The First Time
I first went sea kayaking on the B.C. coast at the age of fifteen. My father and I were visiting from Ottawa. My uncle, a longtime Victoria resident, and his two teenage sons had agreed to come along with us on a four day trip out to the broken group islands, on Vancouver island’s west coast. We woke at an ungodly hour to catch the first sailing on the Lady Rose from Port Alberni. An old rusty ship, she was far from what I would expect for a tourist transport. Our gear was crammed into large plastic fish totes and craned onto the deck of the behemoth. We took our seats inside and spent what seemed like all day peering out the windows at walls of green that shot strait up from the ocean into the sky. My cousins and I played cards as the water went by under our feet. The fog lifted slowly throughout the morning until, when the boat left us on a dock who knows how far from civilization, it was a beautiful sunny day. Once our gear was unloaded and the boat was gone, a friendly park ranger gave us and the rest of the city slickers a talk about the islands, weather and wildlife. “DO NOT go to Gibraltar island.” He repeated several times with a tone of stern warning. “The wolves are there, they are territorial, they have established themselves and they don’t like visitors. Don’t camp on Gibraltar, don’t lunch on Gibraltar, don’t stop to pee on Gibraltar.” I suddenly felt like we were in Jurassic park.
I looked around me. The calm bay we were in was surrounded by massive cedar trees. I had never seen such tall trees in my life. They hung low over the water and swayed in the breeze. Looking out in front of the bay was a large channel, on the other side, the broken islands. A spattering of rocks as if thrown carelessly by the gods into the ocean. Somehow trees and shrubs had grown on them. Somehow animals had come to inhabit the land and birds sat watching the water from the trees.
Sechart lodge, the wilderness accommodation behind the dock that had previously served as a whaling station and then a logging camp, rented us kayaks which we set to packing. Imagine playing Tetris with everything you need for a week in the wilderness. Once ready we set a course across the channel and got paddling. It seemed like forever. I had done lots of kayaking before but never on the ocean, or across so much open water. When we finally reached the other side it was like we’d entered another world. The water between the islands wasn’t the same dark blue/black as in the channel. It was a light green, like jade. I could see the bottom in the smaller channels and it was made up of a million things. There were white shells, the old homes of creatures gone. There were sea stars by the thousands, laying side my side and of every shape, size and colour. Small fish darted here and there, a huge sea cucumber lay between shells, orange but with small purple “spikes” sticking out of it. We transited a lagoon where the water became turquoise and no wind could enter, so the water was like a mirror for the sun. Birds sung and occasionally a small kingfisher would swoop down from a cedar bough to catch a fish just below the surface. A seal popped his head out to inspect us from a dozen feet away, then going back under only to pop up again somewhere else. I felt like I was in the land before time, where no human machining had yet soiled. Was this how the world used to be?
Arriving at camp, the others went about unpacking and putting up tents. Our small sandy beach backed onto lush green forest. I took one step behind the first row of trees and the beach behind me disappeared, giving way to a jungle, a real life jungle. The moss covered trees went up until I lost sight of them behind their own foliage. Ferns and berry bushes covered every conceivable inch of ground and in many cases grew on the mossy trees themselves. I took a few more steps. The ground sunk several inches under my weight. Layers upon layers of leaves, cones and needles rested between my feet and the actual ground, if there was any ground under there. On a nearby rise I saw a cedar with a hollow that went right through the bottom of the trunk. I went in and sat down. I couldn’t believe it. The size, the lushness, the infinite greens popping out of every nook and cranny.
Back at camp a meal was being cooked. We ate dinner sitting on a log that must have belonged to a tree that was older than Canada. We looked out towards the north at clouds dancing in the sky, the sun setting slowly on the ocean, interrupted only by a few islands and a snow capped mountain range. I found it hard to believe all this existed. I found it hard to believe no one had ever told me about this, the most wonderful place in the world.
