102 Days Alone Around
Vancouver Island by Robert Lyon
Photos by Rob Lyon & Gregg Blomberg Photography
"Do you reckon Tom Sawyer would ever go
by this thing?
Not for pie he wouldn't. He'd call it an adventure - that's what he'd call it; and he'd land on that wreck if it was his last act."
Huck Finn, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain
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"I had the safest (sit-on-top), strongest (Kevlar), largest (technically a double) kayak possible for such a trip. It was built with a molded seat on top of an air-tight hull; should I capsize I could simply flip the boat over and hop back on."
As I paddled closer I found several large schools of salmon milling just out of reach of the handful of fishermen standing on shore. I spent the next hour excitedly chasing the salmon around, alternately trolling and casting a fly to bright, six-pound fish. Although it was not my first encounter with pink salmon that summer, I had yet to hook one. It was another balmy summer evening over the Strait of Georgia as I gave up and paddled onto a fine stretch of beach not far from the river mouth.
Leaning back against a huge driftwood log, a burly guy with a ponytail greeted me warmly. This would be Rory Glennie, who, along with the rest of his family and half a dozen fly rods, were waiting for the salmon to move closer in, as they did, he told me, each evening.
Ironically, Rory was the recent president of the local chapter of the B.C. Steelhead Society. Not bad timing for a fly fishing journalist, I thought, and while we waited for the salmon Rory filled me in on the local situation. From seal predation on the Puntledge, to improving salmon runs on the Strait side streams, there seemed to be both a lot underway and a lot left to do. As we talked, I noticed two scruffy looking men hiking up the beach toward us in the distance. They would stop every once in a while to toss out a treble hook with a weight attached and jerk it back to shore. Rory, it turns out, was not only outspoken in the clubhouse. When the snaggers stopped in front of us to cast, I was sure they heard Rory's remark about: "the low-life on the beach these days" . . . I thought for sure we'd be in for a fuss, but they never turned around.
I watched Rory and his family hook four or five salmon that evening but came up empty myself. He gave me the hot fly, a little epoxy minnow imitation painted a pink hue, but the best I could manage was a bump. Rory had waded wet and we all sat together around a crackling fire in the dark drinking beer, warming up and chatting. He told me the story of the pinks and how you needed to get the attention of a group of fish to get a strike instead of fishing to just one and suggested it might be a competitive reflex. Later on, when everyone had left I had the beach and, it seemed, the universe, all to myself.
I was grateful for Rory and his family, for their warm reception on a Vancouver Island beach. The moon rose full and flooded the sea with a twinkling ivory light that night and I lay in my bag under the stars feeling real good and listening to the lapping of waves. I could sense how I was coming in relation to the moon and sun now instead of watches and calendars. I had left home on a crescent; now it was full. By the time I reached the tip of the island it would probably be new again. When the sun heated up my tent I got up; when I couldn't see anymore I went to bed. To hell with calendars, I thought, I liked this supernal reckoning.
Environmental Issues for the Fly Fisherman
After talking with Rory and Craig and Dave I was getting a feel for the degree of environmental awareness and activism of the Canadian fly fisherman. "Somebody's gotta stir the pot," was how Rory put it. Dave told me that with the logging boom early this century the valley bottoms were easiest pickings. Little regard was given the streams and rivers at that time.
With no protective legislation timber was harvested right to the banks and resulted in log jams, flooding and the subsequent silting in of spawning beds and a wholesale decline of the native fishes that once called these waterways home.
Sadly, the run of wild steelhead native to the Campbell has been exterminated through damming and heavy metal contamination from nearby mines. Dave told me there was a ray or two of hope in this storm-cloud picture. A recent emphasis on protecting native stock instead of relying on put-and-take hatchery replacements has developed and a "catch and release" regulation governing all native steelhead has been put into effect island wide.
It was refreshing to see a man who makes his living in the logging industry and still has a conscience about the ecosystems that were part in parcel with everyone's livelihood. I thought, it is so tempting to justify vocation. Dave and a couple of other fellows have taken it upon themselves to patrol the Campbell, which above a certain point is "fly fishing only". There are only a couple of game wardens for an enormous amount of territory here and without the support of people like Dave the enforcement of the hard-earned conservation legislation is nearly impossible. We came upon two young men from California setting up their spinning rods above the fly fishing only deadline that evening. Dave firmly, but gently, explained to the men they were on the wrong stretch of river. Dave showed me the signs they had posted signs along the river and told me he makes a tour every evening after work.
British Columbia's Temperate Rainforests
"Pinned down in a little bay below a subdivision at Gordon Head..., a gentleman walking the beach stopped and invited me to dinner. Mark Gruber works as an environment attorney in the metropolis beyond the beach and I had a refreshing meal of macaroni and cheese with his children, a gorgeous foreign exchange student and a dog my last night in British Columbia. Mark put me on track with some of the long needed environmental changes underway in the province. I had talked with a number of locals along the way and experienced first-hand the obscene looking clear-cuts and the subsequent damage to the watersheds and it's adverse trickle down effects that destroyed many of the native salmon and steelhead runs that were once a legacy of this remarkable island. Dave and Rory, Dick and Jane and Earl, and many others. . Everyone seemed to have a handle on what was happening.
'The thing about these B.C. temperate rainforests," Mark explained that night, "is that originally they only constituted a fifth of one percent of the earth's surface! Besides being simply an awesome place they support one of the largest and most diverse ecosystems in the world. To reduce these marvelous organic palaces to stumps to satisfy the greed of the logging industry is a heinous thing.'
