Below is an extended trip report from my recent attempt at the circumnavigation record for Vancouver Island in late July of 2015. I made the attempt unassisted, meaning that I had to carry all of my own gear, water and food (with no resupply at any point).
DAY 1: Sunday July 25th, 2015 At 7:30am on Sunday morning, I said my farewell to my good friend Paul who had agreed to drive me to the put in at Port Hardy. The drive to Port Hardy was sobering. As you wind your way north the island just keeps unfolding endlessly. And when you finally make it to Port Hardy after many hours on the highway, you are only at the tip of the diving board.
The second sobering moment was loading my ski with 100,000 calories of food, 10L of water, and enough camping gear to stake a claim on the Klondike on my way home. Lifting a boat this heavy (130 pounds!) and walking it down the boat ramp is no small feat. Doing this in the surf zone was something I didn't even want to think about. I did my best, using two climbing slings to create a reliable and simple harness to lift the ski and walk it down the ramp. Once in the water, the boat moved remarkably well. Just don't expect to catch anything but the steepest runners in this puppy.
As I left the marina in the fog, my mind settled into the day's work and I found my standard paddling rhythm quickly. I enjoyed clearing skies as I paddled against the current in the Goletas Channel, and made good time to Shushartie Bay where the current switched and I picked up my pace considerably, averaging 7mph as I headed out to meet the ocean. I paddled on the island side of the shore, planning to use the Tatnal Reefs in the event the Nawhitti Bar was an issue (it was not). I had planned to change my water supply at Cape Sutil, but was approached at landing by a black bear who I discovered was feeding on a carcass of some kind. Water would have to wait.
Naturally I elected to keep paddling, arriving at Cape Scott at roughly 4pm very dehydrated and hot, but in high spirits and ready to face my first real challenge. I found conditions hectic and up to reputation with large, standing waves (10' faces) and some very confused water. My rough water preparation paid big dividends. I was able to make short work of the transition around the cape without any hesitation in the surfski and with only a few sea lions for an audience. However, the heat of day and short water supply caught up to me and I had to deal with a major bonk and a bit of heat exhaustion once I had rounded the cape. I was forced to head in far sooner then I would have liked, and camped at Guise Bay.
A disappointing first day, but not a total disaster. That night however, my phone went completely bonkers and would randomly turn itself on and ring. It did this for six hours, and would wake me even though I had placed it in a small dry sack and buried it in the sand. Suspecting water as the culprit, I took the silica packets from my freeze dried meal and placed them with the phone in a small ziplock bag to try to help it recover.
Guise Bay was tremendously beautiful, and surprisingly well attended by a mix of hikers and a couple of fellow kayakers. It was here that I met another paddler who was also traveling around the island, but without the pressure of a record attempt. I suspected he would enjoy his circumstances much more then myself! As a strange matter of chance, I would later run into his son in Tofino who asked me out of the blue if I happened to have seen his dad out there. Small world indeed. A side note on Guise Bay, the Tsunami debris from Japan was littered across the beach, and some of it had been repurposed to good effect as chairs, tables and even mooring balls for those looking for a game of beach volleyball.
Day 2: Monday, July 26th I woke up at 4am utterly drained from my phone's antics and having slept very little. I set to figuring out a communication plan with my family should my phone completely fail. I was using my phone in tandem with an original DeLorme inReach which does not have a screen and must be paired with a smartphone for detailed communications. The device is a good one, very reliable and simple. However the tracking feature and battery life was a challenge, as a four hour tracking interval drained the batteries in just one day. In order to make my remaining batteries last for the entire trip I was forced to log my location at night without much communication back home.
I was on the water by roughly 9am, another disappointment, and decided that Lawn Point was likely my best bet as a target for the day at roughly 50 miles away. Modest by my standards.
Conditions were rough in the early morning with a beam swell, short period, and a wandering wind with lots of rebound on overhead waves. Skies were overcast with high clouds and temps in the low 60's. I quickly adjusted and found a fast pace as I set out south, averaging 6.5mph running with the current about two miles off shore and very much enjoying the cool conditions.
I greatly prefer to paddle offshore for a handful of reasons. It makes going from point to point more efficient, and greatly reduces the rebound of the sea meeting the rocky shoreline. Less rebound means more boat run, and more boat run means more speed. Another aspect of paddling farther offshore is that the capes / points can be very technical, with tricky fast moving breaking waves that zoom into shore to meet the reefs and kelp beds. At times, it was far simpler to just paddle around them on the outside then risk being thumped inside or having to pause to consider my approach. I also quite like the feeling of being alone in the ocean. It is a strange form of freedom that I found in mountain climbing that energizes me in a way that few things in life can. In our modern, hemmed-in world, being truly alone is a very fine luxury. Finally, it's a lot of fun to sneak up to a boat full of sport fisherman several miles offshore and suddenly ask "HEY GUYS! WHICH WAY TO VICTORIA?!" at the last possible moment. They really love that. Trust me.
At around noon, the current switched and my pace slowed a bit to the low 5mph range. Decent, but much slower than I am accustomed to because of the severe weight of the boat. The wind built throughout the day, and became a stiff SW breeze by early afternoon along with a south western swell. I arrived at Lawn Point at roughly 4pm, feeling strong and tempted to continue due south to cross Brooks Peninsula in the evening. After contemplating the risk of an exposed crossing at night in unfamiliar territory with a formidable reputation, I decided to call it an early day and attempt to get a better night's sleep and an early start the next day. I found Lawn Point an iconic and beautiful location, but loaded with fresh bear signs and no water. I used my desalinator to good effect.
The desalinator makes 1.3 gallons of water per hour of pumping, which with my water budget meant 2 hours per night to just make water. The device weighs 7.3 pounds. Not great. However, the act of taking water from the sea and converting it into drinkable water is right up there with human flight. I felt like I was robbing the world's greatest bank as I quietly pumped water from a tide pool in the dark of night to supply the next day's water.
Day 3: Tuesday, July 27th My phone was in a much better mood, and was able to take a charge from my portable solar charger and stay turned off. Good dog! I slept very well, and had a visit from a bear and her cubs in the early morning hours as I made my breakfast. They calmly walked by my tent and paid me no heed as I held my breath with a death grip on my bear mace while the JetBoil quietly hissed. This may be the one time in my life when I was thankful to have a simple bowl of oatmeal instead of bacon and eggs for breakfast.
At first light, a dense cloud started to form over the peninsula, making me thankful for the modern reality of GPS as I headed south in low visibility in search of the day's challenge. The swell remained south western, but had picked up significantly in size and period. It gave the ocean an erie, slow, heaving sensation. No wind. No sight of land. No sight of me. Just a crazy guy paddling in a gray, featureless room towards a place of great reputation.
I arrived at Cape Cook at roughly 8:30am, just as the morning clouds lifted to confirm what my GPS had been telling me all morning was indeed true. This is Brooks!
As is well documented, Brooks Peninsula has a strange, magnetic power and a curious rebounding wave effect that has sent many a sailor missing. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones as I committed to a center line between Cape Cook and Solander Island, and found conditions at first deceptively mild. The further I went, the weirder things got. Flat water would surge very quickly in a direction completely contrary to the swell and wind. And when that newly formed wave meets the swell, expect a fast ride upwards as the two waves throw you a party underneath your boat in the form of a pyramid shaped wave that is about the size of a modest house. It was a wild, fast ride, and this was a very mild day. This is what I had imagined, and hoped for, and I loved every second of it.
As I rounded the cape proper and faced the east, I was somewhat dismayed and amused to see a vast sweep of coastline with roaring waves closing out the horizon in front of me. The swell direction, out of the south west, was setting off waves that looked like runaway mining trucks three miles offshore that were just huge and fast. I am sure a big wave surfer somewhere in Tofino is grinding his teeth as I type this. Sorry bruh!
As my eyes worked their way down the infinite coastline the clouds parted and a light breeze picked up behind me and the swell became more westerly. It was if a spell had been broken, and my spine tingled at the hope that I might get some usable wind. I made note of the very distant shoreline, checked my GPS and decided that an open ocean crossing of roughly 25 miles in such fair weather was worth the risk in distance gains. But before I set off, I made the decision to attempt to go ashore at Nordstrom Creek to get out of my wetsuit (I was now very hot in the full sun) and change my water bag before committing to a very long, open ocean crossing.