Getting on the water at 9:30 am the sun was already high and hot. It was the second day of a four day trip and all 9 guests were happy to be paddling again. Leaving our camp in the snug heart of the broken group, we made a 20 minute crossing on a glass calm sea with hardly a sound to be heard. As we paddled I took in the sights. Behind us the sawtooth mountain range rose from the sea, towers of black craggy rock with snow dusting their crevices high above the rainforest. To our left a fog bank sat over the green hills and spilled out onto the sound with the morning land breeze. Ahead, islands upon islands, leaving it hard to decipher which was which before Vancouver island’s mountains shot up again into the lush green heights. And on our right, a few rocks, islets and islands interrupted the pacific only briefly before it went on….forever. I was happy to be back here where I had spent so much time, where I felt such a thorough peace. This place was truly magical.
Nearing land I tried to distinguish which of the channels between the islands I had been aiming for. Several small Islands in front of a bigger one created a plethora of channels, each one passable at different times in the tide cycle. At high, all were options, at a very low tide, none were. It had been two years since I had spent the summer guiding here full time. I looked at the chart again. My gut told me the right channel was the one. I swung my kayak slightly to the right with two strokes of my paddle and entered a narrow channel basking in the morning sun. As I stopped paddling and allowed the craft to glide, the drips falling off the paddle were the only disturbance on the glassy water. Volcanic black rock encased our route, and lush green rainforest was packed so tightly on it you couldn’t have taken a step in any direction without losing sight of your foot amongst the foliage. No one spoke. A few more strokes toward what appeared to be a dead end, I turned right into a channel just wide enough for a Fiat to fit through. Ten feet later it opened up into a lagoon, so calm and still I could hear the guests gasp at the beauty of it, one by one as they emerged from the narrow passage. I heard someone whisper to their partner; “it’s so beautiful”.
There are estimates that the broken islands hosted the highest population density in the americas prior to European contact. A rich array of marine life allowed the first peoples to live a prosperous life. Shellfish were gathered, fish were caught, cleaned and dried, whales were hunted for their blubber. When the diseases brought by the newcomers decimated the several thousand residents (some say 10 thousand), settlers came and the group became lively for the new peoples. On one island was a store, pub, post office and brothel all in one building. Over the years the newcomers found it hard to maintain their lives in this remote place, and when the steamships stopped serving the area they left one by one. Today this 10 by 12 kilometre square archipelago of over 100 islands, islets and rocks is managed in partnership by Parks Canada and Tseshaht first nation. It is considered to be one of the best places to go sea kayaking in the world.
After lunch we left the park boundary and paddled across to Vancouver island, on the northern side of Barkley Sound to explore the Pinkerton Islands. They are squished together so tightly that only narrow channels separate them, again these passages are mostly only passable at high tide, and only ever by kayak. Several species of sea stars became visible under the clear green water. We went along slowly as if at an art exhibit, inserting each one’s unique shape and colours. The channel opened up into a large river estuary where mudflats buffered the space between the ocean and forest. We pulled our boats up to stretch our legs and have a snack. As we walked around, we noticed several sets of tracks along the forest edge, a deer, a cougar and a bear, all fresh from the two days prior. It dawned on everyone that we were truly in a wild place.
Returning to camp that afternoon there was a communal feeling of calm and contentment among us. We carried our kayaks up the beach and lay down on the pebbles, some of us reading, some napping, some chatting amicably. I left the group to start dinner after an hour or so. As I stood there chopping veggies I occasionally looked up to appreciate the view. The water movement, the trees swaying, the clouds dancing over green mountains. I was grateful that I was here in this place again, to tell the people the stories, to share the place. Because someone needed to show them, to tell them about this, the most wonderful place in the world.
Nick Gallant owns and operates A Paddle in the Park Kayaking based in Sidney, B.C. He offers rentals, day tours, overnight excursions and mothership tours among the gulf islands, as well as fully catered Sea Kayaking trips all over Vancouver Island.