While someone will have to bite the bullet if real changes are effected in time, it sounds like as much as possible was being done to protect the livelihood of the logging communities that would be hardest hit. Stumpage fees had been raised, and charging more per tree meant less harvest and more money to put these same men and women to work with watershed restoration, road rehab, silvaculture and other conservation projects. Word was there would be a 25% to 35% increase in protected forest as a result of the recent Forests Practices Code Act. I got a recent comparison study in the mail when I returned home and discovered that although the new legislation is certainly a step in the right direction, the B.C. regulations that are self-touted as "world class" fall short of our own standards here in Washington State in eight out of ten categories. Robert Kennedy Jr., who prefaced the report, summed up the situation: "There is a long way to go to implement ecologically sound management in the ancient forests that straddle the Canada-U.S. Border." And wise management of our shared forest resources, of course, spells wise management of remaining native steelhead and salmon stocks."
"I came across a pod of gray whales feeding very close to shore within two miles of Cape Scott on the evening of the fifteenth of August, a little over a month from launch. It was humbling to be in the presence of these large mammals and a bit disconcerting as they breached ten feet away. I was never sure whether they had me on their radar or not.
I camped that night in a little bay beside the milling beasts.
The whales made a funny noise sometime besides their regular exhalation, a whistling sound like blowing across the mouth of a bottle. A fog bank drifted in that evening and I could hear the fluty call of the loons mixed in with the sounds of the nearby grays and the periodic bleating of the fog horn down at the cape. I crawled outside the tent to pee several times that night, feeling no little anxiety to be sure and awoke early the next morning and headed out.
Bear were common around much of the northern island. I would see them rummaging through piles of seaweed, picking out delicacies as they ambled along the beaches. I had to be careful to keep my food and cooking gear put away. I had one nosing around camp once but it took off when I came out of the tent yelling.
Late one afternoon I saw some sea critters pop up inside a kelp bed just ahead. As I paddled closer they lurched up out of the water as a group and I recognized them as sea lions. I was quite impressed, especially when they began to make threatening noises. They were suspended a good four feet out of the water, about eight of them weighing in at about a thousand pounds per beast, when they dove in unison at me. I spun the boat on a dime and took off as fast as I could paddle. Meanwhile, they boiled up all around my boat without every touching it. I was relieved to make the shelter of a little bay later that afternoon. Sea lions, I read that night, are territorial.
As for wolf, unfortunately I did not see one on this trip. We'd seen them before on the west coast, but this time the best I could do was to find some prints I feel pretty certain were wolf. I always had an eye out for cougars and carried a stick when I went on walks, but the most exciting encounter I had on land with an animal was when I stepped over a log on the beach one day and found a baby seal on the other side. Hissing angrily at me, it belly flopped toward the water some twenty yards away. I walked along beside it, hoping to have a moment of communion, but it was quite unpleasant."
It looked to be an exciting summer. Paddling a kayak alone around the perimeter of Vancouver Island would make sure of that. As for the fishing, I knew only that I would encounter streams and rivers with fish schooling off the mouths, primarily on the inside, and on the outside a tabula rasa of fishing opportunity. Therein lay the deepest beauty of it all for me. I would find fish where I found them. Salmon, ling, bass. I would catch them and eat them to keep my body strong. If they were too big for one person I would let them go, and sometimes, when I was in the thick of a school I would catch three or four, or five or six even, and be sated, and put the rod back in it's holder and pick up the paddle. It was raw stuff though. Once I past Campbell River it was a blank canvas . . . no legendary waters or hallowed streams, only a remote and fertile sea where very few people had ever wet a fly
My friends all thought it was quite the undertaking, maybe a bit too much to chew, but I figured it this way. I had everything a guy might need to undertake a trip like this - equipment, experience, good information and all the charts and tables - I had it all. More importantly, I had the drive. Kind of like shit happens - well, people do stuff. It seemed as simple as that. I was aiming for deserted, sun-drenched beaches at the edge of a thumping North Pacific Ocean and a mother-lode of wilderness fly fishing potential. I knew it would be a stretchy from time to time, but I was ready and I was jazzed. As for solo, paddling alone through this marine paradise would be nourishing for the soul; it was enough to have my own busy mind on the scene; I didn't need another.
Ivan Doig's Sea Runners gives a rugged account of several men in a dugout canoe traveling down the northwest coast; I read that before I left. A friend of mine, Craig Petersen, paddled around with another guy in kayaks four years ago; his insight along with a copy of his route penciled on a chart of Vancouver Island, was invaluable.
I had accumulated a dozen charts of my own, one for each section of the coast, and there were tide tables and current charts for the straits and channels. I had Ince and Kotner's Sea Kayaking Canada's West Coast and I had Washburne's A Coastal Kayaker's Manual with me figuring to read up at night after a testy day on the water.
I had the safest (open-cockpit), strongest (Kevlar), largest (technically a double) kayak possible for such a trip. It was built with a molded seat on top of an air-tight hull; should I capsize I could simply flip the boat over and hop back on. I wore a wet-suit and had a life-jacket always close at hand. I had a two-way radio to send out a 'May-Day' and I had flares and back-up at all the important positions. My days as a river guide, planning ahead for every eventuality during five days of rowing through a roadless canyon, would pay dividends.
