Rennell Sound Wilderness Adventure

Rennell Sound from Conehead campsite
Rennell Sound from Conehead campsite

Conehead, Rove-Inn’s most remote (and perhaps most memorable) camp spot.

On Rennell Sound, Haida Gwaii, the only point on the west coast of Graham Island accessible by vehicle.

Our destination, 15 km in, first-come, first-serve, no reservations, no potable water, no internet, and no cell-phone coverage: the single spot at Gregory Beach; or Conehead, further on with two campsites and an outhouse.

Accessible, yes, but only on logging roads. And only between 7am and 5pm if you have a CB radio (we don’t). Otherwise you must follow someone who has a CB radio, or travel at other times. (5pm for us.) Prohibited are RVs and boat trailers. We were warned: “Surface conditions on the Rennell Sound Forest Service road are not the best—the current condition of the road can be confirmed at the Visitor Centre in Queen Charlotte City.” Magellan checked: all good.

Another warning: “The final descent from the alpine down to the shore is a startling 25% gradient, one of the steepest public roads in North America.” Magellan dismissed the cautioning.

The wilderness for two nights, a visit to the renowned Bonanza Beach—relax, there’s nothing to worry about he smiled confidently.

And for a time, he was right.

Rennell, the largest sound on the west coast of Haida Gwaii, cuts 29 km into Graham Island, the largest of the two main islands that comprise Haida Gwaii. Between 1960 and 1980 a logging camp called Clapp Basin operated from May to October, complete with housing, a school, even a post office. Part of the Duu Guusd Heritage Site/Conservancy, the area is now co-managed by the Haida Nation and the province of BC. In the Haida language, Rennell Sound is Chaalh uu Kaahlii.

From Port Clements, we followed the Queen Charlotte Main Line Forest Road for 48 km before joining the 11 km Rennell Sound Forest Service Road for the thrilling 25% descent to the former logging village, now a campsite packed with RVs, fifth-wheels and pick-up trucks with empty boat trailers. With some of the richest waters on Haida Gwai and multiple fresh-water streams hosting salmon, trout and char, Rennell Sound is a fishing destination.

Our wait for the loggers to complete their day’s work at 5 pm (there were two logging trucks working the area Magellan had been told) was only fifteen minutes.

Stopping at Gregory Beach, we gazed at a young man on an islet stepdancing among the pebbles and tangled kelp, his arms flapping about, his body naked as a bird. Rove-Inn continued on to Conehead.

Was someone camping here too? we wondered. Strung under the trees over the table and fire pit were green tarps and strewn about were bits of garbage. After walking the beach for an hour we returned to the place that was still all ours. Magellan snuggled Rove-Inn into a spot at waters edge alongside the beach. This was the Haida Gwaii about which we had read so much and never seen, a magic-lantern night. Would anyone appear to break the spell?

At 7:15 the next morning we were still alone but within the hour, two logging trucks and a pick-up roared along the road.

Already the day promised to be warm, perfect for walking over to Bonanza Beach, leaving Rove-Inn silent and on guard. Dillydallying on a spanning crescent of pale sand stripped clean of seaweed, seashells or flotsam, statues of driftwood heavy, motionless, and a fresh-water stream in which (the seashore ours at this early time), we splashed about like jaybirds.

Much later after our picnic, three millenials arrived, the only people we saw all day.

Back at Cone Head, we sipped Labrador tea and nibbled butter tarts, read some more, watched the sun go down. Holding onto the strings of the day, a slow day, floating silent and light as a balloon.

Reluctantly the next morning we packed up our gear, a slow mizzle of rain falling all around us. Magellan got behind the wheel. Click. Another click. Then, silence. Rove-Inn’s engine was not turning over. Had we left a door ajar or a light on inside and drained the battery? Was it more serious than that?

“I’ll get my Garmin and text for help,” he said, rooting around for it, searching in all the usual places for it, his Garmin In-Reach satellite SOS. No luck.

“Keep looking and I’ll walk up to the road and flag down one of the logging trucks,” I said.

