The Trip That Wasn’t (Part 1)

August 13, 2001

Just getting to the put-in at Prince Rupert from Vancouver has proven to be an epic. I’d driven up from Vancouver to Port Hardy and camped at the Wildwood Campground. The Port Hardy to Prince Rupert ferry which was supposed to leave at 7:30AM on Sunday, August 12, had engine troubles. On the plus side, this meant I didn’t have to get up at 4:30AM to hike from the campground to the ferry terminal. Having driven over to the terminal at 7:30 and dropped my kayak and equipment, I drove back to the campground to park my car long term, and caught a lift back to the terminal in the RV of a friendly Dutch family I’d been chatting with the evening before. 

As it happened, we didn’t board until 9AM. On the plus side, this gave me time to locate a good Samaritan in the parking lot, who used his compressor to top up the tires of my kayak wheels, which I’d just noticed were dangerously flaccid and threatening to peel off the rims as I rolled. We finally set sail at 1PM.

A bit after 10PM, I unrolled my Therm-a-Rest and sleeping bag on the aft deck and got some spotty sleep. Part way through the night, the captain announced on the tannoy (or perhaps the “annoy”?) that the space station was visible overhead. And so it was, amazingly bright as it tracked from west to east above us.

Later, we sailed through fog, so the whistle was sounded every few minutes. All very poetic and nautical, but not conducive to sleep. But every so often, clear vortexes would open in the fog on the west side of the boat, providing tantalizing glimpses of high purple peaks. I knew then that at some point I would have to paddle this area. (And so I would, years later, on my circumnavigation of Princess Royal Island.)

It wasn’t until after 5AM that we landed in Prince Rupert. I wasn’t going to put to sea swaying with fatigue, so I hit the campground here, and spent the day sussing out a put-in at the public dock, entering likely waypoints in my GPS, and doing laundry. (I must have looked a bit eccentric: with everything else in the wash, I was sporting shorts, my bug jacket and my “Beau Geste” kapi/sunhat. Good thing small remote communities are havens for lots of colourful characters.) On the plus side, the weather and tide are good for tomorrow’s departure.

August 14, 2001
If I believed in omens, I’d have thought this was a bad one: I’d wheeled my boat to the public dock and parked it as I worked out where to bring it down the ramp to the floats. As I was scouting the floats for a free place to slip the boat in the water, I heard a terrific bang from up on the pier. On investigation, I found a fisherman had somehow missed my bright yellow and orange kayak sitting high on its wheels, and backed his pickup into it at a good clip. I couldn’t see any damage beyond a scrape on the gelcoat, but I still asked for his license and insurance. He was reluctant at first, probably because he was swaying and apparently under the influence (so he’d either started imbibing really early, or just carried on from the previous evening.) It took the threat of calling the cops to get him to hand over his info (fortunately there was a payphone on the pier, so it wasn’t an empty threat, even in this pre-cellphone era.)

Despite all this, I got underway at 10:30AM, just on time to catch a falling tide south of the grain terminal. Just beyond this, I passed through a (coal?) terminal with two massive feed loaders that pivot like guns through an arc of about 45 degrees on railway wheels.

I landed at Kitson Island Marine Park for lunch at 11:30AM, and set off for the Lawyer Islands about 14:00, arriving there just before 16:00. The weather was calm and overcast, with good visibility and the occasional glimpse of watery sunshine in the distance.

(Sidebar: I’ve launched from and transited through Prince Rupert many times over the years, and only rarely seen full-on blue sky there. I’m convinced the local Tourist Bureau keeps a squadron of landscape photographers on stand-by and scrambles them like mad whenever there’s an hour or two of sunshine. “Go! Go! Go!”)

As I paddled through the Lawyer group, I began to wonder about whether I would find a campsite easily. The shores were steep, the beaches mostly large rocks, and all were barricaded with “anti-landing” reefs. With at least 10 foot exchanges, it was tough to find one that would be landable and/or launchable at all stages of the tide.

I carried on to Lamb Point on McMicking Island, hoping the west side of Chismore Passage would have more likely places. Running down the Passage, both the current and wind were with me, so I deployed my sail*. As I coasted along, I glimpsed a single porpoise and a lot of salmon jumping.

* I was using a home-brew version of a scaled-down Spirit Sail, ⅔ the size of the then-standard Spirit Sail. These great V-claw kayak sails are sadly no longer made.

