By Simon Rutherford
"It's not the common wolf that will harm you, watch out for the ‘wolf-dog,’ a frightening hybrid of the wolf and domestic dog. Be very wary of camping alone here."
This is the warning I'm administered as I sit shivering on the dock of Duval Point Lodge at the northeastern end of British Columbia's Vancouver Island. I've just finished paddling roughly 400 kilometers over eight days from Vancouver City. I'm tired, wet, and cold and badly needing a coffee. Thankfully the good folk at the lodge not only feed me caffeine and salmon but also let me sleep on their beach. Proper Canadian hospitality!
Relieved to be leaving wolf-dog territory, I began heading into the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. Representing a quarter of all temperate coastal rainforest left on the planet, this thin strip of land and sea encompasses 6.4 million hectares, with an ecosystem that is home to towering trees, wolves, salmon, and grizzly bears, including the rare Kermode or Spirit Bear.
I'm not entirely sure why I'd even paddled this far up Vancouver Island, forcing myself to undertake the 30-kilometer journey to get back to the mainland. With an ominous forecast of gales, the trip was about to get serious, considering a fortnight ago the idea hadn't even been conceived. I could have easily blamed listening to the words of a wise friend who had said, "Just go – planning is the death of a mission." In reality given that I had organised a month-long sea kayak trip in under 5 days, I was bound to make a few mistakes. Concentrating on making good decisions in this part of the trip was now going to be key to safely rounding Cape Caution and getting back to the sheltered waters of the passage.
Setting off from Duval Point, the rain and wind was hardly a promising omen, and the kayak, laden with food for the next 20 days and 15 liters of water, wasn't exactly sitting high in the sea. It was a relatively easy paddle out to God's Pocket Marine Park and there was little point in pushing the distances on this leg, as it was still far too windy to cross. Jacques Cousteau allegedly claims that God's Pocket has some of the best cold water diving on the planet; if all went to plan, I wouldn't be verifying those claims.
The following morning dawned fine and breezy, I was up at 4 a.m. to make the most of what I hoped would be a windless morning. It wasn't to be. I struggled with a side swell and winds for the entire crossing. With Shelter Bay to aim for, shelter was what I needed. Unfortunately I made a small navigational error and hit the coast 5 kilometers up from Shelter Bay, however at this point all I really cared about was making it back to the mainland and getting in position for Cape Caution.
In his guidebook, John Kimantas described one of his crossings around the cape as facing "9m swells complicated with huge rebound waves [which launched] his kayak almost air born." And it was Captain Vancouver in 1793 that gave the cape its name. "This cape, from the dangerous navigation in its vicinity, I distinguished by the name of Cape Caution."
Needless to say I was slightly concerned given the windy conditions.
It's interesting to have to make decisions in a solo situation, over the last few days I had quickly realized that not having anyone to bounce ideas off was challenging. The feeling of isolation and loneliness seemed to only be amplified as I sat in a sheltered cove praying that the weather god's would be smiling on me for the next few days.
What ensued was almost dreamlike, from paddling in the thickest sea fog I have ever seen, to sitting on a golden sand beach watching a humpback feed outside the bay as the sun was setting. The paddle around the cape had a surreal feel to it, with rolling two metre swells on an oily calm water surface. The sun rising illuminating a fine mist created by the crashing surf gave an almost heavenly feel to the early morning. It was one of the most incredible moments on the ocean that I have ever experienced, coupled with the euphoric feeling of yesterday's apprehension fading away. I felt truly blessed to be able to take in this wild and rugged part of the coastline in all its glory. Having crept past the sleeping giant that the cape represented, I still had a mighty distance to cover until the ultimate goal of reaching Prince Rupert, and the wedding of a good friend.
Once safely in Fitzhugh Sound I made good time north, taking a detour to check out part of the Hakai Lúxvbálís (looks-bal-ease) Conservancy land of the indigenous Heiltsuk people. During an arduous two weeks of non-stop paddling, I had been rewarded with some incredible moments; from being overtaken by a pod of white-sided dolphins, having orcas pass my camp, and watching bald eagles soar overhead. However some relaxing time on the beach was on the cards and it turned out I was in the right spot; Hakai could certainly put claim to being the Hawaii of the Pacific north. The only regret was to not to have more time to check out the surrounding areas of yet another amazing zone.
A few days before I left, a friend Justin had kindly given me his DeLorme GPS which can send text messages via satellite. I said I would sort him out some beers when I returned, he replied, "Nah just let me join for part of your trip!" Not really expecting him to commit to driving from the city to Vancouver Island then take the ferry 6 hours to Bella Bella, a community on the central coast, I was elated to receive a message from him saying he was hoping to be in Bella Bella on June 7.
Whilst waiting for Justin on the inbound ferry, I explored the surrounding areas. As I enjoyed the generous hospitality that always seems abundant in small isolated communities, it was a conversation over salmon and beers that peaked my curiosity. Campania Island — I had heard of this place but advice from a local that it was certainly worth a visit sealed the deal. We had to get out there, but there was only one small problem: time. This prompted some serious coffee drinking in the local café, which in turn landed us in a somewhat peculiar position.
Less than 12 hours later Justin and I found ourselves, kayaks and all, on board a 40-foot yacht, the Jan Maarit, bound for Kodiac Island in Alaska, with skipper Jessica who had never sailed before. Perfect. Justin, having arrived the previous evening had no idea of this hair-brained plan, followed me across to the boat at 3:45 a.m. in the dark and fog following a GPS that didn't even show Bella Bella on it. I think he was wondering what on earth he had got himself into. However, this venture turned out to be one of the most convenient and hilarious moments of the trip. Jessica's delivery captain had abandoned her en route from Washington leaving her to fend for herself. When our paths crossed she was sleep deprived and ready to make a spontaneous decision: adopting two mangy sea kayakers for company. We certainly didn't add any more knowledge of sailing. And besides she was given strict instructions to not listen to a word we had to say regarding sailing a boat.
Saving well over a day's paddle, we were dropped off at the bottom end of Princess Royal Island, home of the Spirit Bear. While we didn’t manage to spot one, we were provided with an incredible display of a humpback feeding, amazing to be so close to these immense animals. The last week of paddling took us out to the fabled Campania Island, which didn’t disappoint. It is certainly a shangri-la for sea kayaking with golden beaches and Mt Pender’s granite dome rising 740m from the ocean.
To be alone for the first leg of the journey was special, but finishing it with a good friend was unreal. Paddling in to Prince Rupert 32 days after pushing off didn’t stir any kind of having achieved something more of a deep-seated satisfaction of having been so immersed in the Great Bear. To anyone thinking of paddling a part of this coast I wholeheartedly recommend it. It is a coast for everyone — you just have to go…..
By the way, I wouldn’t worry too much about the “wolf-dog” as I never did catch a glimpse of one. I think I was always going to be more terrified of the stag do I had just paddled to!
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