Over the course of our two-month kayak expedition down the west coast, my wife Julee and I met many paddlers. In the years that followed, we met many more, read their books, purchased their DVD’s and watched their YouTube videos.
What strikes us most about the paddling community is both the variety of destinations to which they journey and the common psychological themes underpinning their adventures in the wild. This article is our attempt to capture these themes in the hope they might inspire you as they have us.
Who Are Kayakers?
Anyone can be a kayaker: men and women from toddler-age through retirement! Before departing on our expedition, I lunched with kayak writer and self-described iconoclast Greg Blanchette who later embarked on a round-the-world sailing journey in a small open-boat. At Burnett Bay we found a wilderness cabin hidden in the woods with logbook entries from author Audrey Sutherland – grandmother and veteran of 10,000 solo-kayaking miles. Justine Curgenven has turned her epic circumnavigations of Haida Gwaii and New Zealand’s South Island into a set of This Is The Sea DVD’s. Curgenven’s sometime paddling companion, Oxford-educated author Sarah Outen, attempted to row, cycle and sea kayak 25,000 miles around the Northern Hemisphere. We’ve seen children as young as toddlers out paddling. And approaching 71, Alexander Doba recently completed his third solo sea kayak trip across the Atlantic! As described in the New York Times, Doba’s transatlantic journeys had left him with the skin of a 70 year old, the chest of a 50 year old, and the muscled hands and forearms of a 30 year old.
Advantages of Kayak Travel
What is it about kayaking that attracts paddlers as different as Blanchette, Sutherland, Curgenven, Outen and Doba? Why two months by kayak from Seattle to Ketchikan instead of two months by train across Europe? For one thing, travel by kayak feels authentic. Getting somewhere under your own power makes it real. Self-propelled travel carrying your moveable home with you as you go – whether by kayak, canoe, backpack or bicycle – connects you with an ancestral human experience repeated throughout history. Doing it at a slow enough pace to reach out and touch the world is far more rewarding than speeding along by train, touching only your seat upholstery. A train will get you quickly from A to B, but paddling lets you experience all the parts in between with all your senses.
Kayaking is high on adventure, low on cost. After covering the fixed cost of a fibreglass kayak, roof rack, and some basic camping gear, each day out kayaking can be practically free for years to come (we still use our first double kayak purchased 35 years ago). It is possible to be out in the wild for weeks or months at a time, paying little more than for the food you’d have had to purchase even if you stayed home. For those who prefer, kayak rentals are easily booked through outfitters up and down the coast.
Relative to other human-powered travel, kayaking is comfortable. No heavy pack to carry. Plenty of room for good food (a lot more than in a backpack, or panniers on a bike!), Napa Valley wines, a camp oven to cook fresh cinnamon buns, camp chairs, books, and a host of other comforts.
Julee cooking cinnamon buns, west coast of Calvert Island
Kayak journeys are easily adapted to different group sizes and skill levels. You can paddle solo, with a partner, or with a group in single, double and even triple kayaks. Trips can be found that last a day, a week or for months. If kids arrive on the scene, it is easy to build up from short trips to long ones as we did by progressing from Widgeon Creek and Thormanby Island for overnight trips, to the 116km Bowron Lakes loop for flat-water paddling experience, to wilder paddles as the kids grew stronger. As parents, focus on fun; remember that you’re not just building skills, you’re building character and also future kayaking buddies.
Our kids kayaking on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Exciting kayak journeys can be found in the distant corners of the world, but they can also be found right next door.
There is a kind of dream that involves a ten-thousand mile voyage to a distant place in pursuit of some exotic magic. Always paradise lies on the far side of Cape Horn, or among tropic isles lost in the mists of a latitude exceedingly remote from our own. Yet the idyll I have pursued has been the diametric opposite of this. My desire has not been to shrink the world, but merely to slow down sufficiently to expand my own small part of it. This has been a matter of staying in one place (or at any rate, within a small radius of my home port) and attempting to penetrate the layer upon layer of mystery that its myriad coves, inlets and creeks reveal. In such an exploration, there is an important revelation to be encountered, for it is my strong belief that if one cannot find joy and wonder on an island half a mile from home, then those great treasures will be found nowhere else on earth.
- A Dream of Islands by Phillip Teece
Finally, the act of paddling itself is a kind of prayer or mediation. It anchors you in the “now” on a sustained basis, paddle-stroke after paddle-stroke. Dial up the paddling intensity and you create a sense of “flow”, being totally immersed in the moment. Dial down the intensity and you set your mind free to wander.
