The Ripple Rock Explosion

A classic article describing the reaons for the blasting and a provides a summary of the explosive event.

The Taming of Ripple Rock

By JEREMY LEETE

For years, I had been told stories of how Seymour Narrows, just north of Campbell River, was the most treacherous area for ocean navigation in North America. My dad used to tell me that it wasn't uncommon to see gaping whirlpools suddenly appear and swallow you up, boat and all. So naturally, I felt great swarms of butterflies take flight in my stomach as we rounded the corner at Race Point in our modest 15-foot whaler.

Without warning, the idle water beneath us changed to a fast-moving torrent. The tidal flow began bullying the boat as we approached Seymour Narrows. The continuous pitch of the outboard was now being interrupted as the propeller cavitated in the frequent air pockets created by the strong current. Sideways, up and down, in random chaos, the ocean river played with us much like a kitten with a string.

Diagram of the Ripple Rock ExplosivesI was walking a fine line between excitement and total terror. This was a lot for a 13-year-old kid from Ontario (Canada) to deal with, considering my landlocked past. But yet here I was, voluntarily approaching the mouth of the Narrows - the place where the twin peaks of Ripple Rock once lurked just under the surface. Finally, I was to bear witness to what Captain George Vancouver described in the late 1700s as "one of the vilest stretches of water in the world."

From 1875 until 1958, Ripple Rock claimed many lives and pierced the hulls of numerous vessels with its pair of sharp canine-like peaks, sending them to the bottom of the turbulent channel.

'Old Rip' as it became known, bit into its first victim in 1875. The sidewheel steamer U.S.S. Saranac was heading north to Alaska and was approaching Seymour Narrows at low tide. Charles Sadilek, a seaman on board at the time, later wrote, "The pilot had, on many former occasions, guided steamers through in safety, but always at flood tide. If reports are true, he attempted to persuade the captain of the Saranac not to venture through at low tide, but the captain answered, 'I'll risk it.'"

The captain should have heeded the pilot's warning as Sadilek recalls, ". . . when in the midst of a whirlpool, the ship refused to answer her helm and was for a moment beaten about by the angry water, when all of the sudden there came a crash that shook the ship as if it had been fired into a battery of guns. . . . The fearful rush of water as it closed over her was so powerful that it would have killed any living being who might have been aboard."

Amazingly, no lives were lost as the steamer went down, but Seymour Narrows put a scare into the Saranac's crew that would not soon be forgotten. "I have never seen an inland body of water more threatening than Seymour Narrows," wrote Sadilek. "Even the ocean in a temper has no such ravening aspect."

In the coming years, Ripple Rock would sink another 119 vessels and take 114 lives. It earned a reputation as the fiercest, and arguably, the most dangerous area for nautical navigation in North America.

Photos showing Ripple Rock BlastAfter years of debate, lobbying and petitions, the Canadian government finally agreed that something had to be done to make Seymour Narrows safe for navigation. It was decided through means of explosives, that the peaks of Ripple Rock could be lowered enough so that any vessel, no matter the size, could pass over safely. But this news was not met with cheers and ovations by everyone. There were still those who had visions of a rail bridge stretching from Maud Island to Vancouver Island with Ripple Rock acting as the natural foundation for the middle support.

Their protests went unheard and in 1943, a huge barge, with a drilling rig, was brought in and secured over Ripple Rock with several anchors. The idea was to drill many holes into both peaks and pack them full of explosives. But the resilient rock would not relent so easily.

The strong tidal currents proved too much for the anchor cables to withstand. Under the immense tension created by the powerful flow, the first cable snapped less than 24 hours after the operation began. Subsequent cable snappings occurred, on average every 48 hours, and the project was eventually abandoned. Another attempt was made by barge in 1945, but this time the barge was secured to both shores with heavy overhead cables. Again the turbulent tides around Ripple Rock were underestimated and the attempt failed.

Perhaps blowing up Ripple Rock was not the answer. One alternative that was proposed was to bypass Ripple Rock altogether by building a channel through Quadra Island, via Plumper Bay to Saltwater Lagoon. This idea too was abandoned because the costs were too high.

