Join Jeff King in his third installment of his trip around the west coast of Vancouver Island - today crossing Brooks Peninsula.
Crabapple Beach looking south with Brooks rising in the fog
Crabapple Beach ranks among the most picturesque stretches of sand and off shore rocks on the entire West Coast. The Islets give some protection to a sinuous, sandy shoreline that is three kilometers long and as much as one hundred fifty meters wide at low tide. Rafts of sea otters bob in the lee of the islets and sea lions are draped, snoozing, on the off-shore rocks. The Brooks rises behind the strand as a steep ridge nearly four thousand feet tall cloaked in dark virgin forest. The Peninsula was not covered with Pleistocene ice, and so far it has escaped industrial logging and road building; as a result, it is home to several endemics and to an intact plant and animal community.
We arrived on shore early on day eleven with the serious stuff still wildly driving us South. On the beach there was no relief from the relentless wind, but just inside the edge of the forest we were protected from the gale. We set up for the long-term as the marine forecast was calling for two more rough days. Our food bags were shrinking. It would be the luck of the draw whether we would round the Brooks to the south or have to turn back to the north due to low rations.
Anna and Gary arrived in their kayaks shortly after we got set up. Our trudges up the beach by their camp to get water became opportunities to meet them, which lead to tea and stories, and to fast friendship. They shared a harrowing tale of near disaster from the previous summer. They had been paddling near Lowrie Bay, just south of Cape Scott, when a rapid change in conditions landed them both in the ocean fighting for their lives. Their story includes loving heroism by both of them. A fortunate radio call brought a Coast Guard chopper that ultimately saved the day. We were impressed that they had the courage to be back in their boats and on the West Coast again. They are Salt Spring Island residents who, despite the notorious conditions, find the coast to be irresistible. Two weeks into the trip, they were only the second kayakers we had encountered.
Our weather-enforced layover day was spent watching the busy parade of living creatures. Ravens and bald eagles picked at a sea otter carcass at the tideline. Fresh tracks on the beach told us that bear and wolf made midnight visits to this easy nutrition source. Oystercatchers moved deliberately on the rocky islets and gave their sharp, distinctive calls, sometimes alone and sometimes as a dissonant chorus.
Amid the deafening noise of the breaking sea and wind we worked on our escape plan. To the southwest the Brooks tapered down and seemed to disappear into the fog. The most logical approach for us was to take the big leap around the Brooks in a single day and perhaps as a single shot with no shore contact for forty kilometers. In the Marine Trail Guide, John Kimantas mentions one possible bailout beach that is available in some sea conditions about half way around - on the very end of the peninsula. It seemed that every person we met with Brooks area sea experience, in almost any size of craft, had a disquieting story to tell about rounding the peninsula. We baked bread and waited.
Day thirteen dawned with less wind than forecast and no rain, but a low cloud ceiling shortened our view. We could see about four blurry miles down the coast. The forecast was moderate until early afternoon, then rising to horrible later in the day. We loaded quickly, but organized our kit in a manner that would allow eight to ten hours at sea. To say that there was no escape along the route is to overstate the danger. There are just very few places where one can properly land a kayak and get away from the muscular surf and perpetual swell. The peninsula is steep sided or cliffy along much of the outer north and west sides. One could swim and perhaps survive the swells that grind against the shoreline, but it is not pretty to imagine dangling from a cliff with a salal branch in one hand and the EPIRB in the other.
We picked our way out of the protection of the Crab Apples and maneuvered along among the thick kelp beds. We pressed on under the steep shadow of land. A long, glassy swell rolled under us in the last mile leading up to the hard left turn around boxy Cape Cook. A laughing wind stippled the surface and the sun cast a soft light that seemed to increase as we went farther out the peninsula. Solander Island ghosted into view as we rounded into the channel between it and the Cape.
The wind was now compressed against the outer edge of the peninsula. The seas were pinched in the channel. We went from leisurely paddling to alertly navigating as we entered a rock garden that is strewn along two thirds of the outer Brooks. The large boulders and reefs created micro-eddy pockets, while the sea surges shot us along on lively little saltwater rivers. The lush streaming kelp indicated that the current was behind us. The wind freshened from behind, and out in the channel the seas were scudding and white capping. Our journey along the monumental outer west end of the Brooks was a mad sleigh ride amid near pandemonium but still within the boundaries of enjoyable.
Nordstrom Creek has cut a cleft into the nose of the Brooks. To our delight we could sneak inside Banks Reef and then wiggle our way up the creek into a strong freshwater current. Sunshine painted the land so we stripped off our drysuits and bathed in the small rushing river. Relief washed over us. We knew that we could stay in this cove and on this beach in any wind or sea conditions. We also sensed that there was enough fair weather left to be able to round Clerke Point and to hopefully find a wind shadow south of the Brooks. We realized that we would not have to turn back to the north; we could carry on to our resupply which now lay fifty-five kilometers to the south. Bevan found an “old-school” glass ball float in the wall of driftwood at the storm line. We celebrated, washed in fresh water, fueled up and shoved off.
