Cape Scott Boot Camp

A father-son kayak tour down British Columbia's wild west coast

By Rob Lyon

Brook’s Journal, Lopez Island, Washington:

I’m kinda so nervous I want to abort! Chillin’ in Dad and Pam’s cabin on the hill and thinking of all the safety issues and getting dizzy . . . August 23

Aboard the Queen of Alberni: We’re on the Canadian ferry, we safely made it through customs and into Terrence and Philip country, onward ho! . . . August 26

Port Hardy: They almost put ketchup on dad’s Subway foot long, boy it’s different up here . . . August 25

Port Hardy City Park: A pretty uninviting day for a launch. Rain and sun taking turns as we sort and pack our gear. A short visit to a nearby rez scored us a couple of dime bags, think we’re set . . . August 26

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My son Brook showed up at my house a couple of days before we were ready to leave for a kayaking trip, his first, at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. A bit anal about organizing his stuff, little of which he had with him, it took forever to sort and pack it to his standard. We lashed the two sit-on-top kayaks on my rig and loaded the bed with gear, then headed off for the first leg of many on our odyssey in northern waters.

Being a stranger to a sea kayak, Brook was getting a crash course. He was a big shot skateboarder from Orcas Island and I was banking on a well-developed sense of balance to transfer. That, a little experience running cats in whitewater, some Costa Rican surf, a long solo mountain bike trip and a taste for adventure about rounded out his resume.

It was nasty out. Cape Sutil loomed through a slather of mist and rain a couple of hundred yards off my bow. We were seven days out from Port Hardy and a big storm was approaching the north coast. We could feel the surge of tide near the tip as it began to run against us, and we leaned a little harder into the roller coaster swell, watching it swoosh over the bow of our kayaks like liquid green glass as we knifed into it. Sea conditions appeared stable if lumpy beyond the point and we made a big end run around the breakers at Edmund Rock, looking for a camp I remembered faintly from an earlier expedition. We’d be stuck ashore for a few days and for my money (Brook’s money too, I’d bet) there was nothing like being stuck at the tip of a cape!

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Big oceanic swell rolled in out of the northwest ahead of the front and we rode the carousel as close in as was safe, cutting a wide margin around white foamed reefs and rock, scanning ahead for especially big sets revealing the rocks that broke only in the baddest swell. Having a boomer suddenly loom up in front of you was a scary deal. Each time my boat rose up on the crest of a swell I would scan the shore for beach and found it, finally, near the western corner of the cape. We threaded our way among the Sturm und Drang through the deeper channels to the safety of a cove where Brook lowered his jig and had dinner flopping in the cockpit of his boat within minutes.

“Cape Capers eh?” I shouted, as I turned to thread my way ashore.

“Cape Capers man!”

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Cape Sutil: Dad’s tooth fell out this evening. Hope he brought an extra, all I have is duct tape. Learned more about the camera, VHF radio and weather patterns today, dad’s so unorganized or should I say he’s messy? I didn’t know how messy he was, did mom clean up after him, Pamela keeps that under wraps yo . . . August 31

“It’s like sitting on your skateboard,” I’d told him our first day on the water. “Keep your hips loose and your spine straight and steer with your ass.” I pointed out the holes in the hull. “See those holes, that’s where the water drains out. Hatches are all water tight. You get knocked over, you flip it back up and climb back on.”

“I can do that.”

Brook spent 10 days paddling with me from Hardy to Cape Scott and it was a sweet venue for intensive training, a gradually developing open water paddling experience with time to dial in the basics as we picked up the extra dimension of open water. The plan was that at Cape Scott he would continue around if he felt confident, while I would paddle back to Hardy and meet him eventually in Brook’s Bay, fifty miles south of Cape Scott.

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We encountered a little bit of everything together, some long slogs through kelp and chop that tested stamina and the need to pace, sudden bouts with wind whistling overhead like a gang of banshees as we ducked in the lee of a point and we got some practice surfing ashore and busting out through wave trains. The paddling off Sutil was especially vibrant and he’d actually dug it more than feared it, I think. I didn’t hear a squeak from the kid no matter what we did and he was always upbeat.

