Friday, July 25, 2008

Kayaking Down the Outer BC Coast

Kayaking Prince Rupert to Port Hardy (July 6th - July 21st)

I made plans with Andrew Feucht and Roy Massena to kayak down the BC coast from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy between July 6th and July 27th, 2008. We have done a few trips before, and worked like a well-oiled machine. Roy made all the charts, Andrew made ferry reservations, and I made sure I showed up. I was very happy with all of the work they put into making this trip happen.

July 6th (start – 2 days):
We met at Andrew’s house at an insanely early hour. We each packed as if we were doing the trip solo, so we each had our own tent, cook kit, and any necessary food and gear. Roy brought a satellite phone, with which we gave brief updates to our friends back home, as well as receiving surf forecasts via text message from Wayne back home. And we each had a VHF marine radio in a pouch on the back of our PFD in case of emergency.
Our bags packed, we drove and ferried 10 hours to Port Hardy where we stayed at the increasingly dilapidated Seagate Motel. It has definitely seen better days.

July 7th (start – 1 day):
We woke up at 3:30am to move kayaks and gear to the ferry terminal, 10km from town. Andrew drove his truck back to town to park it in a secure spot, and then caught the shuttle back to the ferry for our 7:30am departure. The BC ferry took us 15 hours up the coast to Prince Rupert, giving us a glimpse along the way of some of the terrain through which we would be going. We arranged for Joe from Skeena Kayaking to pick us up at the ferry terminal at 10:30pm when we got in, and he let us stay at his house for the night (a First Nations Elders conference had filled all the hotels). He is a self-taught kayak guide, and has a contract to do kayak tours for the two weekly cruise ships that come into town. He was a very nice, friendly guy to his fellow kayakers.

Day 1: Prince Rupert to Head Point (19 miles, 6.5 hours)

Busy in the morning, Joe let us use his truck to drive our kayaks down to the put-in spot, and said that he’d pick it up later. Before launch, we visited the museum for some local culture. We also posted our kayak wheels back home. One set was too big for the box we had. I decided to leave them with Joe, but Andrew managed to sell them to a guy at the post office for $27.

On the water at noon, we fought current, wind, rain and fog to make it to Head Point on Porcher Island by 7:30pm. I had a hard time keeping up with Andrew and Roy, and my elbows and fingers were hurting due to yanking on my carbon paddle shaft too aggressively. And this was only Day 1 *sigh*. I told them we needed to tone it down a bit for a few days, and my tendonitis eased off. Hopefully, the rain would ease off as well, as setting up camp in the rain is no fun. I am eating a lot more food than I expected. I must be still trying to work out of my calorie deficit from Primal Quest. I hope my 20 days of food lasts for the whole trip.

Day 2: Head Point to Groschen Island (28 miles, 9 hours)

Rain starts again once we are on the water. We round Porcher Island and see the open ocean for the first time. The swell is mild. There is nobody else on the outside coast. We camp next to a creek, and hang our food in case of bears. I have an elaborate pulley system that makes hanging 100 pounds of food a relative breeze. We are also camped below the driftwood that chokes the back of the beach, as there is no upland camping here. Luckily, the moon is half full and there is room between the current high tide line and the beach logs tonight. If we were to arrive a few days later, we would have to look for a different beach, though.

Day 3: Groschen Island to Bonilla Island (22 miles, 6.5 hours)

We make a 10 nm crossing over to Banks Island, the longest crossing any of us have ever done. The weather is very favorable. Once on Banks Island, we decide to cross another 6nm over to Bonilla Island, where we really feel like we are offshore. Bonilla Island does not have any puffins (I was hoping to see some), but has a lighthouse, and some fairly nice beaches. Sunshine in the evening on our campsite makes for an enjoyable end to an enjoyable day. Our surf forecast says that the swell height is going to stay at about 3 feet for the next three days, and as we are also tucked behind the Queen Charlottes (50 miles to the west), swell might even be more moderated in this area. I see porpoises.

