The conversation went as follows, “If it is raining tomorrow, we go home. Agreed?”
It was only partly agreed upon to break camp the following morning if the weather that had dogged us with rain for nearly the entirety of our two-week paddling trip to Nookta and Nuchatlitz did not relent. Our foursome had been quarreling about intent and agenda and itinerary for much of the journey but now it was taking hold of our collective spirits. Was it time to call it a day?
Paddling on the west coast of Vancouver Island is a game of weather fronts and dealing with the forecasts of clear skies and sunshine that never come to pass. It is more a mental game than a physical one as on the stormy days one will, if one is smart stay put in came and make the best of things. The coldest winter paddle I did was in the summer on the coast and drowning was less likely in the kayak than it was in camp. It is called the ‘wet coast’ for good reason. If you plan a trip, plan to bring rain gear.
Around the campfire after an adventurous exploring of the cracks, crevasses and what presumed to be called caves on Catala Island we discussed our options. That evening it was warm, dry and pleasant. It had been lovely all that day after the monsoon that had occurred the previous three days finally moved on to drench someone else, someplace else. Our group had regrouped after a brief trial separation to accommodate two differing agendas and when reunited enjoyed a perfect afternoon crossing from the Nuchatlitz group of islands to Catala on emerald-green seas and rolling deep but manageable swells. The skies had cleared as had the mood within our group dynamic. The marine forecast given by Environment Canada was dire. Arguably it was not nasty at all where we were but that was not to last. It was decided that we would break up once more into two groups if the weather deteriorated in the overnight hours. There was talk of hunting for fresh drinking water at a falls nearby as our supplies, rainfall or not it was running low. Two of us would head for home saying it was a good trip, but not worth spending another day in the rain foraging for drinking water off tarps, while the others remained to take their chances for another day or so.
We retired slowly to our tents and knowing that I might be off early got a head start at packing my gear so all that would be left me was my tent and sleeping bag, and of course the stove would have to cool before being packed. I was not going anywhere without at least a cup or two of coffee in the rain if need be. I was ready and good thing too as around 6 am I peaked my head out of the tent to wet my face in a light shower. My friend who would was the impetus for leaving that day was already in his rain gear and shuffling about his tent pulling pegs. We were going! Within an hour we were sliding out kayaks down the shingle beach of pebbles to the water pecked by small ringlets caused by small rain drops. Hardly the downpour of days before, but enough. We waved good byes and set out.
Did we wimp out at the end of a good trip, regardless of crummy weather? Perhaps, but then again we did not endure the storm that would come the day after that hounded our companions all the way up the inlet with hard sideways falling rain, winds and seas to match. Hindsight being what it is, I say that we made a good call to bail early. Perhaps we had run our limit on endurance when it came to being wet hours and hours on end. Still, as my friend slept through the rain storms earlier in the trip and I sat tending a smoky campfire all the while attempting to dry wet driftwood I can’t say it was all that bad. Certainly the warm drizzle that met me in my t-shirt and shorts while enjoying a beer at the back of Rosa Island was not unwelcome. It was a calm day four days before we would leave Catala for good. It was misty in the distance and the barking of sea lions somewhere out there kept me company. The rain on my shoulders and watering down my brew did not change that fact that I was out there in the first place. Rain or shine I was doing something that not many people get to feel and experience. A rainy day spent on the back of some small island that no one knows about. Listening to sea lions and the gurgle of swells rushing up a cleft in the rocks below my pare feet. That my friends is camping on the wet coast at its absolute finest.
Solo by Design
“How can you stand being alone so long?” is the most asked question when friends hear of a trip I have done, or planned to take on alone. I have always been comfortable within my own head and periods of solitude that would intimidate some, I find to be a luxury. The sticker inside one of my boats states clearly a dire warning that you should never paddle alone and for years I didn’t.
Contented in the safety in numbers of a group dynamic that grew within a foursome of similarly outdoorsy friends coming to kayaking from all directions and interests, abilities and agenda. Though we were a drastically diverse gang of paddlers we all had this one passion of wilderness, ocean and the freedom of arriving at some incredible place that no one else had access, and most satisfying under our own power.
