HAZARD TO MARINERS
Ever since I moved to the coast from my home in Northern Ontario twenty years ago and first laid eyes on a chart of the west coast of Vancouver Island, I have looked at the jutting headland and fabled, treacherous waters of Cape Scott and wondered what it would be like to paddle around it. Could we even get around? How big would the seas be? What did it look like? Cape Scott, located off the Northwest corner of Vancouver Island, is a wild and raw landscape and showcases the immense power of the coast. It is rich in legends and stories of the Kwakwaka’wakw people. The lighthouse here has recorded hurricane winds well over 160km and seas greater than 30 meters. The dynamic and potentially terrifying conditions here have made ‘rounding the cape” a major paddling accomplishment.
I couldn’t have asked for a better partner for this mission. Bruce Kirkby who I had paddled with in Gitga’at Territory on the grease trail the year before is an accomplished adventurer, big water paddler, speaker and a heck of a writer. He recently released his third book, Blue Sky Kingdom: An Epic Family Journey to the Heart of the Himalaya, that I am really enjoying, many of his stories shared over this trip. A few years ago Bruce had his own epic journey as he paddled solo from Port Hardy to Tofino but a heavy fog on the north portion shut down his attempts for a safe rounding of the Cape. Bruce was motivated to have another go while I was fortunate to have his valuable experience on our adventure and I trusted and respected his decision making skills.
Getting out of Port Hardy
Under sunny skies and building winds, we launched our touring boards from the coastal logging and fishing town of Port Hardy. Afternoon starts are ill advised on the coast and as such were rewarded with strong Northwesteries that we battled on our way out of Hardy Bay. Stroke by stroke and using drafting techniques for efficiency we made our way to our first campsite at Frankham Pt, 15 km from our start. We certainly hadn’t eased into our expedition but as always it felt good to be on the coast and on the doorstep of Goletas Channel, the portal to the north shore.
THROUGH THE PORTAL
On the water early, we took advantage of the low winds and ebbing current to move us up the relatively straight shoreline and potential wind tunnel effects of Goletas Channel. The crux move motivated us to put our head down and paddle with purpose as we moved past the north shore trail drop off point at Shushartie Bay and up to Killer Whale rubbing beach at Jepther Point. Jepther is also the transitional area that leaves behind the more protected waters and opens up to the exposed and more committing paddling of the north shore. Not wanting to waste the ebb tide we moved quickly across Tatnall Reefs, indicated by bull kelp that was laid over showing the currents speed and direction. Our free ride ran out at Cape Sutil, the most northern point of Vancouver Island and one of the most scenic beaches and locations on Vancouver Island. The north tip of the Cape Sutil was once a fortified village, named Nahwitti for its chief and eventually it’s people. As much as we wanted to stop and search for the petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings, we had heard about we carried on not wanting to waste the sublime conditions. After Cape Sutil we changed our direction from north to west as we moved along the spectacular shoreline. It was the first time we could see our objective, Cape Scott with clear views out and beyond to the ominous Scott Islands. With a low swell, clear waters and flat conditions we made our past a couple of feeding humpbacks and landed at Shuttleworth Bight. We dragged our paddleboards up above the high tide mark and settled down for dinner overlooking Queen Charlotte Strait and tiny, but perfect waves that were breaking at the rivermouth. With the day’s conditions we were able to put down almost 50kms in seven hours of paddling, getting quickly through Goletas Channel, rounding Cape Sutil and much closer to Cape Scott.
GETTING INTO POSITION
Another morning of a friendly ocean had us up early and paddling past north coast hikers trudging their way along the beach trailsl as we went by Nissen and Nels beach. But as we got closer to Experiment Bight, our last point of shelter before committing to rounding the Cape, strong winds began buffeting us indicating the unforeseen challenges that lay ahead. We landed at this most spectacular beach and in less than 48 hours after starting we were now in position, Cape Scott was right in front of us.