I sailed up onto a beach of flat stones at N54°03.669’ W130°19.694’. It was perfect – steep enough that it wouldn’t be a hike to launch at low tide, and with a ledge in the shells just wide enough for my tent and boat. I anchored the tent to shrubs and two mesh bags filled with rocks.

While it was warm enough, I wandered naked to let my body air out after a day in the wetsuit. (I wouldn’t mind having an athlete’s body at the end of this trip, but not athlete’s foot and similar crotch rot.)

As I was loading the shotgun* for the first time on this trip, the first shell hung up, jamming the receiver and the action. I was annoyed at the prospect of lugging around something so heavy and bulky for the rest of the trip, without it having any defensive use beyond being a poorly balanced club. But a bit of oil and jiggling ejected the jammed shell, and I was able to load it fine. 

*I’m aware guns aren’t standard equipment for many sea kayakers, but 1. I was travelling solo. 2. I was still working through my “issues” from this misadventure. I haven’t carried a gun on any kayak trips in years now. 

As I answered nature’s call on the beach in the night, each tiny wave breaking on the shore glowed with bioluminescence. I skipped a few stones across the water just for the joy of watching them flare.

August 15, 2001

A very long, but very full day. I awoke to mist – like being inside a cloud. The air was motionless, the water in Chismore Passage millpond smooth. Only this silence let me hear the soft “chuff” of a pair of porpoises exhaling as they passed. Even in the glass-calm water, they surfaced and dove without leaving a ripple on the surface – like movie ghosts vanishing through walls. 

Further down the passage, I watched a brace of deer on the shore, one trotting normally, the other bounding along as though on built-in pogo sticks.

I threaded my way through Kelp Passage to Oona River, arriving there about 15:00. As I noshed on a late lunch of nan bread and cream cheese, I chatted with a couple on the sailing boat Ocean’s Child. They’ll be heading more or less in the same direction I will and will keep an eye out for me.

Shortly after lunch, I landed at a beach and river about ¾ of a nautical mile NE of Swede Point. However, it was one of those rocky, barnacally beaches with a long shallow approach. The upland sites were hopeless and I was not confident the beach wouldn’t flood completely at high tide. So I pressed on for Alpha Bay. The sky had cleared to blue by now, accompanied by increased wind and small whitecaps which occasionally swept my deck. Until I cleared Swede Point, the refracting seas were choppy.

I sailed briefly with the sail handheld, but since the wind and seas were a bit off my course, I didn’t step the mast into its holder for fear of being broached.

Just inside the northern point of Alpha Bay, I spotted a perfect pocket beach of cobbles, steep enough to launch and land unhindered and with a safe upland tent site. I decided this would be my home for the night, regardless of what Alpha Creek looked like, since this seemed less bear-attractive. 

I did have to make an excursion to Alpha Creek for water though. As I paddled in, I spotted a flicker of movement, which proved to be a bear cub. I stopped in my kayak, wondering where Moma was. Sure enough, Junior bawled a bit and Mom shuffled out of the trees. They set about grazing on the grass and enjoying the sunshine. I snuck ashore on a sandbank just on the opposite side of the creek and grabbed my SLR with the telephoto lens (and the bear spray.) As I snapped away, a second cub emerged from where he’d been hidden below the creek bank, making me glad I hadn’t inadvertently gotten between mom and her other child. 

The family eventually ambled back into the forest – with one cub taking a route along the underside of a fallen tree bridge, apparently just for the sheer joy of hanging from his claws. After what I judged to be a suitable wait, I moved up the creek to fill my water bags, calling “Hey bear!” at regular intervals.

It was after 19:00 by the time I landed back at my chosen beach. I supped on Spaghetti Pesto Stir Fry. At dusk, the mosquitos arrived in mighty squadrons, but I retreated to the safety of the tent, where I’m writing this.

August 16, 2001

A very long, very full day with lots of ups and downs. I woke a bit before 7AM. It was misty with some light rain, and wind from the SE (that is headwinds for my intended direction of travel) all as predicted by the VHF weather channel.

I fortified myself with a breakfast of hot millet and coffee, postponing my launch until about 11:30 when I estimated that at least the current would be with me down the channel. By hugging the shore, I was able to stay in the lee of the wind some of the time. Just before Comrie Head, I had to slip across a seiner’s net where it was tied to the shore – after checking with the “outman” in his skiff that I wouldn’t be interfering with their fishing operations.