It was in that group that I honed my own wilderness living skills through some trial and errors that were never life-threatening but close calls and wet bottoms do get tiring. I became more conservative in my approach to the paddle days and measured it against the enjoyment meter. To have bold intent each day, goals to set, distances to achieve but with a sensible paddling intent became the beat I paddled to. If the day was too windy as would often be the case, well then heat up the Colman stove and brew another cup and watch the waves go by from camp. In a group there is always a negotiation and pressure to move along. Quite often I had an inner voice that wanted to stay and absorb a location more regardless of the conditions, but the group dynamic was a group dynamic and we all had agreement to itinerary. There was always negotiations, some good, some heated around the fire in the evening and I will not sit here today and say that was a bad thing for me. However, these compromises became an additional motivator to reach out on my own more often. I had acquired skills and confidence that years earlier I had not. It was time, and one summer I decided to ignore that sticker and take a step into solo kayaking.
Desolation Sound had always had an appeal even though it was a boater destination unfriendly for the most part to kayakers. The scenery of the coastal mountains leaning over the fiord-like channels around several islands, and the challenges of the Strait of Georgia which could not be ignored. I planned a two-week paddle into the sound to explore with a side trip down the strait, and across to the sandy shores of Savory Island to visit a friend who summers there with her sister selling crafts.
My float plan set, but never in stone I headed out from Cortes Island after a mad dash to miss a ferry or two. I chose Cortes Bay as a launch as there was good parking and a public boat ramp. The bay was sheltered but not from the south as I found out on my return day in a minor gale. The noisy night at the campground had me up and out as soon as the gates were unlocked that morning. Within an hour of taking down my tent it was packed in the kayak’s hatch and I was crossing the strait towards Malaspina Peninsula. The sun was shining, a small morning chop on the water greeted my bow, and the Sound lay ahead. Desolations Sound, what better place to find aloneness and solitude. This was the first time I set my own agenda and I was loving it! On the water when I chose, first stop where I chose and the night’s camping location (if accessible) was my choosing. No negotiations except with Mother Nature to whom I always consult as she can be a bad parent when off her meds. I was lucky that day to avoid the winds that would blow later from inland mountain valleys creating greenish grey frothing water in Homfray Channel where my destination of the Curmes Islets sat in a large notch. The group of women had less fortune with the winds when eventually landing on ‘my’ island no less than half and hour after I set up my camp neatly and lay on a sunny rock out of the breeze with a wooden goblet of red wine. I travel in style!
I enjoyed their company and even took charge of them for a day paddle up the shores and into the hot water lagoon beyond the reach of the boaters. I slipped away the next morning at dawn with a south-going tide to make for Savory, and my search for solitude. Again, I thought I found what I was seeking in the Copeland Island group that hugs close to the peninsula’s shore between the entrance to the Sound and the town of Lund across the water adjacent to Savory Island. I set up camp on the kayaker’s side of an island in the group that boasted a cosy anchorage for boaters on the opposite side. A short hike to the cliffs proved this to be true. Kayaker Bay and Boater Bay with a ridge of rock in between. This meant that I would have the view from camp being free of yachts and sailboats leaving only a westerly vantage point to enjoy another cup of wine with my evening meal and a sunset, but here comes some kayaks.
Though, once more I lost touch with aloneness and solitude I shared a communal meal of fresh prawns and other goodies with a pair of kayakers both like me paddling wooden kayaks they had built themselves. A sunset enjoyed with shared chocolate and wine, but by early morning I was off again while they slept in their tents.
My paddle the next morning to Savory Island was a bouncing and bounding exercise of technical paddling against the flow of wind and tide. It was great fun, and I arrived at the sandy shores of Savory in less than an hour. I came into the shallows and put my hand into the water that was near bathtub temperature. I got up and out and towed my kayak behind me as I waded in the tropics of BC until I arrived at the space of beach near, as close as I could recon to my friend’s instructions and land marks to find her house. A night of indoor life was odd. A fine meal with great conversations and a plan to stay on another day. By morning, with much disappointment on both sides I left due to incoming weather that would shorten my trip by a few days. Alas, it was low tide and it took me some time to shift boat and gear to the water’s edge, which kept going out and away from me. This was both a pain in the backside and a blessing as the north going tide would push me to my last night of camping at what I hoped to be a sheltered camp spot out of the predicted winds. They picked up shortly after my hasty departure from sunny Savory. The sky darkened and the paddle was not difficult with wind and tide at my back. I surfed a few waves along the way to speed up my progress.
