Schooner Maple Leaf takes tourists on a six-day voyage into wildlife-rich, biodiverse areas


Seconds after landing our Zodiacs on a sparkling white shell midden, we hear screams and squeals, unnervingly sounding like something between a cat and a child. “That’s just river otters having sex,” says Maureen Gordon, deckhand and co-owner of the Maple Leaf — B.C.’s oldest tall ship. “After all, it is April.”

Like voyeurs we focus binoculars and zoom lenses on the boisterous coupling. Tearing ourselves away, we follow naturalist Fiona Chambers into the woods. Right away she plucks a morel mushroom poking through a carpet of dense moss. We eat a Grand Fir’s needles (which taste like grapefruit) and touch the pitch oozing from its giant first-growth trunk. Then Fiona picks up a slimy banana slug, sings a little slug song and kisses it! Is this woman bonkers?

Yikes, I’m one of nine Gore-Tex clad passengers held captive for the next six days aboard the Maple Leaf, a 28-meter (92-foot) wooden schooner. And all of us are sleeping in the main cabin, our bunks separated by curtains — so much for glamping. There’s no turning back.Mapleleaf.breakfast

The Gulf Islands — where Spring comes earliest in Canada — is the first cruise destination for the Maple Leaf and her crew of five this year. Maple Leaf Adventures, an eco-friendly company based in Victoria, takes explorers to many untouched, bio-diverse and wildlife-rich areas. Some locales are inaccessible to larger vessels, including parts of the Great Bear Rainforest, Haida Gwaii and Alaska. Along with Maureen and Fiona, red-bearded Captain Kevin Smith, a former geographer, backcountry park ranger and teacher, leads guests on daily treks through rainforests, on pristine beaches, and along bluffs with astounding views.

But the trip turns out to be a helluva lot more than Fauna & Flora 101. And by the second night, passenger John’s snoring and his frisky bedtime whispers (yes, we all heard you) to Tina, his 74-year-old girlfriend, don’t even bother me. It’s a bonding experience, to say the least. We’re soon a little tribe: Seven people from Canada ranging in age from 50 to 80 (four of whom are retired), and two doctors in their 30s from Australia. “Our typical guests are women over 55,” says Kevin. “In my experience, women are braver than men; they are looking for something outside the norm. Men want more comfort.”

Upon booking, guests are given a trip itinerary, but our Captain says the crew rarely sticks to it. By letting tides, weather and currents dictate our course, the Maple Leaf — unlike, say, a cruise ship — can tuck into bays and land at remote beaches. “The tide is coming across the entire Pacific at 700 mph, from San Diego to Sitka, so we have to pay attention to tides for the next five days,” says our skipper as we gaze at charts, computer and satellite navigation system in the wheelhouse. Sailing to Saturna Island (plan A), is scrapped. Instead we’re motoring to Galiano Island and anchoring at Montague Harbour. In sailing, spontaneity is key.

After hiking a few kilometers on Galiano, we’re famished (always) and welcome a lunch of local albacore tuna Nicoise salad on the deck. Chef James McKerricher says he’ll add the morels we found to our soup tonight, after shucking oysters we scooped from the beach.

We wake the next morning to a grey and misty dawn, but hey, none of us packed sunscreen. The generator kicks in and we take turns using the head, a.k.a. bathroom. Everyone is so considerate; nobody took too long or used too much water. Typically there is only enough water for guests to have two showers per trip. Surprisingly, nobody complained.

Smells of bacon alert us to breakfast on the deck — James serves frittata made with eggs from Fiona’s chickens, who reside with some goats and her two “rambunctious” boys on a farm outside Victoria. Given our close quarters, everyone reports they slept well. The weather doesn’t dampen anyone’s spirits, least of all Maureen’s.ML.maureen.homestead

“Every time I get off the boat I’m sad,” Maureen says, beaming, as she clears our plates. “The sea is always shining no matter what and it’s a beautiful life onboard--I’m always looking forward to my next trip.”

Maureen is a relative newbie to sailing. She graduated from the University of Victoria in 1994 with a BA, Major in Creative Writing (she also took Environmental Studies--that’s where she met Fiona) and landed in the software business. Then it took her nine years to “find the right path”.

“I stayed in the industry because people I worked with made things happen and that was exciting,” she explains, “but I was never passionate about technology.” So at the age of 30, Maureen made a list of what she wanted in life, and travel was foremost. She figured that a tourism job was the ticket, particularly if it could include her passion for history and nature. About this time she heard about Maple Leaf Adventures, through her friend of twenty years.

Maureen often dropped by Fiona’s house for dinner after a long day’s work, and Kevin Smith—soon-to-be captain of the Maple Leaf--was Fiona’s roommate. Maureen and he started dating, and in 2003, silver whale earrings and fleece replaced her corporate suit.

“I convinced Kevin to hire me when we moved in together — I thought it would be romantic to live on a boat, even though I had my own house” Maureen explains. ”I figured it was all or nothing, so I quit my job in the software industry, though I barely knew how to sail.” Naturally she had doubts, especially with her income halved. But Maureen realized she had nothing to lose: “I’m not going to die by making the wrong career choice, or starve, or drop into an abyss below the social safety net.”

Kevin bought the Maple Leaf and started the tour company one month before 9/11, which made the business plan more of a challenge. Maureen became marketing and sales manager—not quite what she had in mind. But she still deckhands a few trips each year.

