I have always been leery of kayaks. A near-drowning incident when I was a child - I had to be resuscitated and was likely only a minute or two from not surviving - left me with an intense fear of being underwater. Any time I have watched folks kayaking, it has appeared to me that the paddlers spent far too much time in upside-down boats and that is a position I do not want to be in. So I have emphatically resisted the lure of double blades. In fact, I have not seen any allure to them at all and have primarily considered kayakers to be a little goofy to want to be in such boats.
Enter, the park project. My bucket list includes a visit to all forty-six of Canada’s national parks. About a third of those parks are on or near the ocean or the Great Lakes. As I perused brochures, photographs, and trip logs of the places I want to spend the next twenty years or so exploring, it became increasingly obvious that if I was going to do the park project properly, I was going to have to suck it up and get into a kayak.
This past summer, I took the plunge - figuratively speaking. My first kayak expedition was a four day sojourn in the Broken Group Islands, one of three units of Pacific Rim National Park on the west coast of Vancouver Island. I’ve heard since that the Broken Group is a bit of a kayaking Mecca, a destination many serious sea kayakers dream of.
Our trip group included five couples and our two erstwhile guides, Angela and Phil. Three of the couples opted to share double kayaks. Though my research had taught me that double boats tend to be more stable, a highly desirable feature for a nervous first-timer, Colin and I opted for singles. I would sink or swim on my own and neither of us would have to worry about looking after the other.
We started our adventure with a short water taxi ride from the small town of Ucluelet across Barklay Sound. On Dodd Island, the first of the Broken Group for our party, we learned that the kayak trippers’ first challenge is getting all their stuff into the boat. This is quite simple with a canoe. You just toss it in. With 16 or so feet of open space, fitting in tents, food, and personal items is rarely a challenge. But it was a game of Tetris to fit all our swag in the one hatch allocated to each of us. Angela and Phil used the remaining hatch in each boat to pack the food, water, and community gear.
With the load stowed, it was time to figure out how to actually use the boat. None of us had much kayaking experience beyond an occasional day trip with friends. Angela patiently walked us through the basics of how to kayak - holding the paddle properly, getting in and out of the boat, and using the rudder.
Finally, it was time to get going. With the support of a “stabili-buddy” holding the kayak in the upright position, I managed to get into the boat while remaining out of the water. So far, so good. Much to my surprise, I felt fairly stable, even after my stabili-buddy set me loose. My boat did not dump me out as I had feared it would, and my confidence levels rose quite quickly.
Once all the boats were on the water and we’d had an opportunity to get our sea legs, we set out to do some exploring. There was so much to see. Many of the islands in the Broken Group are small, just a few hundred meters or less across, with rugged shorelines that live up to their name. Pebble beaches separate the sea from the forests that cover the larger islands. Through the clear waters near the shore, it was easy to see variously-colored starfish, clams, and an occasional fish swimming in the water under my kayak. The plants were cool too. I became quite enamoured with the giant kelp popping up everywhere. On Turret Island, we walked in to see the “Avatar Tree”, a gnarly red cedar so massive that it took ten of us to stretch around its base.
The Avatar tree
We camped our first night on Clark Island, sharing our site with half a dozen other travellers, a fearless deer, and some banana slugs. Phil prepared a scrumptuous salmon dinner and we spent a pleasant evening relaxing on the rocks and enjoying the view.
The next morning, the marine forecast was calling for heavy winds. Our guides planned a short paddle and some land-based exploring before returning to Clark Island for a second night. While the winds were still light, we headed out around a long rocky point where the ocean swells were quite pronounced. We would lose sight of each other as one boat rode the top of the wave while the next one was at the bottom. Coupled with a broadside breeze, this made for some nerve-wracking paddling for rookie me and tested my tentative confidence that I could keep the darn boat top-up. I was glad that I did not experience the sea-sickness some of my tripmates reported in the swells.
By lunch time, the forecast had changed with considerably lighter winds now expected. We limited our on-shore explorations to a short visit to the remains of a Tseshaht village. None of the Broken Group Islands are currently occupied but there is a long history of habitation by the Tseshaht people, as well as a shorter European presence, making the cultural experience of the islands as intriguing as the islands themselves.
Back on the water, we paddled around a few more islands, enjoying the scenery and the conversation with our trip-mates before heading back towards Clark Island and our campsite. As it turned out, the original wind forecast was more correct than the revised one. We had to make about a two kilometer crossing directly into a 20 gust 30 knot (35 gust 50 kmh) headwind. About half way across, the fog rolled in and we could no longer see our destination. To say it was disconcerting is an understatement.
On the plus side, while a head wind is a tough slog, I felt a lot more stable than I had in the crosswind and swells earlier in the day and I was reasonably sure I could keep my kayak afloat. The fog lifted as we approached our campsite. I was exhausted but resting would mean being blown back and having to do it all again. So I powered up the jets and sprinted the last bit to get myself out of the wind ahead of the rest of the group. As we lifted our kayaks above the tide line, Angela admitted that our crossing was certainly more than they would normally ask of rookies and was, in fact, not far from the limit for experienced paddlers.
Fog and cool rocks - two things we saw a lot of in the Broken Group
We all found dry clothes and settled down for a rest and some hot chocolate. While we were relaxing, three other kayakers left Clark Island. Sadly, the young men were quite drunk. We watched as one of them was blown down-wind, one disappeared behind an island, and one capsized. Angela headed back onto the water while Phil contacted the coast guard. We couldn’t see what was happening but we learned later that while Angela rescued the boater we'd seen dump, the Tseshalt beach patrol had rescued a second capsized paddler. When the coast guard arrived, they picked up all three men and escorted them out of the park and directly to jail, charged with impaired boating. We were glad that even in their drunkenness, the three kayakers had put on their PFDs. The story would have ended differently had they not done so.
The last two days of our trip were without high drama. The weather was glorious - clear, calm, and warm. We visited the Tiny Group, an aptly-named collection of rock islands surrounded by clear shallow water - the part of the Broken Group that I liked best. We watched the full moon rise over the ocean, waded our boats several hundred meters across a shallow sand bar, and paddled through a herd of seals whose heads popped up and down like a Whack-a-Mole game, before we finally pulled out our kayaks at Secret Beach and headed back to Uclulet.
The Tiny Group - my favourite spot in the Broken Group
My kayak and I became pretty good friends. By the end of the trip, I had managed a couple of entries and exits without a stabili-buddy. They were not graceful but they were successful. Angela’s paddling tips improved my efficiency which also boosted my confidence. She almost convinced me that with a bit more practice, I could handle park project kayaking sojourns in the high Arctic. I’m not totally sold. I saw that capsized dude and it looked like a long time before he came out from under his over-turned boat. Sure, he was totally hammered. But if my boat was upside down, I’d be terrified and probably wouldn’t be able to think any more clearly than he could.
It was a good trip and I'm willing to entertain the thought of more double-bladed adventures.
At least I think I am.
Me, heading out on our adventure. Will there be more?