At last, after a week of paddling alone I was finally truly alone. My tent set up in a close opening in the woods hidden behind a large fallen tree to look at it from the beach it seemed a cave. My only company was a raccoon who insisted on hanging about in hopes of finding some way of reaching my hanging bag of food.
Camping alone is a trick. The things we do while camping in a group in safety are heightened when alone. The smallest thing can become a bigger mess, or danger. Running a stove, boiling water, using a knife, walking up the beach to find a latrine location. The chance of burning one’s self, cutting one’s self, tripping and injuring one’s self all run in the back of the mind and remind me to slow down. After all, isn’t that why I came? The one thing that was not an issue for me was solitude. Kayaking alone is an opportunity to relax into thoughts that are pushed aside at home by all the at home things. It is a luxury to paddle methodically and just think thoughts, hum a tune or revel in the silence of the natural setting of wilderness paddling.
How can I stand being on my own that long? Those that have to ask have not tried to push themselves into the situation of solitude. To say it is not for everyone is an excuse not to try. We are communal creatures, of this there is no doubt. But if you still need to ask me that question then I ask you to go out and spend a night alone on a shore, with the comfort of a cosy tent and sleeping bag nearby, a sun setting as your evening’s entertainment. No noise, no at home stuff cluttering the mind, no cell phone, no laptop, just you and all of the above and a wooden goblet of red wine. Then ask me again how I could stand doing it more a week or more.
The Joy of Kayaking, and the lack of landmines.
How lucky are we? How fortunate our lives are that though aware of the violence taking place daily around the globe, and our unshakable need to harm each other continues, largely we remain untouched by it all in our day to day here in Canada. I can walk to town to meet with friends for coffee unencumbered by nagging thoughts of danger should step off the pavement and by chance trip a landmine. The last time a scud missle landed in my backyard was, well…never! We take this for granted and so we should. Life here in the Gulf Islands is especially calm so much so that we can go about our daily business in giggly bliss. Then came a day that I met someone who touched my life for a moment and reminded me without words what is important. She was a girl living on the island that summer, but it was not until days before her departure for her homeland of Israel that we met and I introduced her to sea kayaking. To spend a summer on my island and never sit in a kayak, or smell the salty air at sunset was a crime that I could not let go. It did not take too much coaxing to get her to give it a try, She had already tossed caution to the wind by traveling the world and woofing on a local organic farm. Tzela pronounced ‘Say-ella’ had a chance to paddle.
I put her in my short Current Designs Pachena and she taught me that nothing can be too hard to handle as within minutes she was cruising along beside me as though she had kayaked all her life. We left a beach at the end of the road where I had grown up after a brief glimpse of my old house and apple orchard. She was in awe of the relatively quiet life we islanders shared and of some of my stories of growing up on Salt Spring Island. The carry of the two kayaks down the short path and zig-zag hairpin corner down the concrete steps designed not with kayakers in mind, she was silent. I mistook this quiet for a sudden shyness, fear, or anxiety at kayaking for the first time in her life, and going someplace with some strange man. It was none of the above, but a silent inner reflection on how a life can be lived, in peace, without fear, without bombs and without abject hatreds.
Launching from the beach at the end of Churchill Road we set out to the chain of islets in Ganges Harbour to a crushed shell beach known locally as, Chocolate Beach on Third Sister Island. The beach is a hangout for boaters and party-goers all summer long is also a nice evening paddling destination with views of the sunset. Our paddle began in late afternoon and she had the chance to view nesting eagles on Goat Island, so named because the natives kept herds of, yes goats on this long rock. After forty minutes of watching harbour seals observing us and explaining all the inter-tidal lifeforms our trip ended with the scrunching sounds of shell fragments meeting our hulls. We were in luck to have the beach to ourselves as we said good-bye to a tour group heading back into the harbour.
