Lets Go Exploring: San Juan River Estuary.

The last ever frame of the cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes had the pair sailing off on a sled into a white background, parts unknown. The caption simply read, “Lets go Exploring!” Three little words that ran through my head as we four unloaded kayaks, paddles and enthusiasm on a sandy access near the Pacheedaht campground at Port Renfrew, BC. The idea to paddle up into the San Juan River Estuary was one a couple of us had bandied about and on a recent day trip to the coast I was tasked with some recon. This consisted of driving back and forth over the single-lane bridge over the river’s mouth peering over the railings to see upriver to the first elbow. Other than a powerline stretched over the river decorated with red and white balls so planes won’t get snagged I had no idea how far anyone could paddle upstream. When asked back at home by those interested in joining the trip I said it was totally, “doable”.

The estuary by definition is at the mercy of a rising and lowering tide fed in by the perpetually windy Juan de Fuca Strait. The open mouth of the river turns into a shallow maze of sandbanks and submerged logs at lower tides. An exposed sand bar blocks the outflow to the sea completely at this time. Wind waves bashed ashore against it, but on the river side things looked calmer. The tide would rise considerably by the time we planned to return so simplifying our path to the launch site.

On the water, the wind found us, and the paddling to that first elbow in the river’s course was done by riding high on some substantial swells. The winds were forecast to increase overnight but for some reason we all assumed amnesty on the river from their effects. Around the corner the open ocean and its nasty winds were behind us. The air was warm as was the water and the tops of trees swayed. The water became quite deep in places in rich emerald green and so clear that the stones on the floor were visible. In a moment, the deep would disappear and then suddenly shallow signified by the noise as my rudder blade pinged off small round river-polished stones. Fallen old growth trees lined a section of the shore like sleeping giants side by side one by one like toppled dominoes. Dwarfed we were in perspective. With only a vague GPS map to guide us along the trip upriver was one of true exploration fed by the curiosity of what may be around the next corner, the next gravel bar, the next rapid.

Rapids, a word or two about them. I am a sea kayaker. If I see tidal rapids I tend to find a new course. I am not a white water adrenaline guy and none of us had ever been river paddling before. It was good that we all read from the same page on this account as there was not one person who had done them before and therefore egging the group to jump in the deep end only because they feel comfortable there. We paddled against the flow. Most of the river sections were flat, relatively calm and deep. The current, and there was current was barely noticeable on these stages. Until of course, we were met with a step up in elevation. The flow increased and more often than not it was so shallow that getting good paddle traction was impossible. I wondered along the way if it had been a better snow year would we be in for more flow, and certainly deeper water. Even the smallest rapids stopped us in out tracks and the portage beyond the obstacle at one spot was a mere five feet. The sweeper rapid on a sharp corner we all avoided and on the way back down it was the only one we got off the river to carry the kayaks to safer waters. The rest of the steps were fun, slow-moving drops.

For three hours we worked out way up river stopping only to walked the river shore often to see if the next bend was to be our last. Inevitably it was not and we continued. A log jam standing about ten feet high nearly stopped our progress completely if not for a one meter gap with a bunny hop over a slightly submerged tree. On the return I led the group enjoying the faster water and using my rudder to steer the gauntlet and through the gap without a single paddle stroke. From that point we eventually found the short channel that lead into Fairy Lake. Here we met a man with a small canoe and a kite he was attempting to fly in the gusts swirling around the bends from time to time. The tops of the Alders bend and hushed whispers sounded in their leaves with each padding gust of wind. A reminder that our last leg in open water may be difficult indeed. I assured the group, and told myself to believe it would all die down long before we reached that point.

The afternoon drew on, the sun came out to greet us as we wandered, paddled, walked through deep brush, ate plump berries (wondering if the bears noticed) and fell into tranquil self-absorbed silences in out kayaks for long periods of time. It was noted on a particularly dreamy patch of slow-moving deep green water with high walls of forest highlighting the slot of open sky a mist shrouded mountain that we all could be floating on any bit of water, on any bit of British Columbia, at any time in history. The mist cleared, and a unmistakable logging scar appeared shaking us back to the present and thus ruining our delusions. We paddled on.

The hour became late, we landed upon a gravel island in the middle of the river. A mild rapid flow peeled away from one side of it causing a convenient eddy to allow easy landings. The four of us basked there in the sunshine, the first we had seen all day. All was quiet, all was calm. I exhaled in more than just breath. Not much was spoken on that hour perched in the center of a river with so much ahead of us to explore until I broke the silence with the reminder of the one we had left behind in camp, and the fact all the food was in the trunk of my car. It was time to paddle home. The time back was less than half that of the upriver paddle even with gusts of wind that to my prediction were not nearly as violent when we rounded the bend into open water. The tide was high and a shoreline short cut was to be had.

A look at the map when I got home shows how far we had paddled and how much potential there was to continue had we left earlier in the day. Fairy Lake was just the tip of the iceberg and I plan to return with Hobbes and Calvin and anyone with a kayak to see what lay beyond our lazy gravel bar. Next stop Lizard Lake…Let’s Go Exploring!




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