Cape Sutil: Being out on the water is amazing. Always shifting, hardly able to pinpoint where the hell everything’s moving to next. It feels like I just sat there while a planet-wide conveyer belt of water writhed below me. Dad sent me a book two months before our departure, I saved it for our trip. It’s called Sea Runners, by Ivan Doig, an account of an escape made by four men from Russian-held Alaska to Astoria, Oregon, in 1853 in a dug-out canoe. They hadn’t had much more of a clue than I did, but they figured it out . . . September 9

We got blown ashore at Fredrickson Point and Brook pan fried fresh ling cod fillets in the shelter of a huge, hollowed-out driftwood log in driving rain. We got a late jump on camp and it was fully dark as waves crashed and branches clattered and a gale slathered us in sheets. It wasn’t cold at least and we were still in our dry suits, hunkered over our battered disc (disc golf) trenchers, my glasses all steamed up so I couldn’t see shit and took them off finally, but had a tall ale very close at hand, obviating all complaints.

Hanging like that in the rain together in our suits is kind of what I’m always looking for on trips like this. Shared morale in the face of bothersome, or better yet, threatening conditions. Not just a bud with me on expedition, either, on this one though, but my oldest son, eh? It felt very cool and I just told him that, I smiled and said: “You’re hard core, man.” I stuck out my fist and he bumped it, grinned and nodded his sodden head: “So are you.” It felt good and we laughed and finished up our meal, checked the boats and buttoned up the kitchen, then retired to the sanctuary of our North Face domes.

Sutil, second night: In my tent cycling through bands like Nitemares on Wax, Slayer, In Flames, Mike Snow, Deer Tick and the Black Keys, making my own soundtrack daily . . . September 9

Cape Scott is austere and beautiful. A sandy tombolo connects two gorgeous beaches on either side of the cape. Cape capers involved getting around these muthas as well as camping on them and slack currents, light wind and gentle seas were what we had in mind. Sure enough, on the 15th of the month, as the gnarly tide rip began to subside, Brook and I said our good-byes.

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Camp south of Guise Bay: If I’d said earlier that the last camp was awesome then, note to self: erase that cause this place is freakin’ awesome! Went around Cape Scott alone after chillin’ with dad at the very tip, waiting for slack and my moment of truth. Felt out of body. A lot of waves coming at me, had to slice between and remember: “No Expectations—No Fear” . . . September 15

Had risotto with chicken meal, rad with Orcas Island garlic and Bragg’s with additional spices. Rainin’ like a son of a bitch out, boat’s all secured with the paddle next to it sticking up out of the sand for a frame of reference in this downpour and it’s kind of my kayak trademark. Cool. Lowrie Bay . . . September 17th

Cape Palmerston: Camped in a gale, had to lean against the side of the tent to keep it from dislodging from the sand. Everything that could keep me warm is wet. I went to sleep for the duration of the storm in my thankfully dry sleeping bag, naked but for a fleece scarf wrapped around my neck like a tie. At one point I started laughing because I remembered I had brought an extra pair of wicker bottoms, but they were outside the tent and stuffed deep in one of the boat hulls. Fun . . . September 19th

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The outside of the island, from Scott down to Lippy Point is as rugged and inhospitable as the north coast gets. With few ‘outs’ to get safely ashore, you wanted to plan your paddling around those precious routes to land. Brook had some challenging paddling throughout this stretch but made it fine around Cape Scott and visited Lowrie Bay and a beach at the end of Cape Palmerston. Then it was on to Raft Cove finding some hikers for company, then on down some rocky coastline to Lippy Point and the sanctuary of Grant’s Bay beckoning just beyond. It was getting tough–bucking building winds and currents and towering green swells were beginning to hiss and spit at the crests as Lippy’s coastline stirred the pot. Making slow, harrowing progress, Brook was scanning every inch of shore for a possible out, for a wink of white beyond a wall of black teeth. And he did, but it cost him his rudder.

