Negotiating NootkaKayaking British Columbia’s Vancouver Island
The thing about hard rains is that once they let up—and they must, eventually, let up—when you flip your hood back off your brow the sudden brightness feels a lot like, well … happiness. That’s how it felt to me, paddling in Nootka Sound on the west side of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, after the hardest rain I’d ever paddled through finally eased into a drizzle. The pelting had lasted 15 minutes, and our group of nine kayakers had sat and endured it silently. Or at least it seemed so because the only audible thing was the rain thundering off my anorak hood. I just sat there, drifting in my kayak, mesmerized by the enormous drops splashing an inch above the flat sea’s surface as far as I could see—like a layer of ball bearings laid over the ocean.
Once the rain ended, we looked around at one another with raised eyebrows, bemused at how hard it had been raining, but also at the absurdity of heading out for five days despite a weather report that was making even mossy locals grimace and wish us luck. But if this was the worst our horrible forecast could give us, we’d be fine. We’d have fun, even, nine friends in candy colored red, blue, and yellow kayaks that shone brightly against the forested, cloud-swathed fjords.
Nootka Sound is one of a half-dozen classic sea kayaking destinations on Vancouver Island. An inlet of Tksquare miles sheltered from the lashing waves of the open Northern Pacific, Nootka is replete with islands, protected coves, remote sandy beaches, and thick forests. Bear and wolves roam the shore, whales, sea otters, seals, and sea lions cruise the water. The landscape is typically rugged and beautiful for Vancouver Island, which is to say, very.
Nootka’s human history is similarly rich. The Nu-cha-nulth people lived there for four millennia, subsisting on whale hunting and salmon fishing. Famed British explorer James Cook was the first European to step foot on Vancouver Island when he visited Nootka in 1778, and the sound became the focus of a territorial dispute over otter pelt trading rights in 1789—the so-called Nootka Incident. The native village of Yuquot also gained some fame in that period as the site of the ambush of the American fur-trading ship Boston in 1803. After years of poor treatment at the hands of Europeans, the Nu-cha-nulth living at Yuquot snapped, massacring 25 of 27 crewmembers. The two survivors lived as slaves for three years until they were finally rescued, and a firsthand account of the captivity became a bestseller back in New England.
All of which is why we never really thought of canceling our trip, even when our group of friends first assembled in Campbell River, the nearest town with large supermarkets, and the wind was flipping traffic lights sideways like pennants. Kevin and Adam, two of our group, had overheard one local scoff at another when he went to purchase an umbrella. “That won’t help you much the next few days,” he’d said.
As bad as it seemed, we figured if our trip leader, Mark Hall, was game, then so were we. Mark, a big man with a boyish face and the clipped modesty of so many Canadians, has plied Nootka since 1979. His career there has mirrored Vancouver Island’s economy, moving from the tough labor of resource extraction to a recreation-based economy. He first moved out from Quebec, drawn by the region’s adventure and by work at the sawmill in Tahsis, a town on Nootka’s northwestern end. He met his wife there, “one of three single women in town,” but when the sawmill shut down, they, like many others, made the move to Gold River on the sound’s northeast arm to work in the pulp mill there. Mark realized he’d better start adapting to the changing times and began developing a sideline kayak guiding business. When the Gold River mill closed too, in 1998, the victim of shifting world markets, Mark’s house was “worth about a dollar,” so Mark parlayed his guiding experience into a full time job with kayak manufacturer Seaward Kayaks on the south end of Vancouver Island.
These days, Gold River’s population is half of its 1998 figure, but those remaining have seen a real rise in income from tourism, sportfishing in particular. Guides there charge up to $800 per client per day to go after salmon. Today, Mark is the co-owner of kayak manufacturer Delta Kayaks, but still leads a few trips each fall in Nootka as R&D for his boats, but also because it’s his favorite place to paddle. “When you land on a beach and the only tracks you see are wolf tracks,” he says, “you can’t beat that.”
Under occasional raindrops, we paddled westward into the sound from our put-in at Cougar Creek, an hour drive from Gold River, where we’d organized our gear that morning.
Suddenly, one sea lion and then another surfaced nearby. They were huge, 800-pounders at least; and with the typical menacing forehead crests, easily identified as adult males. The beasts studied us a moment, exhaled audibly, inhaled, and then dove under the rippling surface. Moments later, a shoal of small fish broke the surface en masse, evidently flushed by the sea lions’ predations. Then, a second eruption, this time every fish leaping together toward the left. The rippling splash sounded like deep-frying. Things were looking up.
After another hour and a half paddle we reached our basecamp at the west end of Bligh Island—yes, that Bligh. Captain William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame had been sailing master on famed British explorer James Cook’s third, and fatal, voyage on the HMS Resolution. When Cook put into Nootka for a month midway through the trip for fresh water and repairs, he’d apparently thought enough of the man to name the island where they’d moored after him. Cook also coined the name Nootka, mistakenly believing it to be what the Nu-cha-nulth called the area. While the Resolution was anchoring on Bligh Island, locals in canoes had approached and hollered, “itchme nutka, itchme nutka,” meaning “go around, go around,” directing them to the better anchorage at the village of Yuquot a few miles away.
We hauled the boats ashore at our basecamp—centrally located for day excursions—and began to get situated. The spot was sheltered from the open Pacific by a small group of islands, and from the rain by a thick canopy of fir and cedar overhead. Nonetheless, we spent a good hour that night constructing an awkward-looking, but effective, multi-tarped structure to keep the wind and rain out of the kitchen.
On camping trips, rainy days are slow motion days, and we adapted our pace easily. We slept as late as possible, corralled in our tents by the dripping of rain on the flys. I took the opportunity to burrow deeper into my bag to catch up on sleep. Eventually, that second morning, the sun managed to break through the clouds for an hour, and the whole group of us flung ourselves down on the gravel beach in the direct sunlight, casting off our crinkly raingear for what we knew could be a single occurrence that week. Once the clouds moved in again in the late morning, we were ready for a paddle, and by the time we were swathed in our paddling gear and buttoned into the kayaks, the returning rain wasn’t much of a bother. We happily explored the small islands to the west of camp and probed a deep inlet in the center of Bligh Island. There, the water was littered with cedar needles knocked off the trees by the windstorm we’d seen in Campbell River.
When we returned to camp that evening, we noticed that several small fishing boats had anchored in the protected water between our campsite and the adjacent islands, clearly hiding from whatever was about to blow in. “That’s not a good sign,” said Mark. “We’re sitting here at the end of a two-inch diameter sewer pipe, and someone’s about to flush.”
The fishing boats weren’t the only sign of industry on Nootka. Each day there were reminders that the region is a true working wilderness. Speedboats buzzed around the sound on various errands, and once in a while we’d hear a float plane land and take off on one side of Bligh Island or another. Blasting could be heard from workers improving the logging road we’d driven in on, and on our paddle in, we’d passed one of British Columbia’s controversial floating salmon hatcheries. These are barges surrounded by net pens full of salmon and tethered to shore. The stock in many of these facilities are infected with sea lice, and the high concentrations of the parasite are suspected of killing off wild salmon populations, which have to swim past the pens on their way out to sea from their birthplaces in the rivers. But by and large, from where we sat gazing out between the trees of our campsite onto the sound, Nootka seemed large enough to contain its various uses. The only time it didn’t was when the low clouds would momentarily tear away, revealing mountain slopes scraped bare by clear cuts.