British Columbia Destinations

Destination: Spiller Channel

Monday, October 20, 2014S.V. CAMBRIA

When it comes to destinations, Spiller Channel hasn’t exactly been calling our name:  The surrounding hills are low and have been heavily logged, a practice that continues today, so the scenery isn’t what we’d consider “enticing”.  But in “Exploring the North Coast of British Columbia,” Douglass has this to say about the waterfall located at its head:

Ellerslie Falls . . . in our opinion are the best on the entire British Columbia coast and arguably the entire west coast of North America (p. 201).

This year, we finally allowed ourselves to be influenced by their bold words and made a trip up to see what the excitement was all about. 

And we’re glad we did.

If there’s one thing you can say about Spiller Channel, it’s that it gets off to a slow start: A major logging operation is in full-swing at the southern end of Yeo Island and is one of the first sights to greet you.  The channel itself is subject to inflow winds and, when there’s an outgoing tide, the water can be choppy.  And the few anchorages located along the passage aren’t very scenic, so the one and only attraction appears to be 20 nautical miles in.  In all fairness, we skipped Spiller Inlet and the anchorages north of Coldwell Peninsula, which may or may not be worth visiting, but we did spend a night in Neekas Cove, just off Neekas Inlet.

The head of Neekas Cove.

Neekas Cove isn’t much to look at:  The bay ends in a mud flat with log stumps and fallen trees littering the head.  The surrounding hills are low and many of them have been clear-cut in the past.  But the anchorage is a welcomed break from the chop along Spiller Channel and offers good protection and holding in mud. 

Five nautical miles beyond Neekas Inlet, the channel forks –Spiller Inlet to the north and Ellerslie Bay to the west – and the scenery improves.  Ellerslie Bay, home to the lagoon and falls, feels closed-off and intimate thanks to the twist and turns of the main channel. Unfortunately, it’s too deep for convenient anchoring but several options in reasonable depths can be found just south of the bay in Ellerslie Anchorage East, a beautiful and quiet spot surrounded by tree-covered hills and steep, rocky shores.

Salubrious and Cambria anchored in Ellerslie Anchorage East.

But we weren’t there to enjoy the anchorage.  We were there to see the waterfall; and to do that, we needed to get inside the lagoon.

The entrance to Ellerslie Lagoon is infamous because it’s shallow, rocky, uncharted and protected by rapids that roar for all but a few minutes throughout the tidal cycle.  The depth in the entrance is reported to be somewhere between four and seven feet at maximum water.  Needless to say, our plan was to go in by dinghy. 

The problem (or at least one of them) is that the seabed level of the lagoon is approximately 1.8 metres (6 feet) higher than the seabed in Ellerslie Bay, so overfalls are common.  The entrance is also rock-strewn, providing the perfect environment for turbulent water.  The constant flow from the waterfall adds to the confusion.  And the water is muskeg, so visibility is poor.  But when it comes to calculating slack tide, the difference in seabed levels is the biggest challenge.  

This is NOT an accurate depiction of the seabed for Ellerslie Bay and Lagoon (the bottom is rocky and uneven), only a very basic drawing to illustrate one of the challenges of entering the lagoon.

With at least a two metre differential, we knew that the incoming tide would have to rise beyond that height before the water level inside the lagoon and in Ellerslie Bay would be the same – according to the Douglass book, that would be approximately two hours after low tide was predicted for Bella Bella.  For the day we entered the lagoon that was 11:43 am.  We arrived early and stood off the rapids to watch and wait.  At 1:56 pm, David and I went through. The current was still running against us at more than one knot, but the overfalls had stopped.  Our friends, Bill and Sylvia, went through five minutes later and the water flow had slowed down to at least half that speed. 

The crew of Salubrious entering at low water slack.  You can see you far the rocks jut into the entrance and that the clearest path runs diagonally, from north to south.

Once inside, the depth of lagoon drops to approximately 13 metres (43 feet) and allows some breathing room, but the hazards don’t stop there:  A second set of narrows about a third of the way in extends from a shoal along the southwest shore.  The depth here is similar to the entrance and, despite the fact that we were searching for the shallows, a few rocks caught us by surprise because of the murky water.  Just beyond the second narrows, there’s a large section of deadheads in the southwest corner of the lagoon.  After that, the lagoon opens up to the east with depths of 6 to 16 metres (20 to 53 feet) and, apart from rocks around some the shoreline, it seems to be clear but we can’t be sure:  The water is so brown it’s difficult to see anything. 

Ellerslie Lagoon: the dark spots in the water mid-photo are deadheads.