Frankly, I was petrified at the thought of getting trapped offshore alone in building seas. I also knew that these fears were not entirely rational and would haunt me the rest of my life if I turned my back on them. My biggest job on this adventure was to trust in my self, my plan, and my equipment. Paddling alone for a prolonged period meant carrying a big load. Fortunately, the boat, a Tsunami X-2 Starship, was more freighter canoe than sporty kayak. I stuffed it to the gills and had Pamela mail out forty pound packages of supplies to post offices at Campbell River, Port Hardy, Kyuquot and Tofino. (Click the map to see details)
Although it took to within two weeks of my departure date on July eleventh to finally get my boat, the "Sea Lyon" up here to the islands, I was busy soliciting the rest of my gear and trying to raise enough money to check out of my life for what I expected to be a couple of months. In the end, I managed to come up with everything necessary to make the trip and just enough money to shoestring a budget of sorts. I had everything spread out on a beach on Lopez Island one windy afternoon in early July, fielding questions and good-byes from friends and local news folks . . . an hour later I was gone.
As I paddled north toward Cape Scott I found more and more fly fishermen wading off the mouths of rivers like the Nimpkish, the Cluxewe and the Keogh. It was rumored to be a big year for pinks and from the amount of fish I found milling off stream mouths or steaming around in big spanking schools I'd have to agree.
As I paddled north along the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, my mind would often soar on ahead. Fifty miles due west lay some of the most remote and unexplored stretch of deserted white beaches on the continent. Fifty miles as the raven flew maybe, but a month more of paddling for me.
...I had wonderful memories of a particular beach there too . . . a deserted beach where the wind is hot and scented with the spicy aroma of cedar and filled with the call of loons and ravens and the lapping of waves. Gregg howls at night for the wolves to come out of the mountains to visit and we all keep one eye out for cougar when we walk the edge of the beach where the forest rises up like a jungle; a friend had been mauled on the island the year before. We are naked most of the time and when we aren't fishing we are hiking untracked beaches, or playing pitanque or carving bowls or masks or rubbing our salty bodies together in tents (particular combinations), or simply getting high at the edge of the world . . . but mostly we are fishing, and extraordinary fishing it is....El Nino delivered the rapacious mackerel close to shore that year. How many times had I mistaken the powerful first run of one of these iridescent bullets for a salmon? There are plentiful schools of Coho and a few Chinook . . . we take them trolling un-weighted flies along the surface out of our kayaks. We have a skiff along for support and fish out of it too and the salmon are so aggressive that we feel the boat shudder now and again as they attack the prop!...When we find a herring ball we stop and cast to them. The take is firm, the run immediate. If I am nearby a bed of kelp they tangle me up, if not it is hard work keeping up with a fish like that Coho that changes directions every few seconds. And if I'm lucky enough to bring the fish alongside the kayak there is dear little place to put a flopping ten-pound salmon!...
The sun quickly heated up the tent the next morning. I dripped a cup of coffee and tried again for a small pod of salmon near shore, but no dice. Then I bent to it and made the remaining distance to Campbell River that day spurred on by the knowledge that once past this largish fishing and mill town I would leave civilization behind. I spoke with Craig Orr by phone before leaving home. Craig is the current president of B.C.'s Steelhead Society and had suggested who to get in touch with when I made Campbell River.
Dave Hadden is tall and lanky and reminds me of a cowboy logger. He picks me up at the government wharf and drives to the Campbell River Lodge. I was nearly broke and not really wanting to spend the money to sleep in a wooden box anyway when I could lodge at nature's Best Western every night carte blanche. Camping around cities was the worst though, and when Dave insisted he was paying that night's bill I did not have my heart in a refusal.
After living out of doors for the last few weeks my new digs in the lodge seemed nothing short of bizarre. I had a shower, television, telephone and neighbors, but I dug it for the change it was. The starched and sterile sheets against my sun-baked body seemed somehow like a metaphor for my whole edge with urbanity. After all, I reminded myself, it was not by accident that I live on a tiny island.
The cavernous lodge was a balm after the seething asphalt heat of the parking lot outside. You come in right off the highway with a gas station and a tacky convenience store right beside it - boom - once past the receptionist's window you've entered another world. After wandering down dark, wood-paneled hallways into the bowels of the rambling building I found the subterranean bar as cool as shaded ice on that 90 degree day and drank up several frosty draft beers. Outside the sliding glass doors of the bar is a patio latticed with colorful Canadian beer-logoed umbrellas. Situated right on the banks of the Campbell, the lodge is the destination point for local guides that row their dories right up to a weigh station on the back lawn where the great Tyee salmon are weighed. Roderick Haig-Brown was a great fan of this past time and, of course, lived just upstream along the river. Dave picked me up that evening after I'd had a chance to shower and rustle a quick washing of clothes and we drove up along the Campbell together to check out the river. Dave told me how hard hit the native runs of steelhead and salmon were. (see sidebar "Environmental Issues for the Fly Fisherman")
We didn't fish that day but just hiked along and looked out on the water instead. Laying eyes on a fine river like the Campbell was nourishing for me and reminded me in several places of some spots on my beloved Deschutes. And after weeks of ungraspable sea it felt very grounding to look upon the Campbell. I could synch with this river, it's direction and intent, whereas the soul of the sea was like a distant galaxy, and while it was certainly a glorious place more often than not, it was a mysterious, unfathomable place and often foreboding
"From Campbell River north the seaways tightened and humanity fell away like a cliff. It was great to put civilization behind and paddle north into increasing wilderness now."
