Shoulder season on the Sound: Hotham Sound


September 30, 2021

During the drive to Earl’s Cove, heavy rain showers coated the winding road with sheets of water a centimeter deep at times. It was uninspiring, but by the time we arrived at the ferry terminal, it had cleared.

As we approached Saltery Bay on our second ferry ride of the day, we could see Freil Falls (AKA Harmony Falls) in the distance off the starboard side. Shortly afterward, the ferry crew announced whales cavorting off the port side. I snapped a couple of photos of the “you can’t quite make it out, but this black blur is a whale” variety.

The Falls in the distance
A humpback whale spyhops in the distance

By the time we’d landed it was late afternoon. Packing the boats for the first time on any trip always involves a couple of hours of faffing about, especially when you have to go park the car several hundred meters from the put-in after offloading. So we opted to car camp at Mermaid Cove that night, and make a single hop, all by daylight, to our intended destination at Elephant Point the next day.

October 1, 2021

What with a hearty breakfast and all the shuttle logistics, it was 12:30PM by the time we launched from Mermaid Cove. We landed an hour later at the Fairview Bay cabin for a pee and snack break. Half an hour later we were on our way again.

Launching from Mermaid Cove
The hut at Fairview Bay, the southernmost cabin on the Sunshine Coast Trail.

As on previous trips, both Rhian and Melissia were paddling faster than me. Partially ‘cause I’m a couple of decades older, and partially because I was paddling my slower Tyee, having lent my Etain to Melissia for this trip. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!)

Shortly after leaving Fairview Bay the wind picked up enough for me to deploy my secret weapon – my Spirit Sail – and keep pace with them while paddle-sailing. It was wonderful for the ten glorious minutes it lasted until the wind died. Oh well, at least it gave Rhian a photo op. Besides, as we will see later, I had another trick up my drysuit sleeve.

Sail if you can; paddle if you must.
’round into the Sound: looking northeast up Hotham Sound

As we crossed St Vincent Bay and rounded Elephant Point, Melissia was moving at a pace that would have let her tow a waterskier up on plane.

Melissa does Warp 9 with Freil Falls in the background.

I’d estimated three and a half to four hours travel time from Mermaid Cove to the camp on the northeast side of Elephant Point, and was childishly delighted when we landed at 16:00, bang on the low end of my window.

This left us lots of daylight to rig our tents complete with overtarps and to hang a kitchen/dining room tarp from the frame of the outfitter’s kitchen. (An online search had suggested the commercial tours that used to use this site haven’t run a trip in a couple of years, so we’d been confident we wouldn’t be in conflict with other users on a shoulder season weekend, and so it proved.) The frame fit my Guide’s Tarp as though custom-made for it.

In camp at Elephant Point, Hotham Sound, BC.
Tent and tarp make a cozy home

October 2, 2021

As expected, rain in the night. I managed to time my morning hair wash and toilet run during dry spells.

As I was setting up my gravity water filter after a run to the creek, I happened to glance down into the metal sink the outfitters had installed as part of their setup. Next to the filter-blocked drain, a tiny mouse was huddled into an unmoving crouch. I blew gently on him several times and he did not stir, so I’d assumed he was already dead. But when Melissa fished him out on the edge of a paddle blade, he stretched weakly. We set him down in the bush hoping he might yet make it, but when we checked later, he lay rigid on his back, all four paws in the air. So sad to think of him falling into the sink, scrabbling desperately to get out, then eventually curling up to die of hunger and exposure, the tiny heart beating ever slower as the spark of life ebbed.

On a much happier note, we feasted on a superb brunch of homemade hash cubed potatoes, corned beef and eggs. Pro tip: if you want to eat like royalty on a paddle trip, be sure your crew includes a former pro chef like Melissa.

Better than Denny’s!

With the rain falling in a way the Irish would call “soft”, we suited up for a daytrip across to the falls. They were hugely impressive, even more so from close up. Rhian and I agreed they had to be at least a Class 5+, given the limited opportunities to eddy out on the way down river.

Approaching Freil Falls, AKA Harmony Falls, Hotham Sound.
Freil Falls. For a sense of their scale, each of those sea kayaks is about 17 feet long.

