Sunday, August 13, 2017

Broken Group Seakayaking - Vancouver Island, BC

The Broken Group is a group of small islands and islets in the middle of Barkley Sound on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.  They are part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, the Canadian equivalent to a National Park in the U.S.  Our friend Ian had suggested we join him and colleen and some others on a sea kayaking adventure this summer.  It took some planning, borrowed boats and one all nighter of driving but we were able to pull it off and had one of the best trips of our life!  Read on...

The journey to get to the Broken Group of Islands is not an easy one, especially directly after a flight from the East Coast and long night of drinking the day before!  Emily and I flew into Sea-tac at midnight on Sunday, got a shuttle to our truck which was in a secured lot with the sea kayaks mounted on the top and then drove 3.5 hours to Port Angeles to catch the ferry.  We got to the terminal at 3:30 and by the time I was in my sleeping bag in the back of the truck it was nearly 4am, which of course was really 7am as I was still on East Coast time… I got about an hour and half of sleep before the sun came up and we had to move the truck to get ready for the ferry.

From there it was a 2 hour ferry ride to Victoria on Vancouver Island.  Emily hadn’t realized until it was too late that both her driver’s license and passport were expired so she had come prepared with her expired ones, birth certificate, social security card, and a new temporary paper license hoping she would be allowed in… Thankfully, the agent didn’t even hesitate to let us back in but did warn us that we may have to pay a large fee to get back into the U.S… Happy to be in Canada and adjusting to the new KM speed limit signs we had another 4-5 hour drive to Secret Beach where we planned to meet up with everyone but Ian and Colleen who had headed out to Hand Island earlier in the day.  

After a few stops for groceries, poutine and wifi at McDonalds and some expensive Island gas we were on our way deep into the wilderness and snow covered peaks of the interior of the island.  We wound our way through the tall forests and jagged peaks following a river to where we turned off on a dirt road towards the hard-to-find Secret Beach.  Thankfully, I had gotten great directions from a boat shuttle captain about how to find the beach when we were previously thinking about renting kayaks.  Fortunately, our wonderful friends Kalin and Marissa had loaned us their sea carbon fiber and fiberglass 19’ shells for the week saving us hundreds!  

We arrived at the beach around 4:30 in the afternoon and after introductions we frantically packed up our boats with gear and wayyyy too much water!  We were told a gallon per day per person for drinking and cooking because there was no freshwater on the islands but between our two five gallon jugs and 400+oz of water in camelbacks and nalgenes we only ended up using about half of it.  Ian was right when he told us packing up would take a while.  

It wasn’t until about 5:15 that we were shoving off and I barely was able to make it to the parking lot attendant in time to get a parking pass and pay for the kayak put in.  We discovered that these fees were VERY expensive and that even with the fees many vehicles at the lot had been broken into over the years.  Next time we’ll cut the drive in half utilize the Lady Rose Marine Services ferry from Port Alberni to get us out to the islands!

We had driven through dense smoke blown south from historic fires in BC the entire way from Seattle and up the island.  The smoke was definitely still there but now we were paddling into a thick marine layer of fog that would engulf us in the islands for nearly the entire trip.  This is why the native First Nation people call it “FogAust” I guess!  We passed between North and South Stopper Islands but as soon as we were clear of them we became socked-in with fog.  Kalin had a compass on his kayak but I also pulled out my iPhone with maps on it and helped navigate us slowly through the fog towards Hand Island where Ian and Colleen were waiting for us.  

Around 6:45pm as my gps said we were close we began to see the outline of trees and an island ahead.  Colleen suddenly appeared on some rocks and gave us a shout out to paddle around to the opposite side of the island where they had set up camp.  It was a little bit busier than I had expected based on our drive through Vancouver Island I was a surprised to see 2 other groups on the island as well.  Ian Murray, Chris, Tyler, Kellen, and Jill all brought along only hammocks to sleep in so they headed for the woods while Emily and I and Ian and Colleen risked setting up our tents on a sandbar.  The tide was headed out when we pulled up and gauging by the height of the washed up seaweed I figured we’d be safe.  

We all cooked dinner together and broke out the whiskey and beer for our first official night on the island.  Ian M, Tyler, and Jill were all firefighters with Clackamas fire (Jill actually lives 3 doors down from us!) so they got professional fires going for us each night of the trip with the plentiful driftwood everywhere throughout the islands.  Someone ventured down to the water and discovered that the bay we pulled into had unbelievably bright bioluminescence!  Everywhere you disturbed the water, by either throwing rocks or walking through it yourself it would light up with a brilliant bright blue glow.  This place was amazing already!

