Trials at Sea

A sea kayak surf mission turns into the ultimate gut-check

After the flood, perfection: Paul Kuthe enjoys the ride. Photo by Phil Tifo.

Words by Bryan Smith // Photos by Phil Tifo

Paul coined the term: surfpedition. We’d camp for a week at the biggest tidal rapids on the west coast of North America, exploring a vast and virtually untapped sea kayak playground. We’d paddle as many strokes as if we were making a weeklong circumnavigation, but this trip was all about play. At least, that was the plan. Less than 48 hours in, our group of five was already facing the kind of gut-check that makes or breaks expeditions.

We walked onto the ferry at Port Hardy for the 15-hour trip to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, nearly 500 miles north of Vancouver. The ship’s thrumming diesels pushed us through a panorama of deep fjords and vast wilderness—the famed Inside Passage. We were bypassing some of the best sea kayaking on the planet to plant ourselves at one giant rapid we knew almost nothing about.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 2009 edition of C&K.

We had timed our trip to coincide with the big tides of a new moon, and on the ferry I painstakingly copied the next day’s tides, the biggest all month: “9:36 -0.5m (low); 16:05 +6.25m (high); 21:40 +1.82m (low); 3:46 +6.96m (high).” With more than 7 meters (21 feet) of tide to be exchanged, we guessed that the rapids could produce currents approaching 20 knots. We had plenty of time to think about that on the ferry north and through a cold bivouac at the ferry terminal, lying on the asphalt next to our fully laden boats. Prince Rupert is the continent’s northernmost port with rail access, and the racket could hardly have been louder if the tracks had run between our sleeping bags.

When a blast from a departing ferry announced first light, we hustled to get on the water. Loaded with a week’s worth of supplies and with limited knowledge of the Butze, it was imperative that we make the 7-mile paddle and establish a secure camp during the slack tide. The start of the flood pushed us out of town, and within an hour we were approaching the handful of small islands that form the constricted channels of the Butze Rapids. We were only a few miles from town, but the place felt wild and remote.

We came ashore on the largest island and quickly began unloading our kayaks. The flood tide was gathering force, bringing to life a glassy green wave. The sun was blazing, and our fear of the unknown had been banished by the reality of epic surf. The surfpedition was on.

Good times; bad bivvy: The crew prepares for some shut-eye. Photo by Phil Tifo.

Our island split the flow into two wide channels full of promising play features, with several smaller channels also beckoning exploration. As the surf session began to wind down, we assessed our camping options. The high ground in the middle of the island was in the center of the action, and though the rising tide was rapidly diminishing the portion of the island still above water, a quick check of the tides I’d copied down on the ferry eased our minds: “16:05 +6.96m (high); 21:40 +1.82m (low); 3:46 +6.25 m (high).” Just after 4 p.m. (16:00), the rising salt water stopped at the edge of a perfect bench of grass ringing a thick grove of fir and hemlock. ‘The tide won’t come that high again for a month,’ I thought. We set up camp, had some food and a few laughs, and crawled into our sleeping bags. Within minutes, the team was out cold.

Dave and Bryan hike up the bank for another go. Photo by Phil Tifo.

AT ABOUT 3:30 I UNZIPPED MY TENT TO HAVE A QUICK PEE. When I put my foot out the door, water came up over my calf. The tent was afloat in a small stream of current. The other tent was in even deeper water.

“Get up!” I yelled. “Get up! We’re floating!” The water was numbingly cold and rising quickly. My screams couldn’t penetrate the team fast enough. They fumbled with their zippers and their sleepy movements quickly turned into controlled panic as they saw the cold seawater rising before them.

The night was utterly black—we had chosen the new moon for its high tides—and a dense layer of fog added to the sense of fear and isolation. The current was accelerating and I couldn’t let go of the thought of being swept into the maelstrom rumbling ominously in the near distance. I knew the immediate danger was hypothermia, so I scrambled into my drysuit and tried to make a plan.

Three of our five kayaks were straining at their tethers in mid-current, completely out of our reach. The small patch of dry ground behind my tent would soon be inundated. A powerful stream of current about 30 feet across had already cut us off from the island’s highest point of land. I had never felt so vulnerable. I knew that the next 10 minutes would be the most critical of the trip, if not our lives.

After the flood, the team dries out what’s left of their gear. Photo by Phil Tifo.

Paul sprang to action, piling gear into one of the two remaining kayaks. I took the other, and we began ferrying supplies to the high ground, while the rest of the team secured what they could. We had to yell to be heard above the thundering tidal water downstream. Nick, standing in water nearly to his waist, was becoming hypothermic. His drysuit had been swept away and after only five minutes, his body was beginning to shut down. Paul again took the initiative. With Nick straddling the back deck of his kayak and holding tight to his torso, Paul executed a textbook ferry to deposit his friend on dry ground, his blades driving in the dim light of Dave’s headlamp.