After an impromptu onwater lesson in compass navigation with me showing Rhian and Melissa how to use “paddle shaft” sliding to determine a magnetic course back to camp, and how to transfer that to the deck compass, we paddled north along the east side of the Harmony Islands. As we rounded the north end of the archipelago, we spotted what we took to be the provincial campsite there, and congratulated ourselves on having a much better site at “home” with easier launching and landing, and more tent/tarp space.

Heading northeast along the Harmony Islands, Hotham Sound, BC.
Sea kayak navigation: a brief stop in the rain to confirm the bearing back to camp.

As we approached landfall back at camp, I was rather less far behind than usual. Just offshore, Melissa glided up, fixed me with a gimlet eye and asked “You were doing that trick of yours again, weren’t you?” Yes, yes I was. The trick was waiting until the bright colours of our tarps were visible out to sea, noting the bearing to them on my deck compass, and using the changing bearing to determine we were being swept to port. I’d ferried right until the bearing to the tarps stayed constant. As a result, I’d been paddling more or less a straight line to camp, while Rhian and Melissa had gone in an arc to port and covered a greater distance. Oh well, even so, they were still a bit ahead of me, so we old folks are entitled to use whatever tricks we can to even the odds!

The camp from seaward.
Into the bay.

We warmed up with rum-laced hot chocolate. Drink in hand, I sat and contemplated the cool, cloudy view up the sound, enjoying the three-part melody of the water: the rapid gurgle of the creek next to our camp, the gentle lap of the waves off the point, and the faint counterpoint hiss of the falls in the distance.

The camp on Elephant Point.
Freil Falls from the camp.

As Rhian converted our dining room into a taco hut for dinner, we could see a black wall of rain coming down the Sound for us. So after a full supper, topped off with hot steamed puddings and custard, we all retreated early to our tents. Pretty painless, given the cozy setup, the good books and the need to be up and on the water early the next day to catch our ferries.

Taco, Belle?
Here comes the rain (and wind)!

October 3, 2021

The massive bouts of heavy rain had played themselves out by the time we were breaking camp by headlamp, so we stayed nicely dry as we suited up and launched into a cool, gray morning.

Ready to launch.

Just west of Culloden Point, we encountered numerous sea lions, all of whom were quite loudly huffy about us transiting their fishing grounds. Fortunately, this didn’t escalate to violence.

A territorial sealion.

The sun came fully out just as we passed the ferry launch. Rather good it hadn’t gone full solar earlier as we were layered for rain under our drysuits, and would have been “boil in bag” paddlers.

The ferry leaves Saltery Bay enroute to Earl’s Cove.

We landed back at Mermaid Cove just after noon, well pleased to have explored new ground – and waters.

The Trip That Wasn’t (Part 2)

August 20, 2001

Though I had set my watch alarm for 6:30AM, when my bladder alarm went off at 3:30AM, the wind was howling fiercely through the trees and the barometer had continued to fall. I switched off the clock alarm and slept in until 8AM – which was fine: as it turns out the wind continues to blow against me and whitehorses gallop north through the passage as far as the eye can see.

Continue reading

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. 

Continue reading

Paddling The Past: A Fishy Tale

All fishers have tales about The Big One That Got Away; here’s mine about The Big One I Was Glad To Let Go.

One summer in the early oughts of this millennium, four of us took the MV Uchuck from Gold River into Nootka Sound, with our sea kayaks as deck cargo. My wife and I were in my double kayak; my buddy Mike had borrowed my single for the trip, and his partner was paddling another single.

Several days into the trip, we were camped on an idyllic beach with a view of the open Pacific. I borrowed back my single boat and set off in search of supper. Since I was after bottom fish, I was using a hand reel and lure, but had no gaff or net — a nearly tragic oversight, as we shall see.

a sea kayak breaks out through surf
Continue reading

Valhalla Warrior: Solo Kayaking And Hiking On Slocan Lake, Part 2

July 12, 2003
I slept until 7:00, clearly tired out after my hike down from the hills yesterday. What with breaking camp and chatting with my neighbours, I didn’t launch until 10AM.

a sea kayaker paddles down a lakeIt was a perfect morning’s paddling. I came across two sunken barges, easily visible in the clear, fresh water. Like shipwrecks in the sea, these old hulks act as reefs and nurseries for life. They swarm with minnows and a few full-grown trout. Continue reading

