Articles / Chasing the Summer Sun
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE AUGUST 2002 SEA-KAYAKER MAGAZINE
Chasing the Summer Sun
It was the sound of overturning stones that I noticed first. We were eating dinner in the inter tidal zone on the long cobble beach of Pt Carolus, west of the entrance to Glacier Bay. [Link to Map 1]. Scattered on the ground around us were greasy cook pots and about half the contents of our homemade, “bear-proof” food cylinders. 100 yards down the beach and lumbering directly toward us was a large brown form.
“Bear!” We both said it aloud. Scrambling to our feet, we raced to clean up the kitchen. While Karen loaded our dinner into one white plastic cylinder, I crammed the baggies of food into another. We were fitting the lids when we noticed the bear closing in.
“Hey Bear, humans here.” Following the advice given by the park rangers, Karen spoke reassuringly to the bear while waving her arms over her head to draw its attention. “Just humans here… eating dinner,” I added in a thin voice, attempting to sound conversational. “Don’t tell him that,” Karen shot back, and we chuckled nervously at her joke. The bear suddenly stiffened. Raising to its hind legs, it sniffed the air for our scent, its wet and matted hulk towering above the beach. As I fumbled with the safety clip on my can of mace, the bear bolted for the woods, crashing through the alder thicket, leaving us alone.
Dinner finished and our supplies safely cached, we snuggled into camp chairs, sipping hot drinks while discussing our route across Icy Strait. Alert to each clap of rippled wave on cobblestone, I kept one eye fixed on the shadows spilling onto the beach.
After nine days in Glacier Bay our journey was only beginning. Our goal was Lopez Island, our home in the Washington San Juans, an archipelago which lay more than twelve hundred nautical miles away by kayak. For the next four months we planned to paddle toward the sun, side-by-side, with never more than shouting distance between us.
It would not be our first expedition as a couple. In 1987 we spent nine months riding bicycles from Seattle to Bolivia, and it was then that we learned to travel as a team. In the years that followed we worked as outdoor educators – often leading courses together, and we grew from this sense of equality. Our partnership thrived on demanding, human-powered adventures, and kayaking the Inside Passage was a dream we both shared.
For Karen it would be an opportunity to travel deep into the coastal wilderness – exploring the natural wonders of its ecosystems, and a chance to return to the native village sites she visited as a child. I needed a break from the chaos of daily life, and longed to be on an extended kayak journey where the simple routines of travel would become my lifestyle.
In the spring of 2000 we quit our jobs, moved our belongings into storage, and loaded our kayaks onto the Alaska State Ferry. With more than six years of dreaming, and a year of preparation behind us, we were off!
Rob • Day 20 • June 26 • Chatham Strait
Timing our departure to ride the ebb current southward, we set out for Admiralty Island – at six miles, our longest crossing to date. Wide Chatham Strait [Map 1] slices through the heart of Southeast Alaska’s dominant ABC islands – Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof, and its north-south orientation can make it a corridor for storms. But for the past 24 hours our barometer had been holding steady, and the brilliant blue sky and smooth channel ahead confirmed the high pressure. Our boats were riding low and barge-like in the water – stuffed to capacity with the resupply received in Tenakee Springs. To ease our minds from the effort of paddling we sang the songs we learned at summer camp, completing the passage in two hours.
As we neared the Admiralty Island shore a rare north breeze began to freshen, offering us our first chance to kite sail. Stopping to rest on a small, gravel beach, we rigged our brightly colored parafoils. Back on the water, we sent the meter-square kites aloft and set off downwind. Alternately skimming on top of, and then being sucked under each following wave, we braced with our paddles as the kites towed us at alarming speed. “Are you okay back there?” I shouted over my left shoulder, as I struggled to keep my boat from broaching. “Yea…but just okay,” Karen shouted back, sounding hesitant. Within a few miles her kite began a series of noisy swoops and dives, ending with a dramatic plummet into the sea. Frustrated, and doubting the wisdom of kite sailing a single kayak, she stuffed it into her deck-pack and began to paddle. The kite idea was mine from the start and I had sewn our kites especially for the trip. It was obvious they would need adjustment – and a little practice to manage, but I was sure we could use them to our advantage. Anxious to keep sailing, I encouraged her to try again, but she wouldn’t budge. Disappointed, but respecting her judgment, I folded my kite away, secretly relieved to have regained control of my boat.
Five days later we reached Pt. Gardner [Map 2]. As I scanned ahead for rips and swirls I was startled by a throaty burst of breath astern. Ruddering hard, I turned as a group of humpback whales broke the surface. Fishing together, they began their next descent, lifting huge, barnacle-encrusted tail flukes skyward, diving deep. In the quiet that followed we waited, all senses focused ahead, jockeying our boats in playful competition for the best vantage. “Hey, that’s my spot,” Karen snapped with a smile, as my boat drifted in front of hers – though neither of us had any idea which direction the whales would resurface. Without warning, the channel began to boil and then exploded as ten, 30-ton mammals rocketed skyward in a single, spectacular surface lunge. Hearts pounding, we gave chase, attempting to stay with them, but the whales easily outpaced us and were gone.
