“Vancouver’s coves and bays yield secrets to canoeists” – 1981
Paddling out to sea, we guided our canoes up and over the rising ocean swells. Behind us, Vancouver Island’s rocky, storm-blown west coast receded in an early morning mist. Ahead lay three surf-beaten isles, where terns and gulls hovered in a constant, diving search for fish and where we, too, planned to catch our breakfast. Beyond these rocky points stretched the vastness of the Pacific, its endlessly rolling waves sweeping all the way to the Orient. For three days we had been exploring by canoe the inlets and fiords of Vancouver Island’s Kyuquot Sound, hidden away at the north western end of the Island, Kyuquot can only be reached by boat or by driving across several hundred miles of hazardous logging roads. The secluded coves and inlets of the sound were originally the home of the Nootka Indians. Intrepid hunters, they faced the ocean waters in great dugout cedar canoes, travelling long distances to hunt seals, otters and killer whales.
Now, in a week-long trip arranged through Strathcona Lodge (located on the Island), we followed their hunting and trading routes in modern fibreglass and aluminum canoes.
Our party of eleven tour members and two guides had first met at Strathcona for a day course in basic canoeing techniques. Paddling across a lake, we practiced forward and backward strokes, the draw and pry strokes, and the ‘J’ stroke for steering, and learned how to prevent disasters with canoe-to-canoe rescues.
A mixed group of engineers, business managers, home-makers, teachers and students, few of us had ever canoed before. But the lure of seeing Vancouver Island’s remote west coast in the traditional style of the Indians had appealed to all of us and we worked on our paddling skills until arms and shoulders ached. That night we met in Strathcona’s Lodge, where our guides, Cliff Redman and Sheila Taylor, unrolled a large chart of the Island’s west coast. On paper, the coast- line was a series of black squiggles and pointed loops dipping sharply in and out of the blue sea. Moving his finger over the map, Cliff traced a path from a small dot in one squiggle, labelled Fair Harbour, around the coves and Islands of Kyuquot Sound, then south to a long arm of water named Esperanza Inlet. “This is the proposed route,” he explained. “We put in here at Fair Harbor, spend a few days exploring Kyuquot, then head south to Esperanza. Canoeing the sound is relatively safe because these little islands give us some protection from the ocean and wind. But when we head south, we will have two open ocean crossings to make, and there will not be any shelter.” He drew his finger in a line away from the sound and rubbed it across a wide expanse of blue. “It is hard to say whether we can make this or not,” he continued, glancing briefly at each of us. “There is not any protection from the wind or storms once we are on the ocean. We will try to canoe it the way the Nootka did, staying close to shore, keeping in kelp beds where the swells will not break. And,” he finished with a smile, “we will go with the weather.”
Going with the weather. The phrase had a nice ring to it and carried the easy feeling of living life at nature’s pace. His words suited the remoteness of the western coast and our group relaxed at their sound. We wanted to canoe the entire trip, and we wanted the excitement and uncertainty of the ocean crossings. But we wanted to do it as the Nootka had, working with the elements rather than trying to conquer them.
Arriving at Fair Harbour the next day, we pushed off from shore in six canoes loaded with camping equipment, food supplies, fishing gear and one guitar. The sun shone brightly, the salt ocean water lapped at our canoe, and a lonely bald eagle circled overhead. The weather, it seemed, was with us. For the next three days we set a course through the inlets and around the Islands of Kyuquot Sound. Paddling from island to island, we passed over water as clear and reflective as an Escher drawing. Images of dark cedar trees and puffy clouds rippled over a liquid world of streaming kelp, flashing fingerlings and colourful starfish. The days formed a pattern of their own, based on the tide and wind. We rose early to take advantage of the morning calm, paddled for several hours, stopped for lunch and a beach hike, and then paddled again in the late afternoon. Aside from an occasional seal, a curious deer or distant loon, we were alone in this sharply etched land of pinched rocks and wind scarred cedars.
Our route took us due west from the protected coves of the Barrier Islands out to the edge of land and sea. On the morning of the third day, we rounded a rocky point and looked out beyond a series of shoals to the pounding ocean surf. It rose white and powerful on the far horizon, and we watched a while with a mingled sense of respect and fear.
“That is for tomorrow,” said Sheila. “We will get an early-morning start when the ocean is calm. And we will talk tonight about hitting the beach in a canoe. How about some canoe surfing tomorrow at Kapoose Beach?”
