On July 6, 2015, the “Capers,” Michael Egilson, Gene Gapsis, Debbie Leach, John Minkley, Jennie Sutton and Alan Campbell launched heavily loaded kayaks at a convenient beach access just north of Carrot Park in Port Hardy, BC.
by Gene Gapsis
It was a gorgeous, summer morning with a refreshing breeze to counter the heat, especially after packing and carrying our kayaks to the water’s edge.
We headed for the point, catching the last of the ebb to slip through the quiet waters inside Duval Island. Here was our first opportunity to view interesting marine life: hooded nudibranch hidden in the eel grass, red sea cucumbers, and countless jellyfish. Passing the fishing resort, we navigated into the surprisingly calm waters of Goletas Channel, crossing less than 3 nm to Duncan Island. After a brief break on the eastern shore, we paddled around the island, meandered through the Blyth Islands, past a large fish farm, and paddled toward Nolan Point. We found the main campsite occupied by a family from Alberta and decided to land on the other side of the creek. Most of our tents clustered in the “Burbs” on a small west-facing point overlooking Browning Pass and the Lucan Islands. Later that evening, we saw a humpback heading up Goletas Channel in the waning light.
Rising at 5am to be OTW by 7am, we set out for Cape Sutil in light fog, hoping to use as much of the ebb as possible and avoid winds that typically come up late morning. We headed along the shoreline of Nigei Island, with a rest stop at Loquillilla Cove, before making our crossing between Lemon Point and Shushartie Bay, in unexpectedly favourable conditions. We arrived at Cape Sutil around 2pm, an 18nm day. A couple from Portland, OR, occupied the site mid-beach, so we made camp beside the next rocky outcrop to the south, where the North Coast Trail continues to the next beach. Before supper, we hiked over the most northerly point on Vancouver Island, taking in the dramatic views of reefs and beaches beyond.
Next morning was foggy again. We hiked the narrow, somewhat rugged trail to the next beach, visiting the ranger’s yurt, open for use Sept. - May. As the sun broke through, we returned to camp for lunch before paddling to the river to collect water and clean up. The mouth of the Nahwitti, a protected fish habitat, teemed with jumping salmon. Paddling and rock-gardening a bit on the way back to camp, we then enjoyed black bean chili for lunch and organized ourselves for an early departure the next morning. Everyone could have stayed much longer in this stunning setting,
On the water early, we followed our PC Level 4 leader, Michael, around the Cape, keeping a safe distance from the reefs. After 2 hours, we put in for a quick break at Shuttleworth Bight, before continuing to Nissen Bight for lunch. Whales were feeding close to shore all along the way, and three of us found ourselves in the company of a humpback as we entered the Bight. Such close encounters, while not deliberate, are always awe-inspiring. With only 5-6 nm left to go to Experiment Bight, we arrived in mild surf conditions. The site was level, roomy and well elevated above the tide. Remains of the original Danish settlement from the late 1890’s were still evident, and the spectacular views made this an easy transition from the beauty of Cape Sutil.
Our group appreciated spending more than one night at a site after longer paddles, rather than moving every night. In addition to having time for bacon and pancakes with rehydrated maple syrup, blueberries and mango, we relished the time for day hikes, a paddle to Nels Bight, and fully absorbing our surroundings: the change of tides and weather, the progress of the sun, wildlife, as well as reading up on the history of the areas we were visiting.
We packed our lunches and goodies for the lightkeepers, and hiked along the old wooden track to the light, taking in the wildflowers and remnants from pioneers who had no choice but to leave, after a legacy of broken promises, when the Colony Act became a political football between the Liberals and Conservatives of the day. After only a few days, we fully appreciated turning a tap to replenish our water supply. We explored the beaches and stacks below the lighthouse; fishing was good just inside the Cape, providing a feast of delicious rock fish. Forecasted rain did materialize, but we had ‘tarped’ in anticipation, even enjoying a sighting of orcas offshore before turning in.
From Cape Scott to San Josef Bay is 13nm of spectacular paddling, where swells break dramatically along the rugged coastline and sea lions periscoped with curiosity at our odd presence. Heavy winds were forecast and larger boats were making their move further offshore. We took a lunch break at Lawrie Bay, a BCMTNA site with an easy landing behind a rocky islet. We explored the small cabin and took advantage of the green throne before proceeding around Russell Point. Sea Otter Cove and the Helen and Winifred Islands beckoned, but we carried on into San Josef Bay, leaving them for a day paddle. Setting camp on the north shore, our kitchen just behind a sheltering rock cliff, the very long, shallow beach could be a very distant launch, depending on the tide. We felt blessed to discover a natural pool beneath a lovely waterfall a short distance from our camp. The stunning beauty of San Jo is hard to describe, and there are many options for hiking, paddling up the river at high tide, or exploring the caves and arches along the north shore.
