The flight from Vancouver to Sandspit, British Columbia had blessedly been a breeze. I'd arrived a few days early in order to get all my gear in order (— all two 50 pound duffel bags worth of gear) and to meet our guide Steve, who kindly met myself and another adventurer at the airport.
On the morning of our departure, I was up at 7 to be on the side of the road and ready to go for 8am. As is the way with Steve: he was early. So, to settle the time difference I opted to skip breakfast in a sense, grabbing a cheesy bagel before I hopped in the van with all my camping and kayaking gear divided and packed down into different coloured drybags.
Our expedition roster consisted of seven persons: our guide Steve who is the owner and operator of Ocean Sound Kayaking, a local couple who live on Graham Island and were on their 11th or 12th tour of the islands with Steve, two older gentlemen from Boston who had taken up sea kayaking in their leisure years, H.P. our quiet German who simply loved to be in the wilderness, and myself — a painter with a passion for wild landscapes who was looking forward to the inspiration lying in wait ahead.
Piling everyone and everything into one of those 15 person vans that I was well accustomed to from my basketball playing days, we were off! An hours drive along a bumpy logging road later, we reached Jake’s Landing.
Our drop off and pick up was provided by Morseby Explorers, who is the main operator in the area. Their owner Heron had an interesting story: he grew up in the wilderness at Rose Harbour, which is located at the southern end of the Haida Gwaii within in the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Heritage Site. A former colleague and close friend of Steve, he describes Heron most memorably as "someone who can fix a boat engine with bubble gum..." Let that particular skill set sink in as you consider how isolated the waters of the Haida Gwaii are when your motor boat stops working.
Packing a sea kayak is a game of Tetrus. The goal is to utilize every inch of available space inside the bulkhead and the difficulty is that the items don’t obviously fit together and you can’t truly see what you’re doing. This works for me. I like to think that my applied skills of packing a car to the most efficiency and function are above average, and to transfer that challenge to a sea kayak makes it a game to me. When I can fit everything in there with room to spare and items of instant need (rain gear, change of layers, etc) still accessible, I feel like I get to give the fist pump of victory because: winning!
We launched at around 11am and entered into the rippling, silver waters of Skidegate Channel that separates the two largest islands that make up the Haida Gwaii: namely, Graham Island in the north and Moresby Island in the south. The weather was overcast and cool, and while we paddled our way west we picked up some speed with the tidal current that flows through the East and West Narrows of the channel. There were three separate black bear sightings on the shoreline as we paddled past. Richard wasn’t so stoked to see so many bears so soon — thinking ahead to the potential for there being bear where we would be camping. He had a good point, but I also thought that it was pretty cool to see wildlife on the first day and took the time to get a few painting worthy photographs with my big camera!
One of the big black bears we paddled past!
Our primary objective for the day was to get through Ts’aahl Narrows before low tide, about a 15 nautical mile paddle that took us around 4.5 hours with a lot of wind in our face. The push was on because, as Steve explained several times: “We are NOT portaging through there!” A kayak can sneak through this estuary with enough water and avoid the additional two day paddle all the way around the other side of Cha’atl Island that boats with as little draw as a zodiac are forced to go because it’s too shallow.
We made it, and had a very late lunch on Zeller’s front lawn at the head of the uncharted Buck Channel. From first hand observation I will describe Zeller's as a rustic, rotting cabin cut out of a steep forest that looms over it darkly. It is two stories and impressive, but the wet winter weather is taking its toll. Steve said that he has sheltered inside it in the past in a “it was so wet we were desperate” type of situation, which upon poking my head inside, raised a few eye brows. It's a beautiful spot though, and at low tide you can walk clear across the beach that makes up the inter-tidal zone and estuary of Ts’aahl Narrows.
After lunch we continued another 10 nautical miles to the western end of Buck Channel and officially arrived at the west coast of the Haida Gwaii! It was a brutal day, but you just had to put your head down and go for it!
It is at this point that I should mention that less than two weeks before I was booked to fly to Sandspit a variety of tendinitis flared up in both of my hands and forearms. I didn’t understand that it was tendinitis at the time, but I was aware that I didn't have the same grip strength that I am accustomed to and that my hands hurt. The timing and the need to hold back definitely frustrated me, but I was more afraid of permanently injuring my hands by over-doing it.
Dumb or determined, I still wanted to be there. The trade off was that day one and beyond were a lot more challenging mentally and physically than I would have hoped for.
Since paddling in the Great Bear Rainforest last summer, I’ve become a lot more relaxed alone in the wilderness. I’ve had a few various guides over the years who’ve had that vibe, (including last year) and I finally just sort of got in sync with it. For someone born in the suburbs, it takes some getting used to, but what I’ve really come to dig is the privacy. For some reason, intellectually knowing that there are no human eyes watching me when I’m out in these vast open environments is really peaceful. So for the first time I was less concerned about camping beyond the cluster of the group.
Hauling my gear up a bit of a cliff into the woods, I set up my tent overlooking the ocean on an eight inch thick mattress of moss and fell asleep to the sounds of a whole heck of a lot of mosquitoes that couldn’t get to me. :-D It was a pleasant night.