With its rocky fingers stretching into the inky, kelp-laden water, Pt. Gardner felt wilder and more remote than the easy beaches up north. Marking the confluence of Chatham Strait with Frederick Sound, we considered it a pivotal location in our journey. As coastal kayakers we were accustomed to the security of a nearby shore. When the wind or waves became too powerful, we would simply haul our boats out and wait for a change. It was the commitment of an open crossing that made us feel vulnerable and nowhere on our route would we be more committed than crossing Frederick Sound. At 10 miles, it would be the longest crossing of our journey, and it had a reputation for sea conditions that could deteriorate rapidly. Should a storm surprise us at mid-channel we could be trapped offshore for hours – or even swept out to the open Pacific. Nervous talk of this passage had dominated our route discussions since the beginning of the trip. Seeing it for the first time made me feel sick.
We located camping inside a slender passage no wider than the length of my paddle shaft. Landing on the bone-yard beach at the head we discovered the remains of a shipwreck. In amongst the rotting drift logs were odd bits of clothing, a tattered sleeping bag, spent emergency flares and a deflated life raft half buried in the sand. We picked cautiously through the flotsam, expecting to find a body.
Rob • Day 25 • July 1 • Frederick Sound
My watch alarm jarred us awake at 4:00AM. Intent on crossing Frederick Sound, we tore ourselves from sleep, trading warm cocoons for the shivers of slimy neoprene. It was the second lowest tide of the year and we would need to depart by 6:30 to cross on slack water. Despite the early hour, the sun was already hot on my face, the sea mirror smooth in the still air. We excitedly loaded our boats and pushed off.
While Karen tested the batteries in our VHF radio, I punched in a GPS go-to for finger-like Cornwallis Point on Kuiu Island. [Map 2] At 10 miles, the Kuiu Island shore was little more than a blue-gray smudge on the horizon. Heads forward, eyes straining on deck compasses, we synchronized the cadence of our strokes, suspended over the iridescent water as if set free from gravity. The current toyed with our kayaks, secretly pulling one way and then the other – but we weren’t fooled. Guided by satellites, we ferried on a direct course to the point, arriving in three-hours.
Sweltering in my neoprene skin I couldn’t wait to strip naked. With my kayak aimed and gliding for the beach I popped open my sprayskirt and dangled my feet into the sea. The icy water flooded my dive booties, quenching the sour heat, bringing instant relief. When our bows finally scraped gravel we jumped out, whooping and dancing our arrival. Frederick Sound was safely behind us – we could move on.
Karen • Day 27 • July 3 • Keku Strait
Keku Strait [Map 2] marked a drastic change in environment. Here we traveled through tiny islets, shoals, a myriad of intimate passages, and rounded, woody hills. We left behind giant brown bears for their smaller black cousins, and our daily visits from humpbacks were exchanged for sporadic encounters with transient killer whales.
A 16-inch sockeye just managed to finagle its way loose from my lure while I attempted to land it through the murky kelp beds. Four hours passed and my catch count was five tiny cod, two small sole, four minuscule rockfish, one 16-inch sockeye (lost when landing), one sea cucumber and one sea star – a catch and release nightmare.
Exhausted, my body pained from the long idle sit, I hadn’t realized it was so late. The long days of northern light confused my internal clock. Tired, sluggish and cranky, I watched Rob excitedly prepare to set the crab trap.
“Catch me a bait fish, Karen.” Rob called. Reluctantly I drop my hand line one more time, and within seconds I caught a small cod. The clumsy “buzz bomb” hooks anything fast. I quickly landed it, broke its neck and sliced it for the crab ring. I felt ready for camping and Rob was still fishing.
An hour later, we paddled off empty handed, scrambling for camping. The low tide created a difficult landing through the scattered rocks and expansive mud, and the upper beach climbed steeply to a dense thicket. As the evening light waned, we settled for our first desperate campsite of the trip.
July 4th we camped on an islet just before the passage called the “Devils Elbow.” The Coast Pilot describes this tricky channel as “the most difficult section in the pass.” Our passage through “The Summit” the day before, a narrow corridor dredged to five-feet, was straightforward and uneventful, all done at the prescribed tide – the slack before the ebb. The tide’s schedule put the next slack before the ebb around 3:00AM, too early for our liking. With this in mind, we chose to pass the “Elbow” at maximum; the current would be with us, but racing.
Rocky pass is marked with green and red day markers to assure boaters they’re in the navigable section. Seemingly irrelevant for kayaks, we hadn’t followed the route exactly.