With a few hours of sunshine as a gift we settled in with snacks I had packed away in my front hatch, including the rewards of cold beer. A trail leads up the hillside away from the beach passed a funky outhouse and onwards to the opposite end of the islet to a ledge over a cliff where we were greeted with views of the channel. On our wandering back Tzela fell into a lengthy silence and only back at our camp on the beach while sitting on a log sipping the warm ends of her can of beer was the quiet that I had no heart to stop, broken. She laughed and stood up brushing bits of shell from her behind and set about a long series of cart-wheeling flips down the slope to the water’s edge were I thought she might keep going, flipping hand over feet into the sea and become a mermaid. Smiling in a broad beam she jumped straight up in the air and returned up the beach skipping, arriving breathless and dow-eyed at the partly submerged log that had become our dinner table. It was a pure, unmarked expression of joyous abandon that had been stored up in her cells since birth. “No landmines, Dave!”
She asked if we were allowed to go to the adjacent island, and I nodded. We packed up and in minutes arrived at the dock leading ashore to the old footings of an abandoned attempt at homesteading. We snuggled into a cleft of the rocks and I brewed tea. Tzela sat arms wrapped around her knees, and instead of watching the sun setting she watched the gathering darkness in the East. To this day, I wonder if this was a look homewards? Our return paddle was not a quiet affair. Tzela returned to singing as she had done at points on our way out. This time the song lasted the entire trip to the launch site. I was treated to a cold beer at the pub for my efforts, but was rewarded far beyond that with a memory of kayaking joy.
In this series of posts about kayaking in the Gulf Islands using Salt Spring Island as a launching point I have focused only on destinations doable as day paddles. For those who want to get out there and do some exploring for more than a day, the possibilities are numerous. In the northern section fo the Southern Gulf Islands chain is Valdes Island. Running nearly parallel to Vancouver Island with its back to the Strait of Georgia it is a terrific base to explore the eroded sandstone cliff galleries near the Blackberry Point camping area, to the Pylades chain of islands including De Courcy Island, former home to Aquarian cult leader Brother XII. in the late 1920′s. Did I mention yet that the sunsets from Blackberry Point are spectacular? Well, they are!
Blackberry Point is about a three-hour paddle from Southey Point on Salt Spring Island, and the route there is relatively simple with only one major crossing to tackle. Leaving from Southey Pt. paddle over to Penelakut Island (formerly named Kuper Island) and follow its shores to the spit then paddle across Clam Bay to reach the southern shore line of Thetis Island. Continue onwards to the northern tip at Pilkey Pt. and you will see Shingle Point on Valdes to your left. This will make you think it is Blackberry Point, but don’t be fooled. However, Shingle Point is a good landmark for your crossing of Trincomali Channel. An alternate route is to cross to the Secretary Islands from Salt Spring and meander through them to reach Reid Island. There is designated camping on Reid Island Islet which is deceivingly hidden against the backdrop of the larger island, until close up. Access to this islet is tough with a very rocky landing. At low tide there is a small section of crushed shells allowing access for one kayak at a time. From Reid Island make a diagonal crossing to Shingle Point. The distance from here to Blackberry Point is less than half an hour of easy shoreline paddling. Keep and eye peeled for raccoons in the rocks and eagles atop trees.
At Blackberry Point you will find a dog-legged shaped beachfront with ample tenting spots and a short trail leading to a composting outhouse. This was the first campsite established by Peter McGee as park of the newly founded BC Marine Trails Network in the early 1990′s. On a hot sunny afternoon it is hard to leave this beach but there are several spots to take in while camping here. The main feature of Valdes is the high eroded sandstone cliffs a short hop from the campgrounds.
The natural erosion caused by saltwater and wind carve honeycombs and intricate patterns in the age-old rock and makes for a lovely pre-dinner paddle once camp is set up. You may even encounter a local character on the island, Pete. I must confess it has been a few years since I visited the beach and at the time of this post I do not know if Crazy Pete as some might call him is still there. If so I am sure he would be happy to escort you and your group on a hike up the mountain.
