Discovering the Broken Group Islands


I waved goodbye to a group of kayakers as I unloaded my kayak and gear. There were about eight of them; all women on a level three skills course, headed out with instructors from Blue Dog Kayaking.

Before going our separate ways, I passed on my intentions to them and established a daily radio check-in. Then, they paddled off into the moody West Coast morning. Within a few minutes, the mist swallowed them up, and I was alone.

I put my camera away and set to work packing my kayak. A new-to-me used Vancouver Island-made Seaward Chilco. I had stopped by the Seaward factory the previous day, where an incredible fleet of kayaks was on display. The helpful staff showed me around and even offered to do a few minor touch-ups on the hull of my Chilco to get her expedition ready.

Packing was easy; I had chosen the Chilco for its spacious storage. It was slim, long, sleek, fast, and the color of fire. Fitting, as I sure was ready to fire up this kayak trip, a solo journey on what some say is Canada’s finest five to seven-day sea kayak expedition. Bring it on Broken Group Islands.

The Broken Group is a cluster of nearly 100 forested and rocky islands on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. The 130 square kilometer area encompassing the Broken Group Islands is included in the Pacific Rim National Park, which offers protection from future development. The islands sprawl 20 kilometers from the mainland towards the entrance of Barkley Sound.

While the inner islands are more sheltered, the outer islands are fully exposed to the elements of the Pacific Ocean. Even at the record-breaking temperatures of 2023, the Pacific barely exceeds 21 degrees Celsius (60º F). Rolling swell is common, and afternoon “breezes” often reach 25 knots. It’s an area that requires considerable caution, recommended only for paddlers both prepared and skilled. But the scenery is legendary. Wave-carved cliffs produce spectacular buttressed headlands, blowholes, caves and arches.

The scenery is no less enchanting in the sheltered waters, which house labyrinths of passages through lagoons and narrow channels. Panoramic landscapes feature wind-sculpted rock, weathered cedar, fir, and arbutus trees, turquoise waters and picturesque sandy beaches. I had heard tales of humpback and grey whales, sea lions and fur seals, bald eagles, and wolves, and was curious what I might encounter.

After checking the weather forecast (mostly cloudy with 5 knots wind increasing to 15 knots later, 10-15 degrees Celsius (50-59 ºF), with a water temperature of no more than 10 degrees Celsius, (chilly!), I looked out at the visual weather and sea state. It was still calm, a light north-westerly breeze rippling the water’s surface, barely disturbing the thick fog.

Looking down at the nav chart, I plotted a more conservative route. From my launch point at Secret Beach, I would trace the coastline around the bay, relying on wind-protected areas and reducing crossing distances to give me time to adjust to the weather.

A quick double-check of the gear list: Personal Locator Beacon, radio, phone, chart and compass; first aid, shelter, warm clothes, sleeping mat and bag; food, cooking equipment and freshwater. With a blessing to the weather gods, I was good to go.

I pushed into the Pacific and began my journey through Toquart Bay and the Barkley Sound. Cruising southeast along the coast, I nipped up the Toquart River a short way. It was quiet, minus a beaver and a few Canadian Geese doing their thing. Finding my rhythm, I began laying down kilometers. My paddle sliced effortlessly through the water despite a mild headwind and gentle chop.

A Bald Eagle soared overhead, scouting for fish. Harbor seals poked their heads out above the waves, black eyes watching me as I passed endless picture-perfect scenery. At Gibraltar Island, where the ladies were camping, I waved my greetings.

Seven kilometers farther west, I strung my tarp and set up my hammock beneath the redwood trees of Gilbert Island. When I was done doing battle with the sandflies I rolled into bed. Tired but happy, I pulled the hammock around me to form an insect-free cocoon with perfect ocean views.

I woke to an overcast morning. Rather than get up, I snoozed and read the 20-year-old Sea Kayak Guide to British Columbia. Eventually, the need to go to the toilet got the better of me. I slipped out of my sleeping bag and into my shoes. “Uhh….” Something wet and slimy made me recoil. Pulling my foot out, I found that a slug had made a cozy new home. Great!

Breakfast was a healthy porridge with chia, sunflower seeds, coconut, and psyllium husk, topped with fresh fruit. I brewed a coffee and sat on a driftwood log, contemplating my plan for the day. It seemed like this would be my best weather window for the outer islands, so I packed up and glided out towards the open ocean.