“When Norm and I arrived at Cape Scott, we immediately scrambled over the narrow sand isthmus separating Queen Charlotte Sound from the west coast of Vancouver Island (the usual portage route) only to discover a South West gale had been blowing for days, whipping up swell, spray and chop – we’d been sheltered and unaware of the gale’s strength on the north coast. A muddy trail led out of the Cape’s rocky headlands, and half an hour later we emerged from the dark forest to a scene unlike anything I’d witnessed. The ocean was in turmoil; immense waves heaved up from dark waters, breaking a kilometer or more from shore. Closer in, heavy swell rebounded off a maze of rocks and islets, exploding skywards. For quite some time, neither of us said a word. Clearly we weren’t going around any time soon. On a deeper level, we both felt humbled and intimidated.” – Bruce Kirkby
A DAY TO REFLECT AND CONNECT
It rained hard overnight and the winds began to drop. A huge Bald Eagle sitting low on a driftwood log met us at Guise Bay and dropped a large flight feather which I grabbed for our hike out to the headlands. I have always felt a very strong connection to raptors and eagles and I took this feather as a good omen. Another look from the headlands revealed a punishing sea state. Bruce and I spent the day searching for sea glass and exploring the incredibly unique ecosystem of the Cape. The sand neck connecting Experiment Bight with Guise Bay was one of the most unique places I have been to on our coast. I had centuries of use by the Nawhitti people as they hauled their canoes across, using teh natural and short portage to avoid going around the cape. Interpretive signs on the beach at Guise revealed the history of the local Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations. The more I read the better I felt about this history and connection to the area, that up until now was leaving me with more of an eerie feeling. Through the understanding of place and people I felt I was giving the respect this place deserved. According to the Nahwitti People who inhabited this area, Experiment Bight was known as “Whale between on Beach” and the sand neck connecting Experiment with Guise was “against each other.” The cape had names referring to “Trail on the surface,” “foam place,” “sea monster,” and “swell on beach,” all indicating the heavy sea states found here. Most fascinating to me was the village of Ouchton, an ancient village site referred to as “those of the unprotected bay.” It was fortified and protected by jagged sea cliffs and heavy swell and I wondered how anyone could survive out here. For Bruce and I, we were “remote” yet this was “home” for the Nakumgilisala People who spent their summers harvesting and gathering food. An area of immense power, it was clear that the spirits were present and the ancestors were watching. After listening to the weather radio, watching natural cues and processing thoughts and feelings we made the plan to paddle around the cape.
ROUNDING THE CAPE
Both Bruce and I, too energized to sleep, were moving well before our alarms went off at 4am. Darkness greeted and winds had shifted to Northwest as we quietly loaded up our boards, deep in thought and anxious about the next hour. We had planned to launch at 4:45am giving us a short 30 minute window to get around the Cape but we couldn’t see anything. Close to 5 we pushed through knee high surf and with the sun’s first rays rising in the east above the Coast Mountains we were headed around the cape and within minutes we’d reached the point of no return. The stiff Northwest wind was generating chaotic three foot chop and more unsettling, the SW swell had not eased overnight. Dark sets rose from the ocean, 3m and building to more in shallows.
“There was no discussion. The situation wasn’t ideal but it was within our abilities. Without a word, we kept paddling, entering a world of black, grey and white. Ghostly waves exploded upwards around us. The tide turned, slowing progress. Shouting we discussed angling inside a scattering of offshore rocks. Then a monster reared up and broke, exactly where we’d been headed, and we pointed our bows to sea. We’d go outside of everything. Surf scoters streamed past at waist height, in long lines reminiscent of smoke. A wave caught my tail, sending me tumbling forwards across my gear. Then I was underwater, silence. And up again. “You OK’ Norm yelled, but I was already paddling-proving a long held theory that paddleboards, and the ability to leap back on, have great advantages in serious situations. The wind kept blowing us south. Brace, paddle, brace. At some point we realized we were past danger and rafted up, tiny corks tossed on a massive ocean. Norm’s eyes told the story: we’d experienced something quasi spiritual in those few kilometres.- Bruce Kirkby.
Two hours later we were doing a surf landing and Lowrie Bay and setting up camp under a blazing sun.
In times of intense focus and being in the zone, memories and feelings are etched in your psyche. In the midst of the chaos what I remember most are the commitment of the first few paddle strokes leaving the beach into the Northwest Winds, the Surf Scoters Bruce mentioned, flying close by as they made their way out to offshore feeding grounds and the waves rising up and crashing against hull shredding rocks. But the one vision that made me smile the most was looking back at my partner, focused, committed, making his way slowly past the Cape as the blood red light of the coastal sunrise lit up the world behind him.
A BEAUTIFUL FINISH
On the beach at Lowrie we had rested well knowing that we had successfully rounded Cape Scott. We celebrated with a nip of scotch under a setting sun and we slept well that night. A short paddle from Lowrie Bay in calm winds and dying swell put us around the challenge of Cape Russell as we made our way to the scenic Helen Islands. Fog arrived after setting camp, so we spent the rest of the day beachcombing, drinking coffee and sharing stories. On our final morning we made our way into beautiful San Josef Bay and surfed into the clear and tranquil waters of the river. It was calm and quiet with only the sounds of birds, and our paddle strokes that highlighted the obvious contrast to the last few days of exposed paddling. Not wanting the trip to end, we made our way up the last few winding kilometers and past towering Sitka Spruce and lush temperate rainforest. It was the perfect ending to our north coast journey.