On Tuesday morning we woke up to low tide again.  Emily had told me she got up to pee in the middle of the night and the water was just feet from our tent.  Now it was over a hundred feet away!  Close call but thankfully we woke up dry!  At low tide the beach was exposed and it was absolutely littered with fresh oysters!  Tyler pried one open with a big knife and instantly ran over and slurped it down without hesitation.  I was looking for another when someone in our group suggested we should first check about “red tide” shellfish warnings first.  Jill had paid for cell coverage to call her family and sadly informed me that there was a warning against eating any bi-valve shellfish including mussels and oysters for the area!  Boooo!!

We spent a relaxing morning on the beach exploring the tide pools for starfish, anemones and crabs and I even spotted a huge jellyfish in the bay with what appeared to be orange guts.  We had a pow-wow the night before and decided that to properly see the entire island chain we would spend 2 nights at two more camp sites which meant packing up and heading out from Hand Island after just the quick overnight. 

The bay we stayed in on Hand, although busy with other groups, was one of the best places we saw on the islands, packed with shellfish, great bioluminescence and it even had a resident sparrow that clearly didn’t want us to leave it’s island.  The cute little bird actually landed on both Jill’s and Emily’s kayak paddles and then took a ride on Jill’s boat for several hundred feet out until it got nervous and flew back home.  

Our first real day of paddling had mixed weather, sometimes super foggy and then sometimes clearing up with a very light breeze giving us broad views around the many islands dotting the sound.  There was plenty of sea life including gulls, Eagles hunting from spruce trees along the shore, loons and the occasional seal that would pop a head up to see what we were up to.  Emily and I hadn’t been sea kayaking since our honeymoon in Patagonia where we were in a double kayak.  It was super fun this time to have our own high quality crafts thanks to Kalin and Marissa.  

We made our way from Hand Island southwest passing between Dodd and Walsh Island, then between Willis and Turtle island until we got to Turret Island where stopped for a lunch break on a wonderful little beach.  Jill found a rope swing and I explored the beach looking for critters to photograph.  These islands were so darn cool!  They were completely protected from the swells of the ocean giving us extremely calm water that felt like paddling through glass at times.  Ospreys and Eagles were all around us hunting fish and tiny rocky islands would pop up or disappear depending on the tide. 

When we loaded back into the kayaks at around 3pm for the last push across a wide gap to Gilbert Island where we planned to stay for several nights.  Once again I got out the iPhone maps to help us navigate.  Thankfully, the iPhone 7 is waterproof so I had no worry leaving it strapped to the kayak in front of me.  Every time we kayaked across a stretch like this I kept my eyes and ears strained for any indication of a nearby orca or whale but unfortunately we wouldn’t see one the entire trip.

When we got to Gilbert we noticed two groups on the beach we intended to camp at so we started to paddle around the island a bit.  From the satellite images on my phone it didn’t look like anything was there and I was right forcing us to backtrack to the beach and set up between the two groups.  One was a father with two girls and the other was a really fun German couple on vacation throughout BC who came over to visit with us throughout the night.  We set up our tent in the woods this time as the seaweed high tide level looked pretty darn high here and we didn’t want to risk it (although Ian and Colleen did again).  

Beach games were played while I geared up in the same wetsuit I bought for Eagle Creek.  Ian loaned me some goggles and snorkel and I headed out with Tyler into the small bay to do some crabbing!  Ian had brought a homemade crab trap as well and put it out to test his luck with some chicken as bait.  Almost immediately I stumbled upon a big red rock crab but when I picked it up to show Tyler I didn’t know how to hold it.  It almost pinched my fingers with it’s huge crusher claw and I dropped it!  The sadness was short-lived though, as both Tyler and I quickly found others.  Later that night after dinner and exploring tide pools Ian also brought in several more he captured in his pot!  

The rest of the night was spent enjoying crab steamed with old bay seasoning, a chicken-pasta dish for Emily and I and of course a fire on the beach!  Living in the Pacific Northwest, especially with the reality of the BC fires nearby and others back in Oregon it is always a little unnerving to have a campfire in the wilderness… except here.   There was plentiful dry wood everywhere in the form of driftwood washed up above the tideline by winter storms and having the fire on the beach gravel below the tide line meant that before we all fell asleep high tide would wash the fire safely away!  Perfect!  