I like paddling on glassy, calm days but also enjoy the challenge of navigating the coastline with pounding swell washing up on the rocks when surging tidal currents squeeze through rocky channels to form river-like hydrology. Paddling in 15-25 knots can be punishing, but there’s nothing like a bit of type two fun to make an expedition memorable.

As I approached building conditions around Howee Island, I made a mental note to move my beacon from the dry bag between my legs to my PFD pocket. Waves crashed over my bow as I rode the one to two-meter swell. I held the Chilco stable and changed my paddle blade off-set from cruising mode of 15 degrees to “go mode” of 45 degrees, which allowed the blades to slice through the wind more easily with each stroke.

Rounding Bouwer Island, I spotted a narrow channel. I held my position for a minute to observe the surging waves. Then, I timed my approach for the front side of the swell, when the tremendous energy rolling just underneath the surface would help boost me through the gap.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I took in the views. A seal perched on the rocks behind me. In front of me, forested islets dotted the horizon, backed by views of snow-capped mountains—Sawtooth and Triple Peaks. To my left, looking northwest, white-capped waves built steadily and a solid grey cloud front loomed off the coast.

I chose to navigate a couple more small islands on my way to Clark Island, stopping briefly on Benson Island to stretch the legs at a perfect bay tucked out of the wind. On a short wander into the forest, I came across a beautiful meadow guarded by a wooden statue. Reading the plaque, I learned that this was a sacred place for the Nuu-chah-nulth, who lived off the land and sea on Benson and the surrounding Islands. I paid my respects before continuing my journey.

Much of the camping is wild throughout the Broken Group Islands, with seven, semi-established campsites. At Clark Island, I found the perfect kayaker’s camp, complete with a white sandy beach, a soft grassy area, and large conifers to protect from weather. Taking advantage of the midday sun, I set up my solar charger before repairing some gear, taking a dip in the clear turquoise waters and luxuriating in the sun. I spent the following few days paddling through the network of islands, exploring the area’s coastal environment and cultural significance.

Remnants from the islands’ early inhabitants are scattered across the Broken Group. Archeological evidence from diggings in 2015 revealed remains of camps, villages and composts. There are stone fish traps, village clearings and even house walls.

Carbon dating shows that the people of the Nuu-chah-nulth, Hupaasath and Tseshaht First Nations have inhabited these territories for over 5,000 years. Stories passed down through the generations of Tseshaht people say that there were five main tribes with a population once exceeding 3,000.

The islands still contain many sites of spiritual and cultural significance for the Tseshaht and Hupaasatḥ First Nations. Tseshat guardian and Broken Group Islands ranger, Shane, shared stories of his grandfather growing up in the islands. He told me their creation story, how the Nuu-chah-nulth ancestor carved up the landscape with his stone weapons, creating the archipelago we have today. How the creator cut deep into their leg with a shell, using the blood to give life to the first man and woman of their people.

The last day had strong winds forecasted. Knowing they would build in the afternoon, I chose to rise with the sun. By 0600, I was on the water, crossing back to Secret Beach before any chance of 25 knots.

The morning was airy and peaceful. Thick fog hung heavy over still water, each stroke a moment suspended in time.

Sipping at a coffee a few hours later, I stared out at the water from the comfort of my car. Gear packed and kayak loaded, I lingered, reluctant to leave the Broken Group behind.

We are a busy society these days. It feels rare that we take time to observe the natural world. Our idea of success focuses more on wealth and fame than time spent in nature, or even doing what makes us happiest. It’s important to try our best and aim high, but we shouldn’t forget what we need. Fresh air, exercise, inspiration, love…the list goes on.

A trip like this, with bears and creepy crawlies, and long uncomfortable days in remote wilderness may drive some crazy. However, a lot can be learned. Pursuing time alone in nature, without the constant buzz of normal daily distractions, lets us slow down. It shifts our focus to observing our surroundings and our internal happenings.

Trips like this help me to find a deeper connection. I grow more comfortable with who I am and what’s important to me. The beauty and perfection of the natural landscapes, the plants and animals inspire me. Sea kayaking or walking, being out in nature helps me see the cycle of life, to understand the ever-greater importance of conserving native cultures and the world we share.


An accomplished whitewater paddler and sea kayak guide, Guest Contributor Gabriel Vink Wackernagel lives life one paddle stroke after another. Whether exploring his native New Zealand or on waters far from home, the goal is always to take a moment and enjoy the journey.