Hoping to beat the weather that was coming, we rose at 4am for a 7am start. With a .3 tide, it was a long haul to the water, and a long paddle out of the bay against swell and a southwesterly breeze. It was to be a longer paddle to Quatsino Sound, 22nm, without much of an opportunity to stop. At Raft Cove, our group split, with 3 of us heading to the main beach, and the others making stop at Paddlers Beach, a BCMTNA primary campsite well protected in a SW wind. For those that love to surf, Raft Cove is the place, but there is also another surf-free access to the north behind the reef.
Passing Grant Bay, rain was upon us, we entered Quatsino Sound in classic west coast conditions with the lighthouse and stacks off Kains Beach rising eerily in the rain and fog. Huddling under the trees, our tents were pitched and tarped with the aid of low branches reaching over the sand. We were a soggy bunch over supper, but the next morning dawned bright and beautiful, with brisk NW winds to dry everything out. There was a steady stream of sport fishermen heading to and from Winter Harbour, so we decided to explore the town, a 4nm paddle each way. Cruising the NE shore on the way, we discovered the best cave yet. In town, The Outpost provided fresh fruit and souvenirs, and a lovely lady from Smithers, Marti, gave us a huge slab of Chinook fillet to enjoy. On the way back, we explored the exceptional BCMTN campsites at Hunt Islets, and enjoyed a sea otter playing in the afternoon sun. The panoramic view from Kains is unsurpassed, with views of the southern shores of Quatsino Sound.
The strong NW winds did materialize over the next few days, and we left in a 15+kt breeze, to cross to the north shore. We spent our morning exploring the fabulous caves before taking lunch at the BCMTN Quatsino Caves site. Past the Bedwell Islands, the coast was plainer, the mountains lower, and wind tumbled down the hillsides to hit us with gusts as we made our way past Monday Rocks, a large Marine Harvest fish farm, to Spencer Cove and beyond. It was a switch to stay at a forestry campsite with picnic tables, fire rings and split wood, and neighbours driving in and out. We even broke out the camping oven, to make cornbread. Where Nordstrom Creek met the ocean, a black bear turned over rocks for tasty morsels. From Spencer Cove, we made our most memorable day trip, first exploring the still and peaceful beauty of the Koskimo Islands early in the day, and Mahatta Creek, a magical spot with a robust waterfall for fresh water, pools downstream for bathing, and eagles circling. The BCMTN campsite is at the entrance to the creek, with 6-7 sites in the trees.
The next day our goal was reaching the BCMTN site at Drake Island. While most of us thought the fun was over once we entered Quatsino Sound, taking time to discover its many treasures proved to be a very pleasant surprise for us all. We checked out Undercover Cove, Shapland and Bish Creeks, but nothing could match Mahatta to us. We made camp at Drake, inside Pamphlet Cove, appreciating the recent improvements made by BCMTN. With plenty of day left, we crossed and headed for Quatsino town, stopping to chat with Steve on the dock at Eagle Roost Resort, who arranged for Vicky to open the museum for us. Pioneer artifacts and photos were complemented by homemade jams, beautiful hand sewn gifts, and historical accounts for sale at the museum. A visit to St Olaf’s Church, formerly the colony’s school, completed our tour. We enjoyed a very restful evening, listening to kingfishers and sharing impressions of our trip in one of our nightly circles.
Morning came with a change in weather—rain, fog and wind made it a bit cooler. We circumnavigated Drake Island, fascinated by an old
homestead on the south shore. The modest house, flowers and fruit trees helped us imagine the lives of previous residents. We enjoyed a final supper on Drake, knowing the following day would see us back in civilization.
Before heading for Coal Harbour, we explored Hecate Cove the next morning. We traversed the Narrows slowly at slack, marveling at the wealth of marine life along the ledges, and seeing the Native burial cave we read about halfway through. Leatherbacks, dogstars in orange, magenta, and turquoise, chitons, bright orange whelks, sea cucumbers and more lined our path, and it was so worth taking the time to notice. We made one last side trip to Marble River, but the tide was too low for us to reach the canyon. Lunch beside a huge stump along the river sustained us until we put ashore in Coal Harbour, where we were picked up by a friend and taken to our vehicles in Port Hardy. A welcome shower, supper out, and quiet, final thoughts shared back at the hostel brought our trip to a close. While the Circle Route has the capacity to be a very challenging trip, we marveled throughout at our good fortune, to have such ideal conditions, so little rain, everyone home safely, tired and grateful. This was a trip that inspired and bonded us with lasting memories of Vancouver Island’s extraordinary beauty.