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Kayaking Trip in Johnstone Strait
Chris Marshall's Journal  
September 2008

When I first received Rich Duncan’s mass email inviting any and all who wanted to join him on a seven day kayaking trip in the Johnstone Strait from September 11 to September 18, 2008, I didn’t take it that seriously as I have a wife and two kids and I had just finished three weeks of summer holidays and didn’t think I would be able to take time away from work or the family.

Rich’s email talked of this time of year being perfect for seeing whales as the Salmon are running and the Orcas are feeding. When I mentioned it to my wife Laura she said “you should go”. She didn’t have to tell me twice I immediately emailed Rich back and said I am in.

As we got closer to the date of departure the group of willing participants dwindled to five.

There was Kevin and Liz Zucht, Chris Newman, Rich Duncan and yours truly.

Kevin and Liz are baby boomer newly weds that we joked were on their 6th honeymoon. Liz is from South Africa and is new to Canada and Kevin is a hardened outdoor enthusiast who spent much of his youth as a white water rafting guide.

Rich is the consummate adventurer and is always looking for the next amazing photo as he is a photographer by trade.

Chris Newman is a financial advisor in Vancouver and is an avid diver and kayaker.

In the company of such experienced adventurers, I had a lot to learn and I realize now that this is not a trip I could have done on my own as there were many factors to consider such as weather, tides, reading compasses to find our way through fog, dealing with bears and cooking over a fire to name a few.

Through a series of emails we whittled down what each of needed to bring, rented our kayaks, updated our aging camping gear and met in Horseshoe Bay to catch the ferry to Nanaimo.

We spent the hour and a half ferry ride eating our last meal and we all had the heart stopping triple bacon, sausage, eggs, hash browns and toast breakfast to store up our energy for the trip.

Over the breakfast we got to know each other and prepared a seven day menu. Once in Nanaimo we went to the local grocery store and loaded up on only the finest and healthiest of foods. The next stop was Canadian Tire for the crab trap and then the liquor store. We all went in Rich’s new truck with all the gear in the back.

It was a four hour drive north up the east coast of Vancouver Island to Telegraph Cove where we were starting from. Telegraph Cove is a cute little fishing village in the middle of the Johnstone Strait which is the narrowest point between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Telegraph Cove is now a summer tourist destination with kayaking, fishing and whale watching charters being the mainstay.

When we got to Telegraph Cove we brought the kayaks down to the waters edge and unloaded all our gear. Even though we had tried to avoid duplication, we still had way too much stuff. Rich was ruthless as he walked around and said we don’t need that we have one of those, put that back in the truck. For the most part did as we were told but we all had things that we insisted on bringing and took great pride later in the trip justifying why we had brought our pet item.

I am not quite sure how we did it but somehow we managed to get everything into the kayaks and headed south along the coast line to our first camp spot near Kaikash Creek which was about a 2 hour kayak trip east of Telegraph Cove.

We arrived at dusk and just had time to set up our tents before night fall.

Once we got settled, I made a round of G&T’s that was much appreciated and we started preparing our dinner. I forgot to mention that Rich was a chef in his younger days so every meal was a work of art and delicious.

The first dinner consisted of giant scallops and prawns in a garlic butter sauce with a variety of cheeses for appetizers. We sat around a roaring fire that night, drank red wine and good scotch and smoked good cigars.

The next day we awoke to a beautiful sunny day but it was very windy and there was a three foot chop on the water. Chris Newman had a radio that we could get regular weather and wind conditions on and we made the decision to hang out that day and spend another night to enable us to make the channel crossing the next day when the weather was supposed to be better. It was nice to be able to chill and decompress from our lives.

We started the day with fresh made blue berry crepes with syrup and coffee. The rest of the day consisted of fishing, sun tanning, reading and planning the remainder of the trip.

The excitement for the day occurred when we noticed that the heavy wind and waves had pushed our crab trap down the channel. Kevin and I volunteered to go out in the double kayak and rescue the crab trap. We got out to it fine as the wind was at our back but the way home was quite the adventure as we were heading straight into the wind and crashing through waves that were hitting me square in the chest. I likened it to a scary Ride at an amusement park.

We eventually got back soaked and very refreshed. Later that evening as we were starting to prepare for dinner we witnessed the most unusual scene it was a young guy in a canoe and he had stretched a tarp across a couple of crossed logs. In the front of the boat was a beautiful golden retriever dog with a life vest on. He sailed into the beach and ended up spending the night. His name was Peter and he had started his canoe trip in Prince Rupert 21 days before and he had done the whole trip in this canoe with his dog and he was planning on going all the way to Vancouver. Peter is 20 and had the long dreads.

