With Cape Scott behind us we were now officially on the West Coast!
We beat down the coast into the wind another 32 kilometers South and tucked into the lee of the Helen Islands. Early in the afternoon the wind spun up to 25 knots with gusts as high as 35 by that evening. We burrowed in against the driftwood, tarped the tents and added more tiedowns as the skies threw down on us. The view South into the tempest was breathtaking, marvelous, unnerving.
We used the next two storm-bound days to catch up. We read, baked bread over a warming fire, gathered fresh rain water and tried to plan ahead. A little math is in order. We had set out from Port Hardy with 16 days of food and enough fuel for 8 days onboard. We were now 7 days and 120 kilometers into the journey. Two cartons of food and fuel, enough for two more weeks, waited for us in Kyuquot which lay 160 kilometers down the coast around to the South of the Brooks Peninsula. We were nearly half way through our original stores. Unless we could move South and get into position to round the Brooks by about Day 13 or 14 then at some point we would be forced to reverse course due to low provisions. We could retreat into Quatsino Sound and possibly seek to resupply at the poorly stocked dock in Winter Harbor – now 50 km away - or we could even paddle way up Quatsino into Coal Harbor to end the trip. Our truck was parked in Port Hardy and our intention was to let circumstances dictate our final takeout point down along the coast. I planned to bus or hitchhike from our unknown takeout to the truck while Bevan waited. Given all of the known variables, we went to half rations while we waited for the Southerly to quiet down.
The shelter of the Helen Islands allowed us to sneak up into Sea Otter Cove and really have a look around. We had not set out on this journey just to put a line on the chart. We weren’t in a race, we did not have a definite ending point and we even had a flexible ending date if we stretched our food and fished some. So we thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to cruise around looking down at the shallow water sealife that included orange and purple sea stars, golden welks, and irish green anemones. Clams, oysters and mussels carpeted the rocks. Kingfishers scolded and herons croaked at us. Otters crowded their namesake cove. They seemed to all have a favorite spot to float in groups and sleep to which they would always return after a brief dash to get clear of us. We saw our first wolf sign and encountered unbelievable piles of tsunami debris. We christened the fifteen inch fully mounted spare automobile tire as the icon of West Coast beach rubbish. These tires were on most of the beaches we visited for the next twenty days. The recent Japanese tsunami apparently knocked down some tire plants along with everything else. Need a spare tire? I can send you the coordinates.
Weather radio was calling for two more days of gale force Southerly but early on the second morning of our captivity the sea to the South looked passable. We could only really see three miles across the mouth of San Josef Bay. Kimantas’ maps and the info we gleaned from the BC Marine Trails site prior to launch suggested a few possible landing sites in succession about 2 hours, 3 hours or 6 hours paddle to the South. Worse case, we could always turn back and hunker down where we were. Given the conditions, it took a while to persuade ourselves to move on. Perhaps later than we should have, we loaded up and launched into a ten knot head wind, half meter oncoming swell and a scuddy, light chop. Today we would earn every meter of progress.
The crossing of San Josef Bay was the workout we had expected. We rounded Cape Palmerson in rough but stable conditions. Raft Cove presented the first charted landing spot. We veered in a few hundred meters for closer inspection. It looked surfy and quite exposed to the South wind. Good enough in a pinch; we held it in reserve and pressed on.
On our drive up the island we had the pleasure of a daytrip and beers with Stephan and Stephanie, two Nanaimo paddlers. They had done stretches of the West Coast, so they divulged a few secret spots and other not-to-be-missed attractions along our route. One of these, Topknot Point, lay about an hour ahead. There was a red asterisk on my chart and this meant “Sephanie said go here”. So we churned along, in denial about the now rising seas, headed to the asterisk.
Topknot is a beehive-like butte on land that marks the point. Easy to see and it fits its name perfectly. We wandered along as close to shore as we dared trying to find a route through the offshore reefs. The turbulent sea, reefs, rocks and boomers all kept us on our toes. Apparently hidden from view was an opening into a slot cove in the small headland. We searched. We looked and looked for at least fifteen minutes, all the while paddling at a crawl to get different shoreward looks, but mostly just flailing to stay in place. Finally, we caved and turned to run back North for Raft Cove.
It was thrilling to have the wind and waves behind us! We reeled off 150 meters in about thirty seconds. I turned for a farewell look at Topknot - and there it was – a razor thin line through the madness to a little pocket beach. I swung quickly to starboard and yelled to Bevan. He was a bit farther out to sea but he cranked around and we both powered in behind a slabby exposed reef that had an occasional two footer washing over it. We peeled out the far side of the reef and rock hopped over to the mouth of the slot. It was then just a matter of waiting in the jaws for the proper swell to come along and surf us into the long slot and up onto the beach. Our bows slid up onto polished marble sized rocks. Crunch. How surprising and magical to be in this place of near calm with the wild wind and sea all around us.
