Kayaking in Desolation Sound with Mr. Toad

At the tip of West Redonda Island. Photo by Dave Barnes

At the tip of West Redonda Island.
Photo by Dave Barnes

Just Messin’ Around with Boats

Whether you end up where you’re going, or end up somewhere else…Have you ever read The Wind in the Willows? I have and it is a book particularly adequate for the kayaker. The last time I took this off the shelf was two years ago while I was packing gear, food and assorted sundries for a 7-day solo effort around West and East Redonda Islands, two large islands which make up the bi-island core of Desolation Sound. The original plan was to head from Cortes Island, across Lewis Channel to West Redonda Island’s Refuge Cove, and then diagonally across the mouth of the sound to camp the night in the Curmes Island group. A cluster of rugged rocks some big enough to camp upon if you can find a place to land. From there I would launch my first leg of the circumnavigation of the fiord-like Homfray Channel to either Forbes or Atwood Bay.

The trip began well enough with the watching of the Cortes Island Ferry leaving as I rushed up to the terminal on Quadra Island. I watched it leaving as I pulled into the terminal. Nothing to do but wait. The attendant was apologetic but I have lived with ferries all my life and have long ago discovered the art of waiting for one missed boat. I eventually caught my boat, two hours behind schedule and the tide was not waiting!

I arrived at Squirrel Cove and got the low-down on where and how to launch my kayak and where to park my car for the week. This took some time. Squirrel Cove is a slow place and reminded me of home. Every island seems to run on its own clock, and as with my own island home the people don’t like to wear watches. ‘Island time’.

I moved the car to the boat ramp but the shoreline was far away and at low tide an oyster bed. It would have been a daunting task to move gear and boat on my own in the humidity of that afternoon but for my helper. I met him in the store where I paid both launch fee and parking fee. He was a tall, slender older figure of a man, Japanese and incredibly interested in my wooden kayak, A Pygmy Coho that I had named, Dragonfly. I think it was the boat that encouraged his assistance. In a matter of minutes the pile and the kayak were at the water’s edge. Adjacent to me were two antiquated hippies loading up a hand-carved kayak made from a single tree. It had a dark rustic Fred Flintstone appearance, but the couple assured me it was sea-worthy after apparently seeing my raised eyebrow. The two craft, side by side on the beach could not have looked farther apart in line and style. I was the faster however and left them in the sea spray at my stern as I began the crossing to Redonda Island.

At the beach in Squirrel Cove, Cortes Island.Photo by Dave Barnes

At the beach in Squirrel Cove, Cortes Island.
Photo by Dave Barnes

The fantasy life of home was falling behind me now, and the time in the kayak, always therapeutic. I say that life at home is fantasy because in very many ways the life out in the kayak, camping, roughing it and being lost in your own head for hours at a time, especially during long crossings comes with its own reality. Everything becomes more imperative out there, and you must be on your toes. It’s also a time to get into the mental laundry basket and think about things that the chaos and distractions of home leave little time for otherwise. In other words, one can sort out one’s own crap when out on the water.

By the time I swept by the rocks at the entrance of Refuge Cove and the sign telling me that I was passing Hope Point, or was that the points beyond hope? By all accounts Lewis Channel where it met the mouth of the sound and the terminus of the Georgia Strait could get rather snotty. Hope and Refuge would be a welcoming sign on those days. My first half hour in the kayak was hot, humid and the only boat on the water near me was the silent white sloop in full glorious sail. As always, I wondered if he could see me and if he would tack left or right next. He was still far to my right when I snuck into the passage between the Martin Islets and West Redonda.

Now I had to keep my eyes and ears alert for speedboats that raced through the pass regularly and without slowing down! Desolation Sound is for boaters with motors. This is the turf belonging to the three-martini crowd who have a heavy hand on the throttle at all times. We the humble quiet and tiny kayakers are the trespassers here. The sound is an echo chamber as well. Long after a motor craft has gone from sight the, THUM THUM THUM THUM THUM rumbles on. This is a sound that eventually becomes so commonplace that your senses barely register and it disappears. On those first days however, it is rude.