On Wednesday morning we woke up to a monster in our group!  Nope, it was just Kellen who had been bitten by something gnarly the night before.  She said she reacts badly to mosquitos but by the way her face was swelled up we guessed it was something else.  Colleen gave her some aspirin and the sunglasses quickly went on to not scare the nearby children!  As per our custom we lazed around, enjoying the morning sun on the beach knowing that the fog would eventually return in the afternoon.  This was a trip for relaxation, not hard days like Emily and I are used to backpacking.  No heavy packs, just heavy boats where the weight kept us better balanced in the water.  

That afternoon we paddled out  along the southwest side of Effingham Island past Austin Island towards the outer reaches of the preserve.  Along the way we passed a big sea cave on Austin Island and I got some great shots of Chris paddling solo between two small rocky islands just off the island. When we got closer to Cree Island we began to feel the ocean swells underneath us and began to see a lot more kelp beds around us.  We kept closer to shore to avoid the swirling swells entering the islands but Ian and the others wanted to paddle around the ocean side of Cree Island to look for whales and more seals or sea lions.  

I followed the guys with Emily while the other ladies stayed on the landward side of the island protected from the waves.  I had been paddling with my Panasonic bridge camera safely sitting on my splash skirt in front of me but now on the exposed ocean side of the islands I realized how tippy my boat was without the weight of the water and gear which was of course set up back at camp while we explored.  It was super nerve racking trying to balance the long craft in the swirling swells ricocheting off the shallow rocks surrounding the island.  I was super happy to pull back with the others into the protection behind Howell Island once we got through it.

Fog started to roll in hard and it actually took us a little while to re-connect with the other ladies and make our way towards Wouwer Island to explore a tide pool area there and grab some lunch.  Emily and I were super careful with our loaned boats so we didn’t venture into the tide pool area which was barely passable at the current high tide but I was able to get some great shots of everyone making their way through the labyrinth of seaweed covered rocks.  

We had a super relaxing lunch  on the small beach on the south side of the island but Ian and the others had heard of a super cool beach on the other side so we took a short walk through the woods to check it out.  The other side had a similar beach with a lot more driftwood and there was a private fishing boat parked just off the shore.  I’d say it was a little bit prettier than the beach we had lunch at but not by much.  We snapped a few photos of us on the rocks just off the beach and had some fun playing seesaw on a big driftwood log before heading back to our side.

When we got got back to the beach Chris had the great idea of filling up our empty kayaks with driftwood for the fire that night.  Not only would it prevent hunting for wood at camp, it would provide me some much needed weight in my tippy kayak to help me get safely back.  I think we packed in enough wood that afternoon for 2 nights of campfires!  But, on the way back I definitely felt the difference and was much more stable!

We pulled out the maps and discussed options for the paddle back.  It was too late in the day to head out further towards Benson and Clark Islands but the Ians, Chris and Tyler wanted to paddle out to the ocean side of the island to look for whales again and check out Seal Rocks and Combe Rock where supposedly there should be seals and sea lions.  This time my fear of missing out was overcome by my fear of tipping over and I bailed, following the ladies instead around the inside protected side of the island.  I did however paddle far ahead of everyone in case when we reconnected with the fellas and they saw something worth seeing.

Which is exactly what happened…. When we met up with them they said they had seen a whole bunch of big sea lions and seals lounging on the rocks off shore so I paddled out hard to check it out myself, unfortunately, not seeing much beyond a few seals popping their heads up because in paddling by they had spooked all of them off the rocks anyway.  That is one thing we noticed this far up the Vancouver coast.  The wildlife was far more easily spooked than the seals and sea lions south of us around the San Juan's where they are probably fed by a lot more tourists and accustomed to the crowds.  

From there it was a super pleasant paddle back past Batley Island, Cooper Island and Moreton Island to Gilbert.  Along the way we again were visited by seals and the weather seemed to clear up for us giving us a beautiful sunshine-filled paddle across flat, protected water.  We passed underneath a huge osprey hunting from a tree and and although Chris and I thought we wouldn’t be able to squeeze through a narrow passage the others did with Jill actually spotting a crab in the shallows along the way.  I peeled back into the narrows and helped her catch it and strap it to her kayak for the short paddle back on the north side of the island.  

