Kayaking the North Pacific

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Rob Lyon is never happier than when there’s open ocean to paddle, salt air to breathe, a fine island to wait out the storm and plenty of fish to eat. The wild northwest coast of Vancouver Island has it all, and then some.

Last to bed, I closed up the kitchen and kicked sand on the remaining embers of the fire. I left my radio on to catch the ten o’clock weather update from Environment Canada. They were calling for Storm Force winds by early afternoon.

Under scudding clouds and flat ivory moonlight I climbed the sand berm to the grassy ridgeline of the island where my tent was pitched. I meditated with my hoody pulled up against a brisk sou’east wind, then ducked inside and fell asleep.

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The next morning I woke up early to someone yelling to the camp: “If we don’t want to get stuck here for the next three days we’d better get the hell out right now. They’ve just upgraded from storm to hurricane force winds expected later this morning.”

I stuck my head outside the tent flap and could feel the steady push of fresh salt air against my face. No way was I going anywhere today. I was here for the atmospherics, as much as everything else. I wouldn’t miss a storm like that on our little island for anything. Nor would I begin a three-hour crossing in the path of a hurricane.

I went over to Colin’s tent. He was taking a wiz. Our brief consultation ended in a unanimous decision. We’d ride it out on the island.

It was deeply disturbing watching our friends hurry to break camp, pack up and get on the water. They had traveled together from Fair Harbour originally and felt it would be inconvenient for them to split up.

“Inconvenient” was not in Colin’s and my lexicon out here.

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We well knew the crossing these guys faced—about eight miles of open water with no protection whatsoever. It was the kind of crossing I liked to make with a clear forecast for the day. Instead, they would be paddling into building seas and wind, and if bad went to worse quicker than predicted, well, it would be a very wild ride.

I did very little impulsive kayaking anymore, gauging a decision to leave the beach against a body of objective criteria formed from years of coastal paddling. Sure, sometimes a desire to get somewhere for some reason overrode those guidelines, but not very often and never involving a risk of this caliber.

We waved good-bye from the beach and wished the crew good luck, then climbed up on the rock lookout to mark their progress with our binoculars.

We puttered around the island the rest of the day, making final adjustments to securing the few possessions we had. Zack had left our resupply bags and we rummaged through the spoils like a couple of five-year-olds on Halloween: beer, Clif Bars, books, fuel, smoked oysters. I figured we’d weigh out as heavy as we did when we’d launched at San Josef.

Long about noon we heard from Zack from a B&B in Kyuquot.
“Dude, you’re going to miss the storm,” I told him.
“Meh, we’ll catch it here.”

Late that afternoon, I suited up and slipped out the back channel to try and catch enough fish to last a couple days. The ordinarily calm water of our tiny cove was pretty lumpy and I shot through a slot in the reef into the semi-protected, leeward side of the islets. I slipped a bull kelp float under my deck line to serve as an anchor while I fished the deep, rocky bay. Suddenly, I heard the wind keen loudly through the timber. Cat paws raced across the water and slammed into my boat.

It was only a gust, but a harbinger, nonetheless, and even the steady blow made it difficult to keep my balance and fish at the same time. I was able to pick up our fish but my nerves were on edge by the time I was finished.

We sat around the fire that night, spacing out, staring at the shifting flames and sipping some single malt a buddy had left with us.Colin got to his feet and said he was going to bed. He wasn’t feeling well.

I sat up a while longer, thinking back on the trip and feeling like it was pretty much over. It had been a long haul since leaving San Josef Bay. I retraced our journey from our last night in Campbell River, up to the rainforest launch and out and round three different Capes, riding the glorious NorPac swell trains, then a Mad Hatter dash from the tip of the Brook’s to our present digs in the Barrier Islands.

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It was the week after Labor Day when Colin and I caught the redeye ferry from our home in Washington’s San Juan Islands. We made Campbell River by six, parking his beater Toyota in a slip fronting the palatial grounds of the Painter’s Lodge resort as the sky unloaded. Chunks of rain the size of marbles caromed like bullets several feet into the air off the shiny seal-coated black asphalt. As we scurried for the covered entrance to the lodge, I noticed the rigs filling the parking lot were all lux, not a vehicle worth less than 40K in the bunch. The irony was not lost on us: pretty sumptuous digs for two cash-challenged dudes yearning for primordial.

We soldiered on with microbrews in the bar, filet mignon and Courvoisier in the dining room overlooking the marina, then caught the Olympic diving competition in our two-story suite, banking lavish comforts against a stark month on the wild seacoast ahead.

