Join Jeff King in his final installment of his trip around the west coast of Vancouver Island.
The “Sunny South Brooks” as seen from the Bunsby Island Group.
Weather and sea conditions always govern your daily travel options. The Canada Marine weather radio breaks forecasts for the “Northern Half of Vancouver Island” into two predictions, one for “North of the Brooks”, and one for “South of the Brooks Peninsula.” The mountainous Brooks reaches so far out to sea that it deflects weather systems and shields the area to the south from the harshest wind, swell, and rain and fog conditions. We called it the “Tropical South Brooks”, a place where we no longer put tarps over our tents, a place for more relaxed paddling.
The offshore terrain changes south of the peninsula as well. A semi-continuous line of reefs, rock walls, sea stacks, islets and island groups stretches from the Bunsby Islands for 120 kilometers south to beyond Bajo Reef. These off-the-mainland obstacles serve to disperse most of the larger ocean swell and they provide shelter from the predominant north wind and white-capping seas. Grebes and loons were abundant in the calmer water. The combination of milder weather and moderated sea invites sea kayakers, who want the outer coast experience, but without the hair-raising conditions north of the Brooks. Passable dirt road access to Fair Harbor, Zeballos and Tahsis, along with the ability to ride the historic MV Uchuck supply vessel, or a number of water taxi boats, to various drop off points, make for easier access south of the Brooks Peninsula. As a result, we saw groups of kayakers on at least half of the days from the Bunsbys to as far south as the Nuchatlitz Group.
We left Spring Island under a sharp blue sky bucking into a headwind and developing whitecaps from the south. We were trying to cross a seven-kilometer opening to get out to see the Puffins that nest on Thornton Island, but Neptune was not cooperating. At one point we were both powerfully stroking at ninety percent effort and only getting soaked by spray and knocked about for our efforts. We fought up to beneath the ramparts of Thornton, then relented and decided to skip the puffins, peal off to the east, and begin reef hopping upwind from there. This mode of travel, two to three miles offshore, leap frogging along in the east-side lee of the protective rock sculptures was both fascinating and efficient. The sea lions, birds and otters had all gotten the email about the lineup of rocky havens that lie offshore. They did not seem to mind our quiet passing, and we enjoyed their company as we maneuvered south. Meanwhile, below us in the crystal clear water, herds of small jellyfish were spinning and puffing, and basket-ball-sized jelly blobs loomed into view.
Rugged Point lived up to its name with a roiling sea tossed up by wind counter to the ebb tide out of Kyuquot Channel. We camped just south of the point under the shins of the steep ridges on a fantastic, deserted strand. Along the entire west coast the currents and wind made the outer points of all of the various sounds and fjords rear up amid otherwise moderate conditions. Tatchu Point spanked us as we passed. But once we rounded the point, we were rewarded with long, green rollers that we surfed up into Esperanza Inlet and the Rolling Roadstead. What a name! We wished that exuberant ride would go on forever! Once we were up into the sound, grebes and loons welcomed us, the sea lay down, and we were back to vacation paddling.
Mysterious wolf tracks, seemingly made by invisible phantoms, had graced many of the beaches along our route. But near Tatchu we actually saw our first wolf. She was alone when we spotted her from about two hundred meters out to sea. Likely her pack was nearby but not visible to us. She is what is known as a “Sea Wolf”, which are beach dwelling relatives of the gray wolves we see on the mainland. Smaller than their inland kin, Sea Wolves likely ranged as far south as Oregon, California and Baja, Mexico before being reduced to those now sprinkled only along the B.C. and South East Alaska coasts. Biologists say that fish make up only about a quarter of their diet. They are champion beach foragers. They gnaw barnacles, huff beach roaches, chew crabs and clams, gorge on sea mammal carcasses that wash up on shore, and lick herring roe off sea grass and kelp. Occasionally they kill a deer. Sometimes, they swim as a pack to off-lying rocks to kill sleeping seals or young sea lions. No wonder the basking sea mammals seemed so nervous!
The next two days we explored the Nuchatlitz Group and Inlet. Here a glorious mixture of many sizes of islands and islets is scattered in a stunningly beautiful sound, which is fed by several long fjord channels that are walled off to the east by mountains capped with snowfields and glaciers. On a single outing we encountered three different black bears rolling rocks in the intertidal zone, snarfing anything that moved. The bears mostly ignored us sitting just off shore, downwind, in our kayaks. Another bear had been in our camp at dawn going about its business. We were able to crawl among logs flung inland by winter storms to follow and observe for half an hour. What a privilege to see these magnificent creatures at ease in their own world.
Nootka Island was our final big stretch of coast. Nootka lived up to its reputation as hazardous and challenging from the time we exited Nuchatlitz Inlet and rounded Ferrier Point. Bevan, who has paddled the Tasman Sea his entire career, deemed the conditions in that forty-five minute transit as among the biggest and most confused seas he had ever encountered. The intermittent drama at sea continued even down to Bajo Reef where we navigated a wild downwind approach through a maze of kelp, reef and rock, finishing with thrilling, seventy-five meter side surf on a foamy breaking wave that shot us back inside the reef. After regaining the lee of the offshore obstacles, the bottom third of the island was relatively relaxed, sheltered paddling.