Day tripping from your camp along the Pylades group is safe, and pleasant paddling. There is even camping available on the tiny Whaleboat Island tucked in with Ruxton Island. This campsite I have yet to find. Beyond Ruxton is De Courcy Island and a camp ground in Pirates Cove. On the west side of De Courcy you will find more carved sandstone galleries. Keep in mind that the passage between De Courcy and Link Island is not useable at low tide. After Link Island is the last of the Pylades group, Mudge Island at the head of False Narrows. There is a nice picnic spot here but watch that you stay clear of the narrows as the currents run fast.
As a restful destination after a good long day of exploring by kayak, Blackberry Point will not disappoint. Did I mention the sunsets are spectacular?
Living in the Gulf Islands we wait patiently through long wet winter months of seemingly endless grey skies crying down buckets of tears. We wait with anticipatory visions of gliding through the water in the summer heat. The reality is startlingly different when summer does arrive and all we can hope for is that the local islands will grow a mile or two higher to give some early shade as we paddle. Where is the relief from the humidity gathering in the cockpit under the spray skirt? Where can we refresh ourselves? How about on a patio overlooking the sea under the protection of an umbrella with a cold pint of amber ale in hand. What could be better than a paddle to the pub?
The paddling day begins from Southey Point eccentrically placed at the northern tip of Salt Spring Island on a day the islands surrounding us would never grow high enough to cast any shade, we pointed to Penelakut Island. This island is native land and formerly named, Kuper Island. The spit near the village of Penelakut is visible from Southey Point and we chose to cruise the shallow sandbars of Penelakut. The water was still around our kayaks and in the clarity it was easy to view schools of frantic fish zigzagging to avoid our approach. Crabs nestled face down in the sand were no match for a tag-team effort between two paddle blades scooping them up at will. Dinner would be simple if it were crab, not the grog and burgers that was our prey that day.
In the heat haze on the water the white stick ahead was thought a marker of some sort, but only recognizable as a man when our group paddled closer. Walking waist-deep along the shore, but still far from shore a resident of the island was flicking up crab into a garbage bag with a garden rack with the handle cut short. We chatted and he offered some of his quarry to which we refused gracefully. Onwards around the jetty where the chop rose slightly in the confusion of water not knowing how to go, and into the cut.
We had planned out outing around the tides, something not entirely crucial in the Gulf Islands baring any needs to sneak out into the Strait of Georgia where the narrows between islands can get up to 10 knots of current. To get to the Thetis Island Marina Pub from this direction requires a higher tide to navigate ‘the cut’. This shallow groove meanders through high sandbars, once prime clamming beds in between Penelakut and Thetis Islands. At low tide be prepared to get out and push, pull or drag your kayak, and at higher water levels keep and eye out for small motor craft coming and going from the marina. The cut narrows and becomes shallow in a bottleneck forming a muddy land bridge at low tide before opening to deeper water at the marina.
Thetis Island Marine Pub is nothing fancy and the patio is a slender deck facing the docks but the food is great and the beer is cold, except on this day. A large pleasure boat had left the bay dragging its anchor and thus severing the underwater cable giving power to the island. The sandwiches and room temperature beer was delightful, and in the many return visits to the pub I have enjoyed much of the menu of good pub fare while sipping a cold pint. As I lazed on the patio watching eagles admiring boater life from high snags on Penelakut as though separated in time.
The day ending with the return paddle in Stuart Channel, a belly scrapping slip in between Penelakut and Tent Island before crossing back to Southey Point. The beer refreshed us only if for a few moments as the late afternoon sun slowed our progress accompanied by digestion. We stop at Tent island for a brief stretch which resolves to be an afternoon nap. The only thing better than paddling to a pub is the kayak nap soon after on cool pebbles.
