wild sea kayak adventures: solitude and swell

In June 2017 I found myself on the west coast of Vancouver Island with ten free days, no sea kayaking companions and a rare opportunity to explore – alone – a new coastline. Packing my kit, I reflected that this would be my first solo multi-day sea kayak trip. After nearly thirty paddling years, I was startled to realise that I was set for a brand new sea kayaking experience. I was excited, and curious to discover how I would respond to the challenges ahead.

Later that day, my first hour in Tofino was spent packing in the rain. The west coast climate had rolled out a welcoming grey carpet for me, its famous dramatic landscapes lost in the coastal mist. Suddenly ready, I had no further excuses to linger ashore; launching into Clayoquot Sound, I turned my bow north and headed off into the late afternoon gloom.

A stiff southeast wind blew me along at a pace; with poor visibility and no local knowledge, I turned from the open ocean and shaped a course up the east sides of Vargas and Flores Islands, landing after 30km at a tiny gravel beach beside a waterfall. In the now-heavy rain I hastily pitched my tarp and tent, ate dinner and dived into bed. Cocooned in nylon layers, I lay listening to the dripping forest and contemplated the week ahead. I felt unusually anxious; the sudden dislocation from ‘civilisation’ into a wild new environment and the lack of a paddling friend with whom to share the experience combined to create a slight sense of unease. Sleep only came gradually.

Next morning, a steady drizzle followed me west to Hot Springs Cove. Here ended the protection of Clayoquot Sound, its waters merging with the Pacific Ocean where a lively sea state greeted my arrival. Turning north, I paddled past rocky islets among steep reflected waves towards Hesquiat Harbour. I had formed a vague plan for the days ahead, nothing more than a decision to head north-west for four days – as conditions permitted – then to retrace my paddle strokes back to Tofino. Further detail at this stage seemed superfluous.

Solo paddling was not the only novel element of the trip; in addition to the unfamiliar coastline, I was in a loaned Rockpool Taran – a rudder-steered fast sea kayak with race design origins. Notwithstanding a few short trips in my home waters, this was also a new experience. Dancing through outer coast waves, I felt unaccustomed to my boat’s character and uncertain of its responses. The small anxieties of the first day resurfaced; I had clearly not left them all in Clayoquot Sound.

My first real challenge came as I headed around the Hesquiat Peninsula. Conditions gradually grew as exposure to the south-west swell increased; the passage past Estevan lighthouse and around Perez Rocks demanded an offshore route to avoid a heavy groundswell that broke over the outlying reefs. Feeling committed, and alert to the movement of the ocean beneath me, I remained in the relative security of deeper water. An atmospheric mist hung over the headland’s surf zones to my right, although I struggled to appreciate its stark beauty.

I shaped a course north towards the entrance of Nootka Sound as the steady south wind blew me onwards. Ashore on Escalante Island I hurriedly set up camp, shivering as the rain fell from a leaden sky. In my sleeping bag as my body gradually warmed, I felt satisfaction at the successful completion of a 60km paddling day in taxing conditions, relief at my safe arrival ashore, and a slight loneliness. Unused to solitude afloat, I missed a companion with whom to discuss options and share plans. This solo paddling game felt simpler, but harder in a way.

Launching the next day, I paddled through reefs beyond the west side of Escalante and gazed across the sound to the west coast of Nootka Island. The sight was uninspiring; still wreathed in clouds, the distant coastline looked forbidding in the sizeable south-west swell. I considered my choices, knowing there was only one good decision: turning north, I surfed downwind into Nootka Sound, as the ocean’s energy gradually dissipated.

I hoped to reach the north side of Nootka Island on this day. Although the exposed west coast was closed to me, I could transit the east and north coasts via two long sounds, escaping into Esperanza Inlet through a narrow connecting fiord hemmed in by dramatic mountains. Today the Taran proved its worth. Clocking up the miles as the south wind blew me onwards, I marvelled at my boat speed; a combination of fast hull, wing blades and honest effort. With no paddling buddies I was free to keep my pace, take breaks if needed and to set goals without negotiation. Time and miles slid by; as evening arrived I reached the open ocean again, washing up on beautiful Catala Island at the entrance to Esperanza Inlet. Finally the sun broke through the gloom. As a rain squall enveloped the coastal mountains to the east, the Pacific North West horizon appeared from beneath its canopy of cloud. After ten hours and 70km, my satisfaction at achieving the day’s goals was powerful. Moreover, with twenty four more hours available to head north, I was excited at the prospect of my next day afloat.

