We could hear wet, powerful, bursting blows. It was the first day of our proposed month of paddling down the North and West Coasts of Vancouver Island.
Rain had greeted us early that morning as we launched from Port Hardy. Fog shrouded us on the tidal river that fills the three mile wide Goletas Channel between Vancouver Island and the Gordon Islands. Somewhere out in the soup there was a whale that we could not see. Ahead in the veil of misty grey lay the first of our campsites.
Goletas Channel is a funnel through which Johnstone Strait fills and empties with the tide. The first three days on the long channel were reminiscent of paddling in the Gulf or San Juan Islands. Pay attention to tide, current and wind while stroking out the miles. We enjoyed the cliffs and ever-changing shoreline of the northern barrier islands. Eagles, seals and the shore birds that would be our constant companions joined us. Signs of bears were on every beach. After crossing back to the main island, we found a special gravel bar up a hidden stream where we could camp in the forest, out of the wind and away from the constant sea sounds.
At the Western end of the channel lies Tatnall reef, a shallow submarine ridge formed by a half-kilometre deep pile of rubble that was shed off the snout of a glacier as it paused after gouging the long channel. In places the water is only 10 metres deep over the moraine dam that stretches all the way across from south to north. Atop the reef a six to eight knot ebb tide flowing west meets the full Pacific swell boldly rolling in from Alaska. All of this happens in shallow water with a high volume flow. Ferocious north winds contrary to the ebb can lift the swell into a breaking maelstrom a half mile long. Wind-blown whitecaps from any direction often spice things up. Tatnall Reef demands focused attention.
As we approached the reef on our fourth day, fog tightened our vision down to a few hundred metres and a light rain was falling. Even though we would not see the reef very far in advance, the tide and current charts told us that this was one of the best days and times to cross it. We are old school, using deck compasses and charts only. Constant vigilance and some shouting back and forth confirmed our position. Earlier in the day a boomer caught Bevan and side-surfed him off to my left with the wave breaking over his head. He smiled as saltwater dripped from his hair and beard. His exhilarated hoot was what I would expect from a fellow who has paddled forty years on the sea and rivers. Bevan Walker was among the first to solo circumnavigate the South Island of his native New Zealand. He helped an Aussie fellow named Paul Caffyn learn to paddle in the icy Tasman Sea. Paul was later the first person to circumnavigate Australia solo.
We approached the reef with just enough visibility to allow us to pick a sweet spot for our passage. Around us the sea popped and danced. With each stroke we went farther out onto the open coast yet once we had passed over the reef it was like paddling along semi-blindly on a pond. Quiet wind, mild swell, four knots of current behind us. It was spooky and mesmerizing to paddle just within site of shore yet far enough out to avoid the reefs and boomers. The limited visibility would suggest that we not paddle at all, but we had spent the previous day storm-bound by rain, wind and a sea that neither of us would even consider entering. The island was teaching us that the openings for safe travel would not come every day. Ahead lay the formidable and infamous Cape Scott, Cape Cook and the Brooks Peninsula. South of the Brooks another lineup of reefs, headlands and obstacles lay along our route. As the trip progressed we would elect to travel even when the woman on the marine weather radio was calling for three to four metre seas and winds to thirty five knots. We made our decisions predicated on what we could see near shore and on the geography that lay ahead as shown on our charts and on the maps we gleaned from John Kimantas’ useful guidebook to the west coast. We could listen to the computerized radio voice for a forecast of coming changes. Only the sea would reveal itself.
As we traveled we checked in periodically about our decision to go forward, to probe a likely looking beach or inlet, or to retreat to the only shelter we knew for sure, behind us at the previous night’s camp. Since we are guys, the back and forth was direct, to the point, efficient and sometimes no more than a few words or a nod. I squinted into the rain and fog. I watched my compass and double-checked our location on the chart. More than once we were certain that the compass was off by 90 degrees. Such is the confusion and delusion of fog. It required discipline to believe the needle. It was never wrong and the charts were dead right no matter what tricks our minds tried to play on us.