Nootka Island is also known for the scenic trail that hugs its Pacific coastline. We made time to tramp most of the trail by staying two nights in each camp. We saw as many as twenty hikers per day, who had been dropped by air taxi at the north end of the island. They were making the downwind hike to be picked up by air taxi at Friendly Cove, which we decided would also be our final destination. Sharing camp beaches with these hikers helped us begin our reentry from the wilds. We noticed that they smelled like laundry and that they had all sorts of fresh food and even wine and beer with them. Several times daily the “Beaver” hiker shuttle aircraft flew loud and low along the coast. Civilization was closing in.
We did not fancy the long slogging paddle, up a steep sided fjord, through a logging area, to access the road at Gold River. We therefore needed to get down to Friendly Cove on one of the three days per week that the Uchuck visits from Gold River. At our food resupply, the captain had said we could board anywhere, on any day that we could find them, for a lift back to the road head.
Our final day on the outer coast we awakened to a creamy, dense fog. The forecast was for calm seas and wind, but the fog was to persist for three days. The wind was nil and not supposed to rise until the next day, so we launched for a taxing day of paddling by braille. My dead reckoning of our position was consistently off because we were crawling along a rough shore amid boulders and reefs in extremely low visibility. We never would have been among these obstacles, nor tightly hugging a cliff bound shore, except in the unusually calm conditions of the day. We had to be in close to find our way in the nearly zero visibility. Our fog-inebriated brains started to play tricks on us. We relied on our years of experience and plenty of banter to counter the irrational landscapes that were being imagined. “The chart and compass are never wrong” was our mantra as we ghosted along. At last the cliffs gave way and we rounded into Cook Channel. Another fifteen minutes and the lighthouse at Friendly Cove melted into view.
Other than the lighthouse, Coast Guard Station, and a small church there are only a few structures at Friendly Cove. On the vestibule walls of the old clapboard church hang hundred-year-old photos of First Nations people, as well as clipped newspaper articles describing their whale hunting culture at this place they call Yuquot. The adjacent sea and land are rich stores of easily available food. These people hunted whales not because they had to, but because of the rituals it entailed and the status it bestowed. They hunted from beautiful dugout canoes, which while very seaworthy, were no match for the strike of a whale’s tail. They used thick wooden harpoons, four meters long, tipped with a mussel shell blade. This dangerous enterprise united the village, created its legends and defined its heroes. The shrines that existed and the purification rituals performed at Yuquot are well described in the postings inside the church. The images and narratives are haunting and humbling. These remarkable people were small craft mariners like us, but they set to sea, and hunted the world’s largest creatures, equipped only with the boats and tools that they crafted for themselves.
After European contact, the First Nations groups fell victim to disease and starvation. They lost their ability to subsist without modern trappings and much of their mythology was suppressed or destroyed. Today the many local groups have laid aside old intertribal animosities. When we visited Yuquot, family tents were being set up on the soccer field sized green that now blankets the old village site. Hundreds of members of the remaining local First Nations groups would arrive in the coming days to enjoy an annual reunion and celebration in the warm, mid-summer weather. The people we met welcomed us as we wandered the village site, gorging on ripe evergreen blackberries, while being buzzed by the ubiquitous humming birds.
The last night of our trip we camped on a tiny, unnamed islet in Cook Channel. We scraped away the debris and scratched out just enough room above the tide line for our two tents. The kayaks were stashed at crazy angles up in the dense forest. In the middle of the night, high tide crept to within three inches of the front door of my tent, but I slept through the near flooding. The next morning, we laughed about how the nearest we ever came to getting doused by the sea happened on our last night out, while we were sleeping.
After packing up, we let the quickly flooding tide lift our casually loaded boats off the barnacle-encrusted boulders in front of camp. The trip was ending. We quietly paddled south a few kilometers between the rough shoreline and the tall margin of soupy fog to the dock at Friendly Cove. With heavy hearts, we helped load our kayaks onto the MV Uchuck. Midday the ship slipped away from the dock and nosed into the fog bank. The final curtain had fallen. We went below to assuage our melancholy with coffee and fresh cinnamon rolls. Two and a half hours later we were at the road head in Gold River, where Bevan camped with our gear, while I hitchhiked to get my truck.
Reunited a day later, we headed down to Nanaimo then out to Salt Spring Island to spend the last days before Bevan’s flight home to New Zealand. We were grateful for all of the friendly people who had helped us accomplish our upper west coast journey. We were also fortunate to have our friendship that had sustained us, and kept us safe, along our passage. We paddled each of those final four days, dodging ferryboats and pleasure craft in the scenic - but civilized - surroundings of the straits and islands. We missed the showy wildlife, undeveloped mountainsides, empty beaches, bossy ocean swells and sometimes-tempestuous conditions of the outer coast. We longed for the open sea.
The BC Marine Trails Network would like to thank Jeff King for the considerable time and effort he spent in preparing this series of articles for us so that others may be inspired to follow in his footsteps by taking on a grand adventure of some kind. 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.
Midway along Nootka Island.
Ever the beach comber, Bevan gave us official status with the Canadian flag he found among the logs. We camped on the beach trail where the hikers prepared us for reentry from our journey.