Instead of the immense Strait of Georgia I paddled narrowing straits and channels with ravens calling in the treetops overhead. Currents were different too; tiderips, and whirlpools were always to be watched for. The Pacific Ocean that sluices through this neck of the woods is squeezed like a lemon through a lacy network of channels. If it weren't for the tides it wouldn't be much, but with the push and pull of trillions of gallons of water twice each day it was as if old Neptune was plunging the works. Looking at a chart one day I could see that this part of the island doesn't even look like one (squint your eyes a bit and it's a peninsula). I got into more than one squirrelly piece of water that boiled up suddenly out of deep and active hydraulics.
The fishing fleet was parked along the way awaiting the opening of the pink salmon season. They were a pretty friendly bunch. One guy named Sam, who reminded me of a healthy old tree, waved me over and gave me a salmon. Another bunch of Norwegian fishermen from Vancouver invited me aboard their boat where I sat down in the galley with the crew to enormous plates of delicious fried fish fillets and a big salad (the best part at that point). These were great hot summer days and I came across more schools of pinks, jumping and breaching as they milled off river mouths or steaming past rolling their black backs in the glinting sun. Try as I might though I did not pick up my first pink until just east of Port Hardy.
Coming in sight of the Keogh River, I noticed several schools of salmon breaking water. The sun was out and it was a gorgeous day in the north country, especially welcome after a chilly and fog-shrouded morning. I was anxious to reach Port Hardy and my next food drop but I paddled over to investigate. Along shore a pair of fly fishermen had waded out to cast. A hundred yards off a small outboard with a young man and a woman were trolling. As yet I hadn't seen anyone hook up. Gradually though, I became aware of the immensity of the schools of fish.
The water darkened and twinkled with silver as they passed beneath my kayak. Everywhere I looked for half a mile there were fish! Before long a Canadian Fisheries boat showed up, sounding like a bunch of excited kids as they took stock of their returning bonanza. Then the young couple in the boat hooked up, a bright silvery salmon that jumped in the morning sun and inaugurated a marvelous day of fishing.
Chasing the schools around to get within casting range, I would drop the paddle in my lap and pick my rod out of the Downeast holder bolted just behind my hip (I was pretty quick on the draw by the time the trip was over). I fished a 7' sink-tip and retrieved in short strips. In the back of my mind I had Rory's advice about swimming the fly past a group of fish; I was so in the thick of it now that I could feel the fly sliding over their backs! Whenever I felt a hesitation I would strike and there was no way around an occasional snagged fish. Most of the fish were between five to seven pounds and good fighters, taking forty to fifty yards of line on their initial runs but they didn't jump like Cohoes.
"These were strong fish though, still very bright and they would run all around the bay with me in tow."
Sometimes they broke me off in the ubiquitous kelp beds before I caught sight of their two-foot bodies in the emerald water in the shadow of the boat. I hooked eight to ten salmon that morning and felt the same kind of welcoming from the fish that I'd had from Rory and his family. Finally the ice was broken!
I spent the night sleeping on the government wharf under the gangplank at Port Hardy (definitely the seediest digs of the entire trip). I was awoken after the bars shut down to drunken fishermen trooping down the noisy plank followed by several bereaved (and equally drunk) women screaming curses at them at the top of their lungs. I was happy to get underway early the next day. Humanity . . . bah! Civilization . . . double bah!
Leaving Port Hardy though, I noticed the boat was bulging with more stuff than ever before. I had received a huge package in the mail at the Port, inordinately bigger than the others, and I had picked up some extras supplies in town as well. Among the rest of my gear I carried two tents, one a roomy North Face dome for long layovers, the other a bivy sack that came in most useful skulking around marinas and ports, pitching it in the bushes and furtive hobo spots (I used the tents more for protection from mosquito gangs than rain). I carried a lot of other stuff including a gas stove, wet suits, clothes, complete camera equipment and a box of micro-cassettes for recording the journey, a sail, water bottles, a water purifying pump, a dozen books and charts, plenty of dehydrated food and a horrendous stash of Cliff Bars (two hundred and forty to be exact) and, of course, enough beer to get me to the next outpost, and which, I was delighted to discover, served as excellent ballast.
I ate a delicious cranberry cashew granola for breakfast nearly every morning and never tired of it, had Cliff Bars for lunch and fresh fish as often as not, for dinner. I had a hand-line along for no-nonsense meal harvesting and I knew my edible sea vegetables, which I ate whenever I came across them. I thought it was pretty cool to be able to reach out and pluck a sprig of floating fucus out of the cold salt water (high in vitamin C) and pop it in my mouth without missing a stroke.
I found a bit of heaven in a little bay harboring a little river and another school of pinks after a long day in the saddle from Port Hardy. I was not alone however, one of the rare beaches I shared with anyone on the trip. I enjoyed the company of Shawn Cotler, a commercial kayak guide who put on a show catching several pinks on a fly from shore at dusk. Broker than a stick, I was happy to help Shawn out with a reel upgrade by trading him my back-up Marryat and spool for some hard Canadian cash.
I came across a pod of gray whales feeding very close to shore within two miles of Cape Scott on the evening of the fifteenth of August, a little over a month from launch.