We felt our way round Frederiksen Point and cruised into Experiment Bight just short of Cape Scott. It is the last place one can land before rounding the cape into the open sea. As we neared the long crescent of sandy beach we spotted the tree-capped top of the cape to the west poking above the low overcast. Cape Scott is among the most storied landforms on Vancouver Island. Countless shipwreck sites litter the bottom. The bones of natives whose villages endured since the last ice age molder in the sand dunes. Rotting fences and a few fallen-in structures remind us of the white settlers who replaced the first nations people and then struggled and failed in this lonely place. There is no road to the outside world and no safe landing or port for a ship.
When I planned the trip I centered it around the monthly four day tide and current window that would give us the most favorable conditions to round Cape Scott. We were on schedule for the best tides but the wind, swell and fog kept us on shore. We spent a moody day chasing ghosts. We hiked a muddy track and slippery boardwalk up to the lonely lighthouse that is still manned by a watchman. The glimpses we got of the seascape around the cape excited and thrilled us. Such a wild far away place! We encountered a few sodden bedraggled trampers on the North Coast Trail section that traverses the cape. They had been out hiking in the week of nearly nonstop rain that we had been enjoying from the damp comfort of our kayaks. During our month on the coast we hiked as many hours as we paddled. There is much to see on land and almost nobody competing for the prime beachcombing. Back at our windy beach camp we waited and listened to weather reports that made passage in the next few days sound improbable.
Early the next morning, despite a lousy forecast the night before, we awoke to pre-dawn sea and weather conditions that seemed marginally right. The wind would shift to the south and rise to gale force by mid-day. We discussed the various scenarios that could unfold once we rounded the cape. We tanked up on food as we hastily loaded the boats. Just after first light we punched out through the surf. We drifted and paddled the first kilometre with the last of the ebb. The patchy fog was dissipating as our eyes strained in the low light to discern what lay ahead in the mist. Tall cliffs rose abruptly on our left. The now-evident northern swell collided with the ebb current tossing up two-metre green faces. Large standing waves, some with foamy tops, were forming ahead just off the North point of the cape. There was no turning back as the ebb gripped us and we were swept seaward.
The decision window was rapidly closing. Our river senses kicked in. Quickly we moved closer to the ragged cliff face. The current rocketed us along out past the headland on the left shoulders of a legion of foaming waves and then tossed us onto a confused, seething, large-scale eddyline. We danced and smashed across the boils and then bent off to the South into the complicated rock garden sprinkled at the toe of the cape. Joyfully beating hearts propelled us as we muscled and finessed our way through the labyrinth of stone on a confused, surging, energetic sea. Forty five minutes later we were around the cape. We clawed into the rising south wind that was freshening as predicted. Salty faceshots from the small whitecaps could not suppress the rush of gleeful energy we both felt after crossing the cape. We stayed well off shore out in the deep water to get the last of the ebb and set our eyes on the distant hulk of Cape Russell rising 10 kilometres to the south.
Ploughing along I imagined what lay ahead. The Brooks projects out from Vancouver Island like the thumb on your hand. Though it was still invisible in the mist we knew that it waited ahead. We had three hours more of grinding to reach a protected camp where the gale rising on our nose would trap us ashore for the next two days. We sensed that our strength, skill and judgement were a fair match for this wild West Coast. We bent to the task.
Though Jeff King lives in Bozeman, Montana, three river kayaks, five sea kayaks and two Canadian canoes clutter the ceiling of his garage. Originally from Portland, Oregon Jeff has paddled sea and river craft for forty years. On ocean paddling trips he has explored Baja, Mainland Mexico, Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica, the Bahamas, Cuba, Alaska, Canada, West Coast U.S., Hawaii, New Zealand, Tasmania and Thailand. Forty years of river paddling included stints as a wilderness river ranger and an Outward Bound instructor paddling rivers in the U.S., Canada and on four other continents. Now retired, Jeff hopes to go feral, live in a tent and paddle until his body demands that it is time to take up golf. His latest project is top to bottom on the West Coast of the U.S. He is doing this mainly as a series of non-contiguous daytrips with occasional 2-3 day runs as needed. His quiver of river boats also get regular use when the rivers are high.