dove the entire cut and the shallowest it gets is 40'.  There's four good anchoring areas within the lagoon, the prettiest being the far western bay.

Booker Lagoon offers great gunkholing for those days when the weather "outside" in Queen Charlotte Strait is nasty.  The lagoon gets filled with moon jellys during the summer.  We fully explored the many islands in and around the lagoon erecting inukshuks on them and searching for trinkets and treasures.  Some of the islands made for a great picnic spot or sunny spot to read a book.  We've done crabbing and shrimping in the lagoon too.  For many summers a pair of white-sided dolphins lived in the lagoon entertaining any visiting boater with jumps and tail dances.  We even snorkeled with the dolphins and that was an adventure that will live forever in our minds.  The dolphins would come at you out of nowhere and quickly turn just inches from you.  They would jump over you.  And sometimes would stop and hover close to your mask to get a good look at you.  It was fantastic.

Snorkeling in Booker Passage
If you're a scuba diver or a snorkeler, diving Cullen Harbor and Booker Passage is world class.  There's plenty of exotic underwater wildlife and things to see... Puget Sound King Crab, octopus, rock fish, basket stars, anemones, tube worms, kelp forests, and so much more.  Diving here is not to be forgotten, as it is one of the best dive sites on the west coast.  Many times you will see dive charters from nearby Port McNeill diving Booker Passage during slack tide. (Contact Sun Fun Divers in Port McNeill to book a charter)  When boating make sure to give them wide passage.

There's plenty of good fishing opportunities just outside of Cullen Harbor in Fife Sound.  Note that all of Cullen Harbor, Booker Lagoon, and the islands around Booker Passage are all protected as a Rockfish Conservation Area.  However the steep north and south shores along Fife Sound offer good fishing for ling cod and salmon.  Try trolling the tide rips that form at the entrance to Fife Sound and chances are you'll get coho or pink salmon when in season.  Early mornings trolling very slowly along the rocky steep  walls might even get you a nice sized Chinook salmon.  We've even caught halibut just outside of Cullen Harbor.  Large balls of herring or eulachon or pilchards will enter Cullen Harbor too.  Fish around these and you might get lucky with a big fish - we have.  If you want shrimp and prawns you'll need to travel farther down Fife Sound as the currents just outside of Cullen Harbor are too strong for good shrimping.  Although there's a few shrimp in Booker Lagoon.

Steller's sea lions just off of Screen Island in Fife Sound
For wildlife, many times you can find humpback whales just outside of Cullen Harbor.  Blackfish (small pilot whales) will enter Cullen Harbor to feed.  Just south of Cullen Harbor, across Fife Sound you will see a large rocky island (Screen Is.) that is popular with very large Steller's sea lions.  You can hear them barking and growling on quiet mornings while anchored in Cullen Harbor.  If you motor or kayak by this island you will see them swimming about, or sitting on the rock, or if lucky jumping off the rock and into the water.  The bulls weigh as much as 1,000 pounds and they'll make a huge splash when jumping in.  You can see killer whales in the area too.  One year, late in the season, we were entertained with hundreds of white-sided dolphins.  They were jumping, tail dancing, and splashing about just off of Eden Island.  It was quite the spectacle.  Of course you can always get a chance to see black bears.  If you are lucky you'll see them swimming from island to island looking for food.

Boys going exploring in Cullen Harbor
Finally one of the best features for my adventurous boys were to play in the tidal rapids in Booker Passage.  During large flood spring tides the current will create a large overfall and standing wave of about four feet and a subsequent whirlpool of about 10-15' in diameter.  If you have a dinghy with an 8 HP motor or larger you can safely navigate these tidal rapids.  I wouldn't try the rapids in the MV Independence though.  One year we had all of us in our dinghy and we couldn't make it out through the tidal rapids - the current was just too strong and it was not safe with the waves.  So we retreated to a small rocky island, had a snack, went beach combing, and waited three hours when the current was much less and then we easily made it back to the MV Independence anchored in Cullen Harbor.  But oh how the boys loved the adventure and the thrill, and it made for many long discussions of "how we were stranded and may never make it back."

If you need provisions Echo Bay is an easy 13 nautical miles away.  Port McNeill is about 25 nautical miles away.  You can use Cullen Harbor as a base to explore the many islands and bays around Eden, Mars, and Bonwick Islands just to the south of Cullen Harbor.

For me, Cullen Harbor and Booker Lagoon are small pieces of heaven on earth.  So many wonderful memories occurred in these places.  I think I'll take another sip of coffee, close my eyes, and enjoy the memories a little bit more.  Did I say it's raining, windy, and gray outside?

Want to read more about shrimping or crabbing or fishing?  Or cruising to the Broughtons?  Try visiting these previous blog posts:

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