Day 4: Bonilla Island to Wreck Islands/central Banks (24.5 miles, 7.5 hours)

We get up at 5am and launch at 7am, which becomes a fairly normal schedule for us. An ebb current appears to run south along the outside of Banks, and we catch this current for much of the day. At midday, a lone wolf watches us from shore. Otherwise, there is nothing here. The trees bend over, stubby and windswept. Little wildlife lives here, and no signs of other people exist. A whale surfaces near us. Roy thinks it is a harbor whale, as it looks like a dolphin on steroids, with a small dorsal fin. Our campsite is a long carry over sharp rocks, definitely zero stars. There are really no good campsites on the outside of Banks. Sand flies also infest our campsite, which we did not truly comprehend when we run into them. They seem to act like gnats in that they land on you but don’t bite. We later discovered that they are biting us and sucking our blood, and that they have left itchy welts as bad as mosquitoes. They have a single-minded determination to steal our blood, and they are not even distracted by death as we snub them out with our fingers and thumbs. Sand flies are evil. I make couscous with limpets, nori and kelp with a garnish of sea lettuce. When I clean the limpets (it is more trouble than it is worth for such small tidbits of meat), I am amazed to see how quickly crabs and little fishes come in the struggle over the bits of meat on the limpet shells as I drop them into the water. It only rained for a few minutes today.

Day 5: Wreck Islands to South Banks (23 miles, 8 hours)

It rains all day. To get off our beach, all three of us carry each kayak over slippery rocks to the water, and we load the kayaks while knee deep in water as there is really no beach on which to stand. We also get some real wind and waves today, so we really get the outer coast feel. There are very few beaches, although we run across a huge wide creek that seemed totally out of place in this desolate area. We fill up with water. We have seen nobody for three days. We camp on a sand beach where water seeps out of the sand from a creek somewhere back in the woods. We camp above the water seeps, but below the drift logs at the top of the beach. On the water, I barely keep warm with my wool shirt and short-sleeve rashguard underneath my drysuit. I occasionally wear a Reed balaclava to keep my head warm, and this helps. I go to sleep at 8:30, two hours before it gets dark. My usual bed time is probably about 9pm.

Day 6: South Banks to Campania (28 miles, 9.25 hours)
I saw a mink on the beach at breakfast. I am eating oatmeal to celebrate that it is not raining. I eat oatmeal for some breakfasts and granola for others. Both Andrew and Roy eat only cold breakfasts of granola or muesli for the whole trip.

We cross over to Trutch Island, then through a sheltered passage to the south called Langley Passage. It is a totally different world in here. We feel like we are kayaking on a lake. The trees are not windblown like those on the outside coast. Two sports fisherman speed by in their boats. The area feels like the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota except for the occasional piece of kelp floating past us. We eventually come out into Estevan Sound and cross to Campania Island to the east. Here we camp on a large wide sandy beach with a stream and a dripping waterfall where we bathe and shave. During dinner, we see a cruise ship head up Estevan Sound. I bet they’re not serving kelp-a-roni on the cruise ships, as I like to call my kelp-enhanced macaroni and cheese. Sand flies eat us alive on this beach, and follow us into the bay in the morning. My neck is all bumps.

Day 7: Campania to Clifford Bay (31.5 miles, 8 hours)
Crossing Caamano Sound to Aristazabal Island (7nm or so), we see many humpback whales. A group of five crosses in front of us a couple hundred yards away, then one after another, they each lift their tail in the air and dive for the bottom. We see more whales on the north side of Aritstazabal, but the tidal currents are pulling us west around the outside of Rennison Island. We wander through the islets offshore from Aristazabal when we come across fishermen in a boat moored to a buoy, halibut fishing. I joke about getting out my beer net in hopes of getting a beer from these guys. We talk with them and they offer us an 8 pound coho. We say yes. We chase after some humpbacks for a while before landing on a beach to butcher the salmon. Andrew names me “Skinner”, as I fillet the salmon while they make a hot couscous lunch and humpbacks tease us from just offshore. I cube half the salmon and save it for dinner. It is nice to leave all the blood and guts here at our lunch camp away from where we will be sleeping tonight.

After lunch, we catch a favorable wind and ebb current, and we fly down the coast to Clifford Bay. Providence rewards us with a beautiful camping spot on an island spit with no bugs! I call Kathy on the satellite phone to say hi. We are making very good progress, and despite a bit of rain, the weather (i.e. wind) has been good and the currents favorable so far.