From our snug surround in Topknot Cut we could for the first time clearly see a misty green hulk way down the coast. The Brooks Peninsula. Every article or book we had read dedicated a pot of ink to describing and fearing the Brooks. Most of the kayakers we encountered before our trip whispered the name when they said it, “the Brooks”. It was like seeing Everest from basecamp; large, far off but seeming close, mysterious, inviting. We knew that it would define the rest of the trip. Either we made it down to the peninsula - and got around it in the next four days - or we would have to turn back toward Quatsino. After a lovely hike with nature dancing to her own very loud music we made a fire. We again reviewed the charts and BC Trails notes. It would take a couple of extended hops to get into position to round the Brooks. Some of the route had long spells between possible landings. The weather report called for more Southerlies. After a fine meal we sat around the fire in the gathering darkness, each of us lost in his thoughts.
Bevan was always up at four in the morning. If things looked good he was then supposed to wake me. To Bevan, things always looked good. So it was no surprise when he scratched on my tent and said, in his best kiwi English, “she’ll be right mate”. Time to go. We spent the day as before, into the wind and medium chop with occasional rain and some misty views down the coast. Three hours in we rounded Lippy Point and could clearly see the opening of Quatsino Sound ahead sculpted into the wooded mountainsides. It took another ninety minutes of grinding to bring us in past Kains Island. Kains is one of the marine radio reporting stations that we had heard referenced for many days. We searched for one of Kimantas’ secret camps just inside the mouth of the sound. After close inspection, and with a few descriptive exhortations, (sorry John), we found it and battened down in the sheeting rain and wind. That night we ate fresh fish, caught while we were out for a rocky, cliffy walk.
Thirteen kilometers, or about two hours, is what we figured for the Quatsino opening crossing. The wind was calm but forecast to move around quickly and strongly to the North early in the day. The predicted tide and wind combo only gave us a short favorable oportunity. There would be no visit to Winter Harbor. A humpback breached as we cleared Kain Island to begin our day; then another and another. These graceful beings gave us a fabulous sendoff toward Restless Bight on the far side of Quatsino. The first of the ebb took us West so we ferried slightly inland to get across the big open. Nearing Kwakiutl Point we could see glassy faces rising ahead – a few of them breaking - and it was clear that a rip was cutting around the point. The ebb current was kicking booty just ahead. We exchanged descriptive pleasantries and then rode that slippery wave train, briskly cleared the point, then out to sea.
We stood off the headland and stayed clear of the reefs and boomers. We then sliced in behind a group of isletes that were a half mile short of the final point. To our surprise there was enough water over the bottom to allow us to sneak in behind the islands and to get out of our boats for a stretch. Lawn Point looked like a PGA golf course just to our South. We had a marvelous view back up the coast from where we had come and an even more spectacular look at the Brooks that now rose just twenty kilometers South. The rarely seen sun peaked through holes in the overcast. The wind had shifted to the North and the sea grew whitecaps before our eyes. For the first time on the trip we had a big wind and significant following sea to drive us along. We quickly scarfed our lunch and reloaded our pockets with snacks for what lay ahead. Without hesitation we shot off into the excitement.
We might have labeled the conditions “terrible” if not for the fact that it was all in our favor. We wooped with joy as the swell drove us along. Our boats and blades threw off glorious rooter tails as we blazed South. All that was needed were carving leans to keep the boats on track with an occasional flurry of strokes and a bit of rudder for help. It takes relaxed concentration to avoid exhaustion and to actually enjoy such conditions. Forty years each as white water junkies made this ocean seem like a Sunday at the river surf wave. We both have done thousands of river rolls, so capsize seemed unlikely and quite manageable with our bombproof braces and rolls. A swim was out of the question. Though we had the safety gear and the rescue skills, any type of water rescue looked difficult or impossible.
We stayed well out to sea letting the natural direction of the elements determine our generally Southerly course. I would loose sight of Bevan between the rollers but we had agreed to stay close when the sea got like this. It was a marvelous dance, each of us in our own little world but ever cognizant of our partner. We were wingmen to one another that afternoon and then again the next morning for a final, spectacular crossing to the North shore of the Brooks. We were elated to be on that monumental piece of land. The North wind continued to scream. Crabapple Beach was our forced home for the next two nights. We probably should have stayed one more night. But food was getting to be an issue.
Sea Otter Cove
Articles by Jeffrey King
- Best of the West Coast, Paddling to Oregon (Essay Five)
- Best of the West Coast: Cape Flattery (Essay Two)
- Best of the West Coast: Columbia River (Essay Three)
- Best of the West Coast: Columbia River (Essay Three)
- Best of the West Coast: Imagining the Journey (Essay One)
- Taking on the Coast (Journey 1)
- Taking on the Coast (Journey 2)
- Taking on the Coast (Journey 3)
- Taking on the Coast (Journey 4 (final)
- The Best of the West Coast: La Push to Point Grenville (Essay Four)