Mike and Karen Kayaking Calm Seas
After working crazy hours and shifts all summer Mike and I needed to get away. Our little trips here and there have been saviors for us, little breaks from reality, to explore, challenge and rejuvenate ourselves.
The trip this fall was kayaking from Tofino, a funky little town on Vancouver Island known for hippies, stunning scenery, and a place to get away from it all to Hot Springs Cove, home of the Hesquiat People and situated in Maquinna Provincial Park. This little peace of heave is situated approximately 27 nautical miles northwest of Tofino and features a 2 km long bard walk comprised of 800 some stairs leading to natural hot springs with 50ºC water overlooking the ocean. It can only be reached by charter boat, float plane or kayak and during the day it is often over run with tourists from whale watching boats and fly-in tours BUT if you stay overnight you have a pretty good chance of having the whole place to yourself!
Mike and I, along with our friend Derek, had completed the trip previously in 2006 but took a water taxi back from the cove because we ended up staying longer than we had anticipated. This time our friend Amanda, along with Derek, joined us for the trip and Mike and I were determined not to be taking a water taxi out of there if we could help it.
DAY 1 – TOFINO TO CABLE BEACH (9.86 NM)
We left from Tofino on September 28th after sitting out the rain and packing the previous day. The forecast for the week was nothing but sun, calm winds and temperatures of 15oC, perfect for paddling. We set out late afternoon (2:00 pm) after we somehow fit all our gear into two singles and one triple hatch kayak and headed Whitesand Cove on Vargas Island. making the crossing from Tofino to Vargas is subject to wind and swell from the open ocean with only a few islands a ways off to take shelter, that afternoon while making the crossing we hit a mean NW wind about 20 knots, pushing a head wind we darted straight east for ‘cable beach’ to take shelter and rest for the night. Of course this was the closest landing and open to surf making for a difficult landing and actually lead to me capsizing on the way in due to an unforeseen double breaker, but luckily we were prepared, came out unscathed and had my trusty helmet.
Derek fileting the Coho salmon he caught an hour before, baked on the fire that night, it was easily THE best meal we’ve ever had in the backcountr
DAY 2 – CABLE BEACH TO SHARK CREEK (8.19 NM)
We decided to have an easier paddle after a late start the day before and being wiped from the head wind and surf landing we wanted a break, and Derek was itching to get some fishing in. We ventured from cable beach just after 1 pm and doddled up Miller Channel checking out the scenery along the way. Derek figured out a way to rig up his fishing line to trolled behind the double and within an hour we had a beautiful Coho Salmon on the line! Within the hour we headed to shore to a place called Shark Creek, named due to a recently discovered fact that six-gill sharks overwinter in these waters. We set-up camp for the night and prepared for the feast of fresh Coho salmon, couscous & veg. complete with the best dessert, in my mind, popcorn!
DAY 3 – SHARK CREEK TO HOT SPRINGS COVE (10.35 NM)
You can’t have a more perfect day kayaking than no winds and flat water! This was a big day, but also one of the most picturesque days we’ve ever had on the water. We left Shark Creek early that day venturing through Hayden Passage on the slack tide than west through Shelter Inlet. The name itself says it all, here waters are calm and you are bordered by Vancouver Island to the north and Flores to the south. Paddling through this stretch is stress-less and a perfect place for viewing wildlife as many creatures take haven in the calm waters. We were graced by passing porpoises, sea lions and lucky enough to even observe a sea otter feeding away in the kelp beds.
Side Note: Sea Otters are both provincially and federally listed as a species of ‘Special Concern’ due extirpation of the species in the 1900s as a result of the fur trade. This species was then re-introduced between the years of 1969 and ’72, however population numbers are still low (< 3,500) and require close monitoring (COSEWIC, 2010). This species is highly sensitive to oil which damages their coat reducing their buoyancy and ability to conserve heat. These animals are often in close proximity to oil tanker routes and are therefore susceptible to oil spills. One spill (like the one in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 or Exxon Valdez in ’88) could be catastrophic for this species and is one of the reasons that the proposed tanker base in Kitimat, BC associated with Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project shipping crude oil is so controversial.
The last stretch of the journey rounds Sharp Point that is exposed to the open ocean and can get nasty when the weather is bad. When we paddled out to round the point making sure we were far enough away from the boomers (hidden rocks that with large enough swell or wind waves causes the waves to break and can be very deadly) we were blown away with the calmness of the ocean, only large rollers passing beneath us as we bobbed along. A few hours later we arrived in the serene Hot Springs Cove to kick back a relax for the next few days.
