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July 23rd - Day 55

“Hey, before you get to Victoria, spend some time exploring the Race Rocks.”

That was a message on my phone from Lee.

“What is there to see there?” I asked.

“Lots of cool stuff. There’s an underwater shelf there where the current swashing in and out of the straits has to change direction, so depending on the time of the tide and the wind you get all kinds of fun whirlpools and standing waves, and it changes by the hour.”

“There are also puffins, sea lions, sea otters, and if you’re lucky, you might even spot an elephant seal. Though probably not this time of year. This is about as far north as they come in the Pacific Coast. If you see one you won’t miss it. They are huge; look like gigantic garbage bags sunbathing on the beach. You’ll be impressed, even the sea lions look small compared to them.

“Can you land anywhere on the islands?”

“Oh no… not unless you’re in serious trouble. If you tell the caretakers at the lighthouse that you had to stop to take a leak, they will be really pissed at you. Make sure you have a bottle handy.”

I packed up camp and paddled down the Sooke River and the bay and was soon out in the Juan de Fuca Strait. The sun burned away the morning fog very early, and by 9:00am the snow-covered mountains of Olympic Peninsula in Washington were easily visible. It looked like it was so close; just a hop away to cross the channel. It could not be so hard in good weather, I thought.

However, gauging distances in the sea with your naked eye, especially when sitting in your kayak, is incredibly deceiving. When you look at the horizon it is as if you’ve lost the ability to see things with depth perception. Massive cruise ships can look like toy boats, and towering lighthouses seem like they are made of Lego pieces. If you see an object in the horizon, you must ask yourself, “How big does it look? And how big is it actually?”

When I meet my dad, he sometimes tells me of a story that he and my mom once decided to swim out to an island just off the shore of Sahy Beach near Santos in Brazil. The islands do look only a stone through away. In good weather it even looks like you could hit a baseball there, and you can easily make out the trunks of the trees by the shore. They set out, but after swimming for an hour decided it was not worth the remaining effort to get there and turned back.

Many years later once Google Earth Became a thing, I decided to measure the distance. From beach to beach, it’s 1.3 miles! About half the distance you’d swim in an Ironman triathlon.

Today I was reminded of this hypnotic power of the sea. I saw a cargo ship leaving the straits and almost the entire hull was beneath the horizon. The only things I could see clearly were the ship’s bridge and the topmost containers piled on top of the deck. That meant it was at least good nine to ten miles away and given that it would be sailing some distance from the shore, the opposite bank of the Olympic Peninsula was at least thirteen miles from me.

A good rule of thumb for when you’re out on the water on your kayak is, “if you can’t see the sand, then it’s not close.”

I had to paddle about fourteen miles to reach Race Rocks. Getting there took a considerable early effort. The tide was falling for most of the morning, and I hugged my way close to the shore, taking advantage of eddies in the current wherever I could.

The ebbing tide slacked about an hour before I reached the islands, the slack barely lasted fifteen minutes, and for the last few miles the current carried me like a moving walkway in an airport. I hardly realized how fast I was moving, and until I reached the rocks where unless I made some effort to stay in place I’d soon be past the entire group.

There is only one island of significant size at the Race Rocks Group where sits a black and white striped lighthouse flanked by a few prefabbed buildings. It was the only one of the islands that had even a small patch of grass. All the other islets were bare rocks.

At least, that is, for the portions above the high tidemark. Perhaps it was the beating sun making me delirious, but in my mind, I thought the islands looked like a cross between a friar monk with a Jamaican Rastafari. The friar haircut is a bald crown with a thick bushy rim around the ears, while the Rastafari has long and messy dreadlocks. So it was with these rocky islets; barren on the top but surrounded by an entanglement of bull kelp that extends from the water’s edge in a ring, stretched in the direction of the current.

So thick was the kelp that when I paddled into the bed at the West Race Rock I was immediately out of the current’s grasp and could stop for a rest. I wasn’t the only one who discovered that the kelp beds can be a place to escape the current.

“Oh! Hi there!” I said to a harbor seal that popped its head through the reeds to see what I was.

He wasn’t the curious type and soon dove down before popping back up at a safer distance.

The current was getting stronger by the minute.  After my break at West Race Rock, I hopped back into the flow trying to ferry my way to the island with the lighthouse while staying upstream of the next islet. Unfortunately, that was not possible, and I needed one additional break inside another kelp bed eddy before reaching the lighthouse island directly in the shadow of the current.

I observed things from the kayak. There were no elephant seals. 

“If you see one you will know it.” I remembered Lee telling me.

At first, I thought I saw two big white sausage looking creatures sleeping on the boat ramp, but when one tilted its head and I noticed the small pinched ears and knew they were “only” two stellar sea lions lazing out in the afternoon sun with no interest in me.

At this point the southerly wind picked up and blowing in the same direction of the tide had smoothed out the swells into a rolling blue meadow punctuated with the odd white stuff spray that looked like a lost sheep.

I turned north, put up the sail, and headed North to Victoria whose tall buildings were now easily visible in the clear weather ten miles away.