The bench of grass was now completely submerged, and as I came across for the last salvage load Dave was waiting, the water streaming in wakes from his legs. He had gathered the remainder of our worldly goods onto a pair of Therm-a-Rest camping pads, now pressed into service as miniature lifeboats. We regrouped on the little patch of high ground, stoked a fire and stood around it, glassy-eyed. It was 4 a.m., high tide, and I was in disbelief that we’d been defeated by the flood. It seemed mathematically impossible.

Later I realized that I had miscopied the tide predictions on the ferry. I thought the 16:05 high would be the higher of the day’s two high tides, when in fact the high mark came at 3:46 in the morning—just as predicted.

The forecast was calling for over an inch of rain, and the drizzle had already begun. Our tents were soaked, sleeping bags unusable.

We piled more wood on the fire, Dave began heating some water for tea and Paul pulled out a bottle of Scotch and passed it on. When it came to me I didn’t hesitate. There was nothing left to do but hunker down and wait for daylight.

Skirting the Big One. Photo by Phil Tifo.

Sheets of rain arrived with the morning light, as the ebbing tide created the most fearsome tidal feature any of us had ever seen—a channel-wide hole more than 30 feet from front to back. We could only look on in silence. At that moment, none of us had an appetite for hard paddling. Nick was making a strong case for an early exit. We had lost some critical gear, including two drysuits and two PFDs. And with three days of rain in the forecast, our secondary objective—filming the adventure for an episode of The Season—would be challenging at best. The prudent thing to do was to paddle to Rupert on the next slack tide and take the first ferry south.

The idea appealed to all of us, including me. I’ve faced similar situations in previous expeditions and pulled the plug. That’s how I know that regret lasts longer than hardship and cold. If you can safely go on, and you put forth your best effort, you’ll almost always achieve satisfaction, if not your original objective. Though Paul has never been on a major expedition, I could see in his eyes that he was determined to stay. He was the one who brokered the compromise. We’d paddle back to Rupert and continue the discussion over a hot meal at Breaker’s Pub.

The waitress asked where we had come from, but the story was too long. “Camping,” Dave said. Photo by Phil Tifo.

WE ORDERED BREAKER’S BURGERS ALL AROUND, and the cute waitress asked where we had come from. The stench of campfire smoke had tipped her off, but the story was too much to explain. “Camping,” Dave said, and left it at that. Pints of Guinness came next. By the end of the meal the majority of the group wanted to stay, and Nick was letting himself be persuaded. We moved on to the laundromat, where industrial dryers returned the loft and warmth to our sleeping bags and strengthened our resolve. On the next slack we headed back into the Butze, buttoned down our new camp in the forest and prepared for several days of play.

The Butze Tidal Rapids are complex, with five main islands creating four channels and at least a dozen distinct features. This was great for diversity in play, but also challenging in that all the channels converging on each other created extremely turbulent eddylines and boils. The main feature on the flood was a barreling wave that local whitewater boaters call Hawaii Five-O. Just upstream we found a glassy wave that fit the sea kayaks perfectly. The Butze was messier and less defined than we hoped for at peak flood, but at the start of the cycle we had perfect, glassy rollers to surf.

The ebb was a different story. Littered with intimidating hole-like features, including the horrific channel-wide monster in the main race, the only paddling option was downstream runs. As if we were running a river, we would scout a line through the rapid and then paddle it from top to bottom.

Riding high. Photo by Phil Tifo.

Two days after our restart, Paul, Dave, Nick and I all reached satisfaction. The rain had settled and the flood’s building phase was a bit slower than on the previous days, and a wave began to form in one of the side channels. Paul jumped into his boat and ferried out into the eddy. With a few well-placed strokes, his boat slid softly into the pocket of the wave and the bow dove under. The toggle rattled hard against the hull and Paul looked over and gave the fist pump. He was just flying—flying along the silky smooth water with a huge smile on his face. Without a word said, the rest of the team suited up and joined. We had faced a test of confidence and passed. Our reward was the perfect wave.

— Bryan Smith made the award-winning sea kayaking films Eastern Horizons and Pacific Horizons. He has filmed adventure sports for National Geographic and other broadcast outlets. Phil Tifo is an action-sports photographer from Squamish, B.C. They paddle frequently with Paul Kuthe, Dave White and Nick Jacob, all current or past paddling instructors at Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe in Portland, Ore.

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