Up at 5AM, on the water for 7:35. At first, I paddled through thick fog that was backlit by the rising sun into a luminous white. It looked rather like a Hollywood effects tech’s idea of “going to heaven.” Heaven or not, the prospect of running the Upper Rapids blind was pretty daunting, but fortunately the fog burnt off as I went.
By deking through back eddies close to shore, I reached the pinch point of the Upper Rapids about half an hour before slack. I sheltered in the calm behind a large rock, watching a six inch overfall and the current still running strongly against me. It seemed so incredible that it would reverse flow in 30 minutes that I dug out my Tides And Currents booklet to double-check my calculations, convinced I’d made a mistake on the timing. But no. So I bided my time, admiring the intertidal life in my little pool.
Like a slow-mo version of Moses parting the Red Sea, the overfall leveled, the current slowed, and within five minutes was flowing the other way (there wasn’t really a period of true slack). I slipped into it and paddled south hastily before it built up too fast in the other direction.
I explored the Octopus Islands. Very pretty, but full of awkward landings and anchored yachts. The boat owners were friendly, but generators were droning steadily. So I watered up and headed over to Francisco Island, which I knew from my fiftieth birthday paddle tour a few years back. As I’d expected, there were other paddlers there, so for the first time on this trip, I shared a campsite. The other group, 4 adults and 2 teens were super-friendly.
With the sun up, I got in a bit of snorkeling, admiring the undersea gardens that flourish along the southeast edge of the island, nourished by the fast-flowing currents.
Later, my neighbours kindly fed me supper (wraps with fresh veggies, yum!) and plied me with gin and tonics.
On past trips I’d been the recipient of group hospitality before and felt badly at not being able to reciprocate, but there’s not much room for low-proof bevies like wine or beer on a long solo tour. So for this trip, I’d cunningly equipped myself with a hipflask of whiskey to share. But when I produced it to offer ’round, the male among my hosts went white and declined. Turned out he’d had the mother of all hangovers on whiskey years before, and the Pavlovian conditioning had yet to wear off. He appreciated the gesture though.
A beautiful, sunny day with the wind from the North. It would have been great for sailing, but during the previous very long days and 4 nights of camping on sketchy sites I’d promised myself a day off and a couple of consecutive nights on a flat site that was unquestionably above high tide. So I hung out and chilled. The group sharing the island left early to get through Hole In The Wall, leaving me in sole possession for bathing, suntanning and sloth. I made an excursion to the Octopus Islands for water to do laundry. Even well below the Upper Rapids and Hole In The Wall, the water was impressively swirly in this spring tide period – which also furnished me with a lovely full moon that evening.
I literally sailed through the tidal rapids at Surge Narrows. The easiest passage yet and a relief to have behind me. No more getting up at weird hours to hit slack water at the various “tidal gates.”
In Sutil Channel, the view was awesome, a 360 panorama of the mountains up and down Vancouver Island and the mainland.
I landed for the day at a very civilized hour: 16:30 at Shark Spit on Marina Island. Though the island is private, the owners graciously allow people to camp here, and it’s clearly a local institution, with lots of yachts and small boats bringing their children ashore with tents, giving the place a friendly family vibe.
After I’d set up camp on the beach, I made my way to the upland towards the outhouse, passing a musical family who’d all brought their violins. As I seated myself, they struck up Vivaldi in the distance, making it quite the most elegant outhouse experience I’ve ever had. Even the five-star restaurants I’ve occasionally snuck into have only recorded classical music in their facilities.
More fantastic views up and down the Strait as I paddled across to Lund, arriving there mid afternoon. What a contrast from the sleepy backwater of 20 years ago: the marina was so crowded I had to hail the Harbour Master on my VHF about a place to dock. They graciously let me use the dingy tie-up for a couple of hours.
I got some groceries, a book, and a new-to-me secondhand skirt from the Powell River Sea Kayak shop, to supplement my leaky old one, then had an early fish-and-chip supper at The Boardwalk restaurant. Lovely.
The cliffy mainland shore around the Dinner Rock campground looked more accessible to commandos than kayakers, and I’d left my grappling hook at home, so I paddled out to the beach on the south end of Savary Island, just a few hundred feet inshore of where I had camped 24 years and 2 kayaks ago, on a trip from Port Hardy to Vancouver. I had a lovely chat with a family there as I waited for the tide to peak so I could make camp.
Up at 5:30, on the water by 7:30 to beat the 30-30 knot winds from the southwest forecast for late morning, which would be sure to flood the low lying beach I had camped on. And a good thing. It had already blown up to pretty spilly by the time I reached the mainland. Also a good thing I had the “new” secondhand sprayskirt or I’d have shipped a serious amount of water on the crossing.
My original plan had been to try and make the Willingdon Campground in Powell River, but that had to be rapidly revised. As I clawed along the shore, I searched for any landable beach that wouldn’t flood out with high tide and storm surge that wasn’t also someone’s front lawn. No luck. I had visions of huddling in the underbrush, hoping no homeowner would set the dogs or the law on me.
Then I clawed my way ’round the next point to see a fleet of RV trailers camped above a gravel beach. I pulled in, and confirmed they’d rent me a tent space. I’d only paddled an hour and a half that day, but as I emerged from my first full-on shower in many days, it was clear I’d made the right choice: the flag by my tent was flying straight out, the water was streaked with whitecaps, and even full-size boats were pitching and digging in their bows as they fought upwind.
Both the owner and the guests at the campground were super-friendly. One hospitable family, the Evans, more or less adopted me for the two days I waited out the wind there: I had breakfast with them one morning, and joined them for the BBQ they threw for their parents 60th wedding anniversary. The place is clearly a Powell River institution: many of the guests have being spending their summers there for generations, and they appoint themselves to do things like mowing the grass.
Also, they had, I kid you not, a beer-vending machine (a hacked soda machine). No fancy microbrews, but pretty much anything tastes OK when it’s cold and two weeks since your last pint. I rapidly revised the trip theme from “Dances With Bears” to “Dances With Beers”.
This picture says more than a thousand words about why I wasn’t on the water today, trying to go south (to the left in the photo).
After 2 days off, I was up at 5:30 and on the water by 7:30. At first the smoke from the stacks of the distant Powell River pulp mill rose reassuringly vertically. But soon the white weather vanes flattened and pointed N/W, heralding the approaching S/E winds. The forecast was grim – up to 25 knot winds developing tonight, the rest of the week unpaddlable or only marginally doable. I could have still made it back to Vancouver, but it would have been steady plodding, with the challenge of finding shelter from the weather on a largely privately owned shore. Besides, I’d paddled that stretch of the Sunshine Coast before; I had nothing to see or prove by doing it again. And I’d get home just before I had to return to work. And the really pretty places between here and Vancouver – the Thormanby Islands, Secret Cove, Keats, the Pasleys and Gambier – I see regularly on weekend getaways anyway.
So just after 10:30AM, I pulled into the Willingdon Creek campground in Powell River and made a call to my wife. If I treated us to a couple of days at a cabin on the coast, would she come fetch me? She would. She’d be there the next day. It’s good to have a personal support/extraction team. All the serious expeditioneers do.
Epilogue: The following evening, I looked out through the living room window of our cabin on the coast onto the darkling water. Wind and rain rattled against the glass and the bay was white with spilling waves. But inside, all was cozy, with my wife and our sheltie keeping me company.