The stare of the halfway there
Sea kayaking in British Columbia
I crawl from my warm tent into a cold, gray morning. I walk over to my makeshift camp clothesline and remove from it my t-shirt, which I hung there yesterday to dry. During the night — and despite the morning’s dampness — it is crisply stiff with dried sea salt. It has the same starchy texture as my best business shirt.
I walk down the trail to the beach and our rudimentary camp kitchen where I find our guides with their backs hunched against the cold wind cooking breakfast. The rest of us gather in a line paralleling the shore, huddled around our warm mugs of coffee and cocoa contemplating the wind-raw, Stygianesque sea before us. Black as unfiltered molasses, its wind-driven waves jumping like a mass migration of spawning salmon. A sea that, with the stubbornness of a teenager, seems determined to shed itself of its Pacific disposition. A sea that, in less than an hour, we will attempt to cross in our small fleet of sea kayaks.
Gray is the morning’s common denominator. West of us, the pre-gale winds push before it coal-smoke colored clouds, like wild animals fleeing heedless and scared before a wildfire. Across Johnstone Strait, the mountain peaks of West Cracroft and Harbledown Islands are hidden behind dense gray clouds. Even the eastern sky, which is still clear of clouds, is the 40-watt gray of an Alaskan summer midnight.
A few minutes later our guides, Caroline Fisher and Scott Jackson, announce that breakfast is ready, and while we eat our banana bread, cantaloupe and hot oatmeal they explain to us our situation. And choices.
Scott begins. “We’re always monitoring the weather service channel, and for the last 48 hours they’ve been predicting the arrival of a gale which they now believe will reach us sometime after noon today. You have no doubt already noticed a peaked increase in the wind and choppiness out there on Johnstone Strait. When the gale arrives, the winds will rise to 35 knots, which will make crossing the strait too dangerous. But, before the gale hits us, we have a window where we can cross. And when we make it to the other side, even if the gale hits us, we’ll be safely tucked in the lee of Swanson Island.
“But,” Scott continues, “I’m sure you’ve noticed that the sea has already grown some big, sharp teeth. As far as safety goes, I think we’re still good, but crossing the strait under these conditions will be very tiring and cold. We understand if you don’t feel comfortable going across today.
“If anyone’s not comfortable with crossing the strait, we can spend another day here in camp. Caroline and I will give you some time to discuss this and decide what you want to do.”
It doesn’t take us long to decide that we want to cross the strait. Yes, it will be tiring and cold but what an adventure! And in making that decision, we also agree that with the gale’s imminent arrival, we should leave as soon as possible to get in front of it.
We quickly finish our breakfast and take down our tents, and our rudimentary camp kitchen. When I return to the beach with my tent, sleeping bag and personal gear — packed into dry bags — Scott and Isaac are already carrying the kayaks from their overnight resting place above the high tide across the beach to the sea’s edge. I drop my gear next to the sea-side kayaks and, with the help of Keith, who arrived with his gear just behind me, join Scott and Isaac in bringing the high-tide kayaks down to the water’s edge. Rush, rush!
When we have carried all seven kayaks to the sea’s edge, we stow our gear into their several hatches. The kayaks are surprisingly spacious. The single kayaks have storage compartments in the bow and stern, and the double kayaks have an additional compartment between the two seats. Our tiny fleet is comprised of three single kayaks and four double kayaks.
Twenty minutes later we have everything loaded. I step into my sprayskirt, put on my life preserver and cinch it down to the tightness of an Elizabethan corset.
Our guide Caroline issues a last bit of advice before we push off. o
“Everyone try to stay together,” she tells us. “If you find you’re too far out in front, slow down and wait for the rest to catch up.”
Today, I’m sharing a double kayak with Femke Van Balen, a 31-year-old lawyer from Holland. Together we carry our elegant little seacraft into the sea, and yoga-wobble into our seats. I’m in the front, she’s in the back: the rudder controller. We snap our sprayskirts over our cockpits.
Our guide Scott points to an island across the strait and says, “We’re aiming for the eastern tip of that island. If fog obscures it while we’re crossing then follow me; and I’ll follow my compass bearing.”
Our target, Hanson Island, seems a long ways away. Scott leads us into the boiling grayscape of Johnstone Strait. The rest of us follow behind him and Caroline follows us in sweep position.
The steeply peaked waves of the turbulent strait, when viewed from water level, look like the serrations of bread knives. Row upon row, ceaselessly cutting their way eastward.