As the big waves went off around me, I used the ski for a couple of very fast rides into the beach towards Nordstrom Creek by choosing smaller waves and riding in on the back of one of the big ones. Committing in a place like this. Yet a little surf experience at complicated shorebreaks can pay big dividends in situations where the speed and complexity of the water is overwhelming. The key for myself is to simplify the situation by only focusing on one wave at a time. Ignore the rest and do your best to get the timing right.
Once on the the inside there is enough of a reef to cancel most of the waves, but three to four footers were still coming through and dumping onshore with very fast frequency with boulders and kelp beds mixed in to keep it true to the spirit of Vancouver Island (Aka a technical, high stakes landing in the middle of nowhere that will leave you in trouble if you get it wrong and break something). I timed the last wave to perfection, hopping out of the ski and grabbing the bow and letting the wave swing the tail towards the shore so I can then run the the ski up the beach with the nose on the sand. I use this technique because the awkward moments after a surf landing are very vulnerable to rider and steed, and my ski has an extra large surf rudder under the stern that prevents a traditional shore landing.
I executed this approach like the Red Baron himself, and enjoyed a euphoric, silly moment of relief as I took a deep bow for my imaginary audience. And in a rare moment of truly divine humor, a long legged and shaggy bear casually walked out of the forest and walked directly towards me. And then it sat down and just stared at me, tilting its head sideways as we stood looking at each other for a long, awkward moment. Both of us marveling at the insanity of what was unfolding in this very isolated place. Like a Farside comic that might have a tragically dark punchline.
I snapped out of it and hustled back out into waves. Hoping the bear wouldn't be up for a swim as I calmly opened the back hatch between waves, switched the water bag and took off my neoprene paddling jacket, keeping a close eye on the shore. As I did this, the bear started to walk out into the surf towards me. I slammed the hatch shut hopped on the ski and managed to leave skid marks on the waves as I peeled out of there like a Clint Robinson wanabee. I checked the transcript from my mental tape and it reads: "SHIT... SHIT! SHIT FASTER SHIT SHIT SHIT!!!"
Once past the backline I took a deep breath, ate some lunch, and had a laugh at the absurdity of what had just happened. I also made some mental notes about being more patient on beach landings and to remember to request more prayers from friends and family because I had burned through their entire supply in one morning. I was ready to get back to work and set off towards the far skyline of Kyuquot Sound and hopefully make camp at a promising location called Rugged Point.
At some point the scale of Vancouver Island is simply unavoidable. It will confront you and break you down. I learned this repeatedly on this trip. Muscling past yet another cape, only to stare into the fading landscape as it blends into the next horizon. This time was a bit different though and after paddling for four hours against a strong offshore current towards my landmark target it just didn't appear any closer. The GPS assured me it was, but it was taking forever as I plodded along in what felt like the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I turned around to have a final look at the Brooks Peninsula, and it was still very close.
*sigh* "No one mentioned that Brooks would follow me."
It's a funny thing how temptation finds you in even in the remote places. I completed the crossing and made my way through the outer reefs of Kyuquot sound in the hot sun towards Union Island, feeling parched and tired from a long day out. A fishing boat sped up to me and came to a sudden stop. The guys said they had seen me crossing in the open water earlier, and were curious if I wanted a beer!? They were concerned to see someone that far off shore, and had kept tabs on me as I crossed. Not so alone after all eh? I declined the offer of the beer, explaining that I was on a mission around the island and could take no assistance, however frosty and lovely. The kindness of total strangers here in Canada is not lost on me.
Eventually, the miles gave way and I steamed into the white sand coves of Rugged Point, where I had hopes of finding a stream and not having to make water to save some time. Upon landing, I was simply overwhelmed yet again by the endless beauty of this great island. As I marched up the beach, dragging my poor ski by the nose in the sand, I noticed a number of footprints. In particular a set of footprints from a child that appeared just minutes old. It brought a smile to my face to think of my own children one day running around this very beach, and I made a promise to myself to return as I set up my camp for the night.
I scouted for water, and could not find the stream indicated on my map in the fading light. So after dinner I went to find a good location to desalinate water. This is a bit tricky, as on a wide beach you must be able to pump water away from the surf and waves. I found what I thought was a good rock, and started to pump water. Unfortunately, the location was not good and the desalinator intake sucked up rocks and sand, which tore the fragile membrane inside the pump and rendered it useless. I suddenly had to adjust to the reality that my trip was now entirely dependent on finding fresh water in a severe drought year. I also had the even less attractive idea set in that I now had the privilege of lugging a seven pound, $2600 paperweight in the nose of my boat for the next 500 or so miles. First class white guy problems, every last one of them.
Day 4: Wednesday, July 29th I got up early to head out in search of water. The moon made for a bright, clear morning and I was in high spirits. After an extensive search, I found the stream bed in the forest. It was dry except for a few deep, still holes that had numerous signs of wildlife visitation. But there it was, water! As I began to treat the water I made note of the various tracks in the soil. Coyote, Racoon, Deer and... oh, a Mountain Lion! As the significance of these tracks sank in I had a very still, quiet feeling that I was being watched. Chiding myself for my imagination, I carried on with my task. But I couldn't shake the feeling and was happy to exit the dark forest with my prize and hide intact as the sun rose.
I was on the water by 9:00am and felt good physically, and was motivated to soldier on despite my setbacks and the increasing number of sea sores (saltwater abrasions) that were beginning to appear all over my body. I use a mix of body glide and petroleum jelly to try to limit them. The petroleum jelly does a good job of slowing the waterlogging of skin. The abrasions that this will cause are similar to 2nd degree burns. Petroleum jelly is crucial for your hands that suffer particularly badly, but one must be careful to put the petroleum on well before one grabs a paddle shaft. This works for the first 6 to 8 hours, but after that it wears off as the friction and miles pile up. Anything that has skin to textile contact (even neoprene!) will abrade in the saltwater. More so skin on skin. High quality paddling clothing and skin tight rash-guards will help, but all bets are off when you are out for 12 hours or more for several days on end and cracking the whip physically. The other aspect of sea sores is preventing them from getting infected. Easier said then done. I was careful to save a little freshwater for a sponge bath at the end of each day, and to use clean bandages and Neosporin at night. This eats a lot of time, but its a mandatory care regiment to keep your body running strong for so many days out in a harsh environment.
My target for this day was to clear the Hesquiat peninsula, and make my way to a camp at Hot Spring Cove or possibly Flores Island Provincial Park where I would likely have good access to water. This task proved very difficult, with a strong current pushing against a light, on again / off again NW wind and a large western swell. There were times when I made great progress, and this was the first time on my entire trip that I managed to catch ride on a handful of waves resembling a downwind paddle. But otherwise, I found the seas confused, bouncy and with very little directional energy to work with. Just mile after mile of hard paddling in messy, overhead water.
At one point I was paddling past a buoy offshore of Nuchatliz, noting the strange mooing sound that it makes as it sways in the swell. I recall staring at the buoy and reminding myself that sharks often hover near buoys in California. "Good thing to remember. Yup!" And then I glanced down to check my compass and noticed a shark swimming with me directly beneath my boat. Silently shadowing a strange new fish. I stopped paddling and just stared, totally absorbed like a child at the aquarium in the moment. The shark then swam up beside me, tilted its head out of the water and stared at me with a jet black marble eye before disappearing. I noticed a large number of gills, and figured it was probably a six gill shark and was roughly 6 feet long. Not big enough to worry me, but maybe it was someone's little sister? ONWARD!
As the day and miles rolled by, I approached the Hesquiat Peninsula at roughly 6:00pm feeling tired, but motivated to make the most of the day. However, the western swell made this a very demanding and dangerous crossing, as the breakers appeared to form three to four miles offshore, and zoomed towards the reefs closing out the entire bay. I thought I would be clever and save some miles by taking a tight, inside line. Upon doing this however, I was suddenly in a very dangerous spot as the reefs here are maze like and sometimes do not go all the way through and are loaded with kelp beds. And on this particular day 20 foot barreling waves were making easy work of the reefs, blasting over them and into a washing machine that made my local 520 bridge rebound look absolutely adorable by contrast. With the sickly, white lighthouse staring me down me like a witch tower out of the Tolkien trilogy, I delicately alternated between paddling over and through the tops of the breaking waves, and then turning back into them to surf down their backs to pick up speed as I tip toed my way through the gauntlet. After punching through an oncoming wave I took a deep breath and sprinted into the next rushing blow. I was so thankful to be in a solid, stable surfski as I was paddling at my absolute threshold in an absolute no fall zone. In my climbing days, we'd call this being run out on mank gear with a bad case of shaky leg.
Once clear of the lighthouse and safely past the backline, I had a difficult decision to make. The wind was picking up quite a bit, and I really wanted to make my goal of Hot Spring cove which I could see roughly ten miles away. I had at this point paddled 62 miles of rugged, open ocean. But the sun was setting, and it meant with some degree of certainty that I would be paddling an open water downwind in the dark. On the other hand, given what I had just gone through and feeling rattled, Hesquiat had a menacing, dark presence and I simply loathed the idea of a camp here. Remembering that the mileage is always greater than it appears, I reluctantly decided to head into Hesquiat bay reasoning that I could make a fast, efficient camp and exit in the morning.
As I paddled into the bay past a feature known as "Anton's Spit", I noticed an old sailing ship anchored just off shore. I wondered if perhaps it had been run aground there, as it looked to me in the fading light to be in rough shape and in shallow water. I thought it worth a closer look, and was surprised to see that the ship was occupied, and had a thick black smoke coming from a chimney pipe below deck. It's wooden boards had a slick, black oily finish with a tattered tarp and old dingy on the back that gave it a creepy vibe. I joked to myself that it was good to know Captain Sparrow had found a proper place to camp in between films.
The bay itself has a shallow water sandbar that enables a strange wave to form very suddenly out of the still water; breaking and then rebounding as it rips across the the bay. Like a wake of a ghost ship from an age past. If I were in an empty ski, this would be a very fun wave... but not tonight. Not now. This shit was getting old. I paddled up to the shore in the dark to the location listed on my map as a good camp, and realized that the shoreline of the bay was made up large, basketball sizes rocks jumbled on top of each other. I muttered "What next?" to myself as I contemplated briefly heading back out to sea in the dark, but then decided against it and to try to get the boat up on the beach without damaging it. It was here that I was nailed by an oncoming wave at the worst possible moment and instantly regretted asking "what next?" just moments before. It was a tremendous effort to keep my footing and I nearly dropped my beloved, loaded boat on these rocks which would have been a very severe blow. In saving the boat however with my last ounce of strength, I felt a sickening tear deep in my shoulder muscle and cried out. Not able to set the boat down in the waves, but not able to walk either. Just standing there. Frozen in a battle with myself. I took a few deep breaths, focused, and let my feet carefully try to find a solid footing in between the stones as I balanced on the slippery rocks and waves. It worked. I staggered step by agonizing step over the course of ten minutes out of the waves until I could set the boat down ever so carefully on the rocks. I then used my haul bag and raced two loads of gear out of the boat up the beach to my camp. After retrieving the now empty boat and bringing it to the shore, I realized I had missed a very nice, sandy beach. Ahah, maybe next time...
I made a hasty camp under the light of a full moon. I was physically waisted from the day, demoralized, and my shoulder muscle throbbed as I used the last of my fresh water to make a quick dinner. I debated not making dinner, but knew that I would need the calories to face the day to come. My map indicated a lake nearby, so I reasoned that I might be able to find it and draw water in the morning.
As I fell asleep, I heard a pack of wolves howling in to each other in the forest and summed my inner Jeff Bridges to mutter a gruff "Fine. Come see me. I'll be here." Sure enough, they did. I was woken up by their bickering as they went through my hastily made camp at 3am that morning. I decided to try and scare them off, and used my camera flash and a deep shout to send them running. Maybe not the most delicate way to make friends, but I was in a very bad mood and decided it was my day to be the bigger badder wolf. It had it's intended effect. Almost to the degree of comedy. I felt like a total jerk as I fell back to sleep. A big happy jerk. An important note: I had taken to the time to secure my food well outside my camp in a bear bag hung from a tree. As a guy who's spent a lot of time in the mountains, there are some rules you just don't break. Ever.
Day 5: Thursday, July 30th I awoke just before dawn very tired, very sore and very thirsty. I grabbed my light, ate some kippered snacks and choked down crackers, nuts and dried apricots for breakfast and broke camp as I wrestled with my morale. I did my best to cheer up, noting the fine weather and the potential to rebound. But my inner Gollum called my bluff. "This is not going well. We're losing precious. Piece by piece. Minute by minute this is slipping away from us Precious." Everything was hard. Packing was hard. Moving was hard. Thinking was hard. Complaining was hard. I briefly made a foray in search of the lake and water, and after taking a bad fall in the thick forest, I decided to retreat and just leave.
Getting on the water, I was thankful to be out of the ocean swell in a flat, quiet bay. It hurt a LOT to paddle, and as I slowly limped out of the bay I dared a final look back to Hesquiat. It was there that I realized I had paddled past some houses that night and not seen them. Crazy.
I entertained the idea of trying to rally and make it Ucluelet. But the more I paddled, the more I realized that that my strength was ebbing and my sea sores were getting quite bad, making it very painful to just sit in the ski. I knew that this was likely the beginning of the end of my attempt. Or maybe even the middle of the end. I had mixed feelings. The fighter wants to go on because the fight is still on. The tired, broken man knows sometimes dreams are just dreams. I chew on these thoughts and decide to make my way towards Tofino and try not to come to a hasty conclusion. Just paddle and see if things improve as the day progresses.
Then then wind comes from the southwest, and pushes steadily against a NW swell and makes the sea rise up in hissing white caps. I should care a lot about this, but I do not. I am numb to each slap in the face by the oncoming waves. I limp on, puttering forward. Not advancing as I have trained myself to do, but not stopping as I have trained myself to do. Defiant. Willfull. Pissed. Tired. Lonely. Wounded. Defiant.
Eventually I slip past the reefs and into the wind shelter between Flores Island and Bartlett Island in the early afternoon, and the beauty and still water of Clayoquot Sound seduces me. The sun is shining. The air is warm. And then, a family of gray whales surround me as I destroy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They are in a good mood and now I am in a good mood. My Avatar moment comes screeching to a halt as a jet boat roars up stuffed full of tourist in matching fluorescent orange jump suits. They wait jealously outside my holy wale circle, impatiently glaring at me. I am right in the middle in their shot, and they paid good money for this. Asshole. I casually paddle to the back of the whale boat, where I commend the warden for his work with the inmates. My joke earns his empty, glaring stare. Time to go.
I limp into Whitesand cove, and am greeted warmly by some fellow kayakers and a hiker. I learn that there is water in the nearby village and limp my way into town. I also make contact with my wife, and let her know that I have found a good, sheltered spot and will spend the day resting to see if my shoulder is workable. I know it's not, but after years of working towards this goal, I owe it to myself and those who believed I could do this before pulling the plug.
Day 6: Friday, July 31st The next day I make a quick study of my injuries, and decide that this is the end. I spend the day cleaning wounds, stretching sore muscles and soaking up the sunshine and getting to know my fellow beach friends. All of us come from different places, but are from the same tribe. Doing our best to live good lives that we think count for something. I make coordinate with my family, who have worked tirelessly to make arrangements for a pickup in Tofino. Incredibly I learn that my dad is flying out from Montana and then driving my truck to me. And other family have offered to do the same. Damn, its nice to be so loved. Damn I love my family back.
Day 7: Saturday, August 1: I head into Tofino in the morning and make good time on the fast currents, despite my shoulder. I have been offered a tip to head to the Kayaker's Inn, as they are very friendly to expedition paddlers and will likely let me stash my boat on their racks. Friendly was an understatement. I was greeted by a guide on the beach, and then introduced to Liam and a Tasi named Meg, who offered me a fabulous cappuccino and a hot shower.
I wandered around town the rest of the day in a dazed culture shock. Trying to adjust to the sudden influx of people, commercial zeal and cocktail of languages that is Tofino.
And then, I realized that I already missed the wild, beautiful places that I had just worked so hard to leave. Imagine that.