This Kayaking Life… [27]

By Jacqueline Windh

Time has gone so fast…I can’t believe it has been over a year since I left Australia…

It all started when I received a job offer to work as a sea-kayak guide for the Canadian summer (1995), based in Tofino, Clayoquot Sound, western Vancouver Island, and made plans to paddle from Vancouver to Alaska the following northern summer. Later, the offer of an academic job in Montreal for the intervening winter cemented my plans: I would be gone from Australia for at least a year and a half.

Travelling to Canada was a challenge – I knew that in western North America, typical sea-kayaks are stable touring vessels (I get in trouble here when I call them tanks, but…), and that I would not likely find a boat to my liking here. Typical sea-kayaks here have a 24-25″ beam and cockpits with enough room for both you and your dog (I know – I have done it!). So I brought my beloved Arctic Raider with me, and it has been worth every cent of the shipping costs!

En route to Canada, I considered possible Polynesian stopovers. The island of Kaua’i happens to be a conveniently located between Oz and the Great White North, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to catch up with my paddling buddies there. The last time I had been there, Mike Malone and I had hoped to paddle from Kaua’i to the island of Ni’ihau and back, a four-day trip. A succession of hurricanes kept us from even departing, so this time we talked about trying again. However, I was only on the island for 5 1/2 days, and we realised that it just did not give us enough time to wait out the weather, if a storm blew up. So we decided to try to circumnavigate Kaua’i – at least it would be much easier to bail out if for some reason we were delayed. “Kayak Kaua’i”, where Mike works, provided us with gear. We paddled Dolphins, plastic sit-on-top boats that are ideal for the Hawai’ian conditions: warm water, and steep beaches with a dumpy break at the shoreline.

We started at Hanalei, on the north part of the island, and paddled clockwise. This would leave the Na Pali Coast, an isolated 25 km stretch of spectacular cliffs with cascading waterfalls and tiny surf beaches, as the very last segment of our trip. The entire trip would be 160 km. We made 100 km in our first two days, seeing a humpback whale leaping off Makapili Rock, and stopping our first night in Kapa’a, on the east coast, and the second night in Waimea, in the southwest. That night, listening to the weather radio, we heard that surf of 15 to 20 feet (5-6 m) was predicted to build over the north shore. This meant that we would have to do the remaining 60 km in one go, because we probably would not be able to land or launch anywhere on the Na Pali coast. Also, winds were predicted to be from the NW, turning to N later in the day. This meant that we would have to reach the northwest corner of the island before the NW winds came in – otherwise we would be battling a headwind as the northwesterly wrapped around the island, which might delay us enough that we would not complete the long day’s journey. If we could make it to Polihale, the northwest corner of the island, the northwesterly would wrap around the island and become a tailwind for us. We would be landing at Hanalei in the dark if all went well. Mike felt that he knew Hanalei Harbour (a world-class surf location!) well enough that he could guide us in between the breaking bommies in 20′ surf in the dark. I trusted him.

We were on the water by 8:15 a.m. The northwesterly hit us blowing 20 knots 15 minutes later. We fought it for an hour, but were barely inching forward. We realised that, at this rate, we would not make Polihale for many hours; it was still nearly 30 km away. There was no way we would complete our 60 km day as hoped… We turned our boats around and surfed back towards the south. After a couple hours, we pulled in to Port Allen and phoned our buddy Belinda to come and collect us. She wasn’t able to come right away, so we paddled on to Poipu, where she met us several hours later, covering in total another 35 km that day. The next day we drove to Hanalei, and watched the surfers get trashed on the giant breakers…

I arrived in Tofino, British Columbia, several days later. Tofino is located at the mouth of Clayoquot Sound, a labyrinth of meandering bays and channels, rocky islets, and majestic islands forested with old-growth cedar and hemlock. The cedar trees here are some of the largest known in Canada, some dated at over 1600 years old. This region is home to the Nuu-chah-nulth Indians, which, in Clayoquot Sound, include the Manhousat, Ahousat, and Clayoquot bands. Here, the natives have never signed away or sold their land. Most of the land is considered by the federal government to be crown land, but it was originally native land, occupied and used for millennia before the first Europeans arrived.

The crown has allocated logging rights to most of the old growth forest. Although Clayoquot Sound is one of the most intact stretches of temperate rainforest left on the planet, large areas of it have already been logged or are currently slated for logging. Some parts of it are protected, and logging in other parts, such as Meare’s Island, has temporarily been halted, pending resolution of the native land claims. The natives have declared Merae’s Island to be a tribal park, and if their title to the land is recognised, will leave it as is, for all to visit and use. Meare’s Island, and other intact parts of the sound, are home to deer, elk, wolf, bear, cougar, and countless smaller mammals and birds. In the sound, seals, sea lions, porpoises, grey whales, and orcas are regularly sighted.

Before starting my guiding job I was required to take an 8-day kayak Leadership course, and an 8-day Wilderness First Aid course. The Leadership course was run by Dan Lewis, a North American kayaking demi-god. He set up the well known Ecomarine kayaking school about a decade ago, and now lives on a little island in Clayoquot Sound. I was initially a bit disappointed that the course did not deal more with advanced paddling issues e.g. surf, rough water rescues. It focuses mainly on issues related to guiding, and since clients are not normally taken out in rough water and surf, it focuses much more on leadership skills and group management. It was a great learning experience, and we had a lot of excellent discussions, learning from Dan’s wealth of experience (which includes a stint in clown school in Paris) and doing spontaneous rescue simulations in the 10 C water.