I awoke to sunny blue skies as a light north-west wind rustled the storm-straggled trees surrounding my camp. Weighing the options, I could explore the local area or push on to the Mission Group islands, an idyllic archipelago a further 40km north-west of Catala. I wrestled briefly with the choice; instinct for the challenging option was tempered by concerns at further extending my distance from Tofino, miles that I would have to retrace. Again, I missed company and conversation; still, I felt happy enough to discuss the matter with myself!

Afloat on a north-west bearing, I paddled out through kelp-bound reefs sheltering rafted sea otters, the swell increasing as I took the offshore route around Tatchu Point. The North Pacific Ocean’s energy asked challenging questions as I slalomed towards the entrance to Clear Passage. Dodging reef breaks, I found calmer water inside a long line of rocky islets that protected my journey towards the entrance to Kyuquot Sound. Rounding the final exposed section at Rugged Point, I arrived in an oasis of serene water, a white-shell beach beckoning me to shore.

I basked in the sunshine on a huge driftwood log, my bare skin warmed and drying in the midday heat. I had arrived in a more peaceful world; at last, I relished my solitude. With no filter to my experience, I could absorb my surroundings fully in this remote corner of Vancouver Island’s west coast wilderness. Dozing, I felt inclined to spend the rest of the day in my tranquil idyll. However, the temptation to press on to the Mission group proved too great; two hours later I stepped ashore on the narrow isthmus at the south tip of Spring Island. The mid-afternoon sun burned in the sky, high wispy clouds dressed the peaks of the interior mountain range, while the magnificent Brooks Peninsula dominated my view to the north-west. I could not imagine a more inspiring place to be alone, amid wolf tracks, driftwood architecture, chattering ravens and the gentle surge of ocean on rocky shoreline. I wandered, enchanted, along the forest trails of this magical island – alone but perfectly content.

The next day marked the beginning of my return to Tofino. At 7am a fresh offshore breeze blew out of Kyuquot, forcing a high-tempo start to the day as I worked hard to regain Clear Passage and its route south towards Nootka. A sailboat crossed my path, leading me between offshore reefs and the coastline. As my ‘guide’ cleared the last of the sheltering rocks it began to pitch and toss, dancing with the ocean’s energy. I followed, shaping a course back to Catala Island, via a lunch break beach shared with a foraging bear. Late afternoon brought me to the Nuchatlitz Islands, where I set up camp under threatening skies in the lee of an islet, protected from a westerly wind that blew into the late evening. I faced a key decision; I could commit to Nootka Island’s outer coast, or retrace my route through the protected inlets of the inside passage. Since leaving Tofino five days earlier, my VHF radio had failed to find any weather channels and I had long since lost confidence in my now-historical wind forecast. Cycling through the channels, I suddenly found a forecast for the next two days; light winds with a new low pressure system on the distant horizon. At the very moment I needed quality information, fortune had delivered.

Up and packing in the pre-dawn gloom, I was afloat and heading for Ferrer Point before 5am. I was keen to arrive at Nootka’s north-west corner, to review my options and commit to a plan. At 6am I looked down the west coast, rising and falling on the ever-present swell as a light outflow wind blew across my decks. Twenty miles of exposure to Nootka Sound, or a long, long day of inlet paddling? I cleared the reef breaks, pointed my bow south-east and settled down to a steady rhythm of paddle strokes. Headlands slid by, the wind remained light and at last I gained the sheltering kelp beds of Bajo Point. Nookta’s magnificent west coast, backlit by the rising sun, was my claimed prize for this commitment of effort and will. Pressing on, the final hours to San Rafael Point brought increasingly joyful encounters with diving sea otters, dancing sunlight and surging swell. I felt the tensions of the day leaving my muscles, replaced by the quiet satisfaction of a well-executed good decision. Nootka’s outer coast was a worthy reward for the challenge of facing my uncertainties.

I crossed to Escalante, where I landed on the protected north-facing beach, some 60km from my Nuchatlitz departure. Settled into a driftwood den, I set up camp and gazed out on a spectacular vista of ocean, reefs, snow-capped peaks and forests. I strolled the length of the beach, awestruck by the impossibly beautiful view, delighted to be alone. The rewards of this solo trip were magnified by my lack of company; although I missed a companion with whom to share my experiences, I recognised that the anxieties and commitment of this solitary wilderness week were providing a remarkable gift. I felt my surroundings intensely, studied broken shells and driftwood twigs with great clarity, and lost my thoughts in the sun’s gradual descent into the ocean. I dozed serenely as the campfire flames crackled outside my tent and a distant wolf howled at the rising moon.