Rounding the cape would undoubtedly put some new wrinkles in my paddling routine. The guide book I had along billed it as: ". . . a challenge to even the most advanced sea kayaker. . ." which I certainly was not (a reality-check I made during more than one stretchy occasion over the next few months). As I'd heard it, a ninety-foot wave rolled past the lighthouse at Cape Scott recently (albeit in winter), and a number of large ships have sunk with all hands lost. A fisherman several weeks later in Winter Harbour told me about a trawler that got into trouble rounding the Cape . . . one moment it was chugging along in mounting swell; they had it on radar. Next moment it was gone.
I rounded Cape Scott next morning in the damndest juxtaposition. Sitting comfortably out on the rocks at the very tip-most northern end of the island were two couples in shorts with daypacks. They were doing lunch.
I was stunned and could not return their wave. I had put so much into reaching the Cape and all the fear and threshold the journey from this point onward represented to me and here were these people that had made a laughing day hike out of arriving at the same place . . . Another hundred yards though and the hikers were forgotten.
I could see the turbulent, wave lashed reefs that lay ahead, the large breaking waves rising up to crash over black rocks, smashing bone-white upon them and threading my way through these tumultuous seas I had my heart in my mouth. The stretch of coastline between the tip of Vancouver Island and Winter Harbour forty miles south was the most rugged of the trip. Between infrequent bays and coves there was dear little place to come ashore in a pinch, less to camp.
I paddled into Hansen Lagoon later that day, relieved to have passed the initial challenge of the outer coast. A Danish colony had attempted to settle this area at the turn of the century and a series of old dikes and some decaying out building were all that remained. At the mouth of the lagoon I tossed out a fly along the edge of a kelp bed and had a horrendous take. Slamming my rod down against the hull of the boat, the fish took one amazing surge of line and hung me up on the kelp stripes far below. I saw several salmon rolling nearby but couldn't entice them to strike. The channel leading into the lagoon was peppered with commercial crab pots. I couldn't imagine who might be tending traps this far out, but with my own nifty breakdown kayak trap aboard I feasted on steaming Dungeness crab. I found a cozy cabin after paddling a short ways up a tea-colored creek, stayed over a couple of nights and caught some handsome cutthroat on tiny Parachute Adams.
While the route due south of me was high adrenaline stuff, it was easily some of the most awesome. Cape Scott is part of a huge provincial park and the network of trails includes the beaches and coves for a good ten-mile radius. Simple, rustic cabins were scattered along the coast, especially near the park, but I seldom used them. Generally, I was happier in my tent on the beach; like a wasp nest or a spider's web it had assumed organic attributes after long and dependable use. The park, of course, ended at the waterline and the big blue swells that rolled south off the coast here were an extraordinary experience in a small boat.
"Everything seems large when you're sitting at water level. While the swells themselves were safe enough, it was where they slammed ashore or passed over reefs and sunken rocks and loomed up suddenly to break with the force of trains that made the going dicey."
I caught many black rockfish, Sebastes melanops, along the northwest coast. They are a fine fly rod quarry that would take a surface troll. Many times I was struck so hard with such a powerful first run that, like the mackerel, I swore I had a salmon on. They are very much a school fish and seemed to hang in the kelp a lot. From my experience, I would catch specimens of the same size from a given school and if I were to pick up a five-pound rockfish trolling off a bed of kelp I knew I was in for some serious action with the next half a dozen fish.
Out on the rolling seas the next morning I spotted a couple of shark fins cutting through the water (or so they first appeared). Ocean Sunfish, or Mola Mola, were fairly common south of the Cape. The swim on their side a lot, leaving one fin waving in the air. They resemble a large, swimming head; one baleful eye stared up at me as I paddled close. Eventually I tried to take one of these fish on a fly and the knack to that was essentially a task of trying to drift it into it's parrot-like beak. I missed, but accidentally snagged a fin and the surprise was that I pumped the boat over to the fish which could have cared less and when I unhooked the fly it slowly sauntered off.
Several days later I was heading out of a fine little pocket beach in San Joseph Bay. I'd heard nothing about Cape Palmerston, jutting out into the ocean like a huge sprocket. Whereas Cape Scott was jagged, short and sweet, Palmerston was a broad, rock-studded hemisphere and very nearly my nemesis.
It had been very windy for several days out of the southeast which spelled unstable weather, and camped where I was I did not have a clear view of the seas off the cape. The forecast was for wind 10 to 15 knots that afternoon and swells of a meter or two, so I got on the water early. When I'd made it out about half way around the Cape I noticed that the wind and the current were stronger than I had guessed. The swells were their usual truck size but I was expecting that; they were out of the northwest though and with the wind from the other direction they were beginning to steepen and crest.
I turned around quickly between swells and put my bow into the building sea to buy a little time and decide what to do. I knew that going back would be a long and difficult grind, but going ashore anywhere around the Cape was not much of an option either. I paddled in toward shore anyway, blindly wanting to get off the water. Angling steeply over swells I got as close as I could to the surf line but the shore was too exposed and rocky and getting vulcanized by a vicious shore break. Feeling trapped, I turned around and headed back out to sea.
Panic washed over me at this point. Getting stuck out in seas that were going from bad to worse was my blackest fear. Fortunately, I came out of it fairly quickly . . . through it is more accurate because it was only after I had accepted my situation that I was able to get past the fear and be able to deal.
It was unnerving having to look over my shoulder every few strokes checking for rogue waves, but the boat felt steady still, and I figured I could continue on a ways with the wind and seas astern. My objective had been Raft Cove where, from reading the chart and factoring in prevailing current, wind and swell, I might make it in at one spot, and one spot only, in the lee of Commerell Point. Otherwise it looked like Waimea Bay on a good day. But that was still several miles off and in the end that translated to several more hours.