Just after we went back to sea, Clerke Point woke us up. The inside route was closed by heavy surf over a shoal bottom, something neither of us realized until we were at the brink. We exchanged a few words and then quickly swung outside and then powered way out to escape the shallow breaking seas. A mile out, we rounded to seaward of the breakers and then arched back just onto their shoulders enough to gain nearly two kilometers of free rides. The swell tapered, the rising land quieted the wind, the sea fell calm and the sun stayed out. We finished the last of our forty-kilometer day with two hours on a flat shiny sea in la-la-land. We paddled quietly along the fingered, rocky South Brooks coast toward Jacobson Point. I could feel my breathing again because all of the anticipation, all of the angst and all of the infamous Brooks Peninsula stories were now behind us.
At Jacobson, we made a decision that would shape the rest of the trip. Our food resupply was only forty kilometers south at Kyuquot. Because we had been conservative, we still had five or six day’s food with us. We decided to slow down and we hoped to not paddle long distances two days in a row. The chart was loaded with interesting looking groups of islands and tantalizing coastal features all of the way to Tofino and beyond. An exit at Tofino likely required too much push and not enough time for leisure and lateral exploration. With the Brooks behind us, we did not have a single geographic feature that would define our efforts and pace as it had. Weather, tide, current, fog and our physical and mental conditions would each play a role. It felt good to refocus on the journey and to let go of any specific likely end point. To finish, we just needed to get to a road somewhere – from there we would figure out how to get one of us back to our truck in Port Hardy.
We visited the Acous Peninsula and then crossed to the Bunsby Islands. It was sunny and calm. We chose Cautious Point as a base of operations for two days. We used our leisure to rediscover the bountiful Pacific wildlife show. Gulls stood on the rocks asleep but ever ready to squabble. Another humpback whale encounter reminded us of our insignificance compared to this largest mammal species that goes back thirty million years in the fossil record. Bevan caught fish for dinner.
We split up for a day to explore different sides of the island group. Bevan stumbled upon a burial cave littered with bones and artifacts; it was not something he was seeking, nor that he savored for very long. I found a deserted First Nation homestead that we later found out had only been abandoned for two years. It really did look as though the owners might arrive any minute to tidy up and resume subsistence gardening and fishing. The house was getting a bit saggy. In the local village, the word was that the old woman who had lived there had died and that the community was letting nature have her place back.
Next we moved on gentle seas down to the Mission Group Islands. High pressure held. We walked across and around Spring Island admiring a luxurious forest as well as the cliffs, arches and sea stacks. We savored a brilliant sunset that, due to the past weeks of overcast, was only the third we had been able to see in sixteen days of travel. Finally, we gave in to the need to “go to town”.
Kyuquot is a funny mixture of a few eateries that make it on hamburgers, pie and ice cream tucked among a gaggle of fishing lodges that cater to seasonal anglers from Canada and the U.S. The Anglo side of town straddles a forested, long crescent island. There are no roads, just a walking path and motorboats to get around. Charter fishing boats come and go. The First Nation side of town is a collection of wood homes built side by side on the main island up a steep grassy hill. That side of town is a hive of activity and happy noise. The few docks are alive with people and private boats.
There is no road out to Kyuquot from inland. Once a week, the MV Uchuck makes the long journey to the village dropping supplies at logging sites, fishing camps and other villages along the sounds and channels that connect back to Gold River. On our drive up the island to start our trip we left a two-week food resupply with the kind people in Gold River who operate the Uchuck. Now at Kyuquot, we were pleased to receive our boxes of goodies that had been delivered nearly two weeks before we arrived. Coincidentally, the Uchuck was again visiting when we came in to resupply, so we were able to thank the captain and crew in person. They had sent us off before our trip with a story about two experienced kayakers they had dropped off in Kyuquot some time earlier who were paddling north along our route but were lost at sea. The crew seemed relieved to see us.
While in Kyuquot, we poached a wifi signal and got a message out to our wives. Though we had marine radios and an EPIRB along, we did not carry any of the Personal-Talk-or-Text-Anyone-Anytime devices sold by outdoor shops and cell phone stores. Molly happened to be attentive when I emailed our resupply news out. It was sweet to imagine her voice in the electronic words she pinged back. It would be another fifteen days until I could reach her again.
We stuffed the chubby food bags into our boats and gratefully slipped away from the hubbub of the small friendly village. Back at our Spring Island camp the weather was fine and the forecast was for more of the same. We bathed in the late afternoon sun as we ate spaghetti with sausage and cheese and then slurped un-jelled chocolate pudding like kings. That night I dreamed of a whale, sliding below the surface of a flat calm sea.
Morning light at Jacobson Point. Calm and sunny ... we were thrilled!