Her easy manner lifted our spirits and we continued our trip up the sound, paddling to the tune of the ‘Drunken Sailor’. When we finally reached the little fishing village of Kyuquot at the tip of the Sound, the poor sailor had been bedded, jailed and set to peeling potatoes several times over. Fishing, sailing and motorboats plied the waters around us as we paddled up to this village’s dock. In the 1800s, British, American and Spanish ships had stopped here to trade for furs, and the Nootka held great feasts in their honour. The Indians now live in one village, the whites in another. In the Indian village, the blue shirts and white sheets flapped on a clothesline between homes of peeling pink and green paint. A smokehouse puffed steadily and a disco record punctuated the air with sharp city beats.
We stopped at the town’s one store and mailed postcards home from this distant post of civilization. At the fish cannery, we tried to buy smoked salmon, but the manager smiled bleakly as he explained, “There are no fish. There are no salmon here now. Maybe tomorrow.”
Our camp that night was tucked up into the beaches of McKay Cove, and when we pushed off in the early morning hours, the tide was so low that only a few inches of water floated us over the rocks and sand bars.
But the ocean was calm. The breakers now rushed against the western-most edge of the island in steady, even rolls. The dawn hung silver around us, and Cliff suggested that we stop at the offshore shoals to fish. Paddling between two rocky isles, we left behind the safety of the Barrier Islands and rode up and over the ocean’s swells. The sensation was oddly comforting as the water lifted the canoe up on the peak of a wave, then set it shooting down into a deep trough. We canoed quietly at first, then with growing confidence, dug the paddles in strong and steadily and soon arrived at the shoals, where we filled our canoes with rock cod, ling cod and Pacific red snapper.
From the shoals, we paddled south over the rising and falling ocean to the sandy curve of beach called Kapoose. As we paddled closer to shore, we could see rows of three-foot breakers crashing steadily along the sand. “Now remember,” Sheila called out to us, “keep your bow pointed into the waves, paddle like hell when you catch a wave, and lean all the way to Japan if you start to tip.” One at a time we paddled off to catch our waves. Waiting just behind the breakers, we watched for a wave to form that would give us a ride all the way to shore. With a shout of, “This is it!” we dug short, hard strokes into the water’s rolling curve, paddling furiously to build up enough speed to catch its curl. Froth and spray surged up around the bow of the boat as we rode the wave’s crest. We were lifted high over the sand one moment, then sent scooting into shore. We had hit the beach. Jumping out, we hauled the canoe up on shore, emptied it out, then pushed back through the curving waves to try this canoe surfing again.
For two days, we played in the surf and sand of Kapoose. Each morning we paddled out to shoals to catch a day’s supply of fish. On afternoon beach walks, we foraged for wild onions, salmon-berries, huckleberries and raspberries. Deer and bear wandered the shoreline, and seals and sea otters lounged and swam nearby. The days were warm, the fish jumped silver over the water, and we swam and sunned on the white sandy beaches. But we had one more ocean crossing to face. A rounded point of land, called Tatchu, lay between us and the next protected inlet. So we paddled back through the breakers, canoed between the shoals and were once again on the open sea. Riding the peaks of the swells, and then sinking down into deep troughs, we watched Tatchu Point stretch away from us in a long, slow curve. Cliff led our canoes in a tight formation, and we paddled
hard and steadily, hoping that the wind and weather would remain calm. Our paddling had taken on a mechanical air when a sudden sucking feeling snapped my attention to the wave above us. Drawing us resolutely into its deepening trough, the swell rushed at us, its peak curling into an ominous white crest. “Draw! Draw! Draw!” shouted my canoe-mate as we tried desperately to point our canoe’s nose down the slick front of the wave. Whitewater spewed around us and for one sickening moment it seemed that we would surely flip. But the whitecap only taunted us, then rolled back into a slick swell and was gone. We searched the horizon for other menacing waves, but this one swell seemed to be alone – a hidden, sudden reminder of the ocean’s unpredictable power.
A steady wind now blew behind us as we paddled up Esperanza Inlet. For fun, we rigged up sails with our spare paddles and rain gear and cruised into our take- out point at Zeballos Harbor. Logging enterprises were active all along the shoreline, and the local saloon was filled with fishermen, loggers and miners. Arriving like the ships of old, under full sail, we sailed out of our New World idyll and into the Frontier.