The Inside Passage is an ancient seaway along the Pacific coast that stretches over one-thousand miles from Skagway to Seattle, traversing winding mazes of islands off southern Alaska, British Columbia, and northern Washington. Perennial snow tops jagged coastal fjords. Waterfalls cascade from glaciers. Grizzly bears patrol the evergreen trees. Home to multitudes of first nation communities, the Inside Passage first saw European ships when Spanish spice galleons navigated its waters in the 1700s. Nearly two centuries later, in 1926, captain-author Muriel Wylie Blanchet and her five children made their first voyage up the Inside Passage’s treacherous waters. Blanchet’s landmark memoir, The Curve of Time, details her travels there over the following decade.
Inspired by The Curve of Time, my three closest friends and I have spent the last two months following Blanchet’s century-old wake through the Inside Passage, interviewing people and exploring the places that lay sprawled along the intricate coastlines.
While Blanchet’s adventures formed the path of our expedition, her spartan lifestyle has inspired this trip’s ethos. Blanchet and her five children washed dishes in the sea, bathed beneath fresh waterfalls, and caught or foraged for their food in a mode self-described as "onboard camping." With only two sets of clothes each, she and her five children lived minimally and sustainably decades before either notion existed.
A century after Blanchet and a few hundred miles away, I grew up among the seasonal wildfires of Southern Oregon in a community whose commitment to slowing climate change placed it in stark contrast to neighboring towns. Now, as I write on board the 28-foot trawler which I have called home for the past two months, the By All Means, I find myself a shockingly familiar anomaly. Where I expected to find a British Columbia that takes careful measures to preserve its quickly decaying landscape, I am alarmed to find an altogether apathetic stance towards sustainability and climate change, culturally, infrastructurally, and institutionally.
Immediately, on week one of our expedition, a neighboring boat at a public wharf released the unfiltered contents of their holding tank—unfiltered human waste— directly into the stagnant water surrounding us without a single thought. As the waste seeped into the marine ecosystem and the smell invaded our noses, we made a disturbing discovery: pump-out stations for human waste are few and far between along the Inside Passage, leaving boaters with little choice but to release untreated wastewater straight into the ocean. New laws to regulate the marine dumping of waste should have followed the increased traffic since Blanchet's time, but British Columbia is lagging far behind similar areas like San Francisco Bay and the Long Island Sound concerning waste regulations. Even when a pump-out station is available, boaters are required to pay a steep “pump out” fee that forces many people to dump it, nonetheless. Similar fees apply to the disposal of trash and recycling. The lack of incentive to dispose of waste sustainably has left bacteria in the water and trash along the shorelines of national parks. We have found ourselves wandering around islets, picking up discarded cans and trash bags.
The heavy consequences of this contamination are readily apparent. Having planned to harvest meals of wild shellfish, we were immediately struck by many biohazard warnings for the mussels and oysters that inhabit the Inside Passage. Toxic water — whether caused by human waste or the toxic algal blooms that follow warming oceans — renders such bi-valves poisonous and even fatal to humans, so we didn’t take our chances harvesting any despite being taunted by our hunger at nearly every low tide.
Then, thinking we would fish as Blanchet did, we packed the By All Means with rods and tackle but have consistently run into different government regulations that, while well-meaning in theory, have all-but-forced prospective fishers to instead stock up on plastic-wrapped grocery items. The aftershocks of a century of commercial overfishing have only led to increasing budgets and environmental footprints for today’s Blanchets: the very people who care most about the Inside Passage. Locals who regaled us with stories of setting rods and traps in the water and catching dinner within minutes now pull up empty lines and pots.
Trying to connect with Blanchet through a direct embodiment of her inspiring self-sufficiency, we have been met with expensive roadblocks at every turn. We paid the necessary fee for a fishing license but have only reeled in empty lines and added fees for our food we did not foresee buying and trash we did not foresee creating. We assumed that our adherence to the ecologically-focused ethos of onboard camping would save us money. On week seven of our trip, we found that it costs far more to boat sustainably.
As a result of a century of over-consumption and a lack of eco-friendly infrastructure, sustainability is expensive and only available to affluent boaters. Ironically, however, a very eco-conscious lifestyle was a direct consequence of Blanchet’s lack of resources stemming from the putrid sexism of the early 20th century.
As a widow and single mother in the 1920s and 30’s, Blanchet faced many economic hurdles due to her gender. She lived in a time before women were allowed to open their own bank accounts and during a time in which her femininity put her independence into question. When Blanchet’s family in Quebec learned of her lifestyle along the Inside Passage and her intention to remain in British Columbia after the death of her husband, they responded with letters pleading for her return: “Impossible, impossible! You’re far too young to isolate yourself in that isolated place. Pack up at once.” Blanchet, steadfast as ever, reflected in her memoirs “how nicely they had my life planned out.” She sent a telegram the next day responding simply with “Can’t I?” and spent the rest of her life in B.C.. After her husband died, Blanchet was only able to stay economically solvent by renting out their house during her voyages and later selling short articles recounting her adventures to pay for her many summer cruises. Despite being offered a place to live at her parent’s house in Quebec, she sacrificed financial security to preserve her independence. Under closer scrutiny, Blanchet’s sustainable lifestyle was inextricably linked to her independence.
As four young women trying to recapture this self-sufficiency and minimal lifestyle today, we have realized that sustainability in the modern world comes–quite literally–at a cost. Again and again, we have been forced to choose between saving the money we need for our journey and preserving the environment. Sadly, much of the world is in the same conundrum. Just this week, the Congo started auctioning its former rainforests and peatlands off to oil companies for drilling for economic reasons. The onus of sustainability must not fall on individual citizens. Instead, the bodies responsible for environmental degradation—mega corporations, mass fishing, and logging industries—must do their part to “close the loop” on their extracted resources and products. The crew reflected on how we could prepare to make our trip more sustainable with what we know now. The answers we came up with were: to increase our budget and stock up on bulk food items and sustainable cleaning products at the beginning of the trip. These aren't viable options for some boaters, especially locals who live on board their vessels. Modern sustainability can only be effective if governments incentivize it on an individual level through accessible structures: make it easy; otherwise, it won’t work.
About a month into our journey, headed up north to anchor for a week, we found ourselves completely out of options and forced to release our holding tank into the ocean for the first time. We had managed to find only two working pump-out stations in a month on the water. At that point, we knew nearly everyone else along the passage dumps their waste unfiltered, and a heavy silence hung around us despite and because of the normalcy. We closed the windows, flipped the “macerator” switch, and went up the channel.
"The Curve of Time," A Mother's Account of Cruising the Coast of British Columbia with her Children, by Murat Oztaskin, New Yorker
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