Kayaking wisdom from the wild

Jerry and Julee Kaye share kayaking wisdom learned from a 600-km paddle from Bella Bella to Tofino,

A third of the way through our 600-km paddle from Bella Bella to Tofino, Julee and I make our way uneasily around Cape Caution in our red double kayak and press quickly south for the shelter of Burnett Bay. We are scared of this stretch of coast and want to get off the water before a weather front hits later today. During our ferry trip from Port Hardy to Bella Bella, gale force winds had blown up large breaking seas that would have meant certain death for kayakers.


Old Shack - photo by J Kaye
Jerry and Julee Kaye

With a deep sense of relief, we round a final headland and see the 4-km beach at Burnett Bay open up before us. We tuck in behind a small island at the north end of the beach and see a landing spot sheltered from the surf. I mistime our final approach atop a small wave, broach the kayak, and manage to get both of us soaked. But at least we’re off the water and safe from the wind. A short time later, our kayak and all our gear are hauled up the beach and Julee is walking around looking for the perfect spot to pitch our tent. We may as well get comfortable. It looks like we’ll be waiting several days for a safe weather window suitable for the next leg of our trip – an intimidating 30-km paddle from this mainland beach across Queen Charlotte Strait to Vancouver Island.

“Over here, Jerry,” she calls, motioning me towards a break in the salal and a small path that leads into the woods.

Down the path, she points toward a small cabin constructed from cedar shakes nailed in neat rows over a driftwood log frame. Whoever made this cabin had clearly done an enormous amount of work hauling driftwood logs off the beach, cutting them to size and hand-splitting cedar shakes.

We pull open the door and peer inside. To our surprise the cabin is remarkably tidy with a well-swept floor, bunk beds, a cast iron fireplace, stool and small desk. Cozy! On the desk, carefully protected in a sealed ziplock bag, is a logbook.

I take out the logbook, open a page and read a random entry: “En route from Port Hardy to Ketchican. Going as far as the boat, the lady and the weather permit.”

Hmmmmm, I think to myself, feeling something shift inside. Julee and I have paddled here with a specific agenda. We want to unplug from our city lives, see what extended time in the wild might teach us, and test whether we have what it takes to go from boyfriend-girlfriend to husband-wife. But why do other people come to this remote corner of the coast? And what might we learn from them? I make a mental note to come back and read the entire logbook while we wait for the weather to improve.

Personal Paddling Wisdom

The stories I enjoy most are of paddlers who venture into the deep-wild and collect little nuggets of wisdom; stories in which the paddler — if not able to actually grasp enlightenment — at least takes one step (or paddle-stroke) closer. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell describes the basic narrative 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.”

‘Extreme’ expeditions make for great stories but little new insight. On a beach north of Hakai Pass, for example, Phillip paddled up to our campsite late in the day, solo, cold and wet, and told us about a prior trip to the high Arctic. A polar bear had slashed through his tent, bit him on the leg and tried to drag him off for supper. Another kayaker joined our campfire further south and told us about his misadventures on an attempted non-stop 200-km open water paddle from the Queen Charlottes to Cape Scott. Julee and I would never attempt such extreme trips. We glean little from them beyond feeling grateful we would never had done that! Safety and comfort are paramount for us. We paddle with Napa Valley wines packed neatly away in our front hatch, a fishing rod and camp chair in the rear, and other comforts packed everywhere in between. Ten little lessons we’ve collected so far on this trip include:

  • If you and your paddling partner can’t agree, default to the more conservative choice. On our very first day out from Bella Bella, I had pressured Julee to continue past a ‘nice-enough’ campsite and paddle to what I knew would be a ‘spectacular’ campsite in the McMullin Group north of Goose Island. I assured her that I could get us there, despite her fatigue after a long day paddling, the 25-knot winds, and many whitecaps. My decision had resulted in a near-death experience for both of us and brought our expedition to a screeching halt. After I had proved my judgment dangerously faulty, Julee refused to go further without some guarantee her concerns would never again be over-ridden. We were deadlocked over this issue for two full days in the McMullins. “There can only be one captain in a boat,” I told her. I was single at the time, used to making decisions for myself, and thought she should defer to me as the more experienced paddler –- a conclusion she now flatly rejected. It was only after we agreed to operate either by consensus, or default to the more conservative option, that Julee agreed to continue paddling south.
  • Read the instruction manual for your new hand-held radio before recycling it. When we landed in the McMullins, I realized that I had no idea how to operate the new hand-held radio I had bought in a rush on the last day before departure. Without an instruction manual, I spent the first two evenings in the McMullins turning dials and pressing buttons randomly, without success, before a passing kayaker taught me how to operate it. At least Julee and I now had a clear consensus on something – that I was a dork!
  • Respect the changing moods of the Sea Gods. Take what the Sea Gods give you, but don’t try to force it. Waters that are passable in the morning breeze can kill by afternoon and be calm again by twilight. I have almost met my maker twice from being slow to learn this lesson. Always have a bailout point firmly in mind, and factor in how much conditions might change before you get there. The longer the distance to the next bailout point, the more conservative your decisions have to be.
  • Double kayaks offer multiple advantages over singles. Even speedy doubles have more beam than singles and are thus less easily capsized. In a double, Julee is always three feet ahead of me; I never have to wait for her and she never gets stressed out or fatigued trying to keep up. Doubles are a better platform for fishing and conversation and make better headway if one paddler is injured. Two people in a double are less likely to push forward into dangerous conditions. If they do stupidly press forward, as we had done on our paddle to the McMullins, they won’t get separated with one unable to help the other.
  • Build days off into your schedule. From a safety standpoint, days off allow paddlers to wait for a safe weather window rather than launch into dangerous conditions. From a pleasure standpoint, moving camp every day is exhausting. Once you’ve arrived at the wild beautiful beach of your dreams, luxuriate upon it before leaving it. Twice the beach and half the miles makes for a more enjoyable trip.
  • Immerse yourself in nature’s rhythms. Put away your electronic toys and all the hurry that accompanies city life. Trips into the wild are more enjoyable if your experience of time is tied to rhythms of nature: the rise and fall of the tide; the wind that blows up in the afternoon and the calm that descends in the evening; the storm passing through and the paddling window that opens up behind it.
  • Gather food; avoid being food. I feel most alive when I’m foraging for huckleberries, limpets and fish while avoiding wolves, bears and cougars. I feel most alert when my spidey-senses are tingling after hearing a rustling sound coming from the woods. There’s an enjoyable sense of mastery that comes from successfully bumping into both ends of the food chain — something profound about feeling deeply, and with all your senses, your place in the broader web of life.
  • Exploring in a kayak is intrinsically gratifying. I started kayaking for the most superficial of reasons: breaking free from a settled, sedentary life and engaging in physical challenges out in the wild makes me feel happy and alive. Over the years, I’ve consistently found that I’m happiest engaged in self-propelled movement in novel, natural settings, on or near water. I am not alone in this. Recent work by psychologists and geneticists point to a multitude of reasons why paddling is intrinsically gratifying. Paddling represents a “positive quest” that is physical rather than sedentary, two keys to happiness according to psychologists. While paddling, kayakers become totally immersed in the activity in a way that fully absorbs the conscious mind, a mental state psychologists call “flow” that is a third key to happiness. Humans have been shown to be happier when surrounded with natural blue and green colours, perhaps evocative of the productive environments surrounded by water and trees in which hunter-gatherer societies evolved. And geneticists believe that humans are neurologically programmed to have one foot planted in the order and security of our home life, while the other foot wanders beyond the horizon attempting to convert unexplored terrain into habitable productive territory. The fundamental tension between being rooted and footloose — between swooping and soaring, or belonging and transcendence — is programmed into our very genes. A “wanderlust gene” (DRD4-7R) found in around 20 percent of the population has been linked to novelty seeking, risk-taking and extraversion. Millions of years of evolution, it seems, have programmed humans neurologically to get out there in nature, explore and discover. It is no wonder that exploring in a kayak makes us feel happy.
  • Be indifferent to the rain. On any long paddling trip, there will be days with challenging weather. Set yourself up to be indifferent to them. There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes, tarps and tents.
  • Be an empty cup. There is a Buddhist parable about a master who received a visitor inquiring about Zen. When the master served tea, he poured the visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. ‘It is full — no more will go in!’ said the visitor, to which the master replied ‘Like this cup, you are full of your own agenda and opinions. To experience Zen you must first empty your cup.’ Any mind filled to the brim with a rigid agenda, and any expedition overflowing with strenuous activity, will have little room for serendipity and wisdom to enter. Wisdom comes from the pause between paddle strokes. It is on our rest days when the secrets of the universe are most likely to be revealed. Julee believes a constant stream of activity makes the least of our time, not the most. Rather than “just do it” all the time as the advertisements proclaim, she has carved out time for us to slow down and “just be”.