The next morning started with a walking tour of the long gone village of Cha’atl (pronounced “Joff”, oddly enough — think the Joffre Lakes past Pemberton). The whole reason I signed up for this trip was to see the Mosquito mortuary pole that still stands here, and to visit a location that Emily Carr painted at back in the day. As far as I am aware, she explored the Haida Gwaii in 1912 (including Cha’atl) and again in 1928, producing a beautiful portfolio of paintings of remote village sites that were long abandoned even then. Ultimately she painted the totem poles in an effort to preserve their memory, having witnessed their deterioration within her lifetime. Needless to say: I was excited!
Admittedly, it was beyond my imagination to visualize how the village used to look. What I really needed was a photograph from 200 years ago to work with, and without it I didn’t really get how a large rectangle depression in the ground used to be where a house stood with a totem pole with a hole carved out of the base of it that functioned as a front door.
The two remaining standing mortuary poles required less imagination. I’ve seen the poles at S'G̱ang Gwaay (on another kayaking trip back in 2008) and the Mosquito pole was way cooler! I have to say that there is something seriously neat about wandering through a wild forest and randomly coming across a totem pole standing tall amongst the tree trunks!
Hard to visualize that a house once stood in this large rectangle depression in the ground.
After lunch we took advantage of the good weather window and headed south for Kaisun in Englefield Bay. The shoreline between Buck Point and Englefield Bay is one long section of very steep, fortress-like cliff with nowhere to land for long stretches. It was a lovely sunny day without too much wind or swell and everything was all good at first. But being continually bounced every which way on the “confused water” (caused by the diffusing bounce back of the swells impacting against the cliffs) took its toll on my stomach and at the 40 minute mark sea sickness snuck up and hit me like a club. It felt awful, and I found myself pleading to any which deity to please help me out!
A chat with Steve spurred a retreat into Kitgoro Inlet for the night. Surprisingly well sheltered from the swell, the inlet turned out to be a neat place. When the moment came to find a spot to camp, Steve hopped out of his kayak, poking his head into the forest only to promptly return to his kayak with a grin (or maybe a grimace) on his face. Apparently he’d almost stepped on a pile of bear poop that was “so fresh it was still steaming!” Needless to say, there was a lot of bear sign in the green grassy meadow we found to camp in beneath the giant Sitka spruce trees. It seemed to me like this area had been used as a village site long ago.
The following day we completed the paddle to Kaisun and officially entered Englefield Bay! My stomach was still tender and only just made the distance through that same confused water state. I was relieved to get to camp and avoided an afternoon fishing trip, preferring to mind my stomach and the burning ache in my hands. I did have some fun setting up my tarp over my tent in spite of everyone else’s amusement at how I was “easing my tent into the rainy weather.” Sandy and I also went for an exploratory walk in the woods before dinner. The watershed around here has (practically) never been logged and I really enjoyed the wild state of the forest. Hopefully there will be more opportunities to explore the forests on this trip!
Kaisun beach camp.
Today started with a bit of a bushwhack over to the second beach tucked away at this site. Sandy and myself wandered our way through the separation of forest to the east beach of Kaisun. It is quite small and equally sheltered. It also contains about 1000 times the amount of garbage. Plastic bottles, drift nets, buoys, and just random junk. A MacGyver supply store for anyone stranded in the area, but other wise it was gross to see all this human debris tangled up in the tall, beautiful green grass I like so much.
As a casual climber of rocks, I must note that that the rock around here is fantastic! Solid, crimpy holds and super grippy. Had my hands been feeling better I would have given a few routes a go! My adventurous side had to settle with a mellow climb up a 20 foot sea stack in gum boots. Sandy asked that I please not kill myself, to which I assured her that “that is always the plan.”
We headed back just as the search party was setting out to find us for lunch. Camp would be staying put today, so I opted to opt out of the day’s paddle with thoughts of hand management on my mind. My hands were feeling just ‘OK’ at this point, but they still ‘burned’ a bit (even if it was a lot less than on they had on day one.) So after the “in case of an emergency, do this” review, I watched the group disappear beyond the rocks of the bay and turned my growing grin to the task of getting clean.
A misting rain had moved in, dropping the air temperature and establishing a familiar BC coast ambience: low lying grey clouds that blurred the distinction between trees and sky, rain that blackened the purple rocks and darkened the sand to a slate colour, and that soothing sound of rain on the stilled ocean surface. It was quite lovely.
My plan was to go for a swim... but then I was struck by an impulse of intrigue: I wanted to see how my body would react to the cold, so I decided on a plan of action. *Bigger grin* The plan being to just hang out in the water a bit longer and wander around the beach a bit in the rain before I dried off. Engaging my brain, I reckoned that it was a good idea to get the fire stoked up beforehand so that I had it as my safety net of sorts if things went sideways and I allowed myself to get too cold. I’ve seen Bear Grylls do this on TV: make a big fire before he attempts to do something reckless, like raft across glacial waters, so that when things do go wrong he is able to warm himself back up afterwards without issue. In my specific scenario it was probably unnecessary considering that it was the middle of summer (and I had a dry set of warm clothes close at hand) but I felt pretty survival savvy none the less!