The tide rips shown on the chart turned out to be inaccurate – or at least incomplete: for at least a mile east of Comrie Head, I passed through rips, with standing waves like the serrations on a giantanic liquid knife. In places, they were overlaid with clapotis, making for some very intricate seas and interesting paddling. But it’s confidence-building as I power steadily through the dancing water.

On the upland between Comrie Head and Captain Cove, I spotted a wooden cross nailed to a tree “R…………something, Mark 1995, asleep in the arms of ………..”

I reached Captains Cove about 15:00. The logging operation mentioned in the cruising guide had gone, but the scars from it remained. As I paddled into the river, I thought to myself “I must keep a lookout for bears.” I’d no sooner completed the thought when I spotted a large, lone adult bear on the river bank. I had to paddle into a shallow intertidal zone to access the fresh water, and the tide level had dropped noticeably when I returned to the kayak a few minutes later. Even walking it to deeper water, I scraped it a few times on shell-covered rocks. Still, better a little lost gelcoat than being benighted in a beary estuary.

I explored the three little bays south of Captain Cove in search of a campsite (I had promised myself I would make this a short paddling day). But a complete dearth of landable/campable sites forced me to carry on paddling until just before 20:00. My reactions to this are mixed: while I am actually paddling, my morale is high, despite strong opposing current and wind. But once I landed at what approaching darkness dictated had to be my campsite (N53° 44.903’ W 130° 12.181’) I am seized with nausea and despair. I have to remind myself that not every day will be this long.

There were no possible sites in the trees, and high tide was not due until 00:20, and I was not confident the little strip of beach would not flood completely. So after eating dinner, I put everything but the tent and sleeping bag back in the kayak and tethered it securely to a tree. As I write this at 23:00 I’m on “tide watch” like King Canute. As soon as I’m sure the tide has crested, I’ll set up my tent and go to sleep. Due to the unexpectedly long day and late night, I plan to make tomorrow a rest day. As if in consolation for the long day, the sky is clear and the stars almost supernaturally bright.

August 17, 2001

The tide rose to within inches of my proposed tent site last. The marker stick I planted at midnight was its furthest point of advance.

As I consulted the tide tables this morning for tonight’s high tide, I discovered it’s slated to be a foot and a bit higher than last night’s. This put paid to the idea of staying here for a rest day – this will be untenable (untentable?).

The long, boulder-strewn beach between me and the water at low tide meant it was 13:00 and high tide before I launched. As a result of this late start, I had to breast headwinds that had been upgraded from “light to moderate” to “moderate to strong.” By hugging the shore (often paddling under a canopy of tree branches), I avoided a lot of it, and even where sagging branches forced me out into the wind, it was more of a slow plod than a desperate clawing. 

About halfway between Elbow Point and Newcombe Harbour, I spotted an eagle perched only about eight feet above the water. To my delight, while he watched me carefully, he did not fly off, and I could make out every feather and feature on him.

It rained a bit on this final leg, but I had seen the showers coming up the channel, and had time to pull ashore and don my paddling jacket. Just east of McCutcheon Point, I heard the unmistakable waterfall sound of a tide rip, formed, I assume by the rock marked 25 on the chart. By hugging the shore, I was able to dodge it. 

Just after 16:00, I turned into the calm, misty magic of Newcombe Harbour. After some exploration, I settled on the little islet near the entrance as the best camping option. I found a sort of kayak run not too blocked by boulders. In the upland were traces of improvised shelters, including the rags of blue poly tarps. I prodded gingerly at one rolled section of tarp, not certain it might not contain a body.

I found a small but duff-padded tent site (N53°42.972’ W130°05.367’). As I set up camp, I heard the rattle of an anchor chain out on the water. Shortly afterwards, a skiff landed with a couple of men and a boy and a girl. They’d been setting out crab traps while waiting for a fishing opening for their seiner. I was glad of their company.

Later, just past 22:00 hours, the rain sprinkled gently on the outside of the tent as my candle lantern bathed the inside in a warm glow. By its cozy light, I was updating this journal, when suddenly a wolf pack broke into full chorus only a few hundred yards away. The pitch and quality of their song is hard to put into words, but it is thrilling and haunting – making the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Definitely one of those life moments you will remember on your deathbed.

August 18, 2001

A brutally long day, and not by choice.