My increasing obsession with ocean kayaking had not been with the purpose of embarking upon high-risk, death-defying journeys. Initially, the kayak had simply been a means to get away from the confines and clatter of civilization. Then I discovered the magic of travelling the special corridor between open ocean and rugged shoreline. The kayak was the perfect craft. It was designed to sneak through narrow channels on rock-strewn coasts and to slide onto beaches where few others had been. The limits of my own physical strength and skills, coupled with the need for an acute awareness of my surroundings, acted as a simple yet powerful motivation to be in the “now”.
- Michael Blades, Day of Two Sunsets: Paddling Adventures On Canada’s West Coast
Sea Kayaking and The Hero’s Journey
Professor of literature and comparative mythology, Dr. Joseph Campbell, described the basic narrative of the hero’s journey as follows:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Famed Canadian psychology professor Dr. Jordan Peterson frames it this way:
The hero myth basically says go out there, confront the dragon, get the gold, share it with the community and live properly. It’s the closest thing to divine that we know. And you might say, what happens if you follow the divine path? And the answer might be that everything turns out perfectly because God is on your side. And it’s like, No! That isn’t what happens, because things don’t turn out perfectly…Dragons wouldn’t be dragons if they couldn’t eat you. But that’s okay… God is that force within you that calls you to the adventure of your life… We’re built for struggle, us human beings. We’re built to contend with the world. You want a challenge. You don’t want to be secure, you want to be strong. And you get strong by taking on optimal challenges. And so you lay out your destiny in the world, and you take the slings and arrows of fate, and you make yourself stronger by doing so, and you might fail, and fortune might do you in, but it’s your best bet.
- Jordan Peterson, from YouTube interview The Call To Adventure https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrIg8kF3DyE&t=22s
When heroic adventurers like Blanchette, Sutherland, Curgenven, Outen and Doba hear a call to adventure, they answer with action. Heroes want to be strong and believe the best path to get there is personal action. Not enough vacation days? Take an unpaid leave of absence (for our two-month trip, we used one month of paid vacation and one month of unpaid leave). Not enough money for a new kayak? Buy a used one. A dragon tries to eat you. Slay him. For every wall put in front of them, the hero finds a way over it, under it, or around it. Their dreams won’t be denied. They set a date, find a way and make it happen.
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experience on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive…What’s the meaning of the universe? What’s the meaning of a flea? It’s just there. That’s it. And your own meaning is that you’re there. We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about…Follow your bliss.
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
What sets heroic kayaking quests apart from other journeys is the wild places where kayakers go. For many kayakers, the deep itch they feel can only be scratched by getting out into the wild: from Vancouver to Victoria along the Salish Sea Marine Trail; from Port Hardy to Coal Harbour along the proposed Cape Scott Marine Trail, or from Seattle to Ketchikan along the proposed Inside Passage Marine Trail. The answers paddlers seek lie not in city life, but in the wild wind-swept beaches of their imagination, somewhere far away. The point is to test yourself in the crucible of the wild, feel alive while you’re out there, prove yourself strong, and maybe snatch a useful lesson from mother nature that you can use when you return home. Thank goodness there are still such places left in the world. Many of the very best are located right here - the Marine Trails of British Columbia.
A little farther on, the wind blew harder, but it was steadier...The mountains grew higher and higher, and gossiped together across our heads. And somewhere down at their feet, on that narrow ribbon of water, our boat flew swiftly along, completely dwarfed by its surroundings.
- The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet
You have a gray whale cruising in the bay who circled our kayaks several times, passing within inches of our bow. He stayed amongst us for an hour yesterday and is there again this morning an incredible sight in the gray rain...As I sit here listening to the rain on the roof and whoosh of the whale’s breathing outside, I couldn’t imagine a better place to be.
- Hooley, October 1993, From Cabin Logbook at Escalante Beach, Nootka Sound
No, the city cannot show a man his measure. He is obliged to go out, beyond the place where his own influence holds sway, out to where he’s just another animal in the maw of the world, where luck and nerve and native wit are the only currencies accepted. The sea, roiling now as it has for millennia, where the demons who tasked the ancients still roam, where a man stands immersed in the whole liquid cosmos - the sea is where I meet my measure.
- Greg Blanchette in Pacific Yachting
Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.
- T-Shirt Wisdom
The hero’s journey by sea kayak.
