I got an email the other day from a man named Riccardo. He’s preparing to paddle the Gulf Coast from Cancun to Miami and wanted my advice. What struck me wasn’t the extreme distance between the long, gracefully curving coastline at nearly 3,000 miles, but the amount of maritime busy-ness he’d be paddling through. I’ve had my share of paddling past supertankers, fish farms, marinas and yacht clubs, power boaters churning the water to a froth, and sleeping on government wharves with drunks raising hell into the wee hours. I won’t make that mistake twice.
But the note from Riccardo got me thinking. What is it Ricardo was looking for on a trip like this? Why would you want to paddle through a morass of marine commerce? To get somewhere, I suppose. But when I think on it, I come up with three reasons: 1) Because the objective sustains the effort to achieve it. 2) Because you aren’t bothered by the activity. 3) Because you didn’t thoroughly vet your options.
Me, I’m looking to paddle through natural paradise, not the fringe of civilization. I realize we’re all a little different on the issue. I wouldn’t want to run into a gazillion of you out there in any case. But if my thoughts on the subject here are of value to even one of you, it’s worth it to me to have bothered putting them down.
When it comes to ocean kayaking in the northwest, particularly the remote, wild and open variety, the British Columbian coast is the place.
The Destination: The Northwest Coast of Vancouver Island
Initially, girlfriend brought me out to Vancouver Island with her intrepid friends. After that first taste, I spent a good while exploring the outer coast of the island, and absolutely loved it. Figuring the grass might be greener farther north, I hitched a ride on a buddy’s fishing boat and spent a month and a half paddling around Chichagof Island in Southeast Alaska. But even though Alaska is remote, there were plenty of floating fishing lodges, fish camps and troller fleets in evidence, not to mention the bugs, bears, low-pressure systems and powerboats. Vancouver Island was the place to be.
Vancouver Island is big. It’s the largest off the west coast of North America, and is comparable in size to the Netherlands or Taiwan. The extreme northern portion of Vancouver Island alone has a couple hundred miles of north Pacific ocean and shorefront that look and feel the same as they did from time immemorial. The weather is surprisingly mild, boasting typically warm, dry summers. The water, of course, is cold. Kayakers dress for immersion and staying warm means staying alive.
The inside of the island has many popular, but protected, paddling venues, with the major sounds on the south coast offering numerous islets and islands and semi-protected water. You’ll camp with other kayakers in season in Clayoquot and be subject to park regulations in Barkley. The west side of the island is open to the vast north Pacific. The more primal kayaking scene with fewer people and fewer regs, will be in Kyuquot Sound and points farther north. Only two rugged logging roads penetrate the mountainous interior of the island to reach this lonely country.
Popular paddling windows stretch from June through September with August being your best bet for hot and dry. You might turn blue in the water in minutes but your feet will turn red in the sand in seconds. No matter the season, storms are always a possibility. Bring quality shelter and filter all drinking water. Build fires in the tidal zone as much as possible, bury human waste and burn your toilet paper. Respect First Nations ongoing presence in the area and leave no trace of your passing.
Gear Overview: The Boat, Apparel, and Accessories
The kayak is a unique craft, and the perfect vessel to travel the open coast, surf onto empty beaches and drag it into the driftwood for safekeeping at night. For those who are less excited about the ‘getting there’ than the destination, and not willing to commit to the training necessary to responsibly paddle the open coast in a conventional style boat, there’s the sit on top kayak. While not as sleek or fast as their sit-inside cousin, sit-on-tops replace an open hull with a closed one, and a challenging self-rescue technique with a simple one.
Sea kayaking in cold water can be more or less a technical experience. The spectrum of gear options is largely determined by the style of boat you choose. The conventional sit-inside kayak—the baidarka of the Aleuts, Inuit and Greenlanders—sits at the top of the tech scale. If you don’t know the ins and outs of this style of boat, I wouldn’t recommend paddling the open coast in one.
When sea kayaking you’ll be exposed to the elements, and a sudden twist of fate could result in an icy swim, so wear something warm and waterproof. A wet suit or dry suit is the top choice, really, because you should always dress for immersion. Never leave the shore without your PFD with a VHF radio clipped to it. Fill your pockets with a Clif Bar or three, for calories in a pinch. Clip a Nalgene of water to your deck or stow a bladder in your cockpit.
Protect your face from sun and splash with a brimmed hat, polarized sunglasses, and sunscreen. I prefer fingerless paddling gloves, and I always have a paddle leash. If you’re going to be fishing, a deck mounted rod holder to trail the rod backward from your hip is very handy. Stash a fish bag on the back deck with a lanyard and keep a small driftwood club in the foot well to dispatch your catch. Keep a small dry bag between your legs for convenience.
No matter your tripping style, you won’t want to go without this overnight gear: headlamps, a water filtration system, fishing equipment (a hand-line will suffice) and a four-season tent. Driftwood for fires is plentiful in most places. If you bring a white gas stove, bring a little extra fuel for starting a fire in wet conditions. As for food, fish are plentiful. A metal jig lowered off the kelp beds and reefs will produce something in a jiff.
Coho salmon are often sighted at the surface or off creek mouths where a trolled, un-weighted fly can deliver a tasty meal du jour. Horseshoe barnacles are a reliable fallback protein. Crab are hard to come by with the reintroduction of the sea otter, and the red tide warning is in evidence this time of the year, making mussels clams and oysters (but not barnacles) problematic. There will be salal berries in season but not a lot more ashore. I typically pack root veggies, apples, onions, garlic, tamari and other favorite spices and rice to cook up with the fish, and olive oil (instead of butter). Carry a small stash of freeze-dried food as backup.