I dozed in, and was pleased to find it was still only 8AM when I quit the sleeping bag. What with bathing, refueling and cleaning the stove and the steep launch site (I actually rigged a handline to prevent falls on the slippery rock as I portaged cargo to the kayak), I wasn’t underway until noon.

For the first couple of hours, the current was against me, but the air was so still the eddylines were clearly visible, so locating the backeddies was easy. Plus, the floaters and streamers of bull kelp acted as windsocks, pointing out the easiest paths through the deep and emerald water.

I began looking for campsites quite early in the day – about 16:00hrs, when I was near Allcroft Point. I found one small site on a beach, but could not be sure it would not flood with the 2AM tide, so I carried on. From this point on, I checked every inlet, growing increasingly concerned and desperate as it got later and later. I could find nothing but brutal landings and impenetrable undergrowth. The prospect of spending the night in the kayak was a bleak one. 

In the end, I had to make the decision to “bivy” in a little inlet on Tangent Island (N 53° 34.22’ W129° 56.39’). With no room for the tent, I’ve been forced to cut a bit of underbrush (good thing I had a folding saw) and rig my tarp as a sort of cave. I’ll be just as happy if it doesn’t rain, and I don’t think I’ll be tempted to loiter – the ground where my sleeping pad will go is lumpy and uneven.

This was another evening where it was hard not to despair. I had to remind myself it was better than spending the night at sea. To raise morale, I treated myself to the freeze-dried sweet and sour shrimp (very tasty, and I’ve saved some for lunch tomorrow) and I’ve lit the candle lantern. Of course I have my headlamp as “task lighting” but the soft orange glow of the lantern is very cheering.

Mysteriously, I have not been able to receive the weather channels on my VHF radio today. When it first happened in the morning, I attributed this to being in a “radio shadow” in Newcombe Harbour, but the problem persists tonight. Oh well, I’m going to try to lose myself in the book Galileo’s Daughter and have a better day tomorrow.

August 19, 2001

It did rain last night and this morning – considerably. I slept fitfully if at all. In the middle of the night, I tossed the contents of my pee bottle over the bank of my little perch and was startled to hear them splash into water. I had thought I was being overly cautious moving all my impedimenta either up onto the bank or into my tethered kayak, but not so: what had been my kitchen for supper was now beneath several inches of water. 

Having woken to a gray and rainy day, I briefly debated staying over, but another sleepless night, with my clothing and sleeping bag getting relentlessly damper and damper did not seem wise. Instead, I converted my bedroom tarp to a kitchen and had a hearty breakfast of real fried potatoes and freeze-dried cheddar scrambled eggs. This took time, but it mattered not, since the beach was unlaunchable until 13:00hrs.

Once underway, I ran down the east side of Sine and Cosine Islands and around the west side of Azimuth. Here, a porpoise changed course to come and check me out. It was very cheering to see a fellow warm-blooded creature, even one wearing a permanent wetsuit. As I got to the south end of Azimuth, I spotted what I briefly took to be another sea kayaker on the water – but the lack of visual references had distorted my sense of scale – on closer approach, it proved to be a seagull hitching a lift on a driftwood log. Not far off, I spotted a seal napping in a nest of bull kelp fronds. 

From Azimuth Island to Foul Point, the wind was either absent or with me; once I rounded Foul Point, true to its name, I faced headwinds and rain.

Determined not to repeat yesterday’s and last night’s exhausting experience, I began looking for campsites very early in the day. I found one on an islet at N53° 29.514’ W130° 00.115’. It has a steep beach, which is good, as I’d like to get an early start tomorrow, regardless of tide state, and beat the afternoon headwinds. “My” island offers a fairly lumpy site for my tent, but to be able to set it up at all is great compared to last night’s tarp-only site.

I rigged the tarp over my kitchen site on the beach (it is, unsurprisingly, raining) and had a fire. Lighting it took a couple of attempts and will make my clothes smell of smoke for the duration of the trip, but it was so good to have some source of heat external to myself – it’s been quite cold today.

I’m still unable to receive the weather channels on my VHF. I took the radio out of its waterproof bag (which has no obvious leaks) and open the radio hatches – no damage that I can see. I’m debating about calling out to the Coast Guard for a radio check, but I’m concerned that if I was only able to transmit intermittently, the message might get garbled, resulting in a worrying phone call  from the Coast Guard to Leanne at home. 

The second part of this trip report is here.

1 thought on “The Trip That Wasn’t (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Trip That Wasn’t (Part 2) | Kayakwriter's Blog

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