The Kayaker’s Creed
Julee and I set out on our two-month expedition to unplug from our city lives, see what extended time in the wild might teach us, and hopefully deepen our relationship. In the years since then, we’ve come to understand that many paddling journeys have psychological underpinnings similar to our own, and that many long-distance paddlers share a common creed – a common set of beliefs and aims which guide their actions. What follows is is our attempt to put into words this Kayaker’s Creed.
Do it with an eye on the past, an eye on the future and an eye above.
Do it with someone, but alone if you have to.
Just do it, and do it now.
Persevere when called upon.
And do it with a smile on your face!
Do It With An Eye On The Past
On almost any coastline in the world, anywhere a paddler finds a nice beach to land, or a little grassy meadow just back from shore, chances are other paddlers have been landing there, or living there, for millennia. Be respectful of First Nations and consider how dugout sea canoes shaped their civilization and how skin-over-frame kayaks and umiaks shaped circumpolar cultures further north.
The past inhabitants of this coast developed the art and skills of seagoing canoe travel to a degree unmatched anywhere in the world. Using readily available virgin cedar and generations of woodworking experience, they built large dugout craft of sophisticated design, which when combined with these people’s strength and seamanship, enabled swift and reliable travel throughout the Pacific coast.
- Kenneth Bower, The Starship & The Canoe
It can be said of most small-ship wanderers that they voyage not to acquire money or status, but to accumulate new experience. And beyond that perhaps, bare points of contact when the beginning, present, and future connect somehow with a ship, sea, sky and an individual, when for a moment the secret of life will stand revealed almost within reach.
- Sea Quest by Charles Borden
At trip’s end, my kayak had become a magical waterborne carpet. There was an unparalleled freedom in gliding, self-propelled from one magnificent vista to another; passing fishing boats to orca whales to isolated native people’s villages to islands to the open sea. Indeed, over my past fifteen years of paddling the North Pacific coast, my kayak has bridged worlds. The act of moving quietly on the sea to approach and examine ancient native people’s middens and overgrown pioneer homesteads creates a feeling of timelessness and continuity. Present meets past and I am part of it.
- Will Nordby in Seekers of the Horizon, Sea-Kayaking Voyages From Around The World
I love kayaking because it weaves back and forth across an interface, in several senses. It exists between two worlds, without being claimed by either. The craft is useless without water, and yet a kayaker cannot survive for long without land. I can float a stone’s throw out on the water and feel I inhabit a different universe completely detached from land. But a simple nudge ashore, and I am the prodigal son returning from years of wandering – people are astounded, curious, welcoming. As a vehicle, the boat itself spans the most ancient and the most modern technologies. Imagine, a millennia-old craft constructed of Kevlar, vinylester resins, and carbon fibre – what a figurative meeting of minds! And here I am in twentieth-century waters, with motorboats, airplanes, automobiles - the most complicated of machines all around me – pushing my hybrid craft along using muscle power and a simple lever device perfected somewhere in the Aleutian Islands perhaps 5000 years ago. What a titanic span of technology, of ideology, of humanity!
- Greg Blanchette in Seekers of the Horizon: Sea Kayaking Voyages From Around The World
Do It With An Eye On The Future
One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.
- Leo Tolstoy
He is a bad man who does not pay to the future at least as much as he has received from the past.
- A.W. Pollard (1859-1944)
The ultimate test of a man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.
- Gaylord Nelson, Founder of Earth Day
Perhaps there’ll be a reservation system some day to kayak the Cape Caution Trail, like the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. Things are changing fast. When I first came here in ‘76, I don’t recall ever finding a previously used campsite between Port Hardy and Bella Bella, anywhere. The frontier is closed here, for better or for worse, and the spirit of this place could be gone overnight. Let’s look for ways to keep it.
- R.W. aka “The Cabin Maker”, From Cabin Logbook at Burnett Bay
Wherever you choose to paddle, be sure to follow Leave No Trace principles. For tips on minimizing your impact, see the Code of Conduct available soon on the BCMTA website. If protecting marine trails for future generations is close to your heart, consider volunteering for clean-up projects at your local paddling club or the BCMTA. Get involved. Be a hero and take action!
Self-organized plastic clean-up in Kuyquot Sound.
Do It With An Eye Above
Spirituality comes in many shapes and sizes. Many kayakers experience paddling as a form of communion or prayer in which all the wild is a vast cathedral. For such people, standing in the vastness of nature – in landscapes shaped by forces on time scales so far beyond their own - is a deeply spiritual experience. In the wild, they gain new perspective and realize how small they are, how limited their time on the planet, and how insignificant even their greatest hopes and dreams.
Thou wilt learn more in the woods than in books.