To leave, we had to wait for the water level inside the lagoon to be raised to the same level of Ellerslie Bay so that the second slack water period could occur.  Once again, we arrived well before this was supposed to happen and watched and waited so we didn’t miss the opportunity – the last thing we wanted was to be stuck inside the lagoon overnight in our dinghies.  David had reconnoitered the entrance the night before to double check times so we knew what to expect and at 5:40 pm, we exited the lagoon.  There was still a slight current running against us in the entrance but the water was navigable by dinghy:  High tide for Bella Bella was at 6:04 pm.

Tides for Bella Bella on the day we entered the lagoon with the times we went in and out marked in red.

So, what about the lagoon and falls?

The Douglass guide calls the scenery “outstanding” and the waterfall the best along the BC coast, possibly the entire west coast of North America.  Do we agree?  Not really.  Is the lagoon pretty?  Yes.  And Ellerslie Anchorage East is a really nice place to spend a couple of nights – it’s a beautiful spot and has a sense of seclusion that we really enjoy in an anchorage.  But is Ellerslie Falls the best?  It’s definitely impressive and would be even more so after a heavy rain or early in the season when the falls are running at full chat. But is it the best?  I suppose it all depends on what you’re looking for in a waterfall.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter:  We had a good time and are glad we made the trip.

Ellerslie Falls.

Notes from Cambria’s Log:

A cautionary note: this entrance is narrow at best – providing less than two boat widths at its widest point.  It is strewn with rocks just waiting to damage the hull or prop of the imprudent skipper.  The flow is turbulent due to these rocks and other submerged contours and is not laminar.  We have read accounts of other vessels transiting this pass, some of which were fortunate to survive with only minor damage to the hull and prop.  Be aware that in the event of sustaining damage to either, you are quite a distance from assistance – would not attempt personally with anything larger than a dinghy with outboard.

Things to Consider Before Entering Ellerslie Lagoon:

  • If you plan to spend the afternoon inside Ellerslie Lagoon, slack tide occurs at a 4 – 8 – 4 – 8 hour interval (that’s low – high – low – high).

  • Therefore, it’s best to enter at low water slack and leave at high water slack.  Four hours was more than enough time and, frankly, eight hours would have been a difficult stretch.

  • Once you’re inside the lagoon, there’s no way to leave until the next slack water so make sure you bring everything may you need with you, including a handheld VHF radio in case of an emergency. 

  • The times for high and low water in Bella Bella seem to be accurate indicators for predicting slack water at the lagoon entrance but arrive early and watch and wait.  Better still, reconnoiter the entrance the day before and make note of slack tide first-hand.  

Ellerslie Lagoon Four States:
  • Lagoon Tidal Outflow – the lagoon water level is higher than the outside sea level in Ellerslie Bay.  This state occurs on a falling tide and continues past low tide.

  • Lagoon Tidal Slack (low) – the sea level and the lagoon level are identical during low water.  In our case, this occurred approximately 2h15m after predicted low water for Bella Bella (i.e. 2+ hours after low tide in Ellerslie Bay as the tide was rising). 

  • Lagoon Tidal Inflow – the outside sea level in Ellerslie Bay is higher than the lagoon water level.  This state occurs on a rising tide and continues until near maximum water is reached in Ellerslie Bay.

  • Lagoon Tidal Slack (high) – the second slack water occurs on a rising tide near the predicted time of high water for Bella Bella.

Waypoints of Interest:

Spiller Channel Entrance:  
  • 52°15.279’N, 128°15.891’W (Western Approach)
  • 52°15.725’N, 128°14.068’W (Eastern Approach)

Neekas Cove:       
  • 52°26.627’N, 128°09.245’W (Entrance)
  • 52°27.993’N, 128°09.537’W (Anchorage)

Ellerslie Lagoon:   
  • 52°31.779’N, 127°00.924’W (Entrance)

Ellerslie Anchorage East:    
  • 52°31.258’N, 127°59.398’W (Anchorage)  
  • 52°30.986’N, 127°59.162’W (Anchorage)

For more information about how to enter Ellerslie Lagoon, photographs of the entrance and the hazards to navigation within the lagoon itself, consult the Douglass book, “Exploring the North Coast of British Columbia”.  

Disclaimer:  This blog article is not to be used for navigation.  It is solely an account of our personal experience and anchor locations in Spiller Channel during settled weather conditions.  What worked for us at one particular time is no guarantee or indication that it will work for others.  There are no services in the immediate area and any boat that enters Spiller Channel should be self-sufficient.  It is our advice, however, that ONLY dinghies with adequately powered outboard motors enter Ellerslie Lagoon.

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  1. Your destination posts are really great. Very informative and gives you an idea of what to really expect based upon your experiences. Keep them coming!