I left Escalante in a peaceful mood the next morning, having dawdled through my boat packing chores. With only the Hesquiat Peninsula between me and Clayoquot Sound, I felt relaxed at the prospect of one more day of open ocean paddling. Heading south, I noted a gradual increase in sea state as I threaded through the last protecting reefs. Two hours in, the swell rose to a greater height as Perez Rocks approached. In windless conditions, the glassy faces grew ever larger, forcing me further offshore as reef breaks boomed unnervingly to my left. Despite shaping a course into deeper water, the ocean valleys became more profound, their faces steeper, their peaks more intimidating. The paddling was technically simple, yet I felt anxiety replacing confidence as the commitment of the passage around Hesquiat increased. Estevan Point became visible away to my left and still I headed into the deep waters of the Pacific to escape the growing waves. Finally able to head south-east, the distant peaks beyond Clayoquot Sound played hide and seek as glassy green mountains slid under my hull.

I estimated another two hours to reach protected waters; however, a new problem had emerged. I started to experience a physical disorientation in this huge, windless swell; my sense of equilibrium began to desert me. After decades of confidently balancing my kayak in the ocean, I gradually became uncertain of my capacity to remain upright. There seemed no obvious solution to this problem; my only strategy was to drive the boat forwards, focusing on the occasional glimpses of land. In between, I fought back the feelings of panic. In my first paddling year, I had read John Dowd’s inspirational sea kayaking manual and had learned of sea kayakers gradually becoming ‘overwhelmed by conditions’. I had never properly grasped that concept, having never experienced it. Today, I finally truly understood Dowd’s words… although this new-found wisdom was no solace in my predicament.

After a perceived eternity, the sheltering waters of Hesquiat Harbour drew closer – one final guarding reef break and I was inside still waters. I limped over to the beach, staggered from my kayak and lay on the sand, my racing emotions gradually calming in the warm sunshine. I was startled and confused, never having expected such a problem. My sense of security and confidence was, for the moment, badly shaken.

I cautiously paddled the remaining miles to Hot Springs Cove, nervously negotiating the reflected waves at its entrance before gliding into the calm waters of a glorious Flores Island bay. Ashore, with the option of a protected route to Tofino, I reflected on the outer coast elements I had embraced during my week of solitude and swell in the Pacific North West. I wasn’t sure of the lesson the ocean had delivered, but clearly recognised its educational value. In all my sea kayaking adventures, in beautiful and remote corners of the world, I had never felt such a loss of balance in my boat. It was a tough experience to process, but valuable and intense, accentuated by my solitude afloat.

In such a situation my radio, PLB and flares offered only an illusory veneer of safety; my wellbeing had depended upon finding immediate solutions to the physical and psychological challenges that I had faced. I had overcome them, but without confidence and with what felt like an uncomfortably thin margin. I appreciated the luxury of quiet reflection on my deserted beach; I knew, in this moment, that I would benefit from my week alone on the west coast for a long time to come. A speculative trip up a new coastline had become a special and significant encounter with my own instinctive responses.

Next day, I paid an early morning visit to the hot springs. As salt and sweat washed away under the steaming falls, I felt the tensions of the week dissipate. Calmer and more relaxed, I followed the west coast of Flores Island until I could see Vargas Island, my destination for the day and a rendezvous with Kate. Landing, I gazed at my final crossing – savouring my final minutes of solitude. The gifts of this week were becoming clearer to me; my relationship with time, often so fraught, had become my friend; I was able to observe its passage, or lose my sense of it, without effort or anxiety. The noisy clutter of my mind had gradually diminished, replaced by a quiet observation of my thoughts and emotions. My ability to sit and simply be, often such a challenge, had returned on Catala, Spring, Nootka, on Escalante and on Flores. I felt calm.

My real challenge lay ahead; Tofino would mark my return from this physical and psychological space. My emotional equilibrium could remain with me; or – faced with the demands of everyday life – gradually diminish. I reminded myself that I had glimpsed serenity in this elemental world of ocean, beach and forest; I knew where to find it again, and could perhaps learn to take it with me. I launched once more and headed home.

I am grateful to those who made possible my trip on the wild west coast of Vancouver Island. A huge thank you to the organisers of the Pacific Paddlesport Symposium for my invite to their excellent gathering; to the wonderful PPS coaches and participants; to JF Marleau and SKILS for my warm Ucluelet welcome; to Mike Webb for his amazing Rockpool Taran; and to Kate, for sharing this beautiful place with me.