In 1953, the National Research Council did a study on the feasibility of tunneling under Seymour Narrows and up into the peaks of Ripple Rock through Maud Island. The idea of performing a root canal, so to speak, on 'Old Rip's' jagged canines got the go-ahead, thus beginning the biggest project ever undertaken by the Department of Public Works.

After careful planning by engineers, around-the-clock work began in November 1955. Progress was slow but steady as the 75-man crew, working in three shifts, gained an average of about six feet per day of new tunnel. The operation took 27 months to complete and cost in excess of $3.1 million. The result was a 570-foot vertical shaft at Maud Island, a 2,500-foot stretch of tunnel under the ocean floor and two 300-foot vertical raises into each tooth of Ripple Rock.

With 1,375 tons of explosives packed into the peaks, April 5, 1958 was the date set for detonation . On that day, at 9:31 a.m., Dr. Victor Dolmage, consulting engineer for the Ministry of Public Works, pushed the plunger that set off the largest non-nuclear explosion ever. The blast pulverized 370,000 tons of rock and displaced 320,000 tons of water. Rock and debris rocketed 1,000 feet into the air. The explosion also created a 25-foot tidal wave which quickly dissipated and caused no damage.

When the dust settled, instead of being just nine feet under the surface at low tide, the highest pinnacle of Ripple Rock was now 47 feet deep. The demolition operation said Dolmage, "was a complete success." The undersea menace had finally been subdued.

And there were few, if any, adverse effects stemming from the blast. Norman Hacking, Vancouver Province marine editor during that time, witnessed the explosion and wrote, "We saw a few bug-eyed snapper but that was all." And in fact, there was a very small number of fish casualties. Planners intentionally scheduled the explosion for April when there were few salmon in the area. There were no documented cases of any dead salmon or herring from the Ripple Rock explosion.

For residents of Campbell River, the nearest town to Seymour Narrows, the explosion was anti-climactic. As a precaution, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) evacuated everyone within a three-mile radius of the demolition site and many residents were feeling anxious about their safety. Rumors of earthquakes and flying boulders triggered by the explosion, ran rampant.

"I was assistant manager of Painter's Lodge at the time," recalled Campbell River resident Les MacDonald. "We had engineers staying with us. . . telling us about this massive explosion that was coming, telling us that it might trigger an earthquake. The insurance company made us take everything off the walls - everything; we had to put everything on the floor. We really had no idea what was going to happen when the blast went off. Nothing. That's what happened. We didn't hear or feel a thing."

Tom Hall, 96, was a commercial fisherman in the waters around Campbell River during the years before the Ripple Rock explosion. A veteran navigator, he always maintained a healthy respect for the Narrows. "I went through (Seymour Narrows) almost every day of the year," remembers Hall. "You had to know exactly where to go. It would be dangerous alright, for a stranger. You had to be going with the tide. You couldn't buck it; it was too strong."

When the Prince Rupert ran aground on Ripple Rock in the early part of this century, Hall was there. A thick fog hung over the area, he recalls, and visibility was at a minimum. "I knew they were going to hit," he says. "They were bucking the tide and heading straight for the rock. They drove the rudder right up through the bottom of the deck."

Hearing of the demolition project, Hall decided to witness the event from a hill top near Quathiaski Cove on Quadra island. "It started to rain," he recollects while playing back the distant memory. "I didn't see anything; I didn't feel anything; I didn't hear anything." But, he says, "I would have had a good view if it didn't start raining."

The best view of the explosion was from the specially built bunker overlooking the Narrows. Hunkered safely in the bunker, witnesses were privy to the entire explosion that was accompanied by a thunderous boom.

Since the taming of 'Old Rip,' vessels, large and small, have traveled through Seymour Narrows without danger of hanging up on the twin peaks. But the Narrows is still a difficult, and sometimes treacherous, place to navigate, as I can attest. While I did manage to get through Seymour Narrows successfully that first time so many years ago, it is only with great caution that I venture into the mouth of the Narrows where Ripple Rock is just a memory.

Yet, even with all the carnage caused by the shallow menace, I somehow wish I could have seen it churning the water into a white froth in the peak of a strong tide. But today, I can only imagine Ripple Rock's performance before its deadly teeth were yanked.

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