Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Kayaking Johnstone Strait, British Columbia’s Paddling Paradise

Sept 2010: Vancouver Island, off the west coast of British Columbia, Canada, offers some of the best sea kayaking in the world. One kayaking destination, Johnstone Strait, on the northeast shore of the island was our goal in September of 2010. The area is remote, replete with native history and home to one of the largest gathering of Killer Whales on the west coast.map1

Five of us, David, Jeff, Lorena, Kathy and I left Seattle, crossed into Canada, took a two hour ride on BC Ferries and then drove four hours to Port McNeill, near the north end of the 280 mile long Vancouver Island. The 360 mile (plus ferry crossing) journey took nearly twelve hours because we built in potential border delays and a cushion to insure we made the scheduled ferry crossing. (We made the return trip in only ten and a half hours.)

There are a number of lodging and dining choices in Port McNeill and it is within 30 minutes of Telegraph Cove, our launch site. We stayed at the comfortable Beach House B&B and dined at the Sportsman Steak and Pizza House.

Wednesday: The next morning we drove to Telegraph Cove where you are welcome to launch your boats and leave your car. There is a fee for both but the facilities are great and the fees manageable; $6 per kayak to launch and $25 per week per car.


Rather than launch there we hired a water taxi to transport our group across the strait and deposit us deep in the islands across two mile wide Johnstone Strait. At $450 for the three kayaks and five people it was no bargain but it allowed us to go deeper into the islands during the five days we had available and eliminated one crossing of the strait. We had used a water taxi on a west coast trip years ago and found we could see more new ground than was possible with an out and back paddle.

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After crossing the strait and weaving through the fog shrouded islands the taxi deposited us at a campsite on Owl Island, eight miles, as the crow flies, from Telegraph Cove. It was a small, easy-to-miss beach but there were perhaps ten reasonable tent sites up in the woods and an excellent “kitchen area” made up of planks and timbers by earlier campers. We quickly erected our tarps over the kitchen, set up our tents and made plans for an afternoon paddle.

As the day progressed the fog thinned a bit but never lifted. The air was so moist the trees dripped as if in a light rain and you could see johnston strait 2010 (10) the moisture in the air. But we had expected rain and knew the weather was “normal” for the area so had no complaint.

At noon a tour group pulled in to “our” beach for a lunch break. We said “hello” and then pushed off for an area tour. Our course was southeast along the shore of neighboring Midsummer Island. We considered rounding the island but wisely thought better of it (it’s a big island!) reversed course and instead rounded Owl Island before returning to camp.

From that first paddle we learned that beaches are in short supply. The islands are characterized by steep rock walls and few beaches of any sort. Potty breaks and firewood gathering became real challenges, particularly since the tide was very high. Jeff took a near dunking walking on floating logs in one inlet.

We returned to camp to discovered a bonus. The tour guide had forgotten a bottle of Scotch and several personal items behind a log on the beach. Not sure if he would ever return we placed the items in a safe place, sampled the Scotch for quality and settled in for the evening. (He returned the next morning to recover the lost items and most of the Scotch!)

Using the fire ring someone had constructed on the beach and Jeff’s wood gathering skills we had a lazy evening in our Owl Island camp. The moisture was so thick you could see the water droplets in the beams of our headlamps as we moved around the camp.

Thursday: The day dawned dryer and more promising than the day prior. We could actually see across the channel and there were hints of sun from time to time. We packed our lunch and headed down Knight Inlet to Village Island and the First Nations village of Mamalilaculla. David and Jeff recalled the village from visits a decade prior with its carved totems and massive ridge poles from great lodges.

The water was calm and currents favorable for the paddle down but the village itself was a great disappointment. It is not being maintained and is being taken over by dense vines, blackberry bushes and the forest. Someone