Amanda arriving at the ‘Official’ Hotsprings Cove Sign
DAY 6 – HOT SPRINGS COVE – SHARK CREEK (16.7 NM)
We spent two days kickin’ it at the hot springs, making daily trips up the 2 km board walk to bask in the heat of the natural springs with candlelight and wine in the evening after all the tourists had left. Days were spent hiking, reading, eating and just enjoying our surroundings.
When kayaking, one; well at least me as Mike calls me the weather nazi, is tuned into the daily weather forecast over the VHF; concerns about a front moving over the southern portion of the island west were due to materialize in the next day. We realized the evening before that if we were going to paddle out safely we’d have to leave during a small window of calm weather the next morning before the gale force winds hit us. After discussing this with our friends we had come to a conclusion that Mike and I would attempt to make the trip back and they (being less experienced) would take a water taxi back to Tofino in a few days and we’d catch-up them.
So the morning of departure, Mike and I packed the kayaks and said good-bye to Amanda and Derek, joking that if we weren’t back in three days to send the Coats Guard after us. We paddled by the government dock stopping to talk to a couple of fisherman who were running tuna boats about 60 miles offshore. Several boats had come into the cove to wait out the approaching storm, but had informed us that winds were only about 10 knots off the point, Mike and I formulated the plan that we’d paddle to the end of the peninsula and if conditions looked too bad, we’d turn back. We paddled out and started to round the point, the wind was fairly calm and came from the southwest pushing us in the direction we wanted to go. The swell was moderate (3-4m) but was interesting because the water was ‘mixing’ as the swell was coming from two different directions, a sign of distant storms. To our surprise, rounding the point was fairly event less but what followed was the icing on the cake.
As we headed north back to Shelter Inlet, we were graced by the presence of a pod of three humpback whales surfacing within 150 m of us (we suspect it was a cow and 2 calves) and showing off their tail flukes only to be tailed 1/2 an hour later by whale watching boats. As we paddled into the more-sheltered stretch of the inlet, the sightings became more rewarding. We were lucky again to watch a sea otter shuck its oysters within a few metres of us. We continued along the shores calling out to each other our bird sightings and the numerous bald eagles watching over us. After a long stretch with no sightings of seals, sea lions or porpoises, without a warning a humpback surfaced literally right next to us, 50 m of our port side, our hearts were racing with excitement, we turned in anticipation to see when the giant would surface again only to be rewarded with a spectacular tail fluke! It was one of those moments when you can’t help but think (or hope) that that creature decided to appear only for you at that moment as a sign. It was breath taking, and we were both so thank-full for our blessing (I still get giggly thinking about it).
Our wildlife sightings didn’t end with that, coming onto Shark Creek again for the night, we spotted a family, of black bears (momma and 2 babies) foraging along the beach about a kilometer from our campsite and a wolf on the opposite shore of the creek at the site.
All the excitement that day must have set the stage for that evenings events. We had been in bed for about a hour, I was already sound asleep. Mike heard a huff, of course in seeing the bears so close your mind starts racing. Mike yelled out “GO AWAY” which made me jump up from my sleep. I didn’t hear it at all, all is quiet, then there is a scratching right on our tent … yelling and hitting the sides of our tent, we hear nothing, then we hear the scratching again a few moments later. Listening to the sound it couldn’t be a bear, but never the less, it’s something ballsy enough trying to get in our tent.
I remembered I had left a bar in one of the bags in the vestibule so Mike jumped up with the hatchet that he had brought to the tent as a precaution knowing that the bears we had seen earlier were so close, I followed close behind to place the bag securely in one of the hatches of kayaks grabbing a paddle on the way back (for extra protection of course). Both of us were on edge now but we convinced ourselves form the sounds and the scratching it has to be something fairly small and concluded it was a raccoon (although we have evidence to substantiate the claim) I fell back asleep, but Mike had a restless night hearing every noise of the forest that night. It makes me laugh and cringe at the same time thinking about our cycle trip and the many sleepless nights we will have in many places from the things that go bump in the night.
DAY 7 – SHARK CREEK TO MEARES ISLAND (~12 NM)
Karen looking out at opening back into Shelter Inlet from Sharp Point the day before Mike and her decided to attempt to round to point to head back to Tofino
Our impeccable luck with wildlife continued to the next day. Salmon had been jumping throughout the night and morning coffee. We set off that morning from Shark Creek to spot sea lions feeding on the salmon. A group approached us, not coming too close until on completely breached beside Mike, myself just beside him in perfect position to witness the whole episode, it was close enough that Mike was sprayed with its breath as it exhaled and landed back in the water (was it luck or an omen?).
