Kayaking the North Pacific | Part II


Rob-Lyon-100x100The wild northwest coast of Vancouver Island still feeds Rob Lyon’s soul as he finishes his journey. Eddied out on Bone Game Island, where Part I meets Part II, he and Colin wave goodbye to friends and decide whether to wait out the storm or head home early.

It rained so hard in the middle of the night that the bedrock stream issuing from the base of a waterfall not far inland rose to heinous proportions. I got up to pee at one point and found the creek nearly lapping at my tent, forcing a quick and dirty relocation to drier ground. I awoke to settling conditions, still wild and wooly but the rain had left off. The sky was blue between scudding clouds. But the seas humping past just off the mouth of our little cove looked like herd after herd of white-tusked elephants on stampede. We weren’t going anywhere this day.

The next day, the elephants were still parading past but they were small and lacking tusks. We bathed in the icy waterfall behind camp, packed up and rounded the northern tip of the Cape of Storms in glassy seas, accompanied by a pair of Orcas feeding near Solander Island.

Solander_webAh, a beautiful thing, the sesacape out off this cape! If there was ever a heaven in earthly aspect, it would be the tip of Cape Cook. I admit to a fascination with this particular cape, as no doubt many kayakers do. Epic and forbidding, it’s anomalous topography and anomalous location survived glacial advances during the last ice age. The interior is mountainous with stunted forest, rocky ridgelines and sub-alpine meadows. Summer weather is typically out of the northwest with high pressure and the north side of the peninsula gets spanked like a bad tempered stepchild. Nearly every beach exposed to the north required surf landing when the high was in. We looked to be in between systems, thankfully, providing some windows to scoot.

The water off the tip of the cape is uber-dynamic. Considering it’s a chunk of rock jutting six miles into the North Pacific, the acceleration factor for wind and currents is exponential. In the five times I’ve been around it, I’ve seen Clerke Point on the southern tip, the real danger point, go from pancake flat to fifteen-foot breakers with Overfalls-from-Hell out at the tip of the reef. But off the tip between Solander and Clerke is the liveliest, most inspirational seascape I have ever, at any time, experienced.

As Colin and I paddled we trolled a fly, studied the shoreline and shouted back and forth.  A short ways past Solander he pointed off our left to Nordstrom’s Creek, where he and another friend of ours had climbed up and over and down to Nordstrom from the camp we had just left. From Nordstrom, they had hugged the coast and scuttled over/across some gnarly headlands for half the day before reaching their girlfriend’s camp at midnight.


One of the provisional truths about sea kayaking: conditions change. If you have the time you can wait for perfect conditions to come along. In theory, at least, that is a huge premise toward safe paddling. In practice, we wait for conditions within the paddling parameters we set for ourselves. And even then we occasionally push the limit, stretch our envelope to satisfy ancillary issues, i.e., deadlines, waning supplies, boredom, self-doubt. In theory, we can anticipate conditions changing and, if we’re prepared and patient, and able to accurately discern optimacy, we can cut ourselves a solid margin of safety.

The antithesis of the sea is a river, with its relatively consistent conditions. When you’re standing at the scouting point looking down on a tangle of rock and white water and wishing there was an outhouse somewhere around, you know that what you see is what you get, and waiting will only ice the kicker.

The dangerous reef at Clerke Point that spelled end of trip for at least two kayakers I’ve known, was a pancake as we approached that day. We were still earnestly looking around for breakers when we realized we were sitting right smack on the reef at dead slack. And right at that moment, Zack buzzed us on the radio.

He’d been fishing nearby, said he’d join us in five. Minutes later, we picked up the distant drone of his approaching 12-foot skiff. We’d been hoping to hook up with our friends encamped not far down the southern flank of the cape.


It had been several weeks since we’d talked with anyone but each other. We shot the shit a while. Zack told us they were breaking camp that day and heading to the Bunsbys.

“Big storm coming in” he said. “We want to get closer to Kyuquot so we don’t get stuck out here for another week.”
“Due in tomorrow, from what I’m hearing,” Colin said.
“Supposed to be a big one too,” Zack said, “Storm Force winds, a sou’easter.”

I was bummed. I loved the camp just down the way. But if we went there we’d miss our friends. We talked it over and decided to join them in the Bunsbys.

It was about seven miles straight across from the point where we sat to the protection of the O’Leary islets. Weather looked good, as did the forecast–light winds out of the northwest. Over my shoulder I noticed a small, dark cloud moving very slowly in our direction; I had noticed it for the last couple of hours. It was anomalous to my experience paddling the west coast, which was considerable, but it didn’t register as threatening. It wasn’t big black stratocumulus clouds but a rain cell, perhaps. I checked the barometer on my Suunto; it was steady and high.

The barometer began dropping and that funny little Cloud-that-Could, kept tracking us down. We were still a couple of miles out from the O’Learys when it hit—like a semi blowing past a hitchhiker.

A squall with winds at a solid 25 knots pushed up quick following seas and we had our hands full dealing with cresting waves astern. I was surprised at the vigor in such a slow moving system. In all my days on the coast I’d never seen anything like it.


I kept an eye on Colin over my shoulder a couple of hundred yards back and without a sail and could see he was flying right along, if not as fast as me. We rendezvoused in the lee of O’Leary with one huge sultan of a bull sea lion perched all alone on a massive rock spire and caught our breath. The squall had blown itself out.

Colin told me that he’d been on the edge with waves breaking on his stern and grabbing the low rail of his Wildy Tarpon boat. When that would happen it would yank the boat to one side and he would have to quickly brace to recover. My boat was a proven big sea boat and took both stern and beam seas very well. Bracing was something I rarely needed to do.