Unfortunately there was a flaw in the plan: the water wasn’t really that cold, which was weird considering the latitude and that this is Canada... cold water is what we’re used to! Same story for the air temperature. Even after twenty minutes of walking around in the rain in my swimsuit the only symptom of the cold I’d achieved was goose bumps and pink skin! Shoot!!
Apparently my swimming had attracted some attention because when I finally did return to the fire I became aware that I had company. A curious seal was floating in the shallows, watching me. Pretty cool, because it was just the two of us in this vast environment. Nodding my acknowledgment, I gave him a "what’s up" and returned to writing in my journal.
The group returned at around 3pm, just as the north west winds (= sunshine) turned on and I could start to hear the waves breaking outside the bay. They’d caught two cod and seen a pod of orcas... Gosh dang it!! I was sore about the orcas, but I’d still enjoyed my afternoon.
Searching for suspected fallen totem poles with Charlie before dinner.
Before dinner Charlie and I decided to try to find the suspected fallen totem poles that Steve claimed to have found in the woods yesterday. Walking down the beach we did find a fat, rotting post that had the clear cut out shape of once having displayed acoffin box a top it. We didn’t notice anything else though, besides the size of the spruce trees that is.
“See Charlie, now THAT is a big tree!” I grinned as I needlessly pointed at one of the many monsters growing in the open grassy area of the former village site.
During the van ride out to Jake’s Landing on day one the Bostonian had gawked, with wide eyed innocent enthusiasm at the size of the tree stumps visible out of the van window that had been logged (quite some time ago) and excitedly asked if I’d ever seen a tree stump so big... I had. And I let him know so with tales of thicker, taller trees elsewhere in the province — which, in hindsight might be why the stigma of the “BC snob” exists...?
Fresh fried fish and chips for dinner tonight!
Leaving Kaisun, I felt like I looked pretty smart packing up my DRY tent beneath my tarp that I'd taken the time to set up yesterday simply for the fun of it. As the waves of rain rolled in, instead of getting ourselves and our gear soaked, Steve encouraged us to pack up our boats in the drier moments inbetween the intervals of downpours. Remaining dry, but slowing our start to the morning, eventually we set off for the southern shore of Englefield Bay.
Our route took us around the sheltered backsides of Helgensen and Carswell Islands before making the crossing to the western face of Hibben Island. Hibben is big and steep, and at the base of it was more of that confused water state, as the sea swells rebounded and diffused into the chop. I was aware now that I really don't like 'confused' seas. So in an act of tactics, this time I went 100 yards farther out than the rest of the group in hopes that the water would be more predictable for my stomach and, thankfully, it worked! Well enough even that I could watch the shoreline this time without my stomach lurching!
Hibben is by far the largest island in Englefield Bay, however the entire western side of the island looked surprisingly sparse of forest. I’m not sure if it had been logged at some point... but what was obvious was the amount of landslides that must occur each winter when the mountainside soil is saturated with rain and gives way to the force of the wind.
Hibbin Island shoreline.
The sounds of sea lions on the sea breeze prompted a detour. As we paddled into their line of sight suddenly all eyes were on us. There was no need to get too close as the size and power of these golden sea bears* sunbathing and bickering on the bare, rocky island was pretty obvious. As was their startling agility as we witnessed one male leap clear off the rocks into a headfirst dive into the waves as if there were a spring board beneath him.
Moving on we made our way into Hewlett Bay on the southern shore of Englefield Bay. I think that this is the prettiest spot so far. Surrounding our sheltered sandy beach, guarded by a land locked island, the rocky shoreline was rugged and topped with thick, colourful vegetation that climbed with the terrain that towered over us.
As we hauled boats up the beach, Steve spotted (maybe stepped on) a black Pelican case that had obviously washed up with the tide. The clasp was cracked and we joked about taking it with us to get it replaced for a brand new case under warranty. That was before we opened it and got a whiff of how badly it stunk! The contents (paper rolls, chew tobacco, and a ziplock of stinky weed) poured out onto the beach with the sea water that had soaked the inside. We had a few theories on how it had washed up here...
H.P. and myself were on fire duty that night, which proved successful in spite of the slicing wind! Though, we didn’t come close to burning through the waist high pile of firewood H.P. had collected.
Steve make a delicious vegetable soup for dinner, and over the steam rising off of the hot bowls held up to our noses we were treated to the nights entertainment. The sports fishing boats that belong to the lodge one inlet over use the waterway out front of Hewlett Bay as a highway of sorts, travelling back and forth to the fishing grounds at the point — and those boats absolutely rip...! One boat in particular was going so fast that it launched itself fully out of the water, its engine propellor clearing the choppy water completely. That got a chorus of calls out of us!
I set my tent up at the west end of the beach, up behind a big, fat driftwood log partially buried in the sand on a grassy shelf of sand that hadn’t eroded into the beach just yet. I took an evening walk on the rocks beyond my tent before bed which was lovely. In the twilight I could see clear across Englefield Bay to the islands out front of Kaisun where we’d departed from this morning.
A black Pelican case that had obviously washed up with the tide.