When we got closer to camp I spotted Ian taking some pictures of some funny looking black birds with bright orange eyes and deep red beaks.  Several of them had tags on their legs as well giving me the idea that they might be a rare species to spot.  They made ridiculous sounds and I was lucky enough to catch one mid-flight as I spooked it coming around a corner.  Funny, cute little birds.  

Back at camp we again pulled in a big catch of crab and just wading around at low tide in my shorts resulted in finding a few more.  Emily stood guard over them on the beach while the pot was heated so they wouldn’t crawl away!  This time it was Ian’s turn in a wetsuit to go look for more.  We had a huge take that night of crab.  Easily 10+, one for each of us.  it was truly incredible how well Ian’s home made trap was working out for us, despite the absolutely horrid smell of the rotten chicken he was using for bait.

While Emily cooked us up some pasta for dinner I wandered about pulling fresh mussels off the rocks (to hell with the ban) and exploring the creatures of the woods.  I noticed that not only were the banana slugs an obsidian black color, they also seemed to be even larger than the ones we have in Oregon and I discovered after 10 years what appeared to be their favorite food… an orange fungus growing on moss covered logs throughout the area.  I was also able to use the incredible camera on the iPhone to get some macro shots of one clearly feeding on the fungus which I thought was simply fascinating!  

I also took the time to photograph the super cool outhouses on the islands for this blog.  Not only were they decorated with buoys but they were ingeniously built, raised off the ground by 10 feet or more with solar powered fans to remove the smell and wood chips for composting, refilled weekly by the first nation beach keepers!  In true Canadian fashion there was even a note inside the one on Gilbert island apologizing for the possible smell if the solar fan ran out of juice!

That night we had a blast.  We feasted on a ton of crab, drank by the fire, tried in vain to seesaw a huge log with all our weight that probably actually weighed several tons and had a spectacular night of exploring bioluminescence.  It was quite as bright as it was on Hand Island but everyone was keen on getting in their kayaks and paddling through it.  Ian was able to get some truly amazing shots despite the moisture in the air from the fog that was giving me a bit of trouble.  

We had such a good time that we actually stayed up till 1am when the high tide reached it’s peak and almost washed Jill out to see who had fallen asleep next to the once raging fire!  I had ripped some big mussels off the rocks and in my state of mind thought to hell with the ban and through them in the fire to pop open once cooked.  Delicious!  Luckily Ian and I pulled her away just as the water was about to reach her elbow in the sand!  This trip was truly turning out to be one of our favorites!

Thursday was our day to pack up and move islands.  The plan was to paddle around the Northeast side of Effingham Island to check out a “hole in the wall” we had heard about.  After several days of me lagging behind in my boat which was far heavier with gear and water than everyone else, I decided to paddle far ahead of everyone so that I might get some wildlife photos before others in front of me scared the critters away.  This worked out well as I was able to get some great shots of a bald eagle and spotted a bunch of seals (too quick for pics).  

On the way to hole in the wall we came across a literal hole in a wall of rock.  This was a bit confusing as we weren’t quite where we should be yet but this window and arch above it looked pretty dam cool so a few of us explored it.  I didn’t venture behind it with my fiberglass boat for fear of hitting a rock but Ian and Tyler checked it out and got some great shots looking out from behind it.  If it had been high tide they may have even been able to paddle all the way around it and out but as it was they had to backtrack I think.  

I was the first to make it to the official hole in the wall with Ian Murray right behind me.  I snapped some photos then paddled around the outside of it into the ocean swells to see if it was safe to pass through it.  We were warned not to go into sea caves but this was technically a sea passage, a hole in the coastline of the island and it looked safe enough to me.  I led the way with Ian right behind me and although the swells were getting funneled into the narrow opening we made it through without any problem.  We then circled back again with my action camera running on the bow of my boat with me following Ian this time for perspective.  

Then the others showed up and Ian Roth called out to me to take another run through so he could have some perspective of size as well.  I obliged and circled around for another run.  This time I was a bit cocky after 2 easy runs and just plowed on into the hole, not thinking about the swells.   Unfortunately, a new set was coming through with much bigger swells than the last time and I took the brunt of the biggest one with it breaking right over the front of my boat as I passed through.  I was perpendicular to the wave so I punched through it with no problem but as usual for the trip I had my Panasonic Bridge Camera sitting on my lap and it took a direct hit with seawater.  