I’d never been in a type of situation where no one else is there to help you, and it’s fucking crunch time! The worst I had was wind-blasting rain in my face, current against me, and three-meter swell coming at me from two different directions and starting to break a bit on top, THAT while trying to hone in on a landing where there was dear little to be had. I just needed an ‘out’, a route onto the beach that wouldn’t cost me too dearly, a place to lay my body for the night… September 18th

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After the gestalt at Lippy Point, Brook did not want to continue without a rudder. No doubt if help hadn’t been sitting fortuitously ten minutes away, he’d have figured it out or jury-rigged something and eventually paddled on. For me it had been a long haul back up Goletas Channel in pissy weather. I missed my water taxi rendezvous at Shushartie Bay but no matter. Meanwhile, Brook had been sending regular messages via a SPOT so his mother, his girlfriend and my wife knew his whereabouts, while for me it was a total cipher. Once I’d checked in at a B&B in Port Alice I had a chance to catch up on his progress and the last SPOT ‘I’m Okay’ signal was near the northern tip of Cape Palmerston at a camp I knew well. On his own at this point, all I could do was trust to his pluck and ingenuity. On the morning of the 10th of September, as I kicked back in a beach chair with a Starbucks instant on a lonely cobble beach tucked against the northern shore of Brook’s Bay, I watched a peppy Boston Whaler zip around the corner. Before I even saw the wing-like object sticking out across the gunwales I figured Brook was aboard.

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Aboard the Queen of Alberni on return: I’d been journaling here during the trip as if I was the narrator, not the main character . . . weird . . . and it was interesting to think that after I was unleashed solo, if I died, would anyone actually find and read these notes? Sure didn’t seem like much, compared to what the guys in Doig’s book went through, but I figure I’m the only reason I stayed alive navigating solo on these coastal waters. That is to say, except for the help I received, Jim and Brian foremost running me and the boat into Winter Harbour, and, of course, my father. All in all it definitely was the trip of a lifetime, a trip to open the mind and soul to the spirit of adventure. Living on the edge and totally in the moment. Being so far away from society, really in the elements, best thing. Maybe one day I’ll continue that journey, but not without a big stash of Mojo bars! . . . September 22nd

More info:

Area Resources
–BC ferries BC: 1-888-BCFERRY Telephone (Victoria): (250)386-3431
–Cape Scott Water Taxi: info@capescottwatertaxi.ca
–Cape Scott Provincial Park: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/cape_scott/

Lodging:
–B&B in Port Alice in way to Brook’s Bay launch site, highly recommended: Inlet Haven, Jim & Bonnie: www.inlethaven.com
–Heritage River Inn in Campbell River, good first night stop, right on river: www.heritageriverinn.com

Tourism:
British Columbia: www.hellobc.com/vi
Campbell River & Region: www.campbellriver.travel
Vancouver Island: www.vancouverisland.travel
BC Parks; Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks: 800-663-7867

Safety:
Coast Guard North of Brooks Peninsula: 604-339-1053, or 604-339-3687

Guide Books & Maps
Around Vancouver Island, /Doug Alderson, Rocky Mountain Books
Sea Kayaking Canada’s West Coast, Ince and Kottner, The Mountaineers
Wild Coast (The), Volume 1: A Kayaking, Hiking and Recreational Guide for North and West Vancouver Island, John Kimantas, Whitecap books: www.whitecap.ca
Coastal Waters Recreation Maps of the area: www.coastalwatersrec.com
Critical for travelers on the west side are the two books of photographs and charts: Atlas and Guide to West Coast of Vancouver Island COMBO: www.evergreenpacific.com

A big thank you to Clif Bar, Starbucks, Crazy creek, Chaco, McNett, The North Face, Immersion Research, Kokatat, Patagonia and Surf-to-Summit for their support.