More than 6 years ago I bought some maps to plan a kayaking trip. The destination was Vancouver Island. The attraction was seeing Orcas. And the wait was worth it...
The maps I'm referring to were of British Columbia and Washington State. The important paper references were John Kimantas' book "The Wild Coast 3" and Coastal Waters Recreation maps of Broughton Archipelago and Johnstone Strait . More recently, www.bcmarinetrails.org and innumerable web pages from others who have made similar trips have augmented my research.
The Orcas were most likely going to be in Johnstone Strait and Blackfish Sound. Both of these areas are visually somewhat uninspiring and subject to wind and tidal current issues. Broughton Archipelago was visually stunning, more protected, but had much lower whale sighting odds. Between these areas lies Hanson Island. The currents through Weynton Passage and Blackney Passage on the west and east side of Hanson can exceed 5 knots and are subject to complicated rips.
The area is also subject to overcrowding. During the summer numerous outfitters run multi day tours in the area. This implied June or September were the desirable times to be there. The research showed late summer was more favorable for the whales.
Finally, the area seemed a little more than Keri and I could do safely as a pair. So we needed some others to come out and play with us!
One of Keri's strengths is advanced planning. She had frequent flyer miles that were going to expire so she said "pick a week in September" and we'll get tickets to Seattle. (Actually we scheduled two weeks. And the vacation in September was to coincide with one of those birthdays ending with a ZERO.) I've never successfully used my frequent flier miles before... Keri managed to get us a non-stop flight out and a 1 stop first class ride back! All at very reasonable times of the day. And all for $15 each!
Next was the search for partners. Our friends Jody and Scott signed on. Their neighbors, George and Donna followed suit. Unfortunately, none of these 4 were highly experienced paddlers. What they were was very skilled campers. They were willing to take on the adventure. And as I found out, they happily persevered through some of the more difficult moments.
Jody and Donna took the lead on meal planning. I was the paddle planner. Keri, George and Scott were usually the highly important "voices of reason".
Early on I learned that typical weather in Johnstone Strait in September is foggy until 11 AM and windy from the NW from 12PM on. This left only one reliable hour of paddling a day!!!! Additionally, the tide would be ebbing out of JS against the prevailing wind most afternoons of the week we were paddling. Ouch... I wished I had looked at the tides before choosing the week... damm. Every blog I read told of at least one day of being "weathered in" per week. Also, the water is cold year round and large vessels like cruise ships and commercial barges use the shipping lanes that we would need to cross.
The crux of paddling in the area is getting by Hanson Island. A group of experienced paddlers could probably run with the currents if the winds were reasonable. Our group would have to time the passage at slack water. Ideally, it would be slack water turning to the direction of travel. Of course, during our week it would be slack water turning against us.
An early realization was that we couldn't schedule to do these crossings twice. The "voices of reason" decided that we'd do the crossings outbound and schedule a water taxi to pick us up for the return trip. This opened up the option of traveling out further into Broughton Archipelago. (We also knew that if the weather was bad we could have the water taxi drop us off in Broughton Archipelago and skip the crossings altogether.)
Our travel plans would get us to Telegraph Cove near mid day on Sunday. I wanted to do a short paddle into Johnstone Strait that day so that we could see what it was like and get a feeling for the conditions beyond what I "imagined" they'd be like. It would also allow us to perfect our kayak loading and assess everyone's capabilities.
My plan was as follows:
Sunday: Telegraph Cove to Blinkhorn Peninsula before the currents turned against us at 4PM (3 miles)
Monday: Cross Johnstone Strait and station in the Plumper Islands near the 10AM slack water (this is an area with high currents and tidal rips). If all went well we'd get to the north side of Hanson Island. (6 miles) If we were late, we'd stay on the south side of Hanson and try again at 11AM the next day.