He joined us around the fire and regaled us with stories of his travels thus far. I can’t imagine what he must have seen along the way and how he has managed to stay afloat so long in an open canoe.

That night we had a spicy chorizo sausage pasta, with lots of red wine and smoked oysters and goat cheeses for appetizers. As we were finishing our meal the full moon rose over the tree tops and we enjoyed the rest of the night bathed in the moons glow. It was a nice relaxing day and we saw our first whales although they were pretty far out in the Channel.

The next morning we woke up early to make the channel crossing. We ate a hearty porridge and coffee and loaded our kayaks back up again. It took about 2 hours each morning to get everything packed up.

As I was pushing my kayak into the water, I noticed that it had quite a lean to it but I thought that once I was in it that would not be a problem. I got in and started paddling out and within about 20 yards of shore the lean flipped me over and I had to bail. As my fellow kayakers all laughed hysterically at me, I dragged my kayak back to shore and climbed out onto the beach like a wet rat. My ego was dinted but other than being freezing cold I was fine. I quickly pumped the water out the boat, rearranged things in the holds of my kayak and was about to set off when I realized that I didn’t have my binoculars. I remembered going out to a rock on the beach with the binoculars the night before to look at the moon and sure enough they were still there. It was the silver lining, the kayak flipping had brought me back to the beach to enable me to retrieve my binoculars.

The Channel crossing was relatively uneventful and took about an hour. We entered Blackney Passage at slack tide and were heading up to a grouping of tiny island when we came across a bunch of humpback whales. We hung out on the north side of Hanson Island for half an hour or so watching the whales from a distance. While I was watching the whales a huge sea lion kept popping up around me making threatening huffing sounds and glaring at me. At one point he went under and I looked over the side of my kayak to see him swim about 6 feet below me on his back looking up. It was pretty scary as one nudge by one of these huge seals would easily tip me and it would not be so easy out in the middle of nowhere to get myself to shore.

We inadvertently took too long in this area and the tide started to come back in and when it starts to go its like a white water rapid and we had to get to the safety of a little cove and wait out the strongest part of the incoming tide.

We took this opportunity to have lunch which consisted of cream cheese bagels and smoked salmon. We had to change our plans and go back with the tide through Blackney passage the way we had come. There is no way that you can fight the tides in a kayak. We headed back out into the water and without paddling were swept down with the tide back out towards Johnstone Strait which was the Channel we had just crossed. It was a real hoot kayaking down with the tide as we were bounced and turned all the way. Where the Blackney Passage meets the Johnstone Strait there was a slow whirl pool that we were able to hang out in and this ended up being a perfect location to sit and watch the most amazing procession of Orcas and porpoises as they cruised by.

We sat there for about two hours and watched pod after pod of whales go by. There was one particularly exciting moment when a huge male orca with a ten foot high fin went right between our boats and once again the smallness of my boat and how easy it would be for one of these huge animals to tip came to mind.

I got some great photos. The photo below I took over my shoulder. This is a huge male orca and it was about 15 yards off the back of my kayak

We carried on down the strait with the tide parallel to the whales and headed to our next camp site which was on the tip of a little island called Sophie Island.

Once we got unpacked and settled we went out fishing and I caught four fish and Kevin got a couple as well. I put three of the fish in a mesh bag that I hung over the side of the boat. When I was fighting with the fourth fish I lost the bag over the side and ended up with one fish in the end. That night we started dinner with fresh fish fried in butter and garlic over the fire. The main course consisted of organic steak Rich brought from home and had marinated and then frozen. We cooked the steaks on the grate over the fire along with vegetables in tin foil packages. As we finished dinner the sun went down and the full moon rose over the mountains. What a day we saw whales, seals, sea lions, otters, eagles, caught fish and witnessed the awesome power of nature (tides).

The picture below is the view from the campsite on Sophie Island.

The next morning we got up a 6:00 am in order to catch the tide we wanted to get to our next destination. We timed it such that we were paddling at high tide which meant we could get through some very interesting narrow passages between islands that are impassable at low tide.

The water was glassy and we cruised to our next campsite on the tip of Mound Island which is nestled in amongst a number of islands and is very protected from winds. The campsite on Mound Island was on a beautiful pure white shell beach and had a nice informal kitchen set up and fire pit. It even had an outhouse in the woods – luxury.