Ian missed the actual shot of me getting hit but he did capture me clearly about 2 feet below the water line just before it broke over my bow.  I came out and shook the camera hard to try to shake any water off of it.  I turned it off and on and the lens came out but the shutter sounded really bad.  A few minutes later it died for good.  If you are reading this and are ever in the same situation DO NOT TURN THE CAMERA ON.  

Leave it as it is, and when you get done adventuring stick it in a bag of rice to get the water out.  Electronics usually don’t stand a chance with seawater though as salt is a great conductor and fried circuit boards quickly even when dried… There goes $1000 and the rest of my wide angle capabilities.  Thankfully, I still had my weatherproof DSLR and 600mm lens for wildlife shots!

Everyone could tell I was pretty bummed.  But we had to continue on across a long stretch of water past Wiebe and Dempster Islands towards Gibraltar Island where we hoped to camp for the night.  Along the way we got multiple visits from curious seals and also saw some adorable ones lunging on some rocks as we passed by them.  If you get a chance take a look at Google Earth or Satellite View in Google Maps of the area and you’ll see that there are literally hundreds of tiny rocky islands throughout the area, many of which are only exposed at low tide but can be seen just under the water in the satellite views.  Eagles, Ospreys, seals, and sea lions just loved to lounge around on them.  Think of them as park benches for sea life!

When we got to Gibraltar Island, tired already from our long open water paddle we were disappointed to see that it was jam-packed with people already.   Beautiful white seashells lined the paths between campsites and directed people safely at night to the outhouse but after exploring the entire area we couldn’t find a decent place to group up with just our two tents and hammocks.  As another group was leaving a local guide suggested we check out the campsite on Willis Island which we had passed by on Tuesday on our way to Gilbert.  This meant another hour and half of paddling but we really were hoping for some solitude for a few nights on the islands.

The paddle over to Willis was amazing.  We decided to paddle Northwest around Jacques Island then straight through the center of it towards Turtle Island.  In In the protected center of the island the water was like paddling across glass and the tide was just high enough for us to sneak our kayaks through a narrow passage out of it.  It was eerie how many times we encountered narrow waterways perfect for kayaks to pass through but not bigger boats or even small rafts.  It was like this area was built to be a playground for just kayakers!

Once out of Jacques Island we had a crossing over to the protected waters around Willis, Turtle and Dodd Islands.  I stayed ahead of everyone again desperately hoping to see an orca or whale but it wasn’t meant to be.  Halfway across we passed through the “Tiny Group” of little rock islands which had shallow turquoise tide pools all around them.  Since it was high tide we had plenty of room to steer through cool passageways looking at the colorful sea life just below our paddles as we glided effortlessly over it.  Starfish of every color and dark red rock crabs everywhere!  

Despite a little confusion about which side of Willis Island the campsite was at (my gps maps didn’t show campsites) we made it by about 5pm with plenty of time to scout out a campsite on a broad empty beach we had all to ourselves.  Well kind of… There was a big Great Blue Heron on the beach when we pulled up and as soon as we beached the boats and began setup of camp he returned.  It was clearly his/her beach fishing beach!  I was able to walk surprisingly close to it for some great shots.  Apparently it was used to dealing with humans visiting it’s beach!

Jill and Ian waded out into the water as the tide was going out and were able to just scoop up about 6-8 additional crabs beyond the ones that Ian had caught in the morning and Tyler had toted around all day with him behind his kayak!  Again, we would feast on local seafood!  We all scrounged up firewood and driftwood around the island.  This gave us a chance to explore the island as well… which turned out to be our favorite island of the entire trip.  There were two huge cedars on the island as wide as a sequoia and one of them had a climbing rope on it.  Later the next day Ian would climb it to relax in the big branches.  There was also another hidden cove to the West where Emily literally tripped into another couple camping there.  

The couple told us that there had been a humpback whale feeding and breaching just off the beach for the past couple days.  My heart sank and I really hoped that it would return the next morning for us to get a glimpse of it.  I had all the right gear to capture it from every angle!  Heading back to camp we also spotted a mangy looking American Pine Martin who must also call the rocks along the beach his home.  