Tuesday: Cross Blackfish Sound near 11AM slack. Camp on Owl Island on the lower end of Broughton Archipelago (6 miles)
Wednesday: Paddle along the Queen Charlotte Strait side of Broughton Archipelago to Crib Island. (5miles)
Thursday: Paddle up Fife Sound with the tide and wind after 12 PM to Burdwood Group Islands. (12 miles)
Friday: Paddle down to Echo Bay with the tide before 1 PM (3 miles)
All the mileages were very doable. I was assuming we would add to them with explorations or make up for lost time by doing two day's paddles in one day.
At any time we could fall back to the more protected inside of Broughton Archipelago if needed. The shortest path distance from Telegraph Cove to Echo Bay is only 22 miles so worse case we could do it all in two days of paddling. If it took us too many days to get around Hanson Island we'd just stay in Johnstone Strait. There seemed to be plenty of fall backs. We'd "go with the flow". (Keri and I also had the fall back to take a whale watch boat ride after paddling if we didn't see whales.)
We arrived in Telegraph Cove before noon. Lunch, kayak rental details, and boat loading went surprisingly smooth and we were on the water before 2:30. In a little over an hour we had traversed the 3.5 miles to Blinkhorn Peninsula, our destination for Sunday night. The weather was a nice, the winds were light. The current, late in the cycle, had some speed but only the smallest of rips and a hint of an occasional slow whirlpool.
The forecast was for some wind building through the evening and high winds possible the next day. The three couples set up their tents in a semi-protected area above the "high tide grounded logs" that we would so often see. Dinner and an early bed was our preparation for our first crossing the next day... if the weather would let us.
About midnight Jody got up and realized that the dromedary bags that we left near the high tide line were at risk of floating away. There are no reliable sources of water once you leave Johnstone Strait and we had to carry 4 liters per person per day with us. What a tragedy that would have been to lose our fresh water on the first day. Jody moved the dromeys to higher ground then she and Scott pulled the boats up higher. Soon she woke Keri and I telling us our tent was in imminent risk of being inundated by the tide that was sneaking around the higher ground to the lower spot where we had pitched. Did I mention that the week we chose also had moon tides? It was at 12:30AM the first day that I realized why I needed to know when high tide was not just the slack water times. The slack water is not at the same time as the high tide like we are used to in Narragansett Bay because of the large and distant bodies of water that need to be flooded through Johnstone Strait and other passages. Fortunately we were within minutes of high tide so the water would not be rising any higher.
In the morning there was a breeze of about 10 knots and it was overcast. (It sprinkled a bit over night.) To be sure we made our timing we packed our boats without having coffee or breakfast. There was a 1 and 1/2 foot beam chop on the crossing of Johnstone. George and Donna in their double were zig-zaging +/- 30 degrees to the chop the whole way. We all reached the other side safely. We were now in the protection of the Plumper Islands on the West side of Hanson Island. The group was watching seals and eagles and starting to talk about breakfast. I suggested that we keep going to the north side of the island while the tide was in our favor. Before I knew it we were in a rip with chaotic short 1 footers. We were already late making our passage. Jody seemed happy as a clam. I was worried about the group. Keri was singing "I don't want to be here" songs but paddled through confidently with a little encouragement. George and Donna were generally behind us and recognized the rip and avoided it all by staying far left.
We were now less than two mile from what would be our camp site. But the winds had picked up to a steady 15+ knots and the seas were near 2 foot and choppy as new waves can be. We made it about half way and there was some concern about going on. I was "pretty sure" that we could pass the next point inside of Spout Island, the small island off the point. The available charts in this area are 1:40,000 which is fine for open water kayaking but marginal if you are trying to decide where the rock garden passages are. Passing around the outside of Spout Island in these conditions could have been beyond the capability of the group. There was a general "lets tuck in this cove for safety" call.
We pulled up on a muddy beach to make our breakfast at about 11AM. There was some sun but the wind was deeply chilling me in my wet cloths. We looked for a potential camp site in this cove but the options would give us a long carry out of a muddy cove when we left the next morning at low tide. After we ate we all got back into the boats to see what the conditions would look like. I gathered everyone in the lee of an island and checked on the willingness and confidence of the group. They were willing, I was questioning the wisdom of doing it. I held the group again In the lee of the last island. I went out into the open water and made a decision. I knew the group could make the short passage into the next cove. If there were any issues we could probably do it rafted up. If anyone went over we would drift into shore not out to sea. I suggested we go....
