PART 5 - PADDLING WITH FRIENDS. Rounding the Brooks
June 25th - Day 27
St Josef Bay must be the most beautiful beach in all of Vancouver Island. The bay is nestled deep inside a cut on the cliff walls that roll down from Cape Scott and is surrounded by old growth forest whose trees reminded me of the columns supporting the ceiling of a great temple. The low tide exposed a beach a thousand feet wide covered by a sand canvased into a never-ending myriad of colorful patterns by the receding water. Even the most skilled abstract painter would find it hard to match the detail.
After setting camp and notifying JF that I had made it to our rendezvous point with a day to spare, I went on a walk to explore the coastal landscape. At high tide there are many sea stacks that are inaccessible, but when the tide recedes, they become connected to the mainland, and it is possible to walk between the rocks and discover what the sea water has sculpted.
I was fascinated by how the creatures of the tide pools predictively layer themselves in a precise hierarchy. At the very bottom where the rocks are wetted even at low tide are the mollusks and starfish. Then come the shellfish which always have the larger individuals in the bottom and smaller ones on the top, as those on the lower down have more time to feed in the water. After them come the barnacles which can survive exposed to the air the longest. The final layer before where the rock is permanently exposed in all but the highest tides is capped by a scrawny little algae called the rockweed which is the kayaker’s most feared plant. If you paddle over rockweed, then you’re about to hit the bottom of your boat. You never want to gamble paddling your kayak over a bed of rockweeds.
While meandering my way through the sea stacks I found a deep cave gouged into the rock cliff ringing the beach. The cave was deep enough that my eyes needed a moment to adjust to the low light, and when I turned to stare at the entrance the landscape outside was a white glare. The cave roof was covered with a thin moss layer and dripped constantly as though it had started to rain. The water was fresh, which meant it must be percolating through the rock above where the trees are growing. At the deepest point in the cave was an interesting artifact from the sea; a large piece of driftwood which proved that when a storm is raging in the Pacific Ocean, this cave will be no safe to hide.
I think that the cave is the preamble to a new sea stack in the making. As the sea gouges ever deeper into the cave, eventually the roof won’t support itself, and whatever remains after the collapse will become a new sea stack. Rocks last a long time, but not forever. Ultimately even the sea stacks will topple one day, and the mollusks and barnacles will finish off whatever is left of the rock. Walking from the treeline down the cliff and ending at the water’s edge is a cross-sectional journey through time.
In the afternoon I decided to hike part of the Cape Scott Trail inland as I was told by a fellow camper mentioned to me that on the trail was an immense spruce tree.
“It’s definitely worth the walk, it’s about a mile beyond Eric Lake on the way to Nels Beach.”
I put on my boots, grabbed my wide brim hat, holstered the bear spray on my shorts, and fitted two Perrier bottles to the back pockets on my shirt.
The walk wasn’t very eventful and there wasn’t much to see. The trail is buried in the forest, there are no viewpoints, and the canopy is thick with only a few shafts of light landing on the forest floor. As the distance from the sea increased the moderating effect of the ocean on the temperature became less pronounced, and the humidity made it feel like spring day in Florida.
At Eric Lake I found a pebbled beach where I could see that the sky was bright and sunny. I stretched my neck to look as far down the trail as I could, and when I was reasonably sure there wasn’t anyone nearby, took a skinny dip into the refreshingly cool water.
Passing the lake I was on the lookout for the big spruce tree. “It can’t be much further.” I thought.
The trail began a steep climb up a mountain in a series of switchbacks. I eventually caught up with a couple on their way to hiking the entire Cape Scott Trail.
“Oh, we passed it a while ago.” They said, to my chagrin.
I turned around and began walking back but soon arrived at the lake without finding the tree. I concluded I must have had too high expectations after seeing the big Cedar on Hansen Island. I saw several large spruce trees on the trail but none whose height and girth spoke to say, “Yes, I’m the big tree everyone writes home about.” I must have passed the tree and failed to be impressed enough to notice it.
At the parking lot where the trail forks between the way to Cape Scott and St Josef Bay I ran into three college aged girls piling their camping gear onto the trail wheelbarrow provided by the park service for those making their way to the campsites on the beach.
“Well, those fancy Hawaiian shorts sure go with this wheelbarrow.” One of them said, while pointing at my colorful attire.
“I suppose if they fit you, then I can give them to you.” I said, deliberately pretending to misunderstand her. They laughed and she gave the obvious clarification.
“We are asking if you would be a gentleman and push it for us.”
“You mean the two miles to the beach camp?”
I thought about it for a moment on how I could diplomatically decline the request.
“Sorry. But I have to go take a massive dump. Seriously, it cannot wait.” I said, noting their surprised shock at my blunt response.
That was, however, a half-truth. I had to go, but not so urgently that I couldn’t handle the discomfort of pushing a wheelbarrow all the way to the beach. The part I didn’t say out loud was that I didn’t think any of them were cute enough to be worth pushing a wheelbarrow full of camping gear for two miles.
June 26th - Day 28
At 5:00 am I woke up to a discomforting rumble in my bowels.