When we returned to camp another family was pulling back into their campsite down the beach in a huge Canoe.  It was Greg Phillips, his wife and two daughters.  We were pleased to hear they were also from Portland and surprisingly enough they knew a lot of the same people that our firefighters knew.  They had been at this campsite for several days and had also seen the whale, describing how amazing it was and breaking my heart in the process.  They were really nice but a terrible case of FOMO was sweeping over me so while we chatted I packed my camera gear for an early morning whale hunt.

We spent the evening drinking manhattans around the campfire that I made, stuffing ourselves with fresh crab and watching our favorite heron fish along the beach.  As usual I had brought the iPad filled with movies and such for relaxing evening but on this trip I didn’t bring it out once, preferring to enjoy the solitude of the islands rather than be distracted with technology.  I kept my ears open for sounds of a whale breaching as I went to bed but heard nothing.

I woke myself up at 6am on Friday morning and pulled myself out of the tent with camera gear ready and a camp chair in hand, making my way to the other cove of the island as the first rays of daylight began to hit our beach.  If there was a whale I damn sure was going to get some photos of it.  I silently left our camp and snuck by the other couple in the far cove, walking far out on the exposed rocks at low tide to a rocky cliff above the seaward side of the island.  There, I set up my long lens on a rock and sat back in my chair to do some catching up on Outside Magazine on the iPad while I patiently waited for the whale to hopefully return.  

A couple hours passed and I could see Ian, Tyler and Jill across a stretch of water also sitting on some rocks looking outward.  Ian, Emily and Colleen eventually showed up behind us along with Greg and his family on a nearby rock.  I sat there for a total of about 5 hours but besides a few seals and a bait ball of fish birds were attacking in the distance there was no whale to be seen.  Between Ian and I we did end up with a bunch of really good photos of sea life among the rocks as it was low tide.  I was bummed, but also a bit bored so we headed back to camp finding a fun rope swing for Emily and Colleen to horse around on for a bit on the way.

Back at camp the general consensus was to just hang out and relax but Ian and I had other ideas in mind.  I had a bit of fun exploring the island and checking out the huge banana slugs (feeding them chunks of their favorite fungus) but soon grew bored.  Greg had told us how amazing Clark and Benson Islands were that we hadn’t had time to visit a few days prior.  We were close enough to paddle over to check them out in the afternoon so we went for it.  We took off just before 1pm around the seaward side of the island, cutting around the now dry bay that we had walked back across after whale watching.  

With lots of energy it took us no time to cross the channel and get to Trickett Island where we found, yet again, a narrow passage through the rocks to the other side.  This passage was particularly beautiful as it was very shallow lighting up the rocks and sealife under us in a  brilliant turquoise color.  From there it was a quick paddle over to Lovett Island to check out a picturesque rock island offshore and then off across another open stretch of water towards Owens and Clark Island.  

We were paddling pretty much on the seaward edge of the preserve on this paddle and could feel the ocean swells underneath us.  With my camera dead back at camp and my DSLR with telephoto lens safely in a dry bag strapped in front of me I felt a bit less nervous in my tippy kayak as we paddled along.  We entered a small protected area to the Northwest side of Clarke Island and were blown away by how beautiful it was.  

Greg had mentioned that it would feel like paddling into a caribbean island and we could tell he was right… at low tide.  It was closer to high tide when we got there but we could tell that at low tide vast stretches of rocky beach would be exposed everywhere with acres of tide pools to explore.  We were paddling through smooth, shallow, protected turquoise waters and it was incredible.

Ian spotted some offshore rocks with hundreds of cormorants on them further out to sea and I agreed to tag along to explore.  I had come this far and I didn’t want to bail or miss out on anything so we headed out to sea.  When we got to the rocks we found about 6-8 multi-colored harbor seals lounging on the rocks and they stayed put long enough for us to approach carefully and grab some great shots!  

One of the seals had what I can only call an “evil eye”.  I don't think it was a trick of the lighting.. it was seriously red and it stared into my very soul!!  We eventually got too close and the seals dove into the water but kept poking their heads up all around us to check us out.  An evil person could have easily played “whack-a-seal” with their paddle if they wanted to.