“When Maureen joined the company full-time, right away it was a vast improvement over what I was struggling with,” says Kevin. “She was able to communicate what we do; she was able to write an emotion on the page and she was able to market the boat.” (They married on a wooden boat in August 2007, and Fiona was the maid-of-honour).

The drastic career move hasn’t been that easy for Maureen. “I’m a city girl, and living in a coastal world was a steep learning curve,” she says. “And I still find it hard to transition from living on the boat, surrounded by nature, to working in the office”.

Maureen’s challenge is getting people to realize that they can visit places like the Gulf Islands and the Great Bear Rainforest without getting on a cruise ship, or wearing a backpack.

ML.Urita.GuestFortunately, some people don’t need convincing, such as Uleta, age 80 and single, who has done a fair amount of sailing, but says the Maple Leaf experience is unique. “Even though I’ve lived in these parts for years, the crew is so knowledgeable, and I’m learning so much, especially from Fiona.” Tina concurs. “We’re discovering so much about the wildlife and flowers,” she says. “The thing that most impresses John and me is the kindness of the crew and concern for our safety—they are so careful getting us from the ship to shore.”

On day three we anchor in Narvaez Bay, Saturna Island. Maureen tells us the 2.5 km hike to the viewpoint at Monarch Head takes about 90 minutes; Wikipedia calls it “challenging”, but Uleta makes it to the look-out, arthritis be damned.

Spectacular views clear to the American San Juan Islands. Kevin suggests five minutes of silence. Ordinarily I’d roll my eyes and grimace, but I close my eyes instead and listen to the rustling trees, a distant bird. I’m so thankful to be here that I almost shed a tear. I’m not the only one; after the crew appears with our “extreme picnic” of smoked tuna, soba noodles and fresh-baked carrot cake, on the way downhill, we stop to hug trees. I kid you not. “People will think we’re crazy, but it was kinda fun,” says Uleta. “And I loved those five minutes of silence.”

Even more fun is a Zodiac trip over to Sea Lion Rock, one of the Bell Chain Islets, about three nautical miles from last night’s harbour. “We see so many boats careen up to the rocks full throttle, and right away the sea lions plop into the water,” says Maureen, explaining that these creatures don’t have energy to spare—extra output means less luck escaping other predators besides humans. She tells us not to point; our arms could be mistaken for rifles. (Some fishermen hate sea lions--sea lions love salmon.) Instead, we approach gently, and sure enough, we get plenty of photos.

Next we motor over to Bedwell Harbour for fresh water—showers tonight! The ocean is inky smooth and there’s not a soul about. Well, there are three boats on the horizon, and Kevin says it’s a traffic jam. He also says we can go on our next walk wherever Fiona wants. “Wow, can you repeat that? I actually have carte blanche?’ she questions. “Yay!”ML.Fiona

There is a set time to walk onshore, and there is ‘Fiona time’. So Maureen gets the Zodiacs ready and we zip over to Tumbo Island to visit an old homestead. It’s been deserted for years, and by the looks of things, we’re the first tourists for some time. It’s almost eerie. We love it.

Back onboard, the sun finally appears, and what a difference a few rays can make. We peel off layers of Gore-tex and wool and sun ourselves on deck. Fiona announces it’s SPF time and passes around seaweed called Fucus, which contains sun-blocking fucuoidan, so we smear the inner sticky substance on our faces. Then she grabs a piece of Sargasso grass full of herring spawn floating by. It pops and crackles in our mouths—definitely an acquired taste. We’re sailing at a walking pace--the Maple Leaf needs 12 knots of wind to be under sail completely. We pray for a breeze.

Day four and there’s still no wind. A gentle ocean swell lulls us into napping, but not before Maureen gives us her hilarious David Attenborough imitation (she grew up watching his nature documentaries and has his accent nailed). ““Here we are on the edge of the Salish Sea in southwestern British Columbia. We are surrounded by thousands upon thousands of Bonaparte gulls, who are here because upwelling from current, and energy from sunlight, has created a rich feast in the ocean of algae and krill....”

By day five our prayers are answered and conditions are perfect—Yeehaw! Maureen and Kevin patiently explain the rigging, and how to raise and lower the sails, adding that there won’t be a test afterwards. Everyone is welcome to haul a line.

Maureen takes the gasket of the staysail to ready the sail and I set the foresail with her. Then she sets the jib from the bowsprit. The Maple Leaf excels under full sail—it’s truly exhilarating. We tack to Pender Island, and we take turns steering the boat. Everyone has a job to do—we have an even greater sense of camaraderie.

We wail “We are the Champions” at the top of our lungs.

That night is the last grand hoorah and a farewell “sundowner” (wine and cheese) is waiting on deck. “A little ecotourism company from Victoria thanks you for coming,” says Maureen. We all tear up.

John and Tina discuss a future trip to Haida Gwaii on the Maple Leaf, and Uleta has already booked a trip next Spring with her two granddaughters. “The best part of the trip was meeting everyone, and of course the food,” says Uleta, laughing. “I gained a few pounds, even with all that hiking. But I’m in training now and my goal next year is to go on all those hikes.” (Even though Uleta made it up the mountain, she did miss a few walks.)

As for me, my next walk through the woods will be with new eyes. And now I also see how lucky we are to have people like Maureen, Fiona and Kevin as stewards of BC’s coastal wilds.

When You Go

To book your Mapleleaf Sailing Cruise and for more information