The rotting smell of low tide stuck to our “Ketchikan sneakers” as we lugged our boats down through mucky tide flats. We launched, and quickly approached the “Devils Elbow.” Nervously our eyes met, wondering what the next 10 minutes had in store.
The current tossed me into the sharp, narrow bend. I scanned the seething waters ahead, searching for clues to help pick a route through the turmoil. Abruptly the speed hit like a class III river pushing me forward with its power, churning through the slender channel. Just able to choose a line, I barely kept the kayak pointing in the right direction. Unexpectedly the water dropped below me. Startled, Rob watched me sink, and immediately followed into the abyss. The channel deepens almost 20 feet in this narrow constriction.
Our boats cut easily through the swiftness. The turbulence lessened after half a mile, but the waters continued to pull us along. Now we found the day markers necessary to maintain our route as we careened through the last of Rocky Pass. An exhilarating way to end our sweet rambling in Keku Strait.
Rob • Day 30 • July 6 • Sumner Strait
I was up in the night to inspect the level of the tide. Unable to find camping amid the jumble of the forest, we were camped on the beach for the first time in a month. In the dim, yellow glow of my headlamp I watched as the water peaked shy of our tent, a shiny ribbon of fresh seaweed marking its retreat. Confident we were safe from the flood, I returned to my dreams.
Kupreanof Island [Map 2}is low and wooded and covered with large tracts of boggy muskeg. With the lack of running water, we were forced to dry-camp, and our bottles were nearly empty. Promising a stream, the NOAA chart lured us into Douglas Bay – a huge tidal flat drying on the ebb. I stayed with the kayaks, keeping them afloat while Karen tramped inland over clamshells and muck. An hour passed before I saw her again, moving slowly with full, 10-liter water bags, arms burning. “I followed the tide-fouled stream for a mile before filling,” she reported, shaking her head, “The water didn’t look great, but it was the best I could find.” Anxious to get clear of the flats, we loaded the bulging, cordura sacks onto our boats, then poled out through the muddy shallows.
Spotting a sunlit beach on tiny Level Island we paddled over to investigate. Composed of poker chip shaped gravel, it plunged steeply into the channel – assuring an easy, any-tide departure. Although it was still early, the beach was so perfect neither of us wanted to leave. As Karen smoothed a platform for the tent, I jigged for dinner, landing a wriggling, olive-tinged Kelp Greenling that we poached then fried into fish cakes. Tea served with the meal tasted peculiar, and to our dismay, we discovered that the water was salty. Our entire supply was tainted!
In the morning it was my turn to search for water and I too hiked a mile overland. Following a tiny rivulet to its source, I found a stagnant beaver pond full of frothy, ale-colored brew. Disgusted but thirsty, I filled the bags. Our ceramic filter required cleaning after each pint.
Rob • Day 40 • July 17 • Dry Strait
Two days south of Petersburg we turned up the north arm of the Stikine River [Map 3]. The silt-laden water weaves a braided course through low hummocks of marsh grass, exploding into Dry Strait as a milky, jade-green cloud, billowing out for miles. The river was dropping from beneath us as the tide pulled out, exposing gnarled drift-snags mired in gravel, the seaward current building. Following Karen’s lead, I lined my boat upstream through several riffles before locating Knig Slough, which separates Dry and Farm Islands and would return us to the sea. Of this the Coast Pilot advises flatly, “Do not attempt this passage.” Since they are rarely intended for kayakers, we had learned to disregard such warnings. Still, I approached cautiously. “Does it go through?” Karen asked, as I edged my boat into the narrow opening. “There’s no way to tell,” I said, “If only I could see around that next….” But it was too late, the current was pulling us in. Exchanging wide-eyed looks, we braced ourselves for the ride.
Within a short distance the flow slackened and we meandered lazily between wooded hillsides, paddling only to avoid tree limbs sweeping the surface. The forest gave way to wetlands where the slough widened enough that I let my boat spin in circles on the current, snacking on trailmix as I took in the 360-degree view. After forty days on the water this was our first float trip, and I conceded, there was an attraction to river kayaking after all.
In need of relief, we stopped and ascended the steep, muddy bank where we were ambushed by a thick cloud of no-seeums. The tiny bugs bit our hands and faces as we danced, struggling to free layers of clothing. Sprinting back to her boat, Karen grabbed her headnet and retreated inside its claustrophobic protection. Mine was stowed deep within my bow so I took to the water, alternately paddling and slapping at the thousands still clinging to my neck and shoulders. In an attempt to outrun the bloodsuckers we raced on to Dry Strait, arriving just as the tide was at its lowest.