The sun popped out post-squall but I was wishing for more of that righteous wind to scoot me across the mouth of Ououkinsh Inlet and into the Bunsbys. My butt was ready for solid ground. Colin headed off to explore an old native village site nearby and while he did I threw out a bucktail and trolled for salmon. Jumping coho splashed all round and within minutes I had several hook ups. The second fish was a big one. I tailed it finally beside the boat and wrestled it into my lap, then dispatched it with a driftwood club I carried in the cockpit.


Bearing gifts of precious fresh salmon, we pushed on for Bone Game Island, as we called it, arriving well before our friends. A little island gives you a sense of command, as if it were your island alone, and for most purposes it is just that, king for a day, a week, a month. Bears and mosquitoes are not a factor. 360 degree views. There’s a spiritual, or metaphysical, quality to little islands like this in that they are whole in a scale you can wrap your head around.

Our buddies soon showed up and our little beach was jammed with kayaks and skiffs.  We had a fine party that night with salmon on the barbee and lots of catching up. We all got to bed later than we should have and the rest you know already. They got back to Kyuquot safely with a dicey departure early the next morning.


We got little sleep that first night alone, either of us. My tent bent and dipped and flexed pretty much nonstop. Rain pummeled it like a car wash, sheet after sheet of slathering rain swept over the islands throughout the night. I was kept awake more in awe of the unbelievable power of the elements than any real threat. I prefer my storms in the daylight.

At one point at the apex of the storm with winds shooting past overhead to the tune of 60-plus knots (we learned later), when the tent walls flexed down to boff my face, though, it occurred to me I might be better off in a more sheltered spot, several of which were available now that our friends had left. I heard several trees snap not far away. It might be a bit windy on the ridge where we were but we were safe from falling trees. This might be where my common sense stands on its head, but I felt like I had things covered and risked only a loss of one night’s sleep if I’d underestimated.

I absolutely dig storms and, frankly, that’s one of the primary reasons I come out here. I remembered back when I lived in Oregon and would drive the kids out to the coast when a big storm was due in. We’d hike out to the tip of Cape Falcon. It’s an awesome cape with deep green sea water surging against it, white foam and spray splashing its rocky walls. Out at the tip we would pitch a huge North Face dome. This is right at the edge of the continent with the slamming of waves reverberating up through the rock. The wind may have been the best thing of all, like the fresh breath of some great Norse God. The bigger the blow, the better we liked it. Cape Capers we called it. It became a family tradition.

Colin fared less well during the night.

Seems he developed a stomach flu after going to bed. He was up and down, tossing his fish tacos and in a sorry state, and when a tent pole on his Hilleberg tent snapped in the wee hours of the morning, he got up not knowing whether to hurl or deal.


I got up at first light and went out and stood up only to stumble and catch myself in the wind. The sea surround was a fuzzy green and white, patched with foam. Heaps of seaweed strewed the beach. The doug firs behind us swayed deeply in the wind but hadn’t snapped. It was dizzying. But the boats were fine. I looked over at Colin. A puddle of water stood on his half-collapsed tent. I didn’t want to disturb him and went down to make coffee.

It was a long couple of days for Colin as he gradually recovered. We took it easy and waited for a window to scoot over to Spring, or perhaps Thornton or Grassy, just beyond. But it pissed and groaned for three more days as the seas grudgingly regained composure. I gathered barnacles and made Colin Miso soup with garlic, barnies and Jasmine rice.

We settled into a pounding rain again that third night, having pushed a little farther to the mainland and finding a sweet little bay with a solid camp site. Personally, I was happy to be on yet another island during another storm. Beside the tent, my water bag gradually refilled as it dripped through a Katadyn gravity filter. Deep in the second book of an engaging trilogy with dinner out of the way and teeth brushed, I listened to the staccato of raindrop on the tent and felt as cozy as a dog by a roaring fire.

I awoke in the morning to blustery winds and showers and a forecast of worsening weather over the next couple of days. The increasing crunch of clam and crab shells forced me to peek outside the tent.  It was Colin—not a bear.

With a sturdier stomach and a calm between the storms, Colin was for getting out while the getting was good. I was feeling fine with holing up. Colin pointed out the worsening weather prediction and how that might mean another three or more days stuck on the beach. He had a loose commitment to be back in three days time; his wife was expecting him to babysit their daughter while she attended a workshop.


He and I had always tried to reach consensus on decisions. I hadn’t much respect for deadlines, but I agreed to take a look. I put on my raincoat and climbed the rocky point at the end of the island and with the chart and glasses had a scrutinizing look at our route options. It looked rough out along the coast between the Bunsbys and Spring, and reefy as hell. It appeared there was a route inside the reefs once we made Thomas Island and then we could tuck in behind the reef as we neared McClean Island, which seemed little lumpy but not so bad. I trundled back to camp and told Colin we could do it.

It was an exciting paddle in chaotic seas. Swell was rolling along at about four or five feet, and the refraction of waves from the chiseled coast made for sudden and unusual waves.  Shafts of sunlight winked in and out, and with the spray and golden light, it was like a scene out of a Renaissance painting, as if we were approaching Avalon instead of Kyuquot.

I led us safely through the gauntlet of breaking water and reef-speckled channel. Colin followed behind gutting out the effort. We made it out though with hearts pumping like pistons, only to have to thread our way back through yet another reef to make the shortcut inside McClean.

In a bit of ironic justice, I was taking the last few licks before I slipped through a very narrow slot into protected waters, once and for all.  Thinking I was home free, I let my attention lapse.  A wave rose up suddenly and broke completely over me, dousing me like a winning coach with a bucket of Gatorade. I came up spluttering but upright and laughing. It was never over ’til it was over.