I crossed with little fanfare just after leaving the Martins. I kept a general bead on Mink Island. The Curmes Islets lay just at the eastern tip of Mink. My game, the one to distract my brain from the distance required before me was to catch up to the kayaking foursome ahead. I was gaining even as I thought about doing it. I love that. The woodie is fast, even fully loaded she is 15 lbs lighter than any other kayak and she loves to fly. My soup-spoon paddle blades, also of wood don’t hurt the momentum. Soon I was upon them. A wave, a hello and then I was ahead of them and beating my paddle to the rhythm of my own. I wanted to stay on the Curmes as I had done the previous year. The island I had picked was a breeze to land on at higher tides. It was a matter of sliding onto a stone shelf, tying off to some rock and unloading the kayak at my leisure while the tide gently lowered her to the shelf. Not an hour after I had arrived the previous trip, I was invaded by a group of women, all bickering (a story for another blog entry perhaps). On this trip I was out of luck. Each island I passed was occupied to overflowing and some with, well, not all naked is good naked. I moved on.

I had a back-up plan knowing that the Curmes were popular to kayakers, or aging nudists. I turned and headed for Tenedos Bay where I knew I could find camping for a night and there after a short hike was a lovely still lake. The arm protecting was a high cliff which tapered down to more manageable shoreline. I met a man and dog, seemingly abandoned by friends on a ledge only accessible by water. We chatted briefly under the buzz of the lone jet-skier who was carving donuts into the still bay. It would not be a quiet evening. The number of boats anchored in the bay gave it the appearance of a trailer park.

Tenedos Bay is out of the prevailing winds and the general humidity of August was more than apparent by the enriched aroma of the small rocky beach. Out on the fringes of Clayoquot Sound, Nootka Island and other exposed places I have dipped my paddle the air is crisp, new and has a snap to it. The air of Clayoquot is the white wine of air. It smells and feels like a kiss from Princess Diana might have felt like. On the inside, where I paddle the gulf islands and these areas protected by the wall of Vancouver Island, it is darker. The scent of the air rich, earthy and wildly organic.

In Tenedos Bay it was that and ever so pungent with fresh dog poop. Fresh, warm, and rather gigantic was the steaming mass that my unfortunate kayak landed in when I reached the shore. This was no boater poodle poop. I was questioning my idea of paddling alone as much of the excursion would be camping in bear country. I had little to fear here in the warm smelly Tenedos. No self-respecting predator would ever show up here, no matter how good the food smells from my cook-pots might be that night.

By morning, I awoke to the sounds of a float-plane coming in for a pick-up of the couple who had kayaked the lake, and offered an account of a scary night out with the bears, and who were well-off enough to afford private transportation for them and their kayaks back to civilization. The plane departed and the rumbling of propellers gave way to the sounds of a building wind storm. I was heart-fallen and knew my easy first real day out was going to be more challenging against the winds falling from the hillside deeper up the inlets. Atwood Bay was looking so far away now and Forbes as well. I packed my gear slowly and considered my options. I decided to go for it. After all that was why I was here, to paddle! I stopped and chatted with the only other kayakers in the campground. They were the four I had zipped by the afternoon before. Two older men both named Jerry and their wives, gobbling down pancakes to which I was offered to join. Jerry, not Jerry but the first Jerry told me of an island when I mentioned my misgivings on the weather conditions. South of Tenedos was the inlet of Okeover. It lead down the backside of Malaspina Peninsula and was usually sheltered. There he said they had camped once before and not seen a soul. There was only room for one tent and if it was already taken I would have to back-track an hour to the second-most commonly used camping location. It was described as, dank. I still had plans to go north but it was nice to know I had a plan B once again.

Rounding the rocky cliff with the path of the day before to my left now I pointed into the wind waves and the cold gusts that were the true opposite of the hair-dryer air of the previous afternoon. They were big and bashed over my bow but as I paddled beyond the boundary of the marine park into the wilds of Homfray the reality began to set in. It was hard work. Harder than I thought. There was not one moment of peace or any sign that the winds would relent. I mustered something inside that I keep hidden in reserves for times like these. I paddled onwards. Wind waves hammered me and if felt like the brakes were hit with each impact. The last of the small islands to my back and I worked steadily against the forces of nature, both tide and air had it in for me. I could see the bend in the inlet and the point I was aiming for was long beyond that bend, out if my sight. I paddled for an hour more before the winds at mid-day had accumulated more strength so I relented, retired and gave in. Facing fatigue long before I could find adequate landings to wait it all out I spun my bow southward and now the wind and tide were friendly. So fickle is the Mother Goddess.