I felt a growing anxiety as I made my way slowly along the coast and I had one eye peeled for any possible route ashore; occasionally I would dart in closer for a better look but it was extremely dangerous to be paddling around this shore break; with a broken and rocky bottom I could expect big waves to rise up suddenly almost anywhere.
"If I were to get knocked over in the surf zone I risked being pulverized on the rocks and probably losing the boat."
I turned the boat head-on into the swells for a break; rising up onto each ten foot breast and angling steeply down the back. Of course, I thought in some distant part of my mind, if things continued to worsen and darkness fell I'd really be in a pickle.
Once around Cape Palmerston later that afternoon with the squall blown over, I made my way down the coast feeling quite exhilarated. The seas were still huge but that was okay; I was feeling great after having come out the back door of an old and frightening place. And boy, when I made it to shore that day several miles and many hours later I was one jubilant amigo - happy as hell just to be ashore and sporting a new bit of panache.
At Winter Harbour, a couple of days later, I made friends with Dick and Jane, a self-described bush couple who migrated north a step ahead of the rampant tourism in Tofino, a destination town down the coast. Dick was a master decoy carver, Jane an acclaimed sculptress. Fortunately for me, Dick was an old boat builder as well and generously repaired the worn spots in the hull of the Sea Lyon while Jane served us tea and lunch, a subtle bit of human society that I soaked up like a sponge.
I spent the afternoons working up dispatches for magazines and the local papers at home and shopping for used paperbacks in the tiny post office along the two plank-boardwalk that fronted this quaint little fishing town. I picked up another food drop left for me by a friend that had passed through on a sailboat several weeks earlier and before I left town four days later I was fed a marvelous prime rib dinner by a gem of a fisherman named Earl who regaled me with sea stories that nearly stood my hair on end.
Then I ran into a young guy with equally ambitious dreams about adventuring. Sam Jones III was doing duty on an offshore albacore boat blown in by a gale. Sam plans to roller-blade around Australia with a friend (who, as we spoke, was roller-blading across the U.S.) and I have no doubt but that I'll hear an account of that trip from that boy in the near future. Sam also loaded me down with fresh albacore, truly the capon of the sea.
I made it all the way to the southern end of the enormous Brook's Peninsula a few days later before I was forced ashore in heavy, breaking seas (a footnote on Clerke point is that once I made Victoria I ended up on the phone with Henry Ravensdale, the canoeist that attempted a solo circumnavigation four years earlier and who broke up his canoe and nearly lost his life at this very same spot). There I hiked up the crystalline Clerke River nearby a native halibut fishing camp. Try as I might I was unable to manifest a fish in the sweet currents of this wild and elegant stream. Although I didn't see fin nor scale that day I probed thoroughly well up into the Clerke.
Rounding the tip of the peninsula (early next morning before the sleeping giant awoke) I paddled to a secluded and deserted beach where the next morning a bunch of my friends (me "goil" among them) rendezvoused with me.
"We spent the night prowling the beach by flashlight
in a driving rain
and had to move our tents a second time as the seas pushed wildly up the beach."
By this time I was running hard and burning lean for a guy pushing fifty. Pamela couldn't believe how skinny I had gotten by the time she caught up with me (my upper body was buffed out all right but my legs were beginning to atrophy and my ribs were sticking out). We spent several riotous weeks together lounging on deserted beaches and fishing to schools of salmon and bottom fish. I hooked several fine heavy Coho here that had me going to try and keep up in the kayak. These fish would hit so hard that I could barely get the rod of it's holder because it was bent down so hard. Best of all was to find a herring ball worked into a frenzy by the salmon from beneath and set up and cast. When we'd had our fill of salmon fillets and steaks we would go after bottom fish for fish fries and ceviche (a delicious meal of raw cod marinated in lime juice). With a business-like 500 grain sink-tip, I hooked ling cod and a gorgeous eight pound yellow eye in addition to plentiful quillback rock fish and greenling and many black rockfish. We ate our fill of fresh fish every night and never tired of it.
A series of September gales marched through at one point and pushed the waves up to the level of our tents, already pitched well back above high tide line. One look at the twisted barricade of driftwood that lay scattered even into the forest itself reminded me that this was only a summer squall compared to the nightmare winter storms. We spent the night prowling the beach by flashlight in a driving rain and had to move our tents a second time as the seas pushed wildly up the beach.
It was the twelfth of September by the time my friends headed up the long inlet where the rigs were parked and I dawdled packing up alone that morning, feeling a bit of loss about continuing on solo. Paddling through a cluster of islets a mile or so off the coast I discovered a burial cave, dank and spirit shrouded and full of skulls and bones and decomposing dugout canoes. I visited an abandoned native village site with totem pole decaying in a bed of salal and hunkered on the gravel beach finding a glass trade bead as memento. The next day, just south of Rugged Point, I found an interesting stream that meandered out of a deep cedar bog.
Tidal for half a mile up or so I paddled finally to fresh water where a canopy of trees blocked my way. Wedging the long boat into the jam as far as possible I climbed out on a half-submerged log and peered deeply down into the pool. Swimming in the dappled green waters in a shaft of light was one magnificent looking cutthroat trout of five or so pounds. It was like an aquarium and the trout seemed to care less about me. Then I noticed the leisurely rise forms of more big trout working just upstream . . . where I could see it was impossible to get to.