There was some excitement but everyone made it no problem. Scott and I were visited by a sea lion. He didn't hang around and we couldn't pause to watch him. As soon as we rounded the point we were in a beautiful cove. The cove was protected from the wind and in the warmth of the early afternoon sun. We looked around for a camp site for nearly an hour. Combined, we got in and out of the boat about eight times. We passed inside one more island into the next cove and found a beautiful camping spot. (This passage was protected unlike the previous one.) Home at last for Monday!
The open water of Blackfish Sound was about a half mile away out of the cove. Somewhere in the late afternoon while we were all sunning ourselves on the beach I thought I saw a black spot on the water. I ran up and got the binoculars to have a closer look. Within about ten minutes I was certain that I was seeing a whale. Over the next hour we could see (and hear) Humpbacks and Orcas. They were about a mile away but we could still tell that there were male, mom, and baby orcas out there.
I couldn't wait to get on the water the next day. We were departing at low tide so the carry was long. But unlike the rocks on the first morning, the bottom was sandy with seaweed. I leaped ahead of the others to get views into Blackfish Sound. It quickly became clear that there were about 6 Humpbacks in a two mile radius of us. The question became where to situate ourselves to encounter whales without chasing whales. It was flat calm and the group seemed content to linger in the center of the channel watching the spouts and tails around us. I was a bit concerned that we were sitting in the middle of a shipping lane. I was monitoring Chanel 71 on the marine radio to check for shipping but honestly was finding it difficult to figure out what the communication I was hearing really meant. (All large ships have to call in before passing through the area to avoid collisions in the tight passages, some of which have blind corners.)
Eventually we made it far enough across to the Swanson Island side. It was near this shore that we had our closest encounter. This Humpback sat at the surface within 100 yards of us for a minute or so. We could see it rising and sinking as it quietly inhaled and exhaled at the surface. Then it dove with the characteristic flair of its tail. We were thrilled.
In total we spent about 75 minutes with the whales. We rounded the top of Swanson Island right before the currents turned to insure we wouldn't have to fight any currents or rips just to get out of Blackfish Sound. For the rest of our afternoon we practiced our map reading skills to figure out where we were. We knew we were around the islands in the entrance of Knight Inlet but which island was always a little in doubt.
We stopped for lunch at one of the camp sites on Owl Island. It was nice but shady and I was pretty cold. The other site on Owl was reported to have a shallow cove so we looked at a spot on Cedar Island. This one was unimproved but beautiful. It faced the west and was warmed by the sun. Home for Tuesday night! A dry sunny day when the wind never really picked up. Lucky.
The forecast for Wednesday was marginal. Our plan was to paddle the Queen Charlotte Strait side of the islands if the weather allowed us. The fall back was the appropriately named Retreat Passage. In the morning there was no sign of wind so we headed out across Spring Passage and into the maze of small islands off Bonwick Island. There were more Humpies near Arrow Passage. They weren't very close but we could hear them vocalizing and spouting. I also watched one tail slap about a half dozen times.
There were very strong currents in some of the passages in our approach to a lunch (and potential camping) site in Sunday Harbor. We discussed our destination for the evening. The recon indicated there could be Orca in Fife Sound so we wanted to set up camp on John Island. We had paddled a leisurely 7 miles before lunch. John was still 6 miles away. The group was comfortable with continuing on.
The views just kept getting better and better. The small islands on the edge of Queen Charlotte Strait were giving way to larger, taller islands. The open water was gone and we were oscillating between tight passages and small bays. We were pretty tired by the end of Misty Passage but still had a few miles to go.
The views around John were as beautiful as any. The beach at the camp spot was smooth with white shells. Unfortunately, a place to set up a tent, let alone three, was nonexistent. I crunched through the woods while the others appreciatively got out of their boats. Nothing. I checked the GPS waypoint and sure enough we were in the right spot. There was a tree down right where the most promising site was. Maybe the site had fallen into dis-use. We had to try the site on the other side of the island.
