The Hideaway - Browning Pass
Text by John Rawlings
Photography by Curt Bowen and John Rawlings

“In over 10,000 dives this is the first time I’ve ever had to de-ice my gear before I could dive it”–Curt Bowen

It had almost become a game….the first one out of bed in the morning assumed the role of “chief fire starter” of the wood stove that heated our cabin, so each of us tried to stay bundled up under a pile of blankets until we could stand it no longer. Today, I was the first one up and out of bed and I could just see a glimmer of the rising sunlight poking through the windows. All was utterly still...unlike the previous night, we couldn’t hear even a whisper of wind. Poking my head out the door, I discovered why–Old Man Winter had returned during the night with a wash of snow and frigid temperatures. A layer of ice coated absolutely everything, including our dive equipment, and a thin sheet of ice floated atop the saltwater cove. Looking as cold as ice itself, the moon looked down upon the scene, if anything making things appear even colder. We had a scheduled dive in about an hour...

Rushing back inside, I whacked Curt Bowen across his feet–“Curt, you’ve GOT to come photograph this!” Blankets were hurriedly tossed aside and once again we were off and running..the waters of Browning Pass were calling and indeed, we WOULD in fact dive in an hour.

Described by many as having “the best cold-water diving in the known universe”, Browning Pass is a narrow body of water situated between Nigei Island and Balaklava Island, located off the northeastern shore of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Rich nutrients flow with the currents in the Queen Charlotte Strait from the North, providing an abundance of food for the thousands of species that dwell there–invertebrates, fishes and mammals alike. The rich waters of the strait abound in life – to move your hand in the water is to move dozens of animals - and when such conditions are found in narrowly restricted areas such as Browning Pass, the colossal amount of life leaves divers in absolute awe.

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December of 2009, a trip announcement was posted on the ADM and Rebreather World websites for a spring trip to the Browning Pass Hideaway. The slots available were quickly filled. Every single one of the divers reserving spaces was from the Pacific Northwest–most having dived in British Columbia before and eager to return. Along with ADM Publisher Curt Bowen and myself there were 7 other members of the team: Larry Collison, Kathy Collison, Peter Rothschild, Lynne Flaherty, Cheng-Hui Wong, Bob Bailey and Bric Martin–all extremely experienced Pacific Northwest divers with most being accomplished underwater photographers. As the day of departure approached, each member of the team grew more and more excited over the thought of diving in the wilderness from the Hideaway.

Located within a tiny body of water known as Clam Cove, the “Hideaway” is a rustic collection of small cabins perched atop a raft constructed of huge logs–a perfect hideaway from the constant noise, hustle and bustle of the outside world. If possible, in your mind’s eye picture an image of an old beloved uncle’s fishing or hunting cabin so far out in the woods that it’s completely isolated. Built of old cedar, encrusted with moss, and weathered to a pale gray by the wind and rain, the Hideaway is absolutely unique and draws divers from around the World for a very good reason - it is on the very doorstep of Browning Pass.

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After crossing the US/Canadian border and catching the Tsawwassen ferry near Vancouver, the team assembled for the first time at the “Muddy Waters” Pub in the City of Nanaimo, located approximately 1/3 of the way up the east coast of Vancouver Island. Hilarity ensued, plans were made, libations flowed, and copious amounts of Halibut were consumed before everyone retired for the night. The following morning, the entire team departed together in a convoy loaded with dive gear and camera equipment, heading north directly up the center of Vancouver Island toward Port Hardy, where we were to be met by our host, John de Boeck. The snow-capped mountains and brilliant green forests along the spine of Vancouver Island provided us with breathtaking views as the team headed north, each of us ready with a camera for the chance to take still another photo of a lifetime.

Arriving at Port Hardy, we were met right on time by John de Boeck, (an amazing event only rarely witnessed! I checked to be certain that Hell hadn’t frozen over!), and the team began loading our vast amount of gear into a towed aluminum skiff, the skipper organizing everything efficiently for correct balance. It was a brilliant sunny day without a whisper of wind and our spirits soared – little did we know that this was the last full day of these conditions that we would experience. In calm seas the journey from Port Hardy to the Hideaway takes approximately 90 minutes, and along the way the team was able to see and photograph some amazing vistas and delightful scenes of wildlife–clusters of Steller Sealions, dozens of Bald Eagles, isolated Harbor Seals, flocks of Black and Blue Cormorants and large “rafts” of Sea Otters–all surrounded by deep blue water and mountain ranges coated with snow. Dozens and dozens of photos were taken long before we ever reached our destination–photos that will probably grace home and office walls before long.

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During the voyage to the Hideaway, the team was regaled with a few tall tales and a variety of true (really!) stories by John de Boeck. John has boated and dived the waters around Vancouver Island for literally decades and probably knows the conditions and “temperament” of the area in and around Browning Pass better than any other human being alive. If a particular dive site has something unique, he knows about it….if a certain species is found nowhere else, he knows where to find it. His boats aren’t beautiful by any stretch of the imagination, but they are solid, perfectly functional and designed for the conditions found in the North Pacific where floating logs are as common as the rain that waters the massive forests.

Arriving at the Hideaway, the group unloaded gear and dispersed amongst the cabins – couples heading to the various small cabins and the singles to the “bunkhouse”. Our first dive was that same day on the North Wall, beginning with the sun still in the sky and ending after dark, with massive amounts of good, solid home-cooking provided by Debbie, the Hideaway’s Cook, greeting us upon our return to the dock. Unfortunately, day 1 was the last full day of clear weather and sun that we would have, the rest of the week being a constant hodge-podge of weather ranging from delightfully clear blue skies to evil-looking dark clouds dumping snow, hail and sleet, to brief ice storms, to near hurricane level winds. The team spent a great deal of time discussing the weather and what we thought it would do next, but eventually we realized that no one could predict what it would do for even ten minutes, let alone for a day at a time! This was one of the most cheerful and optimistic groups that I have ever had the pleasure of diving with, though, so the only times that we didn’t dive were the times of intense wind causing conditions that would have been physically dangerous for divers exiting or boarding the boat. At those times, the team cheerfully maintained cameras and dive gear, fed the woodstove with crackling cedar, and entertained each other with photo shows, tales of derring-doo and “I can top that” dive banter.

During the week, John would “take the pulse” of the water, winds and tides and successfully dropped us at superb locations, briefing us on what we would discover at each site and the best manner in which to approach the dives themselves…advice such as “let the current take you down the wall, but float backwards with your face into the current–the opportunities for photography will be best if you are looking back at where you’ve just been with the sunlight filtering through the kelp at that angle.” It never takes long for divers and photographers to realize that he knows exactly what he is talking about and his advice is always worth listening to.

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Day 2 saw weather conditions rough enough that we were unable to dive the most famous of the wall dives – Browning Wall itself and the Seven Tree Island wall - but the team was able to hit three other sites within the Pass that are extraordinarily beautiful in their own right and full of life–Hussar Point, Rock of Life, and Eagle Rock. Day 3 started out extremely well, with calm seas and clear skies, and as a result the team was able to hit Browning Wall with its massive coating of bright red and pink soft corals, yellow sponges and clouds of billowy white plumose anemones. Encrusted with massive populations of colorful and unique invertebrates, the wall clearly and forcefully showed each and every member of the team exactly why they were there and had chosen to come. The second dive of the day was on the wreck of the SS Themis, a 270 foot freighter that struck Crocker Rock and sank in 1906. Relatively shallow–80 FSW at its deepest – the wreck has been mostly broken up by storms and strong surge, but the massive debris field is home to clouds of huge Rockfish of various species and several large wolf-eels. With increasingly harsh weather conditions, the third and final dive of the day was at a site called Snowfall, with a name that was extremely apt for the weather but with its own thriving and diverse population of invertebrates. Day 4 found the team hunkered down at the Hideaway with high winds making the surrounding seas too dangerous to even consider diving outside the cove itself. The marine radio informed us that we were surrounded by winds of over 50 knots with gusts over 70 knots, so the better part of valor was CLEARLY camera maintenance and tall tales! Team member Bob Bailey said it well – “if I had to get stuck in a cabin in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of people, I couldn’t think of better people to be stuck with…”

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Conditions had improved by the following morning and we were again able to dive on Browning Wall–a site massive enough that we were able to see portions of it that we had not ventured into earlier in the week. I had been looking for Puget Sound King Crabs all week, but had thus far only found some tiny juveniles about an inch across, the adults somehow avoiding discovery. On this dive, as we were ascending to 120 FSW, I finally found what I had been looking for – an absolutely massive adult crab. I signaled Curt with my light and beckoned him over to see what I had discovered. Since I was diving my “silent” KISS Classic CCR I could clearly hear him say, “Holy Sh*t! That’s a BIG crab!” into his mouthpiece. The text books claim that the carapace of the Puget Sound King Crabs can reach up to 1 foot across, but this one was far larger than that – possibly as much as 18 inches. Following this amazing dive, the weather again worsened during the morning, and to our disappointment there was no more diving to be done that day.

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When the sun rose on Day 6 we knew that there was time for one last dive and the conditions were good to dive the wall at Seven Tree Island, one of the finest dives in Browning Pass. Due to time constraints, Curt and I had already stowed our camera and video gear, so we chose to sit this one out. The rest of the team made the dive and came away with still more photos and memories that will last for a lifetime. Despite the extremes of weather that we experienced during the week, the entire team cheerfully rolled with the punches and made the best of every adverse situation. Together we viewed and photographed wonderful scenes and animals that most divers will never see, and it was with no small amount of pride that Curt and I looked at the people that chose to spend this week with us. Team member Bric Martin perhaps summed it up for the rest in an e-mail that I received from him – “I really enjoyed the entire week and the crazy weather just makes it one to remember. I really can’t wait to go back, so if you start planning another spring trip next year you can count me in!”

Both the author and ADM Publisher Curt Bowen would like to give special thanks to John de Boeck and the wonderful staff at the Hideaway, as well as to Lana Kingston, a true friend at Vancouver Island Tourism that has always supported our endeavours.