Although miles-wide, Dry Strait is gradually filling with sediment from the Stikine and the chart is unable to predict the bottom’s shifting course. The shallow water was so turbid I was unable to see my paddle blade as it dipped below the surface. Tired and buggy, we argued over which direction to head, and in mid-channel I ran aground. High-centered on an invisible sandbar I climbed out into ankle-deep water. Cursing and swatting at the persistent bugs, I broke the gritty zipper on one of my neoprene booties, cursed some more, and then finally dug out my headnet. Mysteriously afloat only a boat’s length away, Karen struggled to hold back laughter. In a few quick portages we reached deeper water, making camp on Rynda Island for the night, the argument already forgotten.
Karen • Day 48 • July 24 • Meyers Chuck
We launched in a light chop. Once we rounded Lemesurier point however, the waves appeared wild with froth and exploded against the shore. Ducking back, we landed in a sheltered cove to don our paddling jackets and scout the seas beyond. The rocks felt slippery with salty sea-slime, and we struggled to stay afoot while clambering around the point for a view. Although I could feel the butterflies of nervous energy as we surveyed the thrashing water, our discussion was seamless. Our plan made easily, each of us completing the other’s thoughts.
Back in our boats, we figured it was only a short stretch until we were inside the entrance of Meyers Chuck [Map 3] . Out in the weather our kayaks rolled and tumbled with the crashing seas – over our sides, swallowing our cockpits. Precariously balanced on top of a wave, I momentarily lost steerage, my rudder useless in air, before my bow plummeted again, submerging. We headed toward the outside of Misery Island. My back twisting and straining with each stroke, as I took the waves mostly head-on. At the last minute we swung downwind to slip behind the island, into calm.
Arriving in a community seemed to us the most challenging part of the trip. The daily patterns of traveling by kayak, in this northern wilderness, were becoming our way of life. Each piece of the day flowed naturally, like a well-choreographed dance, our unspoken signals communicating all. A community changes everything. Our known patterns are scrambled with questions. Do we land at the dock or on the beach? Where can we keep our boats? Are we welcome?
Anxiously, we entered the harbor to assess our landing options, and saw half-a-dozen boats scattering the pier. A woman approached us, stepping onto the dock from her brightly painted float house. “Hello,” she said directly, “where do you come from?”
“Today, just around the point,” Rob replied.
“I mean for the trip?” she clarified.
“We started in Glacier Bay,” I answered proudly.
Excitedly she opened up with small town hospitality. “My kids have a kayak company across the bay. . .” After chatting enthusiastically for a moment we landed on the beach. Finally relaxed, we lugged our loaded boats out of danger of the rising tide.
Nancy suggested we camp in the covered basketball court at the vacant schoolhouse, then eagerly whisked us off for the “grand” tour of town. Our first stop was the cooperative art gallery, a tiny building nestled in the woods housing a varied collection of artistic wares. A porthole window in the door gave the sauna sized building the marine flavor of the area. No roads here in Meyers Chuck, just muddy meandering paths overgrown with rain forest greenery.
Nancy invited us to her float house after we set up camp in the school’s miniature basketball court. While visiting, we sipped tea in the cozy sitting room and watched her nimble fingers delicately weave spruce root into a traditional Haida style hat. Later, she motored us across the bay to visit her family. After hours of swapping kayak adventures, they sent us home with malty homemade beer, garden vegetables, and fresh salmon.
For two days we hunkered down in our dry basketball court while the storm raged on, writing, cooking, napping and taking short wet walks. Rob’s faint voice floated into my dreams through the tent wall urging me awake from my midday nap. My first sensation was the unmistakable homey aroma of fresh bread baking. Outside the tent, Rob was focused on timely baking rotations over the stove. The lentil vegetable soup he concocted from scratch, sat waiting for the bread’s completion and my arrival.
Meyers Chuck was quiet. Locals stayed inside by their wood stoves, while many boats took refuge in this serene harbor after clocking gusts in the strait up to 50 knots. In the morning the gale was predicted to wane, a window in the storm. Boaters prepared for an early departure banking that the computerized NOAA weather voice was correct. I set our alarm for 4:30AM.
Rob • Day 51 • July 27 • Clarence Strait
The gale that trapped us in Meyers Chuck passed, but two days south, fierce head winds continued to hold us back. Anxious to keep moving, Karen wanted to press on – into the storm, but I was feeling puny and turned us around after only a mile. We made camp in the same spot used the night before, our communication tense.
The morning brought a steady rattle of rain on rip-stop, our lightweight tent shuddering with each shrieking blast of gusty, southwest wind. My confidence and strength restored, I was sure the wind and waves were easing. Sensing no change herself, Karen was unconvinced. We clawed our way along the Cleveland Peninsula shore [Map 3], ducking into coves and irregularities, seeking any protection we could find from the blow.