I was behind Ian trying to balance my boat in the swells with the paddle as well as swing around a 6 pound two foot long DSLR and lens to get photos so I couldn’t keep up with him.  By the time I caught up to him he had scared off all the cormorants off the rock so all I got was a picture of Ian in the swells surrounded by annoyed birds!  On the way back towards Benson Island we found a passage between the rocks which held the seals so we took the chance to head through it despite the swells funneling through it.  I paddled like mad in my kayak and was happy to make it through and head back towards the protection of the islands, hoping that Ian was safely behind me!

We paddled back to protection between Benson and Clark passing one of the many cute miniature solar-powered lighthouses that were strewn about the islands.  I was able to get a great shot of it perfectly framed between some rocks with a tree on it.   Shortly after passing by the lighthouse we were nearly overtaken by the Frances Barkley of the Lady Rose Marine Services which came up behind us.  It was an older ship that looked like it had seen better days.. but we still plan on using it for our next trip for sure as they were helpful in planning and would save us a ton of time and money! 

Our next beautiful photo composition of the afternoon was tiny island of rock off the east side of Clarke Island that had a variety of cool elements to capture.  There was a thick green bush atop the blue-grey rocks, lined with orange grasses and a single dead dead tree atop which a huge bald eagle was sitting.  Maybe it’s just me but I found the combination of colors and wildlife to be the best shot of the trip.  Unfortunately, I no longer had the right focal length to capture it as my camera had died so I had to paddle backwards out into the choppy waves to capture Ian paddling in front of it as best I could without flipping.. it was nerve-wracking!

We took a straight line across the open water from Clark towards Turrett Island where Ian wanted to visit a huge cedar he had heard about.  Half way across we came across some exposed rocks and since it was still high tide there was a narrow gap between them.  Of course we would go through it!  The wind had picked up a little bit and even here we could feel some small swells and a lot of chop but we gave it a go anyways with me heading through it first and realizing that was way narrower than I had expected.  I made it without bumping into the rocks but it was close!

On the way towards Turret we got distracted by a deep sea cave on Nantes Island so we paddled over to check it out.  Ian inched in first to look deep into the cave with the tip of his kayak and when I finally got my action cam rolling I creeped in as well.  Not to be undone I tried to go nearly as far in as my more experienced friend Ian went.  I could see waves curling at the end of it and crashing into some rocks deep inside.  It didn’t look too dangerous but it may have been tough to exit back out if we paddled all the way in and if for some reason we got spun those breaking waves would definitely flip us if we were hit broadside.  

Just as I was contemplating actually going a little bit further I realized that a big swell had entered.. and was now exiting the cave sucking the water out quickly underneath me.  I’m not sure exactly what happened but suddenly I was upside down underwater!  I’m forever grateful that something deep inside of me always keeps me calm in situations like this.  Instead of pulling my skirt and swimming I decided the best coarse of action would be to doggy-paddle with my hands towards the side of the cave which meant briefly letting go of the paddle.  

It only took me about 3-4 LONG seconds of paddling to get to the side, grab some barnacles and pull myself up but by that point A LOT of water had entered my hull and I was soaked in my wool hoodie.  I grabbed my paddle, noticed a panicked Ian quickly paddling up behind me and we backed out of the entrance quickly.  

Ian first asked if I was ok and then quickly asked if the action cam was rolling… which it was.  Then we both had a good laugh and paddled awkwardly to a protected small cove of Nantes Island to pump the water out of my hull with Ian laughing at me the whole time… hehe.  I’m not going to overinflated the situation.  It was a 50/50 chance that if I had swam and I and the kayak had been pushed deep into the cave that it would have been a dire situation.  

The tide was going out which would have helped a bit I think but the wind and swells were also picking up with a storm approaching in less than 24 hours.  I’m a good swimmer and probably would have been able to swim out but getting the kayak out would have been tougher and there is a small chance that it could have turned into a rescue.  My point is… don’t be dumb.  Listen to the warnings that tell you to stay clear of the sea caves.  It could save your life.  

Soaked but warm we ignored visiting the tree on Turret and headed back through a different gap between Turret and Trickett Island towards Willis.  At this point it was around 4:30pm and the winds were picking up across the open water heading back towards Willis.  I was warm but still a little shaky from the flip so I paddled hard through the chop to keep forward momentum against the tippy nature of the unloaded boat.  When we got to Willis we were able to scoot by the place I had been whale watching and paddle across the shallow bay there which had been completely dry when we left.  It was truly amazing how drastically the tides changed the appearance and ability to navigate the landscape!