Day 8: Clifford Bay to Kayak Bills (16.5 miles, 5.5 hours)

After a couple hours of kayaking today, I feel dead. I suggest we take the afternoon off rather than make a 6nm crossing to Price Island, and Andrew and Roy quickly agree. We spend some time searching for a reasonably camp spot on the south tip of Aristazabal, and by chance we find a small sandy cove that seems perfect. Roy spots a windbreak in the bushes, and when we investigate, we discover that this one of Kayak Bill’s campsites.
(See Sea Kayaker magazine October 2005 for article on Kayak Bill, who used to winter out in these parts and died in 2004). There is a windbreak, planks for a bed, a few shelves, a fire bit, and a pile of mussel and clam shells. Floats mark a path into the woods which when followed lead to a small watering hole where he got his fresh water. We are excited to find this small piece of history.

I rest in the heat of the afternoon inside my tent eating peanut M&Ms. The sun is strong. Andrew still has tons of food, and feeds me cheese and chocolate. I am still eating much more than I expected, and my original twenty days of food has dwindled by half. There are still bugs, and Roy and I dress in mosquito netting, and we try wearing latex gloves to keep sand flies off of our hands. I imagine Andrew standing next to us in our hazmat suits saying: “And I thought you said this was a super-fun site…”.

Day 9: Kayak Bill to Dallas Island (28 miles, 8.5 hours)

We cross Laredo Sound between Aristazabal and Price Islands early in the morning. Fog conceals Price Island, but we stay on a compass bearing and the fog burns off by the time we get there. We cut through Higgins Passage, where we encounter a group of three Canadian women kayak camping who have been out here for two weeks. They are the first kayakers of our whole trip (and we will see only one other couple out here kayaking before we finish our trip). We leave Higgins Passage and cross along the back of Milbanke Sound. We see whales in the distance, but never get close. Whales seem to like these sounds between the ocean and the inlets to the inner islands. We also see the BC ferry go by for the first time, as we are finally reconverging with the Inside Passage route taken by the ferries and most cruise ships up to Prince Rupert and Alaska.

On Dallas Island we find nice sandy beaches all the way to low tide and beautiful panoramic views. There is also a Kayak Bill site in the trees here behind the beach, and it has many tarps over it and lots of trash strewn around. I am sure that this site has been used and abused by campers in the years since Kayak Bill died. It is in our guidebook, and easy to find by the casual kayaker, so it does not generate in us the excitement that the site that we found yesterday did. A trail leads off into the woods. Andrew and I follow it across mossy wood planks over skunk cabbage and past a culturally modified tree. It looks like it takes a tour of the island. We camp on an islet facing Dallas Island that also has a beautiful sand beach and faces windward (no bugs!). My tent is dry for the first time when I wake up in the morning. It normally has condensation all over it, even on nice mornings.

Day 10: Dallas Island to Gosling Island (33 miles, 9.75 hours)

Today is a long day, so we get up at 4:30am launch by 6am. We kayak down the coast and take a “shortcut” between Athlone and Dufferin Islands. It is marked with two tidal rapids and we are interested in seeing what that entails. We hit the first tidal rapids about three hours after low tide, and it is still ebbing. There is maybe a thirty foot rapids and a one foot rise over a few rocks. We pull over and tie a leash to our boats, and then pull them through. Lots of amazingly beautiful sea life is visible here. It reminds me of Burnaby Narrows in the Queen Charlotte Islands. I pull sea slugs and funny little insect-like critters off the rocks and play with them.

We cross the lake behind the rapids, then hit the rapids on the other side just as it is turning. Farther on we run into a brief current against us that is starting to generate small whirlpools in the eddies, but soon afterwards. The currents in this area are strong and varied. We exit the narrow channel back into the ocean again, having successfully navigated our rapids up and down.

Next, we make an open crossing to the McMillan Islands, and wind and swell make it very exciting. The combined swell is running at four to five feet, and we are getting tossed around some, just enough to make it fun. On the east side of McMillan is a beautiful sandy-bottomed lagoon with sandy beaches. It is a definite must-see. We island hop through this island group, then make another 2nm crossing to Goose Island and down its inside coast to Gosling Island. Another couple is already camped on the sand spit on which we were planning to stay. There is enough room, but Roy really likes having his own space, so we camp around the corner on another less scenic beach. There is no real shortage of sandy beaches in this area. We are in the Hakai Recreation Area now, and I can see why this area is popular with kayakers. The beaches are all sandy and beautiful, and the weather has certainly improved since we were up north, too.
A large family is also camped on a beach across from us, having sailed in on a large catamaran. It feels crowded. We plan to do a shorter day tomorrow, so Andrew demands that we sleep in until 6:30. We all agree.