Twelve miles later we were still moving. At Caamano Point we passed through a flotilla of fishing skiffs bobbing and trolling in all directions. I waited as an enthusiastic fisherman with a southern accent reeled a small salmon past my boat, his guide helping him land it. We turned toward the many islets of Bond Bay, the wind coming from the east, still in our faces.
Chilled by frequent showers we stopped to warm ourselves, pitching our pyramid cook tent before changing into dry clothes. Over mugs of hot cocoa we studied Behm Canal, considering the crossing. As I watched through binoculars the water calmed, then quickened, then calmed again, the wind switching direction 180 degrees. Baffled by the weather, but longing for the hot showers that awaited us in Ketchikan, we decided to go for it.
Midway into the four-mile crossing the wind picked up again, this time stacking the confused sea into a five-foot chop. Fully committed, we shouted words of encouragement to each other as we white-knuckled onward, our fine-tipped bows punching through the crests, sending sheets of icy water splashing into our chests and faces. On the back of each wave my boat slapped down so hard, it led me to wonder just how much punishment a thin, plywood hull could take. Finally across, we beat our way inside the Tatoosh Island group and into shelter from the storm.
Our snug camp for the night was tucked behind a small, sand and shell beach where the boulders had been neatly piled to one side – ages ago. Hand-cramps kept us both awake until, thankfully, Karen found the ibuprofen.
Karen • Day 59 • August 4 • Revillagigedo Channel
The cove opens up with outstretched arms and on the ocean side, is protected by an island, that guards the area from vicious storms. A prominent, sandy point dominates the entrance. The rest of the shoreline undulates with rocky shelves, a mostly inhospitable place. On our closer inspection, a flat field now overgrown with devils club and salmon berries backs the sandy point. Could it be an old village site? We explored the field and thick woods that flanked it, and found nothing else to confirm this idea.
We paddled out between the sentinel island and mainland through a shallowing channel. In areas, the water’s depth measured too little to paddle, our hulls sticking to the sandy bottom. We disembarked to lesson our load, and floated the kayaks through the shallows. As we exited the protection of this cove, the sun peaked over the mainland’s trees, and reflected on ripples. Even with the anticipation of our first open section of the trip, we were both relaxed, ready for exploration.
Paddling a few miles farther we approached a large tombolo. The outgoing tide exposed fresh mud flats, creating a long carry if we spent more than a few minutes on shore. In unspoken agreement, Rob and I wandered in separate directions, scanning for village remnants.
Stumbling through the dark woods, my eyes still adjusting to the muted light, I found a wooden four-poster bed frame. Overgrown with lacy moss and vines winding tightly through its structure, it looked old, maybe 100 years, but not exactly what I hoped to find. My stomach growling with mid-morning hunger, I collapsed on a log and munched from my bulging snack bag.
“Did you see the graves?” Rob hollered. Leaping from my drift-log seat, I ran to aid in his investigation. A lichen-covered headstone stood leaning in dense salal, carved with name and date from the late 1800’s.
As we looked around for more burials, we noticed other human signs. Several beams from a traditional big house frame lay perpendicular to the beach, melting into earth. I turned and noticed the graceful curves of a carved figure on the ground. Now that I recognized it, it was nearly impossible to mistake the moss-covered, decaying carving for an ordinary forest nurse log, with its wolf-like head asleep on the soil. We continued to walk the forested beach edge.
Suddenly, house frames surrounded us. Some with upright posts supporting a beam end, echoing three dimensions. The house floors were dug away, perhaps to make these small structures more voluminous for the extended families that lived in them. At every turn, something else appeared. An adzed, rectangular post stood with the sun glimmering off the angles of each carved facet. Then, positioned back to the beach, a figure, maybe whale loomed over us. Clear formline designs emerged on what could be flukes.
We walked toward our boats to ready ourselves for departure. Exiting the beach, we entered the unprotected section of Dixon Entrance [Map 4], leaving ourselves vulnerable to the ocean weather and swells. A high pressure continued to sit off shore and with that, sunny skies and a NW wind blessed us.
We found ocean swells alone easy to handle in our kayaks. With the crests spaced far apart, our boats rose and fell methodically with the rhythm of the sea. When tooth-like chop formed on top of the swells from another direction, our boats were tossed turbulently. After several hours of 7-foot seas, I felt exhausted and slightly nauseous. Rob, still paddling strong, noticed my plight and spied a sheltered cove. We landed in light, even rollers, helping each other ashore over the barnacle-covered rocks.
After another exhausting day in the exposed ocean, we entered protected waters. The back channels from Tongass to Wales Island were intimate and calm. Delicately filtered light animated the cedar trees and fresh water seeped through the rocky shore. We paddled on, while a pair of sleek harbor porpoises fed nearby in the current. Crossing over to Wales Island, we entered Canada.