We arrived on Mound about 1:30 pm and I proceeded to hang up all my wet clothes and set up camp. I forgot to mention that as I was getting into my kayak that morning in two feet of water I flipped again and soaked myself and my boat so I had sopping clothes from two spills. Of course this was the source of much ridicule and I took on the new nick name of Tipper.

We relaxed in the sun in this gorgeous location and decided to stay a couple of nights so that we could explore the surrounding islands.

The next morning we woke to a thick fog and ate another hearty porridge for breakfast. As the fog lifted. I noticed a mother bear and her cub on the beach of the island across a narrow channel of water. I watched the bears through my binoculars as they foraged on the beach and had a long standing question answered. I couldn’t believe that there were bears on these islands as it took us an hour paddling pretty hard for us to cross the Johnstone Strait to get to the islands and I just couldn’t believe the bears would swim that far. And as if to answer my question I see these two bears and then they proceed to go to the tip of the island they are on and plunge into the water and swim over to our island.

Say no more I guess these bears do swim.

We had a roaring fire going so we filled a large pot with water and put it in the fire and used the hot sea water to fill a nifty little shower bag that Rich had brought with him. We hung the bag from a tree in the woods and then each of us took turns having a hot shower. Rich also had a special soap to use in salt water so after the shower I actually felt quite clean and refreshed As the morning wore on the fog lifted and we made a lunch to take with us for our day paddle. We were running out of fresh water so that was a priority for the day.

It was another gorgeous sunny day and the water was dead still which allowed for perfect reflections. Our first stop was a native village on New Vancouver Island where we filled a couple of 20 liter bags of water and checked out their “Big House” There were 15 people in this island village and they had their own school, well, generator etc. A number of teenagers greeted us and asked for a donation for the water and to take pictures of their “Big House”.

We carried on loaded down with our fresh supply of water and drifted through a number of islands with porpoises skimming the water around us. We stopped for a picnic lunch on Maud Island and then slowly made our way back with the setting sun in our eyes.

We tried fishing in a number of spots on the way home but didn’t catch anything.

The next morning we were up at 6:00 am again to catch the tide we needed to go to Hanson Island. We needed to cross the Blackfish Sound in thick fog so I learned how to use a compass as it is an hour paddle from one side to the other and once you start across you don’t see anything until you are about 100 yards from the opposite side.

Fortunately our compass heading was correct and we were backed up by Kevin who had a GPS gizmo that let you know exactly where you are at any given time. It is pretty eerie paddling in thick fog as you have to be careful of larger boats coming through and there is the possibility that whales will appear out of the fog.

We ended up on the north side of Hanson Island more or less where we wanted to be and continued to explore the many coves and beaches that dot that side of the island. We also fished for awhile and caught a couple of fish for dinner. We got to our last camp site on the west tip of Hanson Island about 1:00 pm and set up our tents and had lunch and then spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and fishing.

Kevin was fly fishing off the shore and caught a nice size cod to add to the two fish we had caught earlier. I decided to get back in the kayak and head out to some kelp beds in the Johnstone Strait to do some more fishing and I managed to catch another good sized fish. I was just heading in with the fish when I heard the unmistakable sound of whales puffing on the surface.

I looked up the strait and saw a huge pod of Orcas coming towards me so I positioned myself to be where I thought they would next come up and I guessed a little to well as six whales came to the surface about 20 yards from me and I almost got sprayed by the blow holes. They must have been feeding as they were not moving too quickly so I was able to paddle next to them down the strait for half an hour or so.

What a finale to the week – caught a fish and hung out with the orcas. The rest of the gang was on shore watching the whales wishing they had come out with me fishing.

I returned to the camp with stars in my eyes and enjoyed another exotic sunset. We had a delicious fish dinner fried over the fire in butter and garlic and lemon and headed to bed early as we had to be up early again the next morning.

The next morning we packed up for the last time and set our compasses for another foggy crossing. It took us about an hour to get back to Telegraph Cove where we unloaded the kayaks and loaded the truck. We all had showers in the local hotel and nice lunch in the local pub and headed home.

What a week and to top it off we passed a pod of Orcas and porpoises on the ferry from Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay.

What an amazing area. The beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife gives you a sense of what it might have been like back in the good old days before we humans raped and pillaged everything.

Kudos to Rich for timing the trip the week after all the tours had finished and in a week of perfect weather with a full moon.

In case you are curious we rented the kayaks for 7 days for $275 and spent another $175 on food ferries, gas etc. So for $450 we had an all expenses week trip. I was looking on the internet at some of the kayaking tours that are offered and they offer a 6 day trip for $1500

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