I took Jerry’s good advice and returned along the watery path I had just battled against. This time with ease. It is a rare thing for a kayaker to get both tides and winds in his favour. Though my trip had just taken a detour I still had thoughts of retreating for the night on Jerry’s Island and then making another attempt for Atwood Bay in the morning should the weather improve. I rode wind waves and found shelter closer to shore until rounding into Okeover Inlet. Here it got rather big for some reason. Winds, who can figure them out. Once at my back and now seemingly changing direction causing water to get confused and angry at the mouth of the inlet. Not so bad after the much harder slogging of earlier in the day. Soon I was out of the bad section and into calm that was eerie to say the least. It was quiet…too quiet but I loved the change. Paddling was now effortless and my mind could wander away from waves and frustration to fanciful daydreaming about the little cabin on the shore part way up the inlet. I could live there I thought to myself. Think of the paddling!

Jerry’s Island was not in Okeover Inlet after all, it was in Lancelot Inlet so I kept an eye peeled along the shoreline for any cutlery embedded in the boulders…just in case. There was more confusion when turning to the head of the waterway. In a bay were not one, but two small islets. Which was Jerry’s? I paddled to the first one and it seemed a bit rocky so wandered across to the second one and circled it, then back to the first looking for any idea of where to land. Jerry’s wife was a lovely woman but hardly (and I dare say she would agree) athletic. If those two had landed here it would be an easier spot and therefore as obvious as the smooth ramp of sandstone bordered by large boulders on the second island. This had to be it. I came broadside to the ramp which at this point dropped at the edges. I got out and had a look around on wobbling bloodless legs. I had been in the boat for 6 hours give or take with no rest stops. Why I never stop when paddling alone is anyone’s guess. I like it in my boat.16-I-could-live-there___

The island was abrupt on all sides but this one. Just above the ramp was a flat shelf big enough for one tent, perhaps two in close quarters. I bit of a scramble up and down but manageable. With Dragonfly secured to a rock I unloaded her, set up camp and had her nestled on the rocks below my tent in no time flat. Then the real work of what remained of the afternoon began, pulling out my Therma-Rest and a cold ale for a much deserved kayaker nap. It was not long into that nap, and about half way down the can of beer when I watched another lone kayaker rounding the head of the bay. Half hoping for this all to myself I realized that was silly and unrealistic thinking. The previous year, at setting up camp I was invaded within an hour by newcomers. History was repeating now as I observed him landing at the first island, getting out, stretching and retrieving his chart from the deck of his kayak. He looked at it, then up in my general direction. I waved. He looked back at his chart with the realization he was second and I, for once, had won the best spot. I waved again and he waved back but instead of paddling over to me he wheeled around and headed back whence he came. The next best camping spot was not so grand as per Jerry’s description, but later when I did leave my island I found several people perched on rocks up Okeover. There was plenty to go round, you just had to be inventive.

My island remained mine and I had no more visitors except a pleasure boat that anchored in the bay the next day which, like this day was wild. Wilder still as now even Lancelot was green and white-capped. My floatplan was on the wobble so sent a text to my good friend Michael at home telling him of the situation at hand. The Redondas would have to wait, as would I for two more stormy days. I got some great paddling in with an unloaded kayak to the end of the inlet and some lovely coves. This was the country told in Grant Lawrence’s Adventures in Solitude. Riding green waves all the way to camp again and my easy landing spot. For the most part it was sane where I was. Sheltered from the brunt of things though my last night was so loud I could not sleep for the winds threatening to drop the trees upon my tent, or the heavy rains that followed. Much of my time until then was spent reading. tweaking my campsite and of course, napping. I had time.20-obvious-landing-site-on-a-slab-of-sandstone_-300x225

I left days later after that rain in a slight drizzle heated at 7am by humidity. A half hour later I was greeted with sunshine and one of the most gloriously smooth 5 hours on the water I have ever spent. Outside of the inlets I crossed to the Martins on my way to Roscoe Bay for a night. The skies were ever-changing and the next system was building to hit over-night. I would be off the water long before then in another ’boater bay’, a shock after my days of solitude. But in those bays with all the big boats and noise the same hymn was being sung. I took some ribbing back home when I mentioned the reading material I brought along on this trip. A kids book, maybe, but in those bays and on my island that hymn remained. A simple notion from a line inside The Wind in the Willows, that there is nothing, “half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats.”


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