“Oh god, this one definitely can’t wait.”
I walked barefoot out of the tent and down the sand path to the nearest outhouse shed. When I flipped open the lid on the latrine pit, I found a huge yellow slug on the seat rim. “Ugh. How am I going to get rid of this bad boy?”
I grabbed him with a piece of toilet paper, but he was heavy and slippery, and I accidentally dropped him inside the latrine pit. He hit the bottom with a loud thump.
“What a horrible way to die,” I thought. “So sorry but now I must also add some horrible insult on top of your injury.”
This wasn’t my first encounter with these slugs. Two days ago, I found one crawling half way inside my kayak booties. If I hadn’t immediately noticed him at that moment , I might well have buried my foot in him while putting on the booties. These slugs appear out of nowhere when you least expect them. Suddenly to look at your things, and there they are, on top of your gear. I hope I never have to deal with one inside my dry suit.
I paddled up the St Josef River to the boat ramp Campsite for where I would meet with the Skils Sea Kayak Group. It was low tide, and I had to dismount and walk sections of the river, otherwise I would have been scraping the river boulders.
I arrived early and the only person awake at the camp was the site’s keeper.
Henry is the closest person I’ve met who I would consider to be hermit. He’s lived in a little wooden shack at the campground for almost forty years. His beard was full and silvery, his hair long wavy and white as foam spray from sea, and his eyes were buried deep inside wrinkly sockets. He was a plump fellow, and I imagined him working as a mall Santa in Nanaimo or Port Hardy during the holidays, perhaps that being the only time in the year he ever went into a town.
He was sitting on a folding chair and had an orange cat on his lap. “I adopted him some years ago. Someone dumped him in the forest at night. The little thing feared everything and everyone. Took him a month to trust me. I’d put food outside, and for a long time he would even touch it. But we’re best friends now aren’t we Garfield?” The cat purred in agreement.
“Well, it’s good to have company. Do you know when the folks from Skils Sea Kayak are coming? They should be here soon I think.”
“Is someone supposed to be coming here? Nobody told me. I don’t have a phone though, so no one could have called to tell me they’re coming. But folks do come by from time to time and show up unannounced, eh.”
Fortunately I did not have to worry and wonder for too long if I was at the right location. A van with a trailer carrying several kayaks drove down the one-way dirt road into the campsite. When the van reached the wooden shack, it stopped and the slide side door opened.
“Good to see you again, old friend.” Said a man in a French accent. “Hey Felipe! Congrats on making it around Cape Scott! We’ll park by the ramp, and I’ll introduce you to the group.”
“I’ve no clue who he is.” Henry said to me with deadpan. “But more folks know me than I know them, so maybe I am his old friend.”
For some reason, all the times I had spoken to JF over the phone, I had assumed that his accent was Chinese. It kind of made sense that he might be of Asian descent as there is a large population of Asian immigrants in the Pacific NorthWest. I attribute this mistake of mine to the Yanni/Laurel effect where if you’re primed to hear something a certain way your Brain hears it that way. I was surprised on our first in person meeting that he was very European looking.
We were supposed to be a party of ten people but after counting everyone present, I noticed there were only nine of us.
“Yes, unfortunately our friend Rebecca got Covid two days before the trip, and so, she could not make it. It’s a shame, but it also means everyone will have to make an effort and eat more of the food. In fact, everyone’s boat will be very heavy going out today.”
JF’s wife was a British lady named Justine. I had spoken with her over the phone before as well, but now meeting her in person, I could not help but think that I had seen her before somewhere. “Were you in that series of kayaking films called This Is The Sea?” I asked.
“I was the one who made the series.” She smiled like someone who’s just received recognition for their work.
There wasn’t much time to get to know everyone else at the time save for brief introductions.
“Time is a little bit late, we should eat lunch, get all the kit packed up and get going.” Said JF.
The lunch was simple, but surprisingly good. For someone accustomed to eating nothing but canned fish, canned pasta, and cereal bars, my two ham with salami and cheese sandwiches with hummus was amazingly delicious. The banana and fuji apple for dessert were also great treats.
We launched a little after midday. The tide had risen and squeezing the kayak over the river boulders without dismounting was just about doable, even with all the additional gear.
I don’t think my kayak has ever been heavier. In addition to all the food, we were each carrying a ten-liter water bag inside the kayak cockpit.
Almost immediately out of St Josef Bay our flotilla ran into its first incident. The wind increased considerably during the afternoon, and waves bashing against the cliffs created washing machine-like conditions. One of our fellows kayaking mates developed a debilitating sea sickness and his stomach nearly tossed his lunch overboard. One of us braced with him so his kayak would be stable, and tied a tow line to JF’s boat, who then pulled the load of two kayaks plus his own.
After about 20 minutes of furious paddling, he announced what we could all already see. “Guys, I am spent. We’re going to have to pause for a break.”
Fortunately, the north wind was pushing everyone along, so resting did not mean that we stopped moving. JF switched roles with Justine who also paddled with great strength and vigor, pulling the load of three full boats. The condition of our seasick mate did not improve until we finally landed and called in the day.