It was our second expedition together, Colin and I. The guy’s a stud, brimming with passion, strength and smarts; he is exactly the kind of bud you want with you out on the coast. He had signed on a trip several years earlier, paddling with two other friends of ours from Port Hardy to Fair Harbour. Now, back for more, he was looking, he told me later, to make a career move into the sport. (Ten years has passed and he now owns the happening kayak biz on the island, Cascadia Kayaks and is certified with both BCU 4 Star and Coach training.)

A long roadtrip north the next day took us near Port Hardy. From there, we turned onto a sprawling matrix of poorly signed, oiled dirt and gravel logging roads, headed to the San Josef River, which we planned to paddle out to the ocean. Enormous logging trucks, full of rainforest carnage, roared by every few minutes.

We’d gotten lost on the way in while puzzling over the cryptic marks an old guy at a service station had scrawled on our map. Finally, Colin spotted a sign, nailed high on a rain-blackened tree announcing the San Josef River Heritage Site. Doug DesJarlais, the jaunty Bombadil-esque steward of the place, came out to meet us and confirm, that yes, this was where our shuttle driver would look for our rig, and yes, he told us, and pointed to a stand of trees, “River’s right over there.”

Doug joined us for a beer around the fire after dinner. We blended a little of our own smoke with that of the wet wood in the fire, a nouveau peace pipe ceremony, and discussed the state of our respective governments, the upcoming US Presidential election and the woes of inequity around the globe. I liked DesJarlais, not only was he steward of his humble little park, but of Canada, the human race and the earth at large. A universal citizen, Doug made us feel right at home in our little bit of rain-sopped wilderness.

The San Josef River is a moderate-sized, tannin colored, tree shrouded river with clay banks, a gentle swirling, glassy flow and a mirror for the rain-blackened trees crowding the far bank. Launching on the river had been a key idea when conceiving the trip—we paddle down it to the sea on the morrow—but it felt dank and sullen, and I was eager for the restless, bright ocean.

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The river was anticlimactic. I threw out a fly to see what might happen and hooked a trout, but the best thing about the river was delivering us to the sea.

Around the last bend in the river was a short, straight stretch flowing past a broad sand beach to the north and ending in a vigorous wave train at the mouth. We lounged on the sand in hot sun waiting for conditions to moderate a smidgen and dipping in the river to cool off.

Cape Palmerston marks the southern corner of San Josef Bay. To avoid strong currents at the tip, we swung wide. I had tried the channel close to shore once before and found myself in frightening conditions: heaving swell, swift currents, gusty winds and going nowhere fast. South of Palmerston welcomed us with big rolling swell, sun, and a tailwind out of the northwest each afternoon. We paddled together a hundred feet apart, and like a carousel, we rose up and down, occasionally in sight of each other.

We passed Raft Cove and Grant’s Bay, and a third night enclosed by four walls in Gooding Cove off Quatsino Bay as Environment Canada warned of storms brewing in the southeast.

We knew an ideal spot to be beached for that storm and it sure as hell wasn’t hunkered inside four walls and a cloud of mosquitoes. Smiling again, grinning ear to ear, actually, and trading quips with my buddy, I wondered if we’d run into that old buck. We made a beeline for the outside through scattered broken islets and reefs to open water.

Quatsino Sound was lumpy. Two big seiners, four fishing skiffs, and a single sailboat were heading into Winter Harbour ahead of the storm. I figured we were no more than a couple of hours to our destination and the blow wasn’t expected until later in the day. We kept a sharp eye on the sea ahead as we paddled, noting each break and looking for anomalies.

Seagulls cawed sharply over the boom of breaking surf. A squad of sea lions popped up to check out the invaders, then chased us onto the bight. We beached our boats and dragged them a short distance to the seaward side. I broke out a couple of Clif bars and tossed one to Colin as we sat in the sand to study the chart and observe the breakers. We checked for pattern and periodicity and decided on a route.

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Hanging a left we scooted through a deep channel, through yet another reef, and within a few minutes we peered down into smooth running, crystal green water with fat kelp stalks and fronds swaying like a submarine forest beneath our boats.

Ahead: our island.

We sensed the wind veer around to the sou’east and huff like a dragon through the timber copses at each end of our islet as we beached—a harbinger of things to come. Standing on the black pea gravel beside my boat I recalled the last time through: lunch, a storm blowing in, Colin’s girlfriend’s pheromones clouding his decision, crew contention, and a drab photo depicting group grump that landed in the next Kokatat catalog.

The island is shaped like a dumbbell. Connected by a clam shell and cobble isthmus, there’s a low knoll at one end and a towering bluff at the other with weathered trees and surge channels slicing into the surrounding rocky shore.

Colin found his two trees and strung up his hammock while I found a level spot of sand for my tent, then I went out looking for our old friend.

At one end of the island I started at a sudden disturbance of gravel behind me, and a huge, white-whiskered, six-point buck lumbered slowly to his hooves. It was him.

