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Part 3 - Jun. 14th - Day 16 - The Johnstone Strait - Sea kayak Vancouver Island Circumnavigation

Updated: Jun 13

Vancouver Island - Johnstone Strait - Nighttime

Last night I must have done something to garner Poseidon’s wrath.

“Where’s that sacrificial horse I’m supposed to get in exchange for the fair weather and calm seas I’ve been giving you? You haven’t even tossed me a single meat ball of Chef Boyardee so far this trip. I’m going to teach you a lesson tonight you won’t soon forget.”

My campsite was located just beyond the last island on the Walkem group. The area had a pebbled beach on the foot of a small escarpment with overgrown bushes. The beach was narrow, but a line of seaweed marking the extent of the previous high tide seemed to leave enough room for the tent with a few feet to spare. “Well, I hope it doesn’t climb much higher than this.” I thought. I looked at my phone to confirm when the next high tide would be. The table indicated it was to be around 1:00 am.

Unfortunately, I should have looked at the table a bit more carefully and checked how high the next high tide would be as well. The answer was right there; 4 feet higher than the previous afternoon high but I didn’t notice it. Being from Florida, I had never contemplated that two subsequent back-to-back high or low tides could be so different. I knew that the full and new moons make bigger tides than the waxing and waning moons because in those conditions the sun and the moon pull together in the same direction, but the transition happens slowly, and the next tide is only a little higher or lower than the previous. However, in the mid latitudes between about forty five and sixty degrees, the tilt of the Earth, the orbital plane of the moon, and the moon phase create conditions where four different types of tides can occur in a single day. They could colloquially be called the Sort of Low, Sort of High, Very Low, and Very High tides.

Unbeknown to me the last high tide had been the “Sort of High” high tide.

Like a mouse checking out a mouse trap, I had a feeling something wasn’t quite right. The foot of the escarpment had huge piles of the driftwood, but I attributed them to having gotten there with a storm, which wasn’t in the forecast. Nonetheless, I placed four large boulders between the previous high tide mark and my tent. “Sometime at night I’ll check on the tide and if it’s past these rocks, I’ll move the tent farther up the beach.” I thought. However, I didn’t think it would be necessary, the falling tide was now incredibly far away. The narrow beach I had landed on had grown to nearly 100 feet wide. If anything, I’d be carrying the kayak to the edge of the water the next morning.

At 11:00pm, some 3 hours before the high tide peak, I peeked out of the tent with my headlamp and saw that the water line was already past the rocks.

“Oh, I better get up and move things up the beach.” I thought.

I dragged the tent with everything inside up the beach to the base edge of the escarpment next to the kayak and the driftwood.

“That should be fine now. How much higher could it get?”

Much higher still it seemed. After thirty minutes, I peeked out again, and the water was even closer than before. The situation was starting to look worrisome. There was still plenty of time for the tide to continue rising and rather than insist on denial in the face of overwhelming evidence I decided to assume that the worse might well happen. The beach wasn’t going to be around for much longer.

The water kept rising. I started tossing all the gear into the bushes above the escarpment in the embankment and eventually I tossed the tent up there as well. I would have tossed the kayak too, but it was far too heavy. The best I could do was put it on top of the driftwood logs.

And still, the water kept rising.

I got dressed into my dry suit and booties. “I don’t want to get my feet in the cold water.”

About fifteen minutes later, I was in permanent ankle-deep water, the waves started breaking over the driftwood I’d put the kayak on top of, and it was twitching with every bang.

And still, the water kept rising.

“It won’t be long before the driftwood floats away with the kayak.” I thought. “I’d better get this thing down and hold on to it.”

By this time, the water was waist deep. As I was in the middle of getting the kayak when a bigger wave set came through and the whole thing came loose. I lost my footing, plunged into the water, the kayak slid upside down and the cockpit filled with water. “Oh, it can’t get worse, can it?”

I grabbed the boat before it could float away, lifted the bow to empty the water, andshone the headlamp onto the bushes above the escarpment to locate where I had tossed the paddles and the spray skirt. “Better I wait this thing out sitting in the kayak than in the water.”

Having found them, I realized that I would have to let go of the kayak to reach them, so I waited for a lull in the waves. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back in a second or two.” I told the kayak.

