A full moon rises behind the pointed fir trees surrounding the cove. A gentle breeze rocks the sailboat, and a seal pops its shiny head above water to look about. How could Capt. Vancouver, the redoubtable British explorer, have named this Desolation Sound?

These coastal waters of British Columbia between the mainland and Vancouver Island are a unique recreation area. The scenery is spectacular. Mountains, many snow-capped all summer, form a backdrop to countless secluded coves and protected bays. Hundreds of little uninhabited islands invite exploration, and this is some of the warmest salt water in the Pacific Northwest. Desolation Sound, the largest and most popular of the many marine parks in this area, definitely was misnamed.

But when Capt. George Vancouver sought a safe anchorage here in August, 1792, it was dark and raining. "Gloomy and dismal," he noted in his journal and dubbed the sound "Desolation" to match his mood. Then the sun came out, he sailed up Teakerne Arm and his tone changed: "We found it rather a delightful place: high rocky shores, two and three thousand feet in height, except over in one bay to the north where a waterfall leaps seventy feet down to the sea. It comes from lakes directly behind the falls, and the water is warm, with a more or less sandy beach on the foot."

We sailed for seven sun-filled days last summer, from the town of Powell River, British Columbia, up through Desolation Sound to Teakerne Arm -- a small bay off the northern end of the sound -- and back. We tied up in sheltered coves whenever we felt the urge to swim, sun or explore. The fishing was splendid -- salmon, cod and red snapper in the salt water and trout in the mountain lakes. We gathered large, delicious Pacific oysters from the rocks for hors d'oeuvres, and one of the oysters I shucked had a tiny pearl in it. Several times we tied our crab pot to a rubber float and caught Red Rock crabs.

One afternoon we tied up with other sail and power boats at a huge log boom (there is a logging operation on the shores of Teakerne Arm). This area is noted not only for its beauty but for Cassel Lake, about a half mile beyond the head of a waterfall. We rowed to the base of the falls, where a well-worn path led up the rocks and through a dense forest of ferns and towering trees. We came out on a rocky crest and there it was: a perfect wilderness lake, a deep blue jewel set in a basin of evergreens.

Almost everyone who hiked to Cassel Lake when we were there carried soap and shampoo (biodegradable) to wash off the salt accumulated while swimming in the sound. Other lakes near other coves offer the same refreshing contrast of clear fresh water.

To find such wilderness splendor so easily accessible from a sophisticated metropolitan center is extraordinary. Just 90 miles north of Vancouver, B.C., is Powell River. A few miles farther on at the northern termination of Highway 101 is Lund. Both towns are launching spots for Desolation Sound and surrounding waters, and you can rent power boats or sailboats in either for a half day or longer.

You can take a bus or rent a car in Vancouver for the delightfully scenic 4 1/2-to-five-hour drive up the "Sunshine Coast." The route takes you across two inlets by ferry -- one a ride of 40 minutes, the other 50 minutes. The ferries' schedules are coordinated to allow you comfortable driving time between them. Or, if you are in a hurry, there are regular and charter airlines that fly from Vancouver to Powell River in 30 minutes.

Serious fishermen who want a guide can get one on a fishing charter. The marinas are filled with boats from Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria and as far away as California. It's enough activity to be exciting but not enough to create that frantic holiday crush often experienced in seaport resorts. For canoe and kayak enthusiasts -- in addition to Desolation Sound -- there is a circuit north of Powell River that connects eight lakes.

Once out on the water, you can find in coves and harbors amenities such as general stores and restaurants.

Accommodations in and around Powell River are varied, including motels, inns, cabins, trailer parks and campgrounds.

Known primarily to boating enthusiasts on the West Coast, this is a relatively new tourist area. For years almost the only craft plying these waters were fishing boats, ferries and logging tugs.

When I was a child, my uncle took me on his tugboat from Vancouver to Powell River. The Powell River Pulp and Paper Mill was, and still is, one of the largest in the world. At that time there was no road into it. We chugged along, utterly alone, up the Inside Passage between the mountains on Vancouver Island and the Coastal Range. With a steel line stretching about 1,000 feet behind us, we towed an enormous log boom -- 50 sections of 800 logs each, hooked together by chains, pulled by our 45-foot tug.

That trip launched my love affair with tugs. So I was delighted to find that these sturdy little workhorses, looking as busy as ever, with the same names of Laura and Betty and Suzy Q, are still very much in evidence. Now they tow even more impossible loads -- barges stacked with containers, dredges, trucks, even rows of railway cars. But they continue to tow log booms too. An 80-foot tug averages a tow of 80,000 logs -- a million board feet. Douglas firs, pines and hemlocks, each with a wonderful woodsy smell.

Once you have savored that smell, mingled with the salt air, watched the water glimmer with phosphorescence at night, collected sunbleached shells and seen a salmon leap in the air, you'll vow to return every summer like the seals: no longer a tourist, but a habitue' of hidden coves in a sound that should never have been called Desolation.