Logbook Entries From Cabin At Burnett Bay

On our second day at Burnett Bay, the weather is sunny, but as expected, the winds are too strong for our crossing to Vancouver Island. Julee and I walk to the south end of the beach where there is a sheltered area well-used by kayakers, although none are here today. We explore up a small river, enjoying the silence as we see wolf and bear tracks on the sandbanks around a small lagoon. After a long walk, we return to our campsite at the north end of Burnett Bay. From there, we make the short walk into the woods to the nearby cabin.

Inside the cabin, there are two brooms, a dustpan, candles, and a well swept floor of two by sixes, eights and tens scavenged from the beach. Dry kindling sits beside the small cast iron stove. Above the stove, a clothesline extends from one wall to another. Two cast iron frying pans and a pancake flipper hang from the wall and above them there’s a row of donated books. A makeshift desk and stool make for an appealing spot to sit and read. The total structure is about eight feet by eight feet square, and a little over seven feet high at its peak.

With time on my hands, I sit at the desk and begin copying interesting entries from the logbook into a notebook I had brought with me on the trip:

“This cabin was built by a kayaker for anyone who paddles, rows or swims along this coast. As builder, I have no proprietary feelings here (guess I enjoy the building part as much as the staying). This place is everybody’s.…. Though I built this cabin for use by anyone who lands here, as well as myself, I also wanted to see if it could be done carrying in all the tools and materials in a kayak. My old Shearwater, a whale of a boat, did it easily, even the stove which fit ahead of my feet behind the forward kayak bulkhead…. I hope someone can find a way to put together an officially sanctioned water trail system as in Washington and Maine. I look at the giant cedars and spruces here and wonder how long it will be until a logging road comes in from Seymour Inlet and leaves this like the Washington Coast or worse. I see more log barges heading south than ever. Maybe something like Hakai park can happen here. Otherwise, who knows? Perhaps there’ll be a reservation system someday to kayak the Cape Caution Trail like the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. Things are changing fast. 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 country could be gone overnight. Let’s look ahead for ways to keep it.”

— R.W. ‘The Cabin Maker’

“Bound for Ketchican, solo, in my inflatable Semperit kayak. Great cabin. We need another 20 miles north.”

— Audrey Sutherland, Author of Paddle My Own Canoe

Next logbook entry, the day after Audrey Sutherland:

“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 Heyerdahl, 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

“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. Thank God this place is hard to get to. I hope it stays that way. We saw so many whales in the bay we lost count. This place is strong medicine for the paddle-weary. Tomorrow we’re headed for Smith Sound. We’ll be slivers on the sea again; it’s a humbleness you learn our here and never forget.”

— George and Liz

“Surf’s up dude, and don’t forget to high brace.”

— Mark

Audrey again. “Fixing everything again. Solo, inflatable kayak again. A poor vintage year for dimensional lumber. Is it the winter wren who twitters unseen?”

— Audrey Sutherland

Hermit Song

Haddington John I am
I live a life devoid of plan
I go with the flow
But rarely know
If I’m coming, going or flowing

— Haddington John

“Reminder for next trip: more warm clothes, beer and time off work.”

— Thomas

“Greetings Cabin Denizens. We surfed our kayaks in here yesterday under a bright sun. Our friend Jim arrived earlier in the day due to our being gobbled up in the ebb just past the Fox Group. This cabin is really funky. Kudos to all who’ve made it here. You are walking a groovy path!”