If I ever forget where I parked the car it is easy to find due to two things, one my wooden kayak is resting on the roof racks, and two there will most likely be one, two, three or more middle-aged guys circling. I once had to ask a fellow to get off the front of my car as he was trying to get a better photograph of the deck of my kayak, by standing on my car. When I helped him back to firmer ground the questions begin and usually with, “Is it more fragile than a fibreglass kayak?” and the next question is, “Must take a lot of work to maintain, I wouldn’t want to do all that extra work all the time…”
As a matter of fact, other than one collision that left a nasty dent in the side of my kayak, the woodie has held up for nearly a decade of hardcore use, rough landings and wintering on the backyard rack without much maintenance other than an annual scrubbing and perhaps a new coat of varnish. A recent makeover and some brand new deck rigging has given her a ‘looking like new’ appearance and another decade of life at sea. This leads more to the second question of does a wooden kayak require more upkeep than any other kayak on the market? Usually, as with my own boat the answer is no, but as with any kayak, a good going over from stem to stern once a year is a smart practice to get into. The wooden kayak does need attention. A new coat of marine varnish once a year will protect it from damaging UV and bring new life to the wood tones. However, I don’t do much other than that.
Not all wooden kayaks that have been in my backyard have fared as well. The second wooden kayak I built was for a friend who didn’t want to tackle the project herself. I was happy to put it together and gave it some personalized touches. Alas, the kayak got little used and was left directly on the ground on one side for a year and a half. The results were almost unrecoverable. It came back to me in a state and I took a few drastic measures to restore the kayak, not to its original beauty but with an entirely new look to mask the damage.
Thinking that I could get my wife out on the water with me, I built her a kayak. Initially, she used it often but found kayaking to be challenging. Her kayak sat on the rack for the next couple of years and neglected due to time, and energy. No excuses really, and the results are a kayak that looks older than my ten-year-old boat. With some time on my hands and the idea of possibly selling it to add to our ‘tandem kayak’ fund jar (I have permission to build a double) her kayak is my next makeover project! The task begins with a wash and then a few hours going over every inch of the hull with an orbital sander, then the deck as well. The hatch covers have always leaked so they will get a rethinking as well as an upgrade on the artwork.
Does owning wooden kayaks take more effort. Yes, and no. In the end, you are working and paddling in something made of organic living material that adds greatly to the enjoyment and feel of gliding through the water. That being said, no lunch is ever entirely free. It is time like these, covered in dust and contemplating the costs of refitting the kayak that I remember the words from the Wind in the Willows. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
Unlike its ‘rock n’ roll’ full-body and mind workout cousin white water kayaking, sea kayaking is a slower, rhythmic and methodical journey through nature and certainly an immensely drier occupation. Sea kayaking is without question an excercise and we all know that excercise does a body good. physical activities of all types create endorphins boosting the brain’s neurotransmitter feel good juices. It is a stress reliever! I call this floatation therapy. Within moments of sitting in a kayak I feel a body joy. Before even a single paddle stroke this sensation kicks in. Then I begin, usually with a blast of action to get the boat in motion I pull a minor sprint off the shore and then drift for a few moments, taking it all in. The water surrounding me, the scenery and of course being in the Gulf Islands the ever-present boat traffic.
The paddle starts and a meditation of motion follows quickly. The rhythm of the thing lulling my mind away from the small troubles annoying it on land. I stop thinking period other than what I need to concern myself. Wind, waves, tides, sun, rain, boaters and wildlife. I day-dream immediately. I am separate and a whole in my mind and body unlike at any other time in my day, week or lifetime. I focus in on this single task of propelling my kayak and myself through nature in idle meditation of nothingness and everything at the same time.
I was reminded of this sensation, if briefly the other day when relaunching my wooden kayak after months of gathering dust in the workshop before a final push to rebirth it with a new look for the beginning of its second decade with me. I floated out from under a low canopy of branches from a shore line tree, ducking my head and holding my hat as I went through the rushes to open water. A gust grabbed my boat and turned me. Okay, this is the direction I will paddle. The wind at my back I began and felt that rush of floatation. The session had begun after many months off the water, and it was good!
It was something not unusual or new to me, and until this morning talking to an old friend with a head filled with ‘land-based’ troubles of his own did I realize that to an extent, I took floatation for granted. This guy needed kayaking more than he knew, and I didn’t have to try very hard to convince him he was long overdue to get back in a kayak. We both had tried it in high school and it took me twenty years to rediscover it. Will it help? Who knows, but it can’t hurt. If nothing else, after an afternoon paddling with me around some local islands will either reduce his troubles to the singular problem of finding the extra cash to fund a boat and all the extra toys that go with a kayak. Floatation Therapy 101, the first session is free!