I quickly grabbed the paddle and the spray skirt and got into the kayak. When the skirt was clipped around the comb, I felt I could take a deep breath and relax a little as while looking at the full moon rising above the mountains across the Johnstone Strait. The night had suddenly become illuminated in a silvery gray, and there was no need to keep the headlamp turned on. All I had to do now was float in place for another hour and wait for the tide to fall.

“This isn’t so bad.”

While waiting, I noticed a strange piece of driftwood on the water bumping against the side of the kayak. I took a closer look and realized it was one of my dolly wheels. “Oh, I hope nothing else fell off the bush into the water, because I’m definitely never going to find it.”

Only when the tide finally receded and there was enough land to set foot on, did I realize how I felt exhausted from all the effort in the previous night. At around 3:00 am, I sat in my folding chair and tried to snuggle into a comfortable position to get a few hours of sleep.

“I’ll figure out where I tossed everything in the bush when there’s daylight.”

I don’t think I slept for more than half an hour, before I felt chilled by the wind picking up with the sunrise. “I might as well get an early start on the water. I’m definitely not spending another night here.”

The mountains that line both sides of the Johnstone Strait are a wind tunnel. If the regional forecast calls for 5 to 10 mph, in the channel it will 15 to 20mph, and did not take long for me to realize that even though I had the tide helping me along, I wasn’t making much progress. I hugged the southern edge of West Thurlow Island along the northshore of the channel, as far as I could go. After that I had to decide if I should stay on the north side and hop to the next island or attempt to cross the channel and paddle along Vancouver Island until Kelsey Bay where I hoped the small village would have an inn with a comfortable bed. After last night I very much would pay top dollar for it.

I rested for a while on a back eddy while I waited for two cruise ships bound for Alaska to pass by before deciding if I should cross the strait.

I hesitated a bit, based on a warning on the guidebook. “Do not attempt to cross the Johnstone Strait when the wind is blowing against the current. It can be very rough and very dangerous.” The exact conditions right now.

“Oh seriously, it doesn’t look so bad.” I told the author as though he could hear me. “It’s only about a mile wide here, I can clearly see the trees on the opposite shore, and the water isn’t all that rough. I’m sure you must mean at peak current and with a lot more wind than today. I’ll be fine.”

I pointed the kayak to the southwest and after checking to make sure there wasn’t a third cruise ship on the way, powered on with the wing paddle at my full strength.

Up to about three quarters of the way, things were not bad; the part the author tried to warn me about. Somewhere on the channel bottom there must have been a large shallow formation like the Ripple Rock at the Seymour Narrows. and I realized that I was about to cross through several rows of chirping whirlpools.

I contemplated if I should change my mind and go back, but the window for a decision was already behind me. The best thing to do would be to ride with the flow along the edge of the whirlpools and hop from one spinning wheel of water to another.

This, of course, is easier said than done. As each whirlpool is separated by a ridge of water that always flows counter to your direction. I entered the first whirlpool in the flow towards the west, and immediately picked up a good amount of tangential speed. As I followed the flowline, I found myself paddling towards west along with the wind which momentarily felt completely stagnant; this was the moment to put in as much power as possible into every stroke and slingshot myself over the water ridge and into the next whirlpool. I knew I had succeeded when the boat suddenly stopped pulling to the left and I had to do a sharp low brace turn to the right the headwind to stay upright as the current suddenly inverted in the subsequent whirlpool. I repeated this technique two more times from one whirlpool to another, until I was close enough to the Vancouver Island shore to overpower the current.

I continued up the Johnstone Strait, the waters became progressively smoother, and the ebbing tide aiding my progress against the wind began losing strength.

“Already?” I thought with some disappointment. “Now I have to paddle T against the wind with only my own strength. Kelsey Bay was still five miles away. I landed on the corner of the boat ramp in the harbor and started to unload. As I gathered my gear, I was greeted by the marina master who walked down to see what I was doing there.

“So, what are you, eh? Where'd you come from? Oh, sorry, but I must tell you. This is a private maria. So, you can’t just land here, eh.”

“Oh I am so sorry. I’m coming all the way from Seattle. Well, not today of course, it’s been about two weeks. I was hoping to stop here and then walk into town and maybe stay at the campsite. I’m happy to pay the boat landing fee for the ramp, if there is one.”