— Jason Ladell

“Been out 35 days from Anacortes Washington. Travelling alone now, my two partners for the first 300 miles have veered off on their own quests. For me, it’s as though I’ve finally found “home” after so many years of looking. I will leave a part of my soul here, retiring to the ‘unreal’ world clutching a bit of this place to my heart as a sort of talisman against the craziness out there.”

— Jim Chester

“En route to Part Hardy from Bella Bella (via Goose & the west side of Calvert) – seems to be a popular trip now judging from the notes here. We’ve had front after front and a lot of wind and damp to deal with. Would like to stay longer but must take advantage of a window to get across the Strait.”

— Cam Broze and Bill Patterson

“My second visit to The Bay – “the most beautiful spot on a coast of beautiful places”. Great to read the words of so many friends in the logbook and to reflect on the community of paddlers and good souls plying these waters.”

— Grant Thomson

“Peering through the gnarled spruce branches and lush salal toward the golden beach stretching out to its estuary at its south end, I hope that when the next generation of paddlers turns my age and comes paddling through here, it’s still the most beautiful spot on the West Coast. I know that times are changing, but I hope that if this place gets threatened, there will be enough people who know about it to protect it. It may not be ‘wilderness’ anymore,’ but that may be its saving.”

— Rob

“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.

“I ply the waves and beaches in search of Namu and The Truth.”

— Unsigned

“The plan for today is to read, relax, walk around the point, read, relax, burn garbage in the campfire, read and relax.”

— Jean and Steve

“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.

Reading through the logbook, I’m struck by a few common themes. Many of the paddlers passing through Burnett Bay seem to be following similar paddling routes between Port Hardy and Bella Bella, or between Washington and Alaska. Many remark on the wildlife they encounter and feel called to protect it in its wild natural habitat. Many offer a friendly, hail-fellow-well-met salute to fellow paddlers travelling lightly through the wild, and also to R.W. for establishing the cabin as a gathering place for kindred spirits.

Many of the paddlers passing through Burnett Bay have come for reasons similar to ours. Like us, they want to unplug from their hectic city lives and enjoy an interlude of peace feeling connected to nature. Like us, they want to feel alive from the physical challenge of exploring the coast. Like us, they want to test themselves against the wild and maybe learn something along the way. Like us, many want to come together as a group of friends, or as a couple. The community of paddlers, it seems, has a lot in common.

Our Journey

After a four day wait for a safe weather window, Julee and I finally head out from Burnett Bay and make the 30-km exposed paddle across Queen Charlotte Straight. It is our longest exposed paddle of the trip. Our weather holds the next day and we paddle a further 50-km past Cape Sutil and all the way around Cape Scott. Our 80-km paddle over two days is by far the longest of our trip and something I wouldn’t have thought we could do if we had not in fact done it.

From Cape Scott, we make our way south. After a four-day wait for a safe weather window, including one day with 50-knot winds violently buffetting our tent, we make it safely around the Brooks Peninsula. We pass through Kyuquot Sound where we spot another wilderness cabin once used by whale researchers. There is no logbook inside.

Continuing south past Nootka Island, we land at Escalante Beach where I know there is another wilderness cabin much like the one at Burnett Bay. Inside the cabin is a logbook containing an entry I had written three years earlier on a trip with my best friend Henry.

I lead Julee to the cabin. With her at my side, I open the logbook, flip to the note I had written three years before, and push it across to her to read:

“Perhaps one day I’ll come back with my wife-to-be on our pre-honeymoon; we’ll read this page, remark on the same wonderful things that caught my eye this time around, and laugh.”

— Jerry Kaye

Julee gets out a pen, writes her own note in the logbook, and with an inquisitive smile on her face, pushes it back to me:

“Julee here, with the same Jerry, en route from Bella Bella to Tofino and from dating to …? I think Jerry’s foresight is amazing.”

Kaye family
Jerry in cabin
Jerry in the Shack

Jerry & Julee Kaye

Jerry and Julee have been exploring the coast of British Columbia by kayak and sailboat for over 40 years. They live in Vancouver. Their children are now experienced sailors and kayak adventurers in their own right.

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