Karen • Day 69 • August 14 • Principe Channel
We tucked ourselves into a nook to rest in the “Math Islands” archipelago. It was an awkward landing amongst snags, rocks and debris, but Rob quickly began his daily scramble, searching for “treasures.” Less than five minutes passed before he emerged with the jewel – a four-inch diameter Japanese net float. Perfectly round, the hand-blown, green glass sparkled with bubbles. Rob, strutting proudly with his find, continued to scavenge the beach. A minute later, I casually turned and noticed a float lying in the open at the back of the bite. It was a second turquoise glass float – similar in size, yet more opaque than the first.
The next day we launched early in a downpour. Giant droplets bounced off the glassy water like popcorn popping from a skillet. Our friend Maddy had recently joined us to travel south from Prince Rupert for several weeks. The three of us paddled out of Ala Passage and entered the large expanse of Principe Channel [Map 5].
Rob, now obsessed with his glass float search, lead us to the base of a tidal falls. Water tumbled over the rocks in rivulets and overfalls for some 40 feet – clearly not navigable. We secured our boats to nearby rocks, and scrambled up to the lagoon. The water was clear and glassy like a mountain lake, except in the narrow entrance where it blurred with speed, rolling over the edge. More sea stars than I’d ever seen on one rock littered the upper entrance. Orange, purple, blue, yellow – bright colors smeared under streaks of water. The falling tide dictated a short visit and we hurried down to move along.
The chilly wind whipped our faces. We crossed a large bay in heavy chop, our bows bursting through waves and the clouds opened up again. Cold and wet from sea spray and constant drizzle creeping down our necks, we struggled against the wind. With three of us now, and the weather unrelenting, our conversations became sharp and abrupt. Finally, we took refuge in a large protected cove; evenly spaced islets guarding the inner bay from the violent waves and wind outside in Principe Channel.
Karen • Day 78 • August 23 • Princess Royal Channel
For nearly a week we crept around the southern end of Pitt Island [Map 5] and into Mckay Reach, bucking a strong head wind, camping frequently. There were breaks of sprinkles, but for the most part the weather oscillated between pouring rain and dumping rain. It was a time of frustration, fatigued hands, huge waves, high winds, exhausting short paddles and sitting, waiting for weather.
Rob, Maddy and I left our camp at Anglers Cove for Butedale, in the fog, heading down the steep-sided Princess Royal Channel. The northern section, Fraser Reach, is flanked with inhospitable rocky cliffs – no place for a break to stretch. Waterfalls slide down in many forms – narrow trickles, wide sheets of clear water, disturbed falls whipping through boulders. Water everywhere. Clear, untainted water!
Where there aren’t falls, moss covers the sheer rock and trees attempt to grow in patches of thin precarious soil. In many places the holding power is minimal so trees, soil, moss and all slide into the Reach.
In the distance I noticed a pale, four-legged figure standing on the steep cliffs. We stopped. Once moving, I knew immediately by its cat-like gate that it was a mountain lion; we disturbed its hunt. Floating quietly, we watched while the mountain lion retreated and the young deer escaped.
Karen • Day 82 • August 27 • Tolmie Channel
The high spring tides and dense forests limited our camping options, forcing us to minimal beach sites. A mile past the First Nations village of Klemtu [Map 6], our first dry day in weeks, we looked for camp. We found a grassy spot that seemed high enough for the tent during these extreme tides. Once landed, we silently set about our camp tasks.
Somehow I couldn’t sleep. I got up and noticed we had only a foot of safety before our tent flooded, and still an hour left before the high. Back in bed, I lay calculating and recalculating the tide differential – it just wasn’t enough. “Rob, I don’t think we’ll make it,” I urged him awake. He rose reluctantly and checked to reaffirm my concern. Just beyond the tent door, Rob stood in two inches of water.
Bleary eyed, Rob stumbled through the dense woods to check on the kayaks we had pulled into the thicket. The crash of his return was punctuated by a holler, “We have to move now!” I jumped up to join him. We unstaked the tent and prepared a desperate site barely one foot above. With the tent moved and still 40 minutes before the high, we weren’t convinced. Giggling at our predicament, we resolved to be awake, and decided to stuff our bags, and disassemble the tent. We spent the next hour lounging in the cold, crisp air on a downed tree, enjoying the starry midnight and reading aloud to one another. Once the tide receded slightly, we repitched our tent and settled in for our last few hours of sleep.
Rob • Day 83 • August 28 • Mathieson Channel
Although it never rained hard, it never stopped either, and if after an hour or two we were uncomfortably wet – after eight hours we were miserably soaked. Our long search for camping began on Dowager Island, near the village of Waglisla [Map 6]. These blunt-edged, islands of rock lining the northern British Columbia coast have only thin soil covering bedrock. Spindly cedars grow into choked and tumbling stands offering little potential for camping above the tide – and in this kind of weather, the few beaches are awash with rainwater. Determined to find a dry tent site for the night, we scouted in opposite directions, moving from soggy beach to soggy beach.