Before long, a black pickup came by and Mr. Red-Headed Hardy Lumberjack stopped.  After I explained our problem, he asked if we had a ferry to catch or a reservation to get to. We didn’t. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you out of here today,” he said. It was 9:15.

We waited. Hauled out our lawn chairs and sat under the cedars out of the rain. Magellan continued to search for his Garmin in Rove-Inn, again, among the crannies, storage cubes and in the safe. Every so often a truck would go by and we’d jump up, hoping they were going to turn in.

At 11:45 Mr. Kindness in his white Ford 250 turned in. It took awhile for him to park near enough to hook up the cables, and a few tries before Rove-Inn jumpstarted. “I’m not sure you’ll be able to climb the hill out of here,” he said looking at the muddy grass and hearing Rove-Inn struggling. Watching his truck’s wheels spinning as he left Cone Head, we wondered if we’d have to wave him down later for a tow.

While we loved our stay at Conehead, with equal affection we were glad to leave. Until we started up the big hill, we didn’t realize that Rove-Inn was in cripple mode, capable of no more than 1500 RPMs as we crawled to Rennell Sound junction, where we stopped so Magellan could check the manual and hopefully clear the On-Board Diagnostic codes.

“Why are you stopped here?” asked a guy with eyebrows as black as his oversized truck. “She’s runnin’ hot,” he told Magellan after looking under Rove-Inn’s hood. “Maybe you’ve got a loose battery cable. And here’s your second problem,” he said, wiping his finger over the Land Rover insignia. A second truck pulled up, and out from it came his travelling buddy, a burly man in a blue t-shirt stretched wide by his ample belly—a mechanic! “You’ll have no more problems with her,” he said after the guys discussed the problem. “But if you do, stop at the first service station in Charlotte City.”

We pulled into the service station, turned Rove-Inn off, checked to be sure that there were no codes and voila, she started on the first attempt. Magellan called Garmin to report the loss, as well as notifying the RCMP and the Co-op we’d visited three days ago.

On our way to Sandspit via the ferry that connects the two main islands of Haida Gwaii, I heard a beeping. Magellan pulled over, both of us thinking Rove-Inn was ill again.

“You know what, it’s coming from your suitcase–I think it’s the Garmin,” I said.

“Coneheads.” Perhaps that’s how the locals remember the two of us.

4 Responses

  1. Something I have been looking at lately is worthy of sharing with you and your readers, that venture into out of the way places.

    Check out: NOCO GB40 portable battery booster pack. This unit is smaller than a box of KD, will jump start your vehicle multiple times and is rechargeable for many devices that we all use and carry. This particular unit is rated at 1000 amps 12 volt and I will venture to say will start any vehicle. Price about $140:00.
    There are literally tons of models and makes so do a little reading and chose wisely any model that has the amps to start your vehicle. These are mostly lithium battery powered and I recommend your purchase, be lithium powered too. Pricey yes, but the peace of mind is well within reason for backup.
    “Do not assume cell phones will work in logging country”
    Back to your story:
    Sounds like a place I would enjoy greatly, not happy about the garbage and logging truck traffic but that goes with during the week travel in logging country, besides the loggers-did assist you and I expect no less from these BC residents of the back country, top notch people 👍👍👍
    I will caution again about following another “Radio Equipped” logging truck or vehicle, you need to be prepared to stay right on this persons tail as they move much faster than you are going to expect, they are working and know the road, it will be dusty as 🤬🤬🤬 and you need to know where he is possibly turning off as these roads are notorious for Y’s. Make sure the truck driver knows where you are going and that you want to follow him into the backcountry, assume nothing.

    Nice tour of Haida Gwaii. or AKA “Queen Charlottes”

    “Be a Survivor, Not A Statistic”

    1. The portable battery booster pack is a good recommendation if we continue to enjoy remote destinations. And because many of the great remote locations are accessible only by Forest Service Roads, a CB radio might also be on the wish list. Thanks.

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