- St. Bernard (1091-1153), Epistle 106
Wilderness has been characterized as barren and unproductive; little can be grown in its sand and rock. But the crops of wilderness have always been its spiritual values -- silence and solitude, a sense of awe and gratitude -- able to be harvested by any traveler who visits.
- Wilderness Sojourn by David Douglas
We are alone at last with the sea and the sky and our great friend the sun, which pours its wealth upon us generously and unremittingly, browning our bodies and mellowing our philosophies. Willy, flat on his back, stretches his arms luxuriously. “I’m almost convinced,” he says, “that sun-worship is the only true faith.”
- The Cruise of the Talking Fish by W.E. Bowman
“Are you a God?” they asked the Buddha. “No,” he replied.
“Are you an angel, then ?”. “No.”
“A saint?” “No.”
“Then what are you?”
Replied the Buddha, “I am awake.”
- The World’s Religions by Houston Smith
Burnett Bay was a welcome reprieve from the Byzantine waterways of the Inside Passage. For the first time, we felt the wind coming in off the ocean instead of spilling off some cold distant mountaintop. Tomorrow we’re headed for Smith Sound. We’ll be slivers on the sea again; its a humbleness you learn our here and never forget.
- George and Liz, June 1988, From Cabin Logbook at Burnett Bay
Do It With Someone
Many kayakers find their paddling experience enhanced by companions: perhaps a friend, a romantic partner, a family, or a guided group. Laughs are shared. Personal bonds are formed, and then strengthened through quiet accumulation of shared experience and earned familiarity.
Accumulating shared experience.
And yet, even while I was exulting in my solitude, I became aware of a strange lack. I wished a companion to lie near me in the starlight, silent and not moving, but ever within touch. For there is a fellowship more quiet even than solitude, and which, rightly understood, is solitude made perfect. And to live out of doors with the woman a man loves is of all lives the most complete and free.
- Robert Louis Stevenson
There is - or should be - a moment in all expeditions when the members cease to be individuals and become parts of a whole. It is at this moment that the experienced campaigner relaxes for the first time, knowing that whatever hardships and dangers lie ahead, there is not one of his companions who will not offer his utmost in the common cause…This was such a moment. Ceasing to be an individual, I saw my fellow-members in a new way.
- The Cruise of The Talking Fish by W.E. Bowman
But Do It Alone If You Have To
A paddler circumnavigating Vancouver Island once landed on our remote beach after sunset and left before sunrise with barely a word or wasted motion. That’s just how some people roll. On a different remote beach, a solo-kayaker hungry for companionship paddled up to our campsite in time for dinner. We shared dinner, dessert, wine, stories and laughter around a driftwood campfire deep into the night. That’s also how some people roll. Do what works for you!
Go light, go solo, go now.
- Motto of Audrey Sutherland, author of Paddle My Own Canoe, grandmother and solo kayaking veteran of 10,000 miles
Sea kayaking was instantly more than just going places in a little boat; it became a pathway toward understanding myself in the mirror of the wilderness.
- Joel Rogers, The Hidden Coast: Kayak Explorations From Alaska To Mexico
Today I made love to the earth and sky…None of us held back.
- Irene, solo paddling from Seattle to Ketchikan, From Cabin Logbook at Burnett Bay
Alone, you are reduced to the basics, the elements of paddling that we all started out with once upon a time in a pool or a quiet bay somewhere: body, boat, paddle, water.
- Greg Blanchette in Seekers of the Horizon: Sea Kayaking Voyages From Around The World
Just Do It
Those Nike advertisements from a few years back, they were on to something!
Thou shalt go on quests.
- The Ten Commandments Of Sea Kayaking by Eric Soares
Julee’s successful quest to catch dinner from a kayak
A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
- William Shedd
Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life.
- Bertolt Brecht
The cure for anything is salt water -- sweat, tears, or the sea.
- Isak Dinesen
I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived.
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.
The simplicity of the concept was irresistible: to set off in a kayak outside our house and keep paddling around Vancouver Island until we returned to the place where we had begun.
- Marie Coffey and Dag Goering, Visions of the Wild: A Voyage By Kayak Around Vancouver Island
“I had always wanted an adventurous life,” I said. “It took a long time to realize that I was the only one who was going to make an adventurous life happen to me.”
- The Bridge Across Forever by Richard Bach
A man must choose his life’s desire, and the warrior in him agree to the unpleasant labors that will follow. We must choose “the one precious thing”, rejecting all others, and pay for that choice through poverty, conflict, deprivation, labor, and the endurance of anger from rejected divinities.