Day 11: Gosling Island to Wolf Beach (25 miles, 6.5 hours)

We leave Gosling to make a crossing of Queens Sound, and the northwest wind beckons us to turn and run downwind. We cross diagonally downwind and make very good time, so good, in fact, that we decide to paddle all the way to Wolf Beach today. We stop for lunch at a beach I call Lumber Jack Beach, although it will definitely not make it into any guidebooks any time soon. Logs completely fill the rocky shore and are floating in the water when we land. During our stay, the tide rises and more logs start floating. We struggle to get back into our kayaks amongst the floating logs and get off the beach. Wandering through the Hunter Island Group, I imagine that this would be a good area to explore for an intermediate kayaker. You can poke your head out into the ocean if you want, but there are many islands and islets to explore and retreat behind if the weather gets rough. There is also a resort near here where one could plan a one night stay in the middle of your trip to freshen up. We see a few sea otters, as we have the last couple days. They seem to show up in ones or twos here and there.

I was awed when we made it to Wolf Beach. Earlier clouds have burned off, leaving a hot sun, and the water was crystal clear. Tiny, clear surf waves lapped the beach, which curved in an arc for a full mile. And we are the only people here. Sweet! I head to find a creek down the beach to wash myself and my clothes. Andrew and Roy change into their South Seas beach attire. There are wolf tracks on the beach in spots.

Roy tries signaling me with his signal mirror when I am lounging and he is down by the creek. It works great and is almost blinding. The ACR signal mirror has some extra features that make it easy to aim and use, and it definitely attracts attention. I might need to get one.

We see a wolf in the morning after we launch.

Day 12: Wolf Beach to Kelp Head (33 miles, 11.5 hours)

Our trip around Dublin Point was difficult and bouncy. The waves bouncing off the cliffs are causing klapotis. Current and wind are against us now, and all we have are memories of the sun. We struggle along the coast and stop for a break after realizing that we have been going only one mile per hour. A little further south, however, the current lets go of us, and later the wind dies down. We pull into Grief Bay on the south end of the island in a misty, calm fog. Andrew suggests we push on across the Sound, and after a few snacks and a rest, Roy and I agree. The weather report tomorrow is for headwinds, so we decide to get the long crossing out of the way now. We cross 6nm in a growing mist, losing sight of the opposing shore a few times. A humpback whale surfaces some distance off, then surprises us by later surfacing 30 yards to my right. We are three miles from the nearest land. We approach Kelp Head and watch the serious wave action going on. The swell is bigger now, maybe 5 feet, but it is a soft low frequency wave that exhibits the same sense of calmness that is in the air. We head south a few kilometers to a campsite that John Walpole camped in a few years before when he did his trip up here (Roy has marked many campsites on our charts for easy reference).

Day 13: Kelp Head to Shelter Bay (33 miles, 9.5 hours)

Today we round Cape Caution. It is located in a spot where different current converge, and several of the beaches near it can become closed out by large swell, so it can be a little tricky at times. We try to time our rounding of the Cape at slack, but due to a small head wind, we are slow. We slog through the headwind and the start of a flood current against us until we reach the Cape and catch a different flood, going our direction this time, down Queen Charlotte Strait. We ride it while it lasts, then push our way onward to Shelter Bay, where rain and sand flies greet us on the beach for our going away party. Wet sand is evil, and gets into everything, but I don’t care much any more. Port Hardy lies a few island hops to the south across Queen Charlotte Strait, and we will be there tomorrow.

Day 14: Shelter Bay to Port Hardy (21 miles, 6 hours)

We wake up early, 4am and head out. The ebb current runs strong in spots, but we are mostly traveling perpendicular to it, so it does not become too much of a problem. As we reach the main channel at 7am, two cruise ships pass by. They were probably heading out of Port Hardy this morning. They quickly disappear, as they move at 20 knots. We cross all the channels without incident.

We pull up at a familiar beach in Port Hardy, just beside the Seagate Motel where we stayed two weeks ago, and also a short walk from the Odyssey Sea Kayak shop where the owners are watching our car. Andrew goes to get the car while we unload all of our now very wet-looking gear. Only 10 more hours of driving now and we are home.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

I just came back from a boat trip to Campania Island and made a short video of the white sand beaches: