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Part 3 - Jun. 16th - Day 18 - Sea kayak Vancouver Island Circumnavigation

Updated: Feb 4

Vancouver Island - Johnstone Strait - Rockpool Taran Kayak

I had a text conversation with my friend Lee from Victoria.

“Hey, how’s the progress going?”

“I got to Naka Creek Camp today.”

“Oh, I know that place! I’ve been there. Guess what I’m in Heriot Bay. Heard from some locals you came through here. Have you seen any whales yet?”

“No, not yet.”

“Really? That’s a surprise. Try going through the Blackney Passage between Hanson and Harbledown Island. I guarantee you’ll see some whales there.”

I decided to give it a try, and after paddling for ten miles I turned north to cross the Johnstone Strait towards Hanson Island. The weather deteriorated considerably, with curtains of rain coming down in heavy pours, but at least there was not much wind.

When I entered the straits of the Blackney Passage, I heard a puff of exhalation louder and deeper than any sigh I had ever heard a human do. I looked around in the direction of the sound but could not see anything other than thousands of raindrops falling over the flat water. I waited a little while longer and heard it again from a different direction, and this time I caught sight of the moisture cloud from the animal’s breath though it had already submerged. On the third time I saw the whale breach the surface, exhale, and only after it had dived, did the sound of its powerful breath reach my ears. The whale’s breath is loud enough to be heard almost half a mile away. I tried to paddle a bit closer to where I had seen the breath cloud and maybe get a better look at the whales, but they quickly moved around, unseen under the water and by the time I saw one of them breathe again, they were already in a different place.

As I paddled around in the passage trying to catch up with the whales, I sighted what I thought was a flock of birds in the distance waiting out the rain and the fog. When I got closer however, I realized they were not a flock of birds at all, but a flock of fifteen paddlers.

“Wow! It’s incredible how in this mist and rain, even the deck color on your boats takes a tone of gray. I thought, from a distance, that you were all birds waiting out the rain.”

“Oh, not quite or we would have been flying.” Said a lady in the group who seemed to be in charge of the flock. “My fellow guide and I are leading a group for six days around the islands north of the Johnstone Strait. We put in at Telegraph cove. Got another two days to go before we go back. We heard there’s a guy from Seattle kayaking around Vancouver on a yellow kayak. Is that you?”

“Yes, that’s me! My reputation travels faster than I can paddle, though I guess that four miles per hour that’s not too difficult.” I joked.

“Well, for an average, from Seattle, with gear, it’s not bad.”

Silka told me she had been running tours with a local kayak company at Telegraph Cove for the last four years.

“After a while you get to know the circuit like the back of your paddle, and it feels like you are on autopilot. So long as you’re paying attention, nothing too crazy happens, though I did once have a client who flipped his boat in the water. His stern hatch must not have been closed properly, and all the gear suddenly was floating away. We recovered most things, but the tent poles went down to the bottom of the sea. Four people had to spend a night in a tent made for only two. Come tag along with us for a little bit. We are going to go see a thousand-year-old Cedar.”

I paddled with the group for the next hour. We landed on a pebbled beach on the western shore of Hanson Island exposed by the low tide.

“Let’s not stick around for too long here. The tide is going to turn and start rising soon.”

As everyone got off their boats and carried them up the beach, I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only one wearing a dry suit. Even the two guides in charge wore shorts and wet neoprene shoes.

“You don’t wear dry suits?” I asked.

“No, not for these trips, we are always in calm water, and the clients are not required to have dry suits. Our company’s boss thinks it would look bad if the guides are warm and dry but the clients are wet and cold, so everybody gets to be wet and cold together.”

“Oh that sucks. Don’t you guys have something like OSHA here in Canada? I would complain. Seems like you are working in a cold sweat shop.”

“We do, it’s called the Canadian Occupational Safety and Health, CanOSH. But good luck working with them. I’ve never heard of anyone filing a complaint. Besides, getting wet is part of being a kayak guide.”

“Yeah, just like getting skin burns is part of the job of being a firefighter. I bet you that’s what your company boss told you.” I answered with irony. “What you guys really need, even more than a dry suit, is a Union.”

It seemed like I had touched on a subject that wasn’t meant to be discussed because I received no answer.

“You know, the tree is five minutes up the trail; you will see it on the left. I need to give a talk to the group, but you can go ahead of us.”

I went ahead and walked the trail. The woodland was thick, and visibility wasn’t very good. Even so, after what felt like more than five minutes, I was still not seeing any tree that I would confidently say was much bigger than the others let alone a thousand years big. There was, however, one very large tree that had toppled and its roots had ripped up a large chunk of the soil. I don’t know how long ago it fell, but it had some very large mushroom ears growing on the roots and bark.

“I think your tree fell over,” I told the guide as she was wrapping up her talk. She abruptly developed a look of fear on her face.

We all walked together up the trail, and I pointed out the fallen tree.

“Oh no, it’s not that one! Thank God! You didn’t go far enough.” She said and gave me a hard slap on the shoulder. “You scared the loonies out of me. That tree better be around long after I’m gone!”

“You said it was five minutes.”

“Well, you know, five minutes-ISH.”

We walked a little bit more past a small stream, after which the trail made a slight bend to the left, and then in between the foliage of the undergrowth there appeared the trunk of an enormous cedar wide enough that ten men holding hands would not have been enough to encircle it.

“You should have said, go beyond the stream.” I joked, but she ignored me.

“This tree has an interesting story. The whole island had its old growth forest logged, but this one cedar standing. Its trunk is a little crooked, and the inside has some rot, so it wasn’t high quality wood. It’s interesting to see what we value as society changes. A hundred years ago these trees weren’t worth more than what their wood could be turned into. Today, how much more money above what the loggers got for the trees would we not pay to have them back? We are fortunate that one ancient Cedar escaped them. This cedar has been here so long that it was already ancient when the two hemlocks next to it were little saplings, and they are big two-hundred-year-old trees.”

The tide was rising quickly, soon it reached the kayaks and mine, which was the one closest to the water (I didn’t want to lift it with all the gear and find out if the hinges would hold) was already almost floating. I said goodbye to the group and continued westward along the north coast of Hanson Island, while they set off to Harbledown Island.

Handson Island fractured into lots of small islets between which the tide flowed quickly and created many swirling whirlpools requiring me to hop between eddies. Further west I reached an island group called the Pearse Islands which were elongated from East toWest and separated by narrow channels. The rising tide made the current in these channels seem like mountain streams filled with rapids and shallow clear water where the rocks on the bottom were clearly visible. Occasionally, there was also a fallen tree in the stream clinging onto the bank making ripples in the flow. I paddled as far as I could up the flow, but I eventually could not keep up with the current and was resigned to go around the entire island group.

Not too much farther I reached the day’s destination. A large island called Alert Bay where there is a small indigenous settlement. I paddled along the waterfront where several buildings were constructed on stilts over the water until I found a boat ramp where I could land.

“Look at that, how lucky can this be?” I thought to myself. A hotel called the Pass’n Thyme Inn was immediately across the street from the ramp. It looked like I wouldn’t have to drag all my gear around town looking for a bed. I walked into the hotel bar where I could find the receptionist.

“Oh, you picked the busiest of the year to find a place on arrival. It’s high school graduation day. And this year we are hosting the indigenous soccer tournament, so all the rival schools from BC are here too. I doubt you’d even find a place to pitch a tent.”

“You sure? The town looks empty; there's hardly a person or car out the street.”

“That’s because everyone, and I really mean almost everyone is at the Big House.” They are having the Potlatch right now.”

“What’s a Potlatch?”

“It’s the graduation ceremony.”

I wondered what to do. It was already late and the town campground was at least a mile walk away; too far to walk just to check and find it full, then have to turn back around.

After getting my kayak out of the water and onto the dolly, I began walking along the waterfront drive wondering what to do. I looked up every hotel and campground in town on my phone, but just as predicted, they were all full.

That was when I was approached by a bystander on the street.

“You look like you’re looking for a place to stay.” She said.

“Indeed I am.”

“Well, try the Siene Boat Inn which you just passed . They are probably full, but I am friends with the owner. His name is Edward. His brother was coming for the weekend to stay in a room, but he had an emergency in Port McNeill, and is only going to come the day after tomorrow. He might rent the room for you. Tell him Jane sent you.”

I thanked this mysterious lady for her generous advice, and for my fortunate meeting with her. It seemed so convenient in both time and place that our encounter reminded me of stories from the Greek gods who disguise themselves to interact with the mortal hero when he is lost, steer him in the right direction, but keep their true identity unknown.

I was all the more suspicious of the nature of our encounter, when the Innkeeper wife said, “Yes indeed, my husband’s brother isn’t coming until Saturday, so yes, I do have a room available. But who is this, Jane? I don’t think I know any Jane.”

Her husband wasn't there, but on hearing that, I concluded it was best not to mention the name Jane again. Small towns can be big infernos, and there are some things the passing traveler should not go digging into.

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After settling in, I walked around town, and following the sounds of beating drums found my way to the Big House where the high school potlatch was in full swing. The building looked like a warehouse whose front had the face of a giant menacing killer whale painted in the totem pole carving style . In fact, next to the building was the tallest totem pole I had ever seen. So tall that it could have been mistaken for a radio tower with guide cables and the topmost carvings were hardly discernible.

I walked up to the front door at the center of the building which was the mouth of the killer whale and where the drum sounds seeped through cracks. The door was locked.

“No late arrivals were allowed, I guess”. I strode to the back of the building, where the drum sounds were the loudest and a faint smoke was rising out of the chimney. Hoping at least to get a glimpse, I found a backdoor and opened a small crack to take a peek.

Inside was a burning fire pit and three dancers dressed in native regalia treading around in a manner that suggested they each represented a different animal spirit. Two rows of bleachers some ten rows deep were set up along the walls and packed to capacity, but unlike a soccer match, everyone was silent and attentively watching the dancers while seemingly hypnotized by the drums.

I stayed hidden next to the backdoor, perhaps also hypnotized by the drumbeats and the rhythmic movement of the dancers and the fire, but eventually I came to my senses and not wanting to be caught in any kind of trouble left before I could be found out.

Sea kayak Vancouver Island Circumnavigation


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