Dream Trips: The Wild BC Coast
I started working as a Sea Kayak Guide out of Vancouver Island over 10 years ago. In one of those early summers we (myself and a two other guides) bought charts for our dream trip. It was a trip that was accomplishable in about 8 days; a timespan that might accommodate the short periods of time we had off between working days. The route included some of the more rugged and committing coastline that the Central Coast of British Columbia had to offer; it was complete with plenty of headlands and open water crossings that might be friendly enough in calm to moderate conditions but that also have the potential to be extremely challenging, chunky sections of water if the wind, wave and tidal streams are not fully cooperative. The trip was to begin in Bella Bella, a small coastal community at 52 degrees latitude on the BC Central Coast that is home to the Helitsuk First Nation. The plan was to paddle the outside of the many archipelagos that dot the coastline southwards towards Calvert Island, around its western border, crossing to the BC mainland, south around Cape Caution and back to the Vancouver Island shores of Port Hardy.The dream never came to fruition back then. The charts remained in storage and were sadly never used by the three of us who had had such lofty goals as to accomplish a personal trip in the middle of the summer work season. But hey, you’ve got to dream! It is worth it…and here’s the proof:
This summer I set aside 9 days to dust off the old charts and catch a ferry to Bella Bella with Nick Cunliffe, all set with enough food, gear and supplies for the 8 days we had given ourselves to enjoy the planned 150 Nautical Mile (Nm) paddle it would take us to return to Port Hardy.
Dreams are funny things, aren’t they? You dream something, just enough to make it happen and the challenge then comes in the living of that dream, which may certainly not end up the way you had expected, but might just surprise you in the best of ways! Which is absolutely what happened as we paddled west out into the wild BC coast waters and then turned south towards Goose Island in our first two days on the water. We were expecting to see a few kayaking parties along the way as it was the week of July 1st (that’s Canada Day) and prime kayaking season. But apart from the odd sport fisherman occasionally spotted and two lone kayakers on a distant beach, we were alone with the wolves, the cougars and the bears.
On our third day, sat on the north end of Goose Island, we had a tough decision to make. With winds forecast to be NW 30-40 kn into the foreseeable future we were unsure whether it would be wise or even fun to continue southwards on our journey. We found ourselves sitting on a beautiful west facing, crescent beach having to decide whether to continue south towards our destination or to play it safe, staying to explore the archipelagos around Bella Bella and having the option to catch a ferry back south if need be.
We decided to play it safe and have a little sleep in. We got on the water at the crack of 11 AM in winds that were forecast to be 20-30 kn from the northwest, but found it an easy and playful paddle as we crossed the 5Nm to the Tribal Group in a lumpy crosswind. It felt like we were backtracking, each paddle stroke taking us further away from our destination. But we had a plan: we would have a short 8Nm day and rest in preparation for the potential long paddling days we might have ahead if the forecast improved. We camped on a small slice of beach that was only just big enough for our tiny tent. We were relieved that the later forecasts called for winds to abate and ease to a manageable 20-30kn for next few days. The relief was two-fold really: on the one hand, we had the weather window we needed to continue south along the western shoreline and also …mmm… we were excited that we would be soon leaving the small island beach that, as it turns out, brown bears also seem to enjoy as there was some scat just a paw’s reach from our shelter. It is always good to be reminded that we are not the only ones out here.
With manageable tailwinds forecast and calm winds in the early morning hours, we set out on the water at 5 AM to make up for the previous short day. In the company of sea otters against an ever changing, yet equally dramatic landscape, we made our way to the north tip of Calvert Island. It had been an easy paddle, as long as you include the fact that we had 2nd breakfast and lunch packed in there between 26 Nm before noon. The beach we had arrived at was white sand laden and if I showed you the picture, you would see it could have been an island in the Caribbean. Which, by the way, is where we might have lucked out! You see of 8 days on the water, 6 of them demanded stripping off the Kokatat Whirlpool Bibs to spend time on the beach in bathing wear. That’s right folks, right here on the BC West Coast… it wasn’t just beautifully sunny, it was amazingly hot!
It was here we had our second big decision to make. Should we paddle east and then south down the protected inside passage of Calvert Island potentially making use of a wind funnel for a downwind run, or do we make the committing move of pushing around Cape Calvert and along the exposed coast of the island’s rocky shores? Weather looked favourable, with no major red flags or winds beyond 30kn, we decided to make the move around the Cape. This was, by far the most technically and mentally challenging leg of the journey as it required paddling out into 3-4 meter seas with rebounding waves off the steep rocky shores and an ebb current running against the swell direction. It was a confusing mess of deep troughs, waves – some breaking, threatening boomers and multi-directional swell! The technical challenge of reading the erratic heaving seas and moving quickly though the rough water was invigorating, but the mental challenge in recognizing the level of commitment we were undertaking if the seas were to remain in this state remained at the top of the list. We paddled out beyond the lumpy and unpredictable seas to more offshore waters where things began to organize and become truly fun and even surfable. Our beautiful beach that night was well earned after a long day of paddling to make up miles and topped off with some adrenalin packed paddling.The next few days were long ones on the water taking us through varied sea states against a sunny sky. We made sure to balance paddling, coastal exploration, calorie consumption all the while covering the miles we needed in order to complete the trip. The rugged coastline filled with surf beaches that go for miles, the tenacious lone tree that stands its ground alone on an exposed island, the wolf prints in the sand and the glimpses of marine life that we are so privileged to be witness to, all these things are why I love these wild places; without dreams I may never have had the chance.
The last 2 days of paddling took us into the classic west coast sea fog that obscured visibility to less than ¼ mile. It made for interesting padding, navigation and surprise arrivals when all of a sudden an island appears right in front of you. It was a classic BC coast dream trip! No doubt about it! There are many anecdotes that I might tell you, but I think it’s best that you go make your own memories.
But if I had to tell just one… We were paddling the stretch of open water between Calvert Island and the Mainland Coast side by side with a quick but relaxed pace in a low undulating swell. All of a sudden, I’m so happy I happened to be looking seaward, at that moment a 20 pound salmon jumped out of the water just in time to hit Nick “SMACK” in the ribs as it was then deflected onto his back deck and quickly back into the water. It all happened in less than 10 seconds, but the effect was long-lasting! I spent the remainder of the crossing belly laughing at the sight of it, as Nick dealt with the aftermath of being smacked by 20 pounds of fish and the worry that he might now be bear bait as a few silvery scales on his t-shirt glistened in the sun accompanied by the perfume of salmon.
You never know what might happen out there, but you have to go there to find out. It’s not every day that the weather cooperates, your skill and fitness allow you to accomplish your goals, but when it happens it reminds you of why you bothered to dream in the first place.