Sweet Swell

A tugboat adventure to remember

Photo by Toque & Canoe

— By Kim Gray

What’s the most outstanding Canadian trip you’ve ever experienced?

Given the nature of our work at Toque & Canoe, we’re asked this question often and, truthfully, it’s impossible to answer.

After all, trips qualify as outstanding in relation to so many factors. Who were you with at the time? How were you feeling? What other influences, big or small, shaped the experience?

There’s never any one adventure that trumps the rest. There may, however, be a handful that truly distinguish themselves along the way.

Case in point? Our recent week-long journey into the remote fjords of coastal Canada aboard a tugboat named Swell.


Photo by Toque & Canoe


Into the Wild

I’ll never forget the phone call.

“My husband was going to join me on an assignment, but he had to bail at the last minute,” announces my long-time friend and fellow Canadian travel writer Lisa Monforton.

Care to do a story about a tugboat cruise along Canada’s northwest coast? You can stay in my cabin. We’ll make it a girls’ work trip. It’ll be fun!”

How could I resist? One month later, I’m parked next to Monforton on a plane — camera gear, notepads and pens in tow — en route to Terrace in northern British Columbia.

We arrive a day before our Great Bear Rainforest / Kitlope Valley adventure begins, so we rent a car and drive north to check out the Nisga’a Museum, staying the night at Yellow Cedar Lodge.

Located in the Nass Valley, the museum is beautifully curated, featuring 346 repatriated artifacts and art objects, and well worth the visit. This permanent exhibit — called the “Ancestor’s Collection” or the “Anhooya’ahl Ga’angigatgum’” — is a source of great pride in today’s Nisga’a community.


Nisga’a Museum / Photo by Toque & Canoe


Along the Nisga’a Highway, to and from the museum, the landscape is unlike anything we have experienced in Canada.

Lush rainforests teem with tiny turquoise lakes and enchanting waterfalls, and the area is flanked by mountains that have, over the centuries, been shaped by volcanic fire. We also see wildlife at every turn, from moose to bear to porcupine.

At one point, we pull over for photos and the birdsong echoing through the trees around us is so loud we feel as if we’ve stumbled upon Canada’s Costa Rica — a fitting primer for the wilderness-rich adventure coming our way.


Photo by Jeff Reynolds with Maple Leaf Adventures


One Swell Ride

It’s love at first sight when I lay my eyes on the classic, 88-foot converted tugboat, one of three vessels run by the Victoria, B.C.-based company Maple Leaf Adventures.

Sitting pretty at a dock in Kitimat, our home for the next six nights and seven days is simply the sweetest passenger vessel you could ever imagine.

Her crew greets us warmly, gives us a hand with our luggage and leads us to our cabin.


Photo by Toque & Canoe


Originally constructed in 1912, the tugboat is in excellent shape due to several upgrades over the years, including a $3.5 million refit in 2004.

She has six two-person cabins with private ensuite bathrooms, a salon-style eating and games area, a hot tub on the upper deck and comfortable outdoor seating.

What really brings this unique vessel alive, though, is the staff on board.


Swell crew from left to right: Sherry, Steve, Lila, Jeff and Greg / Photo by Toque & Canoe


Sherry, our passionate, planet-loving naturalist, regales us with entertaining lessons on everything from wildflowers to bear behaviour.

Steve, a former Vancouver police officer, is our trusty captain.

Then there’s Lila, the hard-working chef, who nurtures us with consistently delicious, locally inspired cuisine.

And Jeff the deckhand along with Bruce, our ship’s mate, stoke our days at sea with infectious, boyish enthusiasm for everything we do, whether it’s a visit to a natural hot springs or an invigorating kayak tour past one of the region’s spectacular waterfalls.


Photo by Jeff Reynolds with Maple Leaf Adventures


Coastal Life

During the day, when we’re not cruising through West Coast waters on Swell, we’re piling into Zodiac-style boats which carry us deep into lupine-filled estuaries and up remote rivers.

At one point, we’re having lunch along the Kitlope River and a young, carefree moose strolls from around the corner through the shallow water towards us.

Our group silently observes the giant animal, her head swinging from left to right as she gently splashes in our direction.

When she notices us — after catching our scent on a breeze in her long, velvety nose — she rears up and disappears into the nearby bushes.

It’s exhilarating to have seen her, if even for that brief moment, just doing what moose do in the Great Bear Rainforest.


Photo by Greg Shea with Maple Leaf Adventures


We also see seals, sea lions, grizzlies, a black bear and her cubs, mountain goats, humpback whales and playful Dall’s porpoises, which love to ride on our bow wave. And we spot wolverine and wolf tracks. 

Given the strong history of Indigenous communities along the coast, we observe evidence of age-old cultures — in the pictographs we see as we head into Gardner Canal and near Kemano, in the beguiling Nanakila pole, which we see on the point near an old village and graveyard.


Photo by Toque & Canoe


One of the highlights of this boutique cruise is a viewing of the National Film Board documentary by Gil Cardinal called Totem: The Return of the G’psgolox Pole.

I recommend this powerful piece of work to anyone who wants to understand the tension between museums and First Nations people over the historic handling of Indigenous art and artifacts.