Back at camp I changed into warm clothes and waited with Ian for the others to return from their short exploration to the Tiny Group.  When they returned Ian dropped enough hints and giggles to prod me to tell them about my close call which got a good laugh.  We got a fire going around 6 and after some discussion with Jill checking the weather we decided our best move was to call that night the last of the trip and exit the islands before a storm blew in Saturday afternoon.  

A First Nations “Beach Keeper” finally visited us on our last night as well.  I forget his name but he was super helpful in pointing out some interesting areas on our map for our return trip in a couple years (already being planned) and also gave us their creation story of how the islands were formed based on their native legends.  It was an incredible experience and I won’t spoil it here by telling the story.  If you want to hear you’ll just have to make the journey to the islands yourself.  

That night we finished off the remainder of our booze around a roaring camp fire and also had quite the show from our resident Great Blue Heron.   An intruder (another heron) flew in suddenly to the beach to challenge our guy who wanted none of it!  A battle ensued and we watched as our hero pinned the challenger face down underwater for few moments in a flurry of feathers and beak jabs.  Triumphant our hero returned to fishing while the other flew off.  The challenger made a few more flights towards the beach throughout the night but in each case got cold feet and again flew away.  

On Saturday weather was clearly rolling in with choppier waters so we were headed out of camp by 9am, paddling hard around Dodd Island, across open water, past hand island to the largest open water of our return.  With the chop and breeze I was happy when we finally reached the gap between Stopper Islands.  Any danger was now behind us with calmer protected waters leading us straight into the Secret Beach kayak launch.  It was sad to pull our boats up a day early but we could tell the weather didn’t look good and half our crew didn’t even have tents to hunker down in. 

Jill, Ian M, Tyler and Keller (whose eye looked far better by now) had secured the last reserve spot on the Black Ball Ferry back to Port Angeles the night before via Jill’s cell phone.  Unfortunately, Emily and I weren’t as lucky and we would need to hustle it back to Victoria to try to get on standby for the 7pm ferry.  The others helped us load up the boats, throw the gear in the truck and after a quick goodbye to everyone we were off.  Ian and Colleen were headed home a different direction so they didn’t need to rush.  

I think I broke a lot of Canadian driving laws on the way back to Victoria.  We made the drive in just over 4 hours shaving an hour off our drive in time.  We were about 5th in line for standby and the booth attendant told us we should be fine.  We then spent the next couple hours walking around the very touristy town of Victoria which seemed to have about 3 ice cream, candy, and chocolate stars on every block for some reason.  

There were very cute little shuttle boats that zoomed around the bay, big float planes constantly taking off and landing and of course amazing architecture such as the famous Empress Hotel which my parents had stayed in over 40 years ago!  We ended up grabbing a couple beers at Garrick’s Head Pub in Victoria but the rest of the crew never showed up.  

We headed back to the ferry around 5:30 and saw Tyler’s truck pull up with their kayaks.  We also bumped into Greg and his family again.  Customs came by to check our ID’s and it was even easier than we entered Canada thankfully!  It was a pleasant ride back to Port Angeles with everyone as the sun set over Victoria and it’s multiple huge cruise ships docked in the harbor.  Once again I enjoyed the yummy clam chowder available on the ferry and we joined the others in a card game to pass the time.  When the sun set the skies opened up in a deluge of rain.  It was certainly the right choice to leave the islands a day early!

When we pulled into Port Angeles it was about 10pm.  We had tried in vain with the others to find an open hotel anywhere on the Olympic Peninsula but had no luck forcing Tyler and I to both make the long 4-5 hour drive back to Portland in the dark pouring rain.  I didn’t make it.  We made it about an hour and half out of the ferry and thankfully found a break in weather and a roadside pullout to set up our tent and crash for the night.  In the morning we drove down the road for a delicious breakfast at The Tides in Hoodsport, Wa and then continued on home.  It was the right move and was certainly not worth risking falling asleep at the wheel.  

Thus ended one of the best trips in the Pacific Northwest that we’d had in a long time.  We’ve already ordered Vancouver Island hiking and kayaking maps and are sketching out ideas for future explorations of the amazing island.  Next year we’ll probably join Ian and the others on a tour around the San Juan Islands for something a bit different to split it up.  

With nearly 2,000 photos to go through and hours of video it will be a while before I get a video up for the trip but I’ll put it at the bottom of this blog when I get it ready!

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