He’d made it through another winter. His coat was scruffy and he moved as if he had arthritis. There were worse pasturages for a dignified old stag like him, though. He really made me smile and I only wished I could lie down in the sun with him, maybe use his flank as a pillow. He wasn’t spooked by my presence, but grazed on sweet peas and remained reluctant to let me approach.

I let him be and on the way back to camp a bald eagle missing several primaries flew overhead to a perch on a towering snag. No spring chicken myself, I felt right at home with my long toothed companions.

We spent the next couple of days getting spanked by gales, watching the seas by day and relaxing with beers and fish, albeit exclusively greenling, for dinners and chatting into the nights.

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Colin had been thinking of buying a kayak, of going the whole nine yards, as he put it. He’d already signed up for a class back on our home island.

“Between us, you know,” I confessed, “you’re the kayaker.”
He laughed.  “Shut up.”
“Oh, absolutely!” I said. “No brainer. I’ve been watching you the last couple of years out here.  You’re like a race horse in amongst the ponies.”

That had him flustered.

“The deal with me,” I told him in confessional tones, “is that I just dig being out here. On the beach or on the water, I dig ‘em both. But right, smack out at the interface.  Like this!” And I swing my arm around our gritty, wave-lashed sand and cobble demesne fronted by God’s own white-capped ocean. “Coastal wilds is my baby,” I told him in earnest, wanting to nail the heart of the issue to a stump, “and whatever the simplest and smartest way to do that and still haul some swag along, I’m all over it.”

I chucked a rock for emphasis.
“Right,” Colin said. “Well, you’ve made some epic trips on this BC coast for not being a kayaker.”
We laughed at the irony of that.

“But I hear what you’re saying,” he said, “I’ve always been a sport bum, myself. For me it’s always been about the sport: soccer, snowboarding, mountain biking, and the equipment involved. Big on the equipment too, especially the ride. I mean hell, look at my life. I own a bike shop for Chris’sake. And sea kayaking is no different. I’m going in head over heels with it. I want to be the best, most capable, knowledgeable, skilled sea kayaker I can be.”

“You’re a good athlete; I can see why you would.”
“So are you.”

“But I’m lazier than you. I’d love to paddle a kayak that was more like a sports car than a semi, honestly. Become a centaur of the sea, be pretty cool. I don’t paddle these things,” and I point at our beamy sit on top boats pulled up on the driftwood, “because they’re sexy. But I’m not willing to invest the time and energy into mastering a self-rescue. Not to mention the anxiety that goes along with that crucial need to perform when the shit hits the fan out there. It’s like the difference between mountain climbing and trekking. I’ve had some good friends who knew their shit and ended up dead in those things.”

Colin chucked a rock in the water. I pulled on my beer.

I climbed the big salal covered bluff that afternoon and up into a huge spruce and sat in a saddle of two big branches in contemplation, looking out through ancient, hoary limbs and needles over a ragged grey and white seascape.

I harkened back to a big storm in a small ship I experienced at sea as a boy, watching those grey moiling mountains of water and feeling more awe than fear, but a bunch of both. The memory is deep and cellular, or maybe that’s soulular, but I think some of the deeper compulsion I have for being out on the open sea in a small boat is to try and reclaim that simple enchantment. When I first kayaked on the coast I felt as though the breaking waves were chasing me, as if I had imbued them with anthropomorphic power. It has been a harrowing road back to simple awe, but to paddle open ocean in such a state in a tiny boat, and to feel at one with that power, rather than hiding under a shroud of fear, is an extraordinary experience.

***

Before we’d left on the trip, I realized a friend of mine was going to be traveling with a group of mutual friends on the south side of the Brooks. We decided to turn our radios on at twelve and seven pm during the time we expected to be in this area.

Sure enough, after a morning of bright sun and mild winds and sea, and paddling around Lawn’s Point, when we entered Brook’s Bay my VHF crackled and a familiar voice came through: “Sea Lyon, calling Sea Lyon. Do you copy? Over.”

Zack, it turns out, was trolling for salmon by Solander Island. It was great to hear his voice. We gave him a thumbnail on our progress and a rough idea when to expect us on the other side.

“We’ve got the lagoon to check out first. Weather permitting we should be coming on around in a few days. Say hey to everyone for us.”

The lagoon was a destination of ours largely because of hearsay. Truly it is a gem, with calm inside waters and a view of the heart and soul of the Brook’s Peninsula. Several creeks debouch into the lagoon and the water is either salty or fresh depending on tide. At low tide we would wade out and hunt Dungeness crab on foot.

We spent a couple of days at the lagoon tucked in the lee of the big sand dunes. The hinter wilds constantly beckoned and looked like a postcard from our camp. Stunted trees and meadows alternated by abrupt rock ridge-lines and distant peaks.

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