I was determined though to try and see if I could roll a fly through the cloistered branches. I quickly strung up the three weight I'd brought along, only to discover I'd left my trout flies in camp! Not to be left untested, I unstuck the boat and paddled like hell back to camp, then turned around and paddled furiously back. I had a new problem at that point as the tide was rising steadily and the narrow opening I had managed to slip the boat through would quickly be underwater! Still, I badly wanted to try and cover at least one of these fish. No happy ending to this story though as I struggled to try and get a clean presentation through a web of branches and after snagging every available one and risking getting stuck in the pool over night I accepted defeat and returned to camp.
As I ate breakfast the next morning I could hear on my radio that another pair of gales were expected to lash the northern coast. Rather than get pinned down on the beach with a bear that was rumored to be a bit of a rogue (we'd heard stories in the native village of Kyoquot) I opted to paddle out to a string of tiny islands riding the open ocean a mile or so off-shore. I had a penchant for these little island homes and would rather Crusoe my own bear-free, offshore estate than hole up on the mainland (as Vancouver Island came to feel by contrast) any day.
I had a magnificent time on Grassy Island. Built entirely out of an uplifted sedimentary bed of fossil shells, there was plenty of poking around to do between storms. During the worst of the blow I would hole up with a good book from my traveling library or work on my dispatches). If I was having trouble accessing my literary Muse (common out here) all was not lost. I was carrying some extraordinary Canadian herb I'd been gifted along the way . . . there are Muses after all, and there are MUSES. The other cool thing about the island was that I had a lee shore that I could get out on in the worst weather. It was there in twenty-knot winds I caught several salmon by trolling and had one brief hookup with what looked to be a big Chinook.
By this time I was beginning to feel antsy about getting home before November. It was the middle of September and one look at the map with one ear to the weather radio and I had cause for concern. Paddling the North Pacific in November was not recommended . . . October was little better. I bent to the task and by the 1st of October I had passed Tofino and my last food drop. Still paddling in large swell I pushed on down the coast. Several days later I kayaked right on through the popular Broken Islands in Barkley Sound (with designated camping sites and rangers and plenty of signs) heading toward a channel behind the Cape Beale Light.
"Sandra Hedley held out the radio and asked me if I'd heard about the Tsunami warning..."
On the chart, there appeared to be a channel of some kind that cut a half-circle behind the imposing promontory of Cape Beale. I made it in under a bright sun dogging through a surf that smashed up against the cape and whooshed through the narrow channel. It was touch and go trying to get in close enough to the bluff while staying out of the break, then timing the sets and paddling with all after-burners lit to try and make it through before I was picked up on the back of a boomer and dashed to my death. Tied up to a concrete utility platform a little ways in I humped the hundred-some odd steps up through an old growth cedar forest to the station above.
Passing through a whitewashed gate surrounding exquisitely manicured grounds, and knocking at the door of a clean, whitewashed cottage, a pretty black-haired woman greeted me with a smile and a radio stuck to one ear. Sandra Hedley held out the radio and asked me if I'd heard about the Tsunami warning:
'A Tsunami Warning is in effect. This warning is for all coastal areas and islands in the Pacific. A Tsunami has been generated which could cause damage to the coast and lands in the Pacific. A Tsunami wave height cannot be predicted and . . . .'
Sandra said the Coast Guard had wanted to evacuate them from the lighthouse but they'd refused. A few minutes later we could hear that the park rangers in the Broken Islands were sweeping the area to warn everyone and apparently they were looking for me. Apparently, one of the kayakers I had talked with as I was passing through had mentioned that I might be around. Sandra got on the radio and told them I was with her at the cape. We waited until 3:54, when the wave was expected. I sat out on the bluff watching for a giant wall of water to appear on the horizon, but it was a complete no show. Then I spent the next day and a half waiting for the seas to settle down enough to make it out the southern opening in the channel without losing control of my sphincter.
Finally I got up the nerve to shoot the works. I skated out through a wild line of breaking combers and hung a hard left. Two minutes of heart felt stroking later I was home free! It had even been pleasantly exciting to watch the waves rise up from rolling swells like great sea moles coming out of their holes and explode all around me . . . without the sound track - I had stuck in a couple of ear plugs just before launching after I realized that it was the noise of the booming waves that unglued me most.
That evening, several miles down the coast, I was camped along a shallow bay fixing dinner when I noticed some activity on the water. Walking down to the water and looking closely I could make out the rise forms and splashes of fish . . . it looked liked, feeding at the surface! I quickly strung up the three-weight, tied on a Stimulator and tossed it out.
Boom . . . a hefty mint bright salmon came skyrocketing out of the bay and took line aggressively in surges and jumped repeatedly before I could finally bring it to hand. It was a gorgeous looking four-pound fish.
I could hardly contain my enthusiasm for the next hour as I caught and released half a dozen strong young Coho, or 'bluebacks' as the Canadians call them, because of a cerulean blue coloring to the dorsal surface. I never did figure out exactly what they were feeding on . . . fry or shrimp or krill maybe, scattered at the surface. They liked my fly though, fished like a noisy dry during a stonefly hatch. The harder I slammed it on the surface the more it interested them. When I skittered it toward shore they would get up and chase after it! I felt like I was back on the Deschutes casting to big redsides gorging on salmonflies.
Next morning there were still some fish around and I lingered packing up, taking some time to enjoy fishing drys in the salt, a strange and exquisite experience. But it was October now with squalls and gales on the way to usher in winter and my son was already well into his football season at home. The reality of running late in the season with little means for catching up was sinking in.