I recommend getting your hands on one of these guide books: Sea Kayaking Canada’s West Coast, by Ince and Kottner, B.C. Coastal Recreation, Kayaking and Small Boat Atlas (Volume 1 and 2) and The Wild Coast, Volume 2 by John Kimantas. Find the relevant Canadian nautical charts for the area you visit. And finally, a book I found invaluable my first time in these waters, Cruising Guide to the West Coast of Vancouver Island. It’s a large format, poorly bound tome but it has photographs, aerial and otherwise, of much of the shoreline.
Touring is the conventional word to describe any multi-day paddling excursion. When you break that down, these three terms represent a generalized, yet more or less complete triad of approaches to ocean kayaking, here or anywhere, really, and involve a degree of risk and effort in descending order.
For purposes discussed here, for the chance to paddle, explore and camp on open seacoast that receives minimal attention from development, commercialization, regulation, power boats and traffic of any kind, I’ll focus on the area between Cape Scott, at the extreme northern tip down to Tachu Point just above Nootka Sound to the south.
Base camp: Ideal for when you want to access a particular area and set up shop. First time trips often find themselves on a beach catching their breath, soaking it all in. Oldsters like to revisit a favorite haunt and reflect. Reversionists like to find a spot of beach front to live like Crusoe. While the ultimate base camp trip involves the complete experience of self-powered travel to and from, the boat assist is a viable option. Depending on how remote you want to be, the journey out and back can involve some challenging paddling. The effort and dangers risked in such a journey, to arrive at a truly primo spot to hang for a week or two and pay your respects, can feel like the literal, aforementioned, pilgrimage. But for some who care more about the camping than the paddling, getting skiff support or water taxis is a good idea.
Packing for a base camp is often overdone. If you’re taxiing in of course, you can bring the sink. But if it all has to fit into the boats, whether it’s a single day’s paddle or three, it will have to be carefully thought out. The fact is, I pack to the max out here preferring to travel a little slower with more ballast and to have something I might want, than to travel lean, especially to a base camp. If you’ve got things you want to do on the beach like photography, carving, fishing, it might require a bigger load.
Some things to look for with a base camp approach are, first and foremost, an all weather access. Coves or bays can help with this. Islands with reefs work well. Even if there’s a gale blowing, it’s handy to have enough calm water in front of camp to get out and jig up dinner.
The Bunsby Islands in Kyuquot Sound is a solid base camp destination, with its semi-protected waters from outlying reefs and the islands/islets themselves. You’ll have to paddle to mainland shore for water, but islands usually mean no bears, cougars or wolves (unless they swim out to join you).
Trek: I call it this, or safari, because in terms of style it has more of a fluid, spontaneous, poetic quality about it. It’s similar to a trek through the Alps or a safari across the African plains, where there is time to grow philosophical and the objective isn’t everything. The trek has some of the practical aspects of the expedition—the frequent travel, the exploration—just as it has some of the qualities of the base camp, in that if you find an especially resonant spot you may want to throw out the anchor. But there’s a freedom with the trek to do what you want, unlike a committed expedition with a compelling objective.
Packing for a trek is little different than the expedition. More on water time means more Clif Bars and energy drinks. Going ashore for lunch on the outer coast isn’t as easy as the inside and we seldom bother. The basic premise with trekking is to pick an area that stirs the soul. An area you’d really like to visit. Like the expedition, shuttles are a good way to keep the experience ahead of you. Bring all the maps/charts and reference material you have for mulling over in camp. And above all, feel free to do what you will.
Good trekking venues abound in Kyuquot Sound, immediately south of the Brooks Peninsula. The trekking route I recommend would be to launch in Fair Harbour, paddle out to the interface, explore Rugged Point and Grassy Island, then travel north to Spring and perhaps all the way up to the Brooks and back.
Expedition: The most demanding and possibly rewarding of the three touring styles. Much of the open coast is billed for ‘advanced paddlers only’. Coastal expeditions factor in all degrees of challenge, whatever is between you and your objective down coast, starting at Point A and proceeding hell or high water to Point B. Time is a function of the experience and spending three weeks to a month or more on the water is common. The motto for these type of trips is ‘paddle when possible’. A week straight of packing and unpacking boats and camps at the front and rear end of eight hours in the saddle is a demanding drill. The biggest perk of this style of trip is the length, or rather what that translates to, which is being there. Sounds silly, but truth is most of us have a good week buffer on either end of our travel and a month actually lets you arrive before you start planning your return.
The satisfaction from a successful expedition is different than any other style. It isn’t man against sea but man against himself. The demonstrated strength of character that can surface in this kind of outing is something a person takes with them throughout life. I admit that each time I settle for something less strenuous and demanding than the full banana, a part of me is disappointed.
Packing for an expedition is completely focused on a traveler’s itinerary. Keep the cooking scene minimal, carry a smaller tent. Less clothing, less of everything, really, will make the repacking and the paddling easier. For example, leave the hiking boots at home, and only bring the sandals.
Paddling from Port Hardy to Fair Harbour is a classic north coast expedition. Give yourself a month to cover the hundred or so miles and half a dozen challenging points, capes and peninsulas. The only caveat is Cape Scott Provincial Park comprising most of the land around the cape and extending south to San Josef Bay. Camping fees, no matter whether you arrive by land or sea, are $10 per person per night—too steep for this old hippie. Launching at San Josef Bay is an alternative, except, you should round Cape Scott at least once—it’s unforgettable.