July 9, 2003
The shuttle driver from Smiling Otter dropped me off with my boat and gear at the north end of Slocan Lake at about 13:00 hours. The weather was lovely and sunny.
The first few hundred yards of paddling was past beautiful summer cottages. Beneath the emerald water, I saw what I’m speculating might be Asian Milfoil growing on the bottom – a corkscrewed shape, like a drill or auger. The branches of an evergreen freshly toppled off the bank vanished into the ghostly green depths of the lake. The water was startlingly clear; in the shallower areas, I could see the shadow of my kayak flitting across the lake bottom.
The tent post-attack. Sorry for the shaky picture; I was still pretty shaky myself.
There is nothing quite like the experience of nearly being eaten to make you appreciate how fleeting your position atop the food chain is. In the summer of 1993, I became one of the lucky few to acquire this sort of insight.
Backcountry tourists, as opposed to those who live in the wilderness, seem to fall into two equally simple-minded groups. Those of the old school are convinced that behind every bush, a predator lurks expressly for them. They are barely able to stagger down trails under the burden of rifles and grenade launchers. Late-night forays to answer the call of nature are made perilous by the razor wire and minefields they have used to “secure” the camp perimeter. These folks have delusions about their own importance in the scheme of things. Continue reading →
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 →
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.
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.”
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.
Sometimes we need the temporary comfort of illusions while we come to terms with an unhappy new reality. It`s been two weeks since we had to say goodbye to our beloved shelty Scotia. I’m no longer weeping every day. Most of the time I can deal with the fact that she is gone for good. No more fluffy chest ruff to run through my fingers. No more pitter-patter of little white paws on the kitchen floor. No more cool black rubber nose nuzzling me.
But at other moments, I’m not yet ready. Last week, I stopped by a pond in one of the parks we used to go to with Scotia. Unlike other dogs, she spurned retrieving sticks or balls, but loved to run chest deep into water to bark at the cannonball splashes of thrown rocks. As I sat on a log and looked out over the pond, I became convinced that if I tossed a rock into the water, the splash would work some kind of death-defeating spell, and my little girl would run out barking from behind the nearest tree. I dared not actually throw a rock and expose the fantasy for falsehood.
Yesterday morning, as I drifted in that liminal state between sleeping and waking, I seemed to hear the short, sharp yip that Scotia gave at dawn to signal she was ready to come in from the patio (she preferred to sleep outside, even in rain and snow) and be served breakfast. Surely if I opened the door, she would slip between my feet, ready to lead me to the kitchen. Part of me knew full well this was a dream. The other part clung to sleep as long as I could, reluctant to be torn from that other world where Scotia is still alive.
Although I have a car, both Scotia and I often preferred to travel by bike, with her riding in a kiddie trailer behind me, enjoying full access to all the sights and sounds and smells on the way to and from our walks. When I rode with the trailer for the first time since her death, the familiar heft of its weight behind me made me feel that if I were just to turn my head, Scotia would be there, with that eager shelty smile, tongue lolling in excitement and head cocked to ask “Where are we going today, daddy?” But I did not look, preferring not to shatter the illusion that she was just a few feet away.
I’ve dealt with death before, of both human and animal companions. I know that the time between tears will gradually become longer and longer, and eventually I’ll be able to deal permanently with the fact Scotia is really gone. Someday, I’ll be able to remember her with a fond smile rather than a lump in my throat. But for now, with the wound recent and raw, I sometimes need to take a break from the cold truth and to shelter, at least for a few minutes, under the warm and comforting blanket of make-believe.
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.
Several years ago my wife and I, together with our friend Heidi, completed a circuit of the famous Bowron Lakes Canoe route (though we used kayaks). While we ate excellently overall, one supper was unforgettable not just for its taste but for its after effects. I commemorated the occasion with this pastiche of Robert W. Service’s famous “The Cremation of Sam McGee“.
This series is a response to one reader’s request (It’s nice to know I have at least one reader!) They’re grab bags of trip suggestions and photos from many sea kayak voyages I’ve made through BC’s Gulf Islands over the course of more than two decades. I keep going back, not just because of the islands’ proximity to my home port of Vancouver, but also because they are richly served by a combination of National, Provincial and commercial water-accessible campgrounds.* By mixing up routes and seasons, you can create an infinite variety of voyages. Continue reading →