“From Seattle, eh? So, you’re on the Race to Alaska, eh? T’was a pretty bad day not too long ago, eh?

The Race to Alaska (R2AK for short) is an adventure competition that takes place every summer where sailboats and kayaks race from Port Townsend in Washington to Ketchikan in Alaska. It’s a grueling 750 mile endeavor . There are only two checkpoints. One in Victoria, which is the prequalification stage that must be completed in a day and a half, and another in a town called Bella Bella roughly halfway. The rest of the route is up to the racers. There are no vessel categories. Kayaks and sailboats compete against each other, which might seem unfair, until you remember that the wind isn’t always blowing, and the kayak can take shortcuts through the sounds that might be too tight or shallow for a larger sailboat. That said, however, I don’t believe a kayak has won the competition since the first edition of the challenge in 2015.

“No. I’m paddling around Vancouver Island. What happened?”

“Oh, t’was on the TV, eh. Big storm rolled in through the Juan de Fuca Strait. Caught some folks by surprise. Seven boats sank. The American and Canadian coast guards were working overtime to fetch everybody out of the water, eh. Some of the guys were shivering like pins in a bowling alley, eh.”

I thought back about when the incident might have happened and concluded it must have been on the day I had crossed from Lund to Heriot Bay. That had been the roughest day so far.

“So, you think you think you’re walking to town with your boat, eh? It’s a bit far, eh. Why not stay here, eh? We own the marina RV park, but there’s a motel as well. There's a room. It’s $40 [Canadian] but you have to pay cash. Go talk to my wife Irene. She’s at the mobile trailer tending the garden. Oh, m’name is Garr! Come for happy hour, eh?”

I was more than happy to accept the invitation. The motel room was a real bargain. It had a comfortable king bed, a spotless bathroom, kitchenette, Living Room with TV, and a million-dollar balcony view of the marina looking over the Johnstone Strait and the mountains in the background. Mr. Garr is sitting on top of a goldmine of a location, but doesn’t seem to know it.

“How about we start happy hour a little early, eh? I’m heading into town to swing by the liquor store.”

“If you don’t mind, I’ll go with you, and I’ll buy the wine.” I offered.

I jumped on to Mr. Garr’s truck, and we drove off. On the way we passed a multitude of log piles neatly on the side of the road.

“A lot of logs, eh” Mr. Garr remarked, “You’ll see plenty more on the water. One of the barges had a mishap and now they’re floating all over, eh.”

We arrived at the liquor store at the junction with State Road 19 that runs the length of Vancouver Island until Port Hardy.

I must admit that I have next to no knowledge of fine wines or liquors of any kind, and was unsure of what to get. I looked through the aisle until I found a bottle with a pretty label. A Cabernet Sauvignon from a brand called Alexander Valley. It was called The Silver Oak, and had a picture of a wooden hut, shaded by a twisted oak tree in a rolling field of lavenders.

“Oh, we are drinking fancy stuff, eh?” Mr. Garr remarked with a laugh.

Over the course of a few glasses Mr. Garr told me the story of his life.

“Oh, he’s a talker,” his wife said, “if you keep giving him rope, he will keep pulling.”

He was born in Manitoba, had worked for the oil and gas industry in the Tar Sands of Alberta as bulldozer driver and met his wife in a place called the Gopher Hole Museum.

“You make good money working the sands, but it’s backbreaking shift work; twelve hour days, fourteen days on, seven days off. The mine is a bleak place like the surface of the moon, and it smells like an inferno from all the sulfur in the air..”

“At least you had something to look forward to on those seven days off.” Irene mentioned with a smirk.

“It’s what kept me going and from going mad, eh!”

“Oh, look at who’s nearly gone. I think you’re boring him.”

I was dozing off on my chair and struggling to keep my eyes open.

“Must be the fine wine, eh?” At that moment I was jolted awake by my phone ringing, which was a surprise because I’d not had reception since leaving Heriot Bay. It was my mother wanting to check in with me, and we spoke for a little while.

“Was that French you were speaking? You from Quebec?”

“Oh, no. It was Portuguese. My family is from Brazil.”

“I could never tell the difference. The only French I know are the curse words, you know, in case you need them. You better turn in for the night. Got another long day tomorrow, eh?”

Sea kayak Vancouver Island Circumnavigation

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