The site on the other side was the same story. Right spot, no place to put the tents. This time Scott got out to give a look. Back around the island to the first spot. George, Scott, and I all trudged around looking. Meanwhile the women were preparing themselves to go back to Insect Island. We hadn't actually looked at that site when we passed it earlier but they were convinced it was our best option. By this time we are at the highest point of current flow out of Fife Sound. The receding 20 foot tide had left our heavily laden boats high and dry. We have no idea what direction or how strong the currents will be in the 200 foot wide passage we need to go back through.
We did 4 and 6 person lifts to re-float the boats. It all went smooth but by the time we got to Insect Island we had done a 17+ mile day instead of the 12 mile day we expected. However, this home for Wednesday night was our best spot yet! And again the whole day had been sunny with little or no wind, despite the dire forecast.
The plan for Thursday was to get to the Burdwood Group. This would put us beyond our Friday destination but set us up to ride the ebbing current to Echo Bay on Friday morning.
Thursday's paddle was in extremely light air and again sunny and warm. The only wildlife was seals but we didn't mind. The camp Thursday night was the best yet. A white shell isthmus connected our island to smaller islands. We had a protected Cove and a view overlooking mountainous islands that faded into the BC mainland complete with snow caps and ice fields. The wind did pick up a bit in the evening. But it didn't affect our paddling.
Friday's paddle was only 3 miles. Short of a hurricane, we would have no problem and the forecast was actually benign. We made the short paddle at a relaxed pace and cooked a "brunch" on the beach in Echo Bay while we waited for the water taxi to pick us up on the dilapidated government pier.
James from Silver King Marine arrived an hour early which was great. We weren't quite ready for him but we were ready to be ready! What a mound of stuff we loaded into the boat. We had never before seen all the stuff that fit in 4 singles and one double in one place.
On the ride back James saw birds working in Blackfish Sound. He stopped the boat and shut down the engines so we could watch and photograph Humpy's feeding. The whales were coming vertically to the surface with mouths agape, one time two whales together. It was awesome. There was a chance that we could have intercepted (legally of course) Orcas but they had already headed up Johnstone Strait before we arrived in the area.
Back in Telegraph Cove we returned the boats and equipment. It was time for showers and a decadent meal at the local restaurant. The week had been far better than we could have realistically expected. Sure, the Orcas didn't come visit us up close but now I have a reason to go back and try again.
Some other details:
We rented from the boats from North Island Kayak. They were Seaward Aurora's (17.5’x24”). The double was a Seaward Southwind (21’x30”). They were fine, I was reasonably comfortable in the boat and with its loading and handling. I spent most of the time with the rudder up. The spray skirts were neo but loose and leaky. The paddles were as you expect for a rental (I brought my own 4 piece Lendal).
We carried 20 liters of water each for the 5 full days out (4 liters per day/person). We used less than 3 liters per day per person. But, we didn't dump out any cooking water (like when cooking spaghetti) and we washed and rinsed dishes with salt water and cleaned ourselves with baby wipes. No regrets on bringing that much water.
The weather was well beyond what it should have been. The locals said "this NEVER happens" (a string of 5+ nice days). I personally was cold at times when wet and out of the boat. I'm not sure how warm I could have stayed if it had rained multiple days in a row.
The water is cold. I did not measure the temperature but I could not leave my hands in for very long. As a group of six I was comfortable paddling within a mile of shore in "fleece" vs wetsuit or drysuit. If it was just Keri and I we would have had to wear immersion clothing.
Jody, Scott, Donna and George all took the kayaking seriously and practiced wet exits, bracing, and rescues before the trip. A capsize in real conditions is different from in the pool/lake but the awareness would have definitely helped if a problem had occurred.
We were quite capable of doing this adventure unguided. I am certain that we had a better experience on our own. However, we all did a lot of advanced planning and preparations.
September was a good choice if you desired solitude. Tuesday was the only day we saw a significant number of kayakers (a tour group). Most days we saw about two or three over the course of a day.
And most telling... I would go back and do it again in an instant.