- Iron John by Robert Bly
Had a fantastic sail down the west coast of Calvert Island before a northwesterly wind. Made it all the way from Pruth Bay to Grief Bay in a day. Hard to stop for long when the wind says “Let’s Go.”
- R.W. (aka the Cabin Maker) solo kayaking from Bella Bella to Port Hardy in 1993, From Cabin Logbook at Burnett Bay
Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.
- Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Do It Now!
Even the best laid plans get overtaken by events. Things happen. Windows close. Be sure to have a crack at it while you still can.
The first half of life consists of the capacity to enjoy, without the chance;
the last half consists of the chance without the capacity.
- Mark Twain
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads to good fortune
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries
On such a full sea are we now afloat
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
- Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Whatever you can do or dream you can…begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
If you want to do something, you have to do it now, otherwise who knows? It would be a tragedy to let your dreams pass you by without having a crack at them.
- Sarah Outen, author of Dare To Do: Taking On the Planet By Bike and Boat about her attempt to row, cycle and sea kayak 25,000 miles around the Northern Hemisphere
'I've always wanted to sail to the South Seas, but I can't afford it.' What these men can't afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of 'security'. And in the worship of security, we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine - and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need - really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in - and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment That's all - in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, and playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by. The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?
- Sterling Hayden, Wanderer
Persevere When Called Upon
It has been said that the strongest steel is forged in the hottest fires, and it is always darkest before the dawn. When adversity strikes, it is essential to continue pressing forward. The hero responds to difficulty with perseverance, to setbacks with resilience, and in so doing builds character, strength and skill.
Let us meet with bravery whatever may befall us.
- Letters From A Stoic by Seneca
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light
- Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas
Pray that your way be long and your journey full of adventures and experiences.
- Ithaka by Cavafy
Reminder for next trip: more warm clothes, beer and time off work.
- Thomas, October 1995, From Cabin Logbook at Burnett Bay
The days became indistinguishable. We pressed on south, and the straights and channels gave way to other straights and channels. In the end these became indistinguishable too. Our hands, blistered by the paddling, were painful and felt larger than life. They were patterned with salt from the seawater that ran continually down the paddle shafts.
- The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower
Bound for Ketchican, solo, in my inflatable Semperit kayak. Great cabin. We need another 20 miles north.
- Audrey Sutherland, June 12, 1988, From Cabin Logbook at Burnett Bay
Next logbook entry after Audrey’s:
Audrey did a handy job fixing things and left the cabin in spotless condition. God, here’s someone who paddles solo in an inflatable kayak to Alaska and we surf land in a kevlar double sea kayak, feeling like we’re Hans Lindemann, or Thor Hyerdahl, thinking we’re a hot item, until we get to your cabin and find out a grandmother in a rubber boat stayed in the same place and acted as nonchalant about it as if she’d just walked across the block. People have called us crazy. Little do they know to whom that description really applies.
George and Liz, June 13, 1988, From Cabin Logbook at Burnett Bay
Up at 4:30am every day for five days. Whitecaps out there even then. A.M. window tomorrow for the wind, so I’ll make a run for Skull Cove. Running out of essentials.
- W.M.P., July 1993, From Cabin Logbook at Burnett Bay
En route from Port Hardy to Ketchican. Going as far as the boat, the lady and the weather permit.
- May 1990, From Cabin Logbook at Burnett Bay
Do It With A Smile On Your Face
Happiness costs nothing, weighs nothing and fits neatly in your kayak. So on every trip, plan to bring your own!
There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself.
- Henry David Thoreau
Kayak more. Worry less.
- T-Shirt Wisdom
Blessed are the curious for they shall have adventures.
- T-Shirt Wisdom
At the end of the day, your feet should be dirty, your hair should be messy, and your eyes should be sparkling.
- T-Shirt Wisdom
Last night’s full moon had me jogging naked in the surf at midnight. Had moonlight bouncing off the waves eastbound, bioluminescence on the return trip. Very therapeutic - I highly recommend it.
- W.M.P., July 1993, From Cabin Logbook at Burnett Bay
Yabba Dabba Do!
- Fred Flintstone
We hope reading this brought you a moment of happiness and helped inspire your next paddling journey.
About The Authors: Jerry and Julee Kaye have been exploring the coast of British Columbia for over 30 years by kayak and sailboat. They live in Vancouver with their teenaged children who are now experienced kayak adventurers in their own right. Jerry recently joined the Board of the BC Marine Trail Association where he hopes to help protect more of the coast for recreational boaters.