“I’ve found it,” Karen called out, as I bushwhacked through dripping wet salal, “the best tent site ever!” I hustled over to inspect her discovery. She was perched on a lumpy, moss-covered root ball measuring about three-feet by five-feet, and up a slippery, chest-high mud bank. Prickly willows pierced the center and there was an audible rush of water moving beneath. Disbelieving our good fortune, we set to work erecting a platform out of driftwood carried up from the beach. An hour later we scrunched our dome tent into place and stood back, admiringly. A dry home for the night, it was “the best tent site ever.”
Rob • Day 91 • September 5 • Rivers Inlet
We arrived at Cranstown Point [Map 6] late in the day, surf landing onto the long, sand beach in the half-light of dusk. In another 20 minutes we would have been crash landing in the dark. It was too close for my comfort, but our careful plans had gone awry. Every beach on the chart was covered by the tide, forcing us on, stretching our 12 mile day into 22. Our bodies stiff and clumsy, we dragged our boats ashore and collapsed, breathless, in the sand.
In the morning our marine radio was forecasting gales, but the news was not unwelcome. Needing the rest, we dozed past 9:00, then prepared a leisurely breakfast. At midday the sky was clear and there were no signs of the predicted storm. Concerned we missed our window for transiting Queen Charlotte Sound, we took an uneasy day off, accustomed to resting only in bad weather.
In the evening we were surprised by the arrival of another kayaker – the first person we had seen in more than a week. Penny, a strong solo paddler from Vancouver was bound for Port Hardy. Delighted with each other’s company, we potlucked under the stars.
Although a day late, the gale struck hard. Pinned by 40-knot winds and boomers slamming the beach, we baked and wrote in journals. Three days later there was a calming, and the radio confirmed that the storm was easing. Penny loaded quickly and we helped as she launched, plowing face-first into the foaming surf.
After so many days on shore I felt uneasy just looking at the wild seas, but once through the surf, the swells proved manageable and my jitters passed. We picked our route cautiously through the Kelp Head breakers, into the roller-coaster ride that is Queen Charlotte Sound.
Karen • Day 96 • September 10 • Queen Charlotte Sound
On our Alaska State Ferry voyage north three months earlier, the one thing our friendly first mate warned us of, was rounding Cape Caution [Map 7]. It was easy to worry about. Many boaters we met gave us advice on the passage – “Hitch a ride around this hazard,” “Stay a mile off shore,” “Only go with a north wind and a south going current.” In the end, paddling was smooth, only the large ocean swells carrying us up and down rhythmically broke our clean paddle strokes.
Paddling into Queen Charlotte Strait inside Vancouver Island, felt familiar, like a homecoming to the places of my childhood. In 1954, eight years before my birth, my parents paddled these waters in their double Klepper Kayak visiting the remote villages of the Kwakwaka’wakw. I spent my first winter living in Alert Bay, with a family, and traveling to these same villages while my father researched hamatsa masks. Dozens of times, I’ve come back to these islands, to participate in ceremonial potlatches hosted by close friends.
In thick fog we paddled cautiously to the deserted village of Mi’mkwamlis. The tide was extremely low, so we skirted around the rocks and glided in through the hair-like eelgrass. Looming through the mist we caught glimpses of a big house frame majestically standing between two crumbling Victorian style homes. I could almost imagine the mythical chief of the ghost people, Bukwus, shyly gathering cockles along the muddy shoreline.
The low tide influenced our decision not to go ashore and we veered south, heading toward the village of New Vancouver. By this time, the dense fog was lifting and snippets of blue sky appeared above. Rob wisely suggested that we bypass the village to remain synchronized with the heavy currents in these tiny channels. I wanted to stop, but knew he was right. And besides, on the chart, New Vancouver was marked “abandoned.” I sadly relented.
Paddling by, I rounded the point and saw a fishing boat docked at the pier, and in amongst several decaying houses stood a well kept residence. I scanned the village and noticed other pristine buildings dotting the manicured site. This was anything but abandoned. But what lured me, were the signs of construction of a new ceremonial big house. I floated in toward the beach to get a better look at the immense cedar logs. The band office had given me the familiar name of Chief William Glendale when I called for permission to visit the village, but I couldn’t quite place it. Out of the house an older man emerged and struggled into a pair of worn, blue coveralls. He must have noticed our boats and my small wave, because he headed down to meet us.
The beach was muddy and shallow, making my approach difficult. “I was told that Chief William Glendale would be here and that I could ask him permission to visit the village.” I added after greeting him.
“I’m Chief Glendale.” he replied seriously.
“Hello,” I said, “I’m Karen Holm . . .”