The Take Away

Like the others in our small group of 12 from around the planet, Monforton and I settle happily into the adventure-filled daily rhythms of our tugboat cruise.

We also relish the nights when — after anchoring in yet another picturesque cove — we sit outside on the deck wrapped in luxurious blankets and swap stories over crisp white wine.


Photo by Toque & Canoe


Along with the sunsets in this remote corner of Canada, which bring the vivid art of Roy Henry Vickers to mind, so much of our experience on Swell is memorable.

These days, whenever Monforton and I see each other in Calgary, we often reminisce about our adventure — recalling details like the northwest coast’s endless shades of grey and green, its snow-dusted mountains or our lone moose wandering nonchalantly through the waters of a wild river.

This is what outstanding trips do.

They bond the individuals who share them. They become embedded in a traveller’s personal narrative. And, if they’re really exceptional, they shape, enrich and influence our lives into the future.

Our favourite Canadian travel experience? As we say, there’s never one.

There are, however, a handful that distinguish themselves along the way. This historic tugboat tour into the remote fjords of Canada’s Northwest Coast is one of them.


Photo by Toque & Canoe


Editor’s note: Writer Kim Gray was a guest of Maple Leaf Adventures. The company did not review or edit this post before publication.


Founded by two Canucks on the loose in a big country, Toque & Canoe is an award-winning Canadian travel blog. Feel free to follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.



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  1. D M Stover commented:

    Love this! My grandfather designed / built tugs & small ferries on the East Coast. I have always loved tug boats! We also had Quarter horses & eventually I began to call tugs the Quarter horses of the sea!


  2. Barb Bachmeier commented:

    OMG! My trip on the Nautalus Swell ( her original name) in 2013 for scuba diving in Alaska for 3 weeks was so memorable as to be an ache not to be on her…. So glad she is still running and not tied up being a floating restaurant or something.


    • Maple Leaf Adventures commented:

      Hi Barb,
      Swell lives on! Although, she sometimes is a floating restaurant with our chefs on board;)
      Her original name is actually Swell, she was renamed Nautilus Swell when the scuba diving company, Nautilus Explorer owned her.
      We are glad you enjoyed your time on her Barb:)


  3. Priscila commented:

    Are the waters choppy? Thanks. I am interested but I get seasick if the water is not calm. Thank you for answering my question.


    • toque & canoe commented:

      Hi Priscila! We found our experience with Swell to be very calm. We’ve been on larger vessels in rougher waters and we’re the same, as in we’re sensitive to travelling on the sea as well. Not a problem at all this time around. The whole experience was very gentle and easy. That said, we encourage you to reach out to Maple Leaf Adventures and ask directly! They’re friendly over there. 🙂 Their contact number is: 1.250.386.7245 Cheers! T&C


  4. Kathy Baker commented:

    You need to also experience a trip on The Aurora Explorer.
    A fitted out cargo barge with staterooms. It is an active vessel delivering cargo up through the Broughton Archepelago….gourmet meals..fabulous trip.


    • toque & canoe commented:

      Hi Kathy. A quick note. We (in this case Kim Gray) shared a cabin with Lisa Monforton, a colleague/close friend, and it was really fun. Felt like a slumber party! It’s cozy but comfortable and may be more affordable to share with a friend. Just sayin’. T&C


    • toque & canoe commented:

      Hi Sherrie. A quick note. We’ll say the same to you that we said to Kathy above. We (in this case Kim Gray) shared a cabin with Lisa Monforton, a colleague/close friend, and it was really fun. Felt like a slumber party! It’s cozy but comfortable and may be more affordable to share with a friend. Just sayin’. T&C


  5. jennifer commented:

    i have fond memories of the swell when she was a dive boat. pure heaven to cruise the areas around port hardy. we would gear up on a skiff and leave for dives. when we returned there would be a happy hostess bearing hot chocolate(with or with/out baileys irish cream). the hot tub was essential for warming our chilled inner cores.


    • toque & canoe commented:

      What a wonderful story Jennifer. Thanks so much for posting. Turns out — as you witness here in the comment section but also on our FB post featuring news of the publication of this story — lots of people have a connection with this little boat. We’re loving the comments! T&C


  6. Salley Swett commented:

    Please tell me how, when and how much? Very interested, and love our coast! Born in Alert Bay, lived 10 years in Piet McNeill and Nanaimo for 12 years.


  7. R.rondquist commented:

    As a teenager I worked as a mate with a gentleman by the name of buster s….. who skipperd the swell as tugboat .I am now 83 years old.


  8. Don commented:

    What a beautifully-written narrative — a vivid and personal glimpse into a part of the world so many don’t even know exists.

    I’m particularly struck by your observation here:

    “This is what outstanding trips do. They bond the individuals who share them. They become embedded in a traveller’s personal narrative. And, if they’re really outstanding, they shape, enrich and influence our lives into the future.”

    Yes. This is why I travel; this is what keeps me moving. There is transcendence in travel, and you’ve captured it here. It’s about more than the bear, the museum, the waterfall (though these are invaluable in and of themselves.)

    It’s about the relationships these things inspire in us. Through them, we find a new perspective on our place in the universe.

    Thank you for this.


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