A gale warning was still in effect with winds between 25-35 in the morning decreasing to 20-30 in the afternoon. When kayaking, or at lest in my comfort zone, anything over 20 knots is hairy. Being sheltered we had little concern but knew the winds could be a problem once we reached a section along Vancouver Island that is not protected by any islands and fully exposed to the open oceans wrath headed back to Tofino we may be in trouble. We had no intention of making the crossing that day, but thought we’d take it as it comes and see what’s happening when we reached the point.
Paddling that day was going easy, we had a northwest wind pushing us and we were covering a lot of ground (or I guess water in this case). We were getting closer to the point when we noticed the water was a little choppy but in different directions, nothing that was hazardous and still easy to paddle. When we reached the crossing, as far as we cold see the sea look fairly calm and thought we were in luck and caught a break or that the storm had passed while we were sheltered.
We hadn’t even stopped for lunch when we decided to go for it, thinking we could stop when we rounded the point. We had a strong head wind, about 28 knots, that I soon realized were excruciating to paddle into, but we were still gaining distance and the winds would eventually push us the way we wanted to go, before we knew it, the safe passage through the rocks closest to shore was now a major hazard as the swell was around 3.5 metre coupled with 3-4 foot wind chop. We had to paddle way out to clear the rocks where the waves were breaking and getting bigger. They would pick you up and throw you ahead removing your rudder clear from the water where you had to rely solely on your paddle for any sort of steering. For me, this was the limit.
I used to be extremely hydrophobic and started kayaking only a few years prior when I had met Mike. We had a decent amount of experience, but being from the prairies, we would only get out for a good trip about once a year and I hadn’t had any formal training until the fall of 2009 when we took our assistant guide course. My legs were shaking, my heart pounding and the only thing I could do was to focus on my strokes, to keep paddling and the keep the waves behind me so they didn’t broadside me and cause a capsize because I don’t know how to roll, and in these waters, I am not even sure if one of us were to capsize if we’d be able to assist in a rescue with the conditions. Mike, also near his limit, kept his cool and was an integral part of getting me calm as well to make it through. Te next 2 hours were hell but somehow we paddled clear to Meares Island, back to sheltered waters, back to safety.
That evening on the beach, we built a fire and I pulled out the last ‘Jiffy Pop’ meant for the last night of our trip in celebration and in thanks for making it to that beach. Mike and I were greatly thankful for our experience, our lesson that day and for each other.
In hind sight we made a bad call, the forecast was for winds between 10-20 knots for the next day which would have made for a safer paddle. We should had stopped at the bay we eyed before rounding the point. We’d never do that again, but it’s the lessons that you learn the hard way that stick with you the longest and resonate the loudest, as I am sure we’ll have many more to come.
DAY 8 – NW MEARES ISLAND TO HEELBOOM BAY (13.4 NM)
We were only a days paddle way from Tofino, we could be back there by mid-afternoon. We had considered paddling back after the scare from the previous day. However from the scare also came a feeling of accomplishment and a feeling of being alive, as with anything where you think even if for a split second you think that you could die! We weren’t ready to head back to civilization after seeing whales, sea lions, bears and having the water to ourselves. We literally hadn’t seen any other kayakers, every campsite was our own private haven each night. So we decided to circumnavigate Meares Island.
Dinner at Heelboom Bay
Situated straight north of Tofino it is generally a 3 day paddle around as there are a series of narrows you have to hit just right with the currents. Since we were already 1/3rd of the way, why not! We kayaked a total of 6 hours that day to make it to Heelboom Bay through calm waters.
Heelboom Bay is the location of a peaceful protest in 1985 that put a halt to logging on Meares Island. The log cabin, built in 1984 by the protesters still exists and is a filled with a variety of photos and trinkets from the protests.
DAY 9 – HEELBOOM BAY TO TOFINO (~8 NM)
To hit the currents right we had to leave Heelboom Bay on the flood, which was frond 11 am, to get through the 1st set of narrows, then take our sweet time until the tide changed to the ebb to get through the second set of narrows (around 12 pm). The days paddling easy, calm and relaxed shadowed by excitement of a huge restaurant dinner for fresh seafood but also with the somberness of returning to reality, to civilization, to people and to traffic. We arrived back in Tofino late afternoon and enjoyed the 2 cookies we managed to save from the beginning of our trip as victory cookies as Mike and I unpacked, rinsed and greeted our friends.
- Total Distance: ~78.42 nautical miles (Note: we didn’t have our GPS running for two days battery died)
- Total # whales sighted: 8
- Total # sea otters: 2
- Total # sea lions: 27
- Total # salmon caught: 1