The rain arrives when we’re perhaps a third of the way across the strait. At first it’s gentle and slow. The drops hit the water with the “poip” sound of a stopper being pulled from a vial. But it builds quickly in both volume and intensity, and soon the raindrops are the size of acorns, and they dash upon the hulls of our kayaks with a sound like typewriter keys whacking against the platen with the fervor of someone writing an angry letter to the editor. The acorn-rain nipples the surface of the sea, and increases still further until the sound of it blurs into white noise, and our target, Hanson Island, disappears behind its dense veil.
The wind, out of the northwest, grows stronger and the waves grow taller, until they’re two feet high and choppy. Roller coaster waves. Femke and I try to roll over the crests of the waves as smoothly as we can. When we manage it, we then slide smoothly down the backside of the wave, but more often, in our aggressive paddling, we catch a little air as we pass over the crest which launches us to slap down on the backside of the wave and that causes the next wave we encounter to crash over the deck of the kayak which strikes me near the bottom of my rib cage.
After about 30 minutes of hard paddling, Caroline yells out that we’re halfway across. And the waves have grown even larger. After another 10 minutes of paddling we have passed far enough through the rain that we can once again see Hanson Island, which brings with it its own relief.
Paddling across the stormy strait is like kayaking through three miles of class III rapids. After an hour of non-stop paddling, the muscles in my neck and shoulders feel like wire in a fence brace that’s been twisted tight with a stick, and they’re burning like a Texas science book. My glasses are frosted over with sea salt, adding another coat of gray to this gray day. But I can’t pause paddling to clean them.
As we near Hanson Island, the rain stops, and a few minutes later, we pull into the protective lee of Hanson Island where I give a sigh as big as a whale spout. We gather together in a little pod to catch our breath and give our muscles time to re-oxygenate. I clean the sea salt off my glasses.
“Hey! Look at that!” shouts Burke. He aims his paddle back out to the Johnstone Strait and 300 yards away we see a whale and her calf swimming through the strait.
“That’s a blue whale and her calf,” says Caroline. We all watch with reverent awe until they disappear from view.
Our guides inform us that we’re halfway to camp. We next have to cross Blackfish Sound, which they tell us, is as wide as the strait we just crossed and will most likely be just as rough.
We paddle through a narrow passage between Hanson and Parson Islands, and then the narrow passage opens onto Blackfish Sound, which we will soon cross. We can see waves churning two feet high. Caroline tells us that Blackfish is the Haida — a Native American nation that lived on these islands 200 years ago — name for Orcas. And Blackfish Sound is the perfect name for this strait, at least on a stormy day like this. I realize that whoever named it undoubtedly meant sound in the nautical term meaning a narrow passage between islands, but today it could have been named after the sound an orca makes when breathing. The waves crashing against the rocks are spraying water 10 to 15 feet in the air with the sounds of spouting blackfish: Pashoo. Kachee. Hawhoosh.
Crossing Blackfish Sound is very similar in intensity and duration as crossing Johnstone Strait. A few more twists are given to the stick tightening the muscles in my neck and shoulders.
We pass by a few islands and then looking to the northwest, into the wind, we see nothing but open sea and the curve of the earth. North and northeast of us we see the first of a long chain containing hundreds of islands, and our guides steer us into them and we enter the magical Broughton Archipelago. Our guides choose an island with a beach inside a protective elbow and lead us into it just as the last of the clouds and winds dissipate. The gale has passed.
We carry our kayaks to a safe place above the high tide mark, and while our guides prepare lunch, Mark strings up a clothesline near the center of camp and we strip out of our layers of wet clothes and hang them across the line to dry in the sun.
It’s a beautiful camp with ferns, tall grass and red alders growing along sea edge and behind them the tall Sitkas. Old Man’s Beard, a type of lichen, hangs from the branches of the alders like Tibetan prayer flags.
I stand on the beach in the full sunshine. After a day of cold ablutions, it feels good to stand with my back to the sun soaking up its heat. My shivering shadow falls on the gravelly beach like the hole left by the missing puzzle piece.
Our view from camp is to the northwest and north, and we can see island after island, extending away and away, all of them covered in towering pines and Sitkas that catch the day’s soft light like Tuscan steeples. Beautiful. British Columbia’s run for Miss Congeniality may be at stake today, but her beauty crown remains intact.