I started guiding with Tofino Sea-Kayaking Co. in June. TSKC runs day-trips, 2- and 3-day trips based at a B&B lodge on a nearby island, and 4- to 6-day camping trips in more remote parts of the sound. As the most junior guide, I would be working mostly day-trips that summer. I started out assisting on trips, so I would learn the routine and the routes from the other guides. There are a lot of safety issues that have been very well thought out in BC, where sea-kayaking has been a popular sport for decades, and that are barely even considered in Australia. As a guide, where you are legally and morally responsible for people’s lives (and where the water temperature makes the implications of a capsize much more serious than it would be in warmer climes), these safety issues are taken very seriously. Clayoquot Sound has tidal changes of up to 4 m in summer, sometimes in the space of 6 hours. The sound has many inlets, bays and islands which funnel the water flow, and the currents can be extremely strong (well over 5 knots locally) – this is one of the things I really had to work in and learn about, since I had not had much opportunity to paddle in currents in Australia. Obviously, aside from the hard skills, e.g. eddy turns, a lot of thought has to go into trip planning, e.g. routes and departure times, when dealing with such currents.

I lived in a tiny cabin on Wickanninish Island, that my good friend Tasha kindly offered to share with me. The cabin is a 4 km paddle towards the open ocean from Tofino. Depending upon the tide and the wind and the swell, the trip can be a pleasant cruise or a hard slog. The cabin itself is tiny – just enough room for two foam mats on the floor, a little table, and a bench along one side to cook on. A cast iron wood stove kept us warm on cool damp nights. We collected rainwater from the roof, washed our dishes in seawater, and had oil lamps and candles for evening reading. My guiding days were long, and sometimes it was hard to get inspired to paddle back to Wickanninish in the dark, landing on the rocks….but it was always worth it, to wake up there with the sunlight streaming in through the cedars in the morning.

By early July I was leading day-trips on my own, and by early August was leading the lodge-based overnight trips alone. Guiding gives a totally different perspective on paddling. 90% of the clients are first-time paddlers. They have no feel for the boats, no arm strength, and no endurance. The pace we go is a snail’s pace (budget for 3 to 4 km/h) compared to travelling with experienced paddlers. Guides learn to perfect the “invisible stroke” – while waiting at the front of the group for the stragglers to catch up, if you stop paddling while you wait, for some reason everyone else will also stop. So by lifting your paddle up and down, doing the “invisible stroke”, from behind it looks like you are still paddling, and they will catch up! (The “invisible stroke” works a totally different muscle group).

I wondered if guiding would make me lose enthusiasm for paddling, but it hasn’t at all! It is just not the same as my own paddling. At best, it is gentle cruising, chatting with people, pointing out historic sites and wildlife, and acquainting them with some of the very sensitive environmental issues and the possible fate of Clayoquot Sound. At worst, it is struggling to keep groups together, feeling like mother hen clucking at people who want to do their own thing, as we cross dangers they cannot even see: crossing an eddyline that could capsize an unsuspecting single, or ferrying across the busy boat channel while a floatplane circles overhead… For the most part it is great – it is definitely hard work and long days, and the pay is not anything you would get rich from….but some days out there, paddling under the giant cedars, I feel that it is a miracle that I get paid to do this at all!

Last year, at the end of the season, my good buddy Tasha and I decided to paddle back to Vancouver, down the exposed west coast of Vancouver Island, then up the inside and across to the mainland, a distance of 400 km. In very trying conditions, we made it to Victoria (south tip of Vancouver Island) in nine days. We had had headwinds every day, and seas consistently between 3 and 5 m. Because of the rough conditions, we were only rarely landing, so were eating lunch in the boats and peeing in our wetsuits. Morale was low! On our final day into Victoria, finally we got a tailwind! Within 15 minutes of launching, the tailwind had built to 40 knots (gusting higher), and we were fighting a very strong ebb-tide current. The wind-against-tide conditions made for very steep breaking waves, and the entire paddle into Victoria turned into a struggle not to broach and capsize. We were surfing, catching rides that we did our best not to catch, rides of 100 m or more. In spite of the 40 knot tailwind, the current that we were fighting kept our average speed down to 5 km/h, and it took us over three hairy hours to reach Victoria. Turning towards shore was not an option; we could only travel straight downwind. Morale was already low, and when we finally reached Victoria our nerves were frazzled. We paddled together another 2 days, but opted not to cross to the mainland, and hopped on a ferry to Vancouver instead.

After a winter spent in Montreal, I decided to return to Tofino to guide again. The company I work for, Tofino Sea-Kayaking Co., is great, and my fellow guides are wonderful people who have become good friends. We work and learn together. Last year I managed to do many long solo trips on my days off, exploring the remote parts of the sound (which is about 50 by 50 km). This year I hope to do the same, and hope to be able to paddle a bit more with some of my friends here too, hopefully getting out to the open ocean more often (only a short paddle around the peninsula from Tofino to some good, rocky, surf-bashed coast). Long Beach is a 15 minute drive from here, and is a good surf beach – there are a few river boats around town, and I am keeping my eye out for any used Pirouettes.

After the northern summer, I will spend a month or two in Montreal, then, who knows….perhaps back to Australia for some warm-water paddling in January…