I had hiked the stretch of coastline that I paddled off of the next couple of days. The West Coast trail is a life-saving link in Canada's grim history of shipwrecks along this stretch of coast. The 'Graveyard of the Pacific' this stretch is called. After the wreck of the Valencia in 1906 and the death of all 126 survivors the life saving route to civilization was finally established.
I passed the extraordinary Tsusiat Falls that crashes into the sea near the native village of Clo-ose and ended up surfing ashore within spitting distance of a Park crew spike camp that was working on the trails nearby. I was pretty hungry for some human interaction by then and the crew of Fleming, Malcolm, Dan and Terry graciously invited me into their wall tent for a delicious dinner. We convened again in the predawn hours for a 'hugillous' breakfast. To top that, the fellows loaded me down with steaks, chicken, chops and coffee the next morning as I was packing up. I screwed the pooch on my first attempt at leaving the beach and got banged up by the boat swinging around wildly in the soup. Big shore breaks were the worst, and this one easily qualified. Fleming ran over and stabilized the boat for me in the soup and next try I was climbing toward the moon hoping the huge wave wouldn't break before I punched through.
From there it was a several day layover at the Carmanah lighthouse's extra empty coast guard cabin to dodge a bit of weather (and had Canadian thanksgiving dinner with the very hospitable keepers family, Jerry, Janet, Jake and Justine). Cause for celebration here for me as well - the Carmanah Light marks the entrance proper to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the broad channel that leads like a cervix into the womb of Puget Sound and the little cluster of home islands nestled there like eggs.
A few days later I was closer to home, pitching camp in a hotel room in Port Renfrew, courtesy of Maureen and Rick, the proprietors. The hotel is vintage turn of the century, rustic and clean and the rooms are finished in a rich chocolate-brown lathe. I holed up in the bridal suite (sans bride) that night, snuck in a Mr. Coffee brewer from the hall and heated up a can of Irish stew on the burner.
Leaving the port the next morning I buckled down to the business of getting home (in reality, there was little more to do to speed my return than I was doing. The buckling down and bending to it business was mostly psychological, to get me up an hour earlier, dawdle a little less and stay on the water an hour longer. As for speed, I had only the sail on windy days).
I made Sombrio Beach late that afternoon, surfing and squatter heaven, secured camp and walked down the beach to check out the scene. As luck would have it, I'd trolled through a school of big blacks on my way south and carried one with me now on a stick. At what looked like the flagship of the community, a verandaed two story driftwood cabin with a yard and a flagpole, I walked up to two fellows sitting on the porch. One of them called out with a grin: "Walk softly and carry a big fish, eh? There's a policy!" We all laughed at this and I listened as the men narrated the 20-year history of the settlement of squatters there. South of Sombrio wild deteriorated rapidly.
"With bare feet and my raunchy wet suit still
on I must have looked (and smelled) curiously out of place
in the chic cafe as Bob graciously bought one broke and hungry sailor lunch."
Pushing south to yet another refuge at the lighthouse on Trial Island I passed Victoria and a graffiti ravaged sea wall (my favorite was the $ symbol with an X through it - graffiti haiku). From there I had been considering a straight shot crossing of the Strait to Cattle Pass and home, but upon closer inspection of the map (as well as first hand eyeballing of one yawning amount of open water . . . eighteen to twenty miles) I decided that circuity was the better part of valor. It might take me a couple extra days to get around by rounding Victoria and island hopping home, but hey . . . better late than never.
I rang up Bob Tyrell of Orca Books on the radiophone as I paddled from Trial Island. We would meet at an upscale Marina not far ahead. Although Bob had published Rivers of Dreams, a collection of fly fishing stories I'd put together a couple of years back, we had never met in person.
The weather was cold and blustery as I sailed into the Marina. With bare feet and my raunchy wet suit still on I must have looked (and smelled) curiously out of place in the chic cafe as Bob graciously bought one broke and hungry sailor lunch. As I prepared to push off into the teeth of a squall Bob generously loaded me up with bagels, pears and brie and plenty of strong Canadian beer . . . a very welcome bit of bon voyage.
After a long and exciting crossing of wind-swept Haro strait and a near circumnavigation of San Juan Island in the process, I surfed ashore in a nasty four foot chop onto the spit along Fisherman's Bay where I had left from some time ago. I had been unable to make radio contact with a marine operator coming down the east coast of San Juan Island; consequently Pamela had no idea when I would be arriving. There was no one there to greet me on the beach that evening, much less drive me home in the gathering dark. I had one last beer in the boat though, and dug around to find it. Still in my stinking, torn, wet suit with rain clouds scudding overhead and darkness about to descend I collapsed on the beach, leaned back against a driftwood log and drank it.
Rob has a couple of fly fishing books to his credit, (see resources)
is working on a solo ocean kayaking manual, and lives with his wife
Pamela in the San Juan Islands on a sunny 20 acres that doubles as a
wicked Frisbee golf course. Rob believes in the simplicity and reliance
of open kayaks and uses them exclusively for ocean touring. Visit Rob's
website at LyonExpeditions.com
or contact him by email:
At Tom's TopKayaker Shop:
ROB'S BOOKS: (Amazon.com links)
Books Rob used on this trip with our links to Amazon.com:
Topo map of (US portion ONLY) San Juan & Lopez Islands: click here
Internet Resources for maps in Canada:
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