Paddling The Past: Solo Sea Kayaking Kyuquot Sound, September 1994 Part 2

the mouth of Johnson Lagoon, a tidal inlet

When the weather and my sickness lift, I return to the entrance of Johnson Lagoon. This time, I have scheduled my approach better: like the gate of a fairytale kingdom that opens to only a few, the current admits me. Not wanting to have to wait half a day for the next slack, I leave the lagoon less than two hours later. Already the current is coursing in a strong ebb. It’s with me, but this is a mixed blessing. While I don’t have to fight against it, it also means there is no retreat once I’ve neared the mouth of the lagoon. The virtues of a kayak optimized for touring—its length, straight line speed, and resistance to turning—are liabilities in what is effectively a whitewater river. It’s like doing a downhill slalom on cross-country skis. After a couple of heart-racing minutes, I am flushed out onto the open sea, very glad not to have left my departure any later. Continue reading

Paddling The Past: Solo Sea Kayaking Kyuquot Sound, September 1994. Part 1

A sea kayak makes its way through heavy rain

As I round the tip of Whitely Island into the long Pacific swell, the bow of my kayak lifts like the head of a stallion eager for rolling, open country after miles of narrow trails. The first leg of my solo paddle from Fair Harbour has run through sheltered channels, and my boat seems to welcome a greater challenge. As do I. For the past several hours, the weather has been what the Irish euphemistically call “soft”—meaning it has varied from gently curling mist to torrential downpours that have hissed on the surface of the water like oil on a hot frying pan. Now the clouds have parted, making the final hour of paddling to Rugged Point pleasantly dry.

Continue reading

Sea Kayaking Around Cape Scott, Part 2

A trip from a time before digital photography.

August 25, 1999 We awoke to a mix of blue sky and clouds, and no rain! With a forecast for 15 knot westerly winds, we made the decision to go for rounding Cape Scott today, and got launched about 9:45AM. Even as we crossed Experiment Bight, we could see foam from swells breaking on rocks north of Cape Scott.

Near the north of the cape, Stania was startled by a sea lion surfacing with an explosive snort just behind her. He torpedoed past our bows, glaring back as he paced us. Just then we noticed, in a kelp bed a couple of hundred feet away, the front flippers of numerous sleeping sea lions, presumably our escort’s harem. By this time we’d passed our closest point of approach to the ladies, so as much as one can tiptoe in a kayak, we tiptoed away, while trying to project soothing vibes to the effect of “We have no designs on your wives, lovely and blubbery though they all are, we’re sure.”

Continue reading

Sea Kayaking Around Cape Scott, Part 1

A trip from a time before digital photography.

August 17, 1999 Stania and I were up at 6AM to stow our gear. I dropped her with our kayaks at the Government Wharf in Port Hardy, then bucketed my trusty Escort Wagon over 63 kilometres of logging roads to our takeout on the San Josef River. As arranged, a truck from North Island Transportation picked me up there at 11AM.

Meanwhile, back at the dock, when Stania asked to change in the washroom at the Coast Guard Office, she was welcomed with open arms. She was even invited to take a shower (or perhaps be given one – it wasn’t quite clear). Oddly, when I appeared, I was not offered a shower and only grudgingly allowed to change.

Continue reading


a chart of Benson Island in the Broken Group Islands, British Columbia, with a kayak route shown in red
the route of our rescue

In Canada, the government-required equipment for sea kayaks includes “a buoyant heaving line at least 15 meters long”. In other words, a rescue throwline. I’ve always suspected this requirement was drafted by some well-meaning but ill-informed civil servant who didn’t understand the differences between river and ocean kayaking. Because when I did whitewater paddling, I used my throwline more than once to fish out a buddy who’d had to abandon boat and was being recirculated in a feature that was loathe to spit him out. But I did that from the security of a riverbank. In sea kayaking, if your companion is in the soup, you likely are also. There’s rarely land or a patch of calm water from which to pitch a line. If you’re going to tow someone, it’s usually easier to paddle over and clip in your towline.* In more than three decades of sea kayaking, I’ve used my towline/throwline as a rescue throwline exactly once. And it wasn’t to save a kayaker.

Continue reading