“Say again?” the chief interrupted, a grin coming over his face. With simultaneous recognition, we both laughed. Bill Glendale was an old family friend. He beckoned us to come ashore.
Karen • Day 107 • September 21 • Johnstone Strait
The day greeted us with the golden glow of a clear sky sunrise. Before the sun peaked over the horizon a breathy blow broke the silence. A lone bull orca cruised slowly by, silhouetted against the brightening eastern sky.
The wind and strait were calm. We rode the flood for several hours, and when the current shifted we rode eddies that curved along Vancouver Island’s northeastern shore [Map 8]. Near maximum ebb, we struggled around a point, the current racing against us, and we slid onto a sunny pea gravel beach. Here we waited out the heaviest current, baked calzones at midday and dried gear that had been wet since. . . ?
After lounging for several hours, we packed up and continued on just past Bear Point. The beach was minimal, but we nestled in amongst huge cedars; sword fern scattered in the open mulchy soil, an oasis amongst these logged forests.
Rob • Day 109 • September 23 • Hole in the Wall
With its tidal streams reaching 12 knots, and a slack period lasting only four minutes, Hole in the Wall [Map 8] is a powerful force to contend with. A narrow pinch of a passage, it was our link between the swift, clear currents of Johnstone Strait and the tranquil backwaters of Desolation Sound. As if timing a four-minute window were not challenging enough, Hole in the Wall is guarded by two pockets of turbulent overfalls. Known as the Lower and Upper Rapids, they lie just outside the entrance and race on unique time schedules. With our dog-eared current tables in hand, we reworked the calculations again and again, whistling the theme music from Mission Impossible while crunching the numbers.
In our excitement to be underway we allowed two hours to paddle a mile, but arriving 20 minutes later were forced to mill around like salmon waiting to swim upstream. We skirted the Lower Rapids by swinging through Barnes Bay, and with our timing dead-on, the Upper Rapids barely formed a ripple. At Hole in the Wall the swirling current grabbed my bow, spinning me around to the left. I stomped down hard with my right foot, but caught in the vortex, my rudder was useless. Digging deep with my paddle I broke free, shooting out of the turbulence and into the stable eddies lining the shore. Inside the passage the water was velvety smooth, and we glided through to Calm Channel.
Rob • Day 111 • September 25 • Desolation Sound
In Refuge Cove [Map 9] we visited Canada Post, retrieving the last of our 50-pound resupply parcels mailed from home. Inside were rations for two weeks, as well as film, sunscreen, lip balm, batteries, and the marine charts for the remainder of our route. Karen excitedly spread the charts out over the wooden float dock, nearly empty now that the summer cruising season was over. Clearly visible at the bottom of the last chart was Lopez Island. We were still on schedule after more than 3˝ months of paddling.
From Desolation Sound we crossed the Strait of Georgia via Mitlenatch Island. The six-mile passage was so calm I could see downy feathers floating far in the distance. It was the first week of autumn and the sun was dreamily hot. Seagulls circled overhead, tagging along noisily, darting frequent glances in our direction.
Stepping ashore was to step out of the wilderness. This part of Vancouver Island is lined with an endless row of homes, and the businesses orient themselves towards land not water. With only manicured lawns in sight there were few places to stop. Miracle Beach Provincial Park failed to save us when “No Camping” signs forced us onto a vacant lot next door.
On entering the Gulf Islands [Map 10] our situation improved. Informal campsites are frequent among the myriad of tiny islets. With its peeling Madrona trees, golden-crisp fall grasses, and plump, Himalayan blackberries, the archipelago stirred deep memories of the San Juans – giving us both a touch of homesickness. Picking up the pace, we cranked 20 miles per day to the border.
Rob • Day 121 • October 5 • Lopez Island
After clearing customs in Friday Harbor [Map 10] we made our way to tiny Turn Island for the sunset, finding a pair of kayakers from Seattle already camped there. It was the first time we paid for a campsite, and only the second time we shared one. Gathered around a picnic table we exchanged stories with Georgia and Larry until it was too dark to listen
In the morning we packed our camp slowly, taking time to reflect, each of us deep in private thoughts. With our routine so familiar, there was little need for discussion. “Ready?” Karen called out from the bow. “1-2-3,” I replied from the stern, lifting each empty kayak and carrying it to the water’s edge. Beyond the protection of the island, San Juan Channel was ebbing southward – the direction of home.
An open canoe raced to greet us as we approached Watmough Head, on the southeast corner of Lopez Island, where a group of family and friends were gathered on the point. Driving our kayaks onto the familiar gravel beach, we finished the trip just as we started it – side-by-side. In four months, we kayaked 1,479 miles of the Inside Passage and made it home, yet our momentum was still strong. Standing amid the hugs and backslaps we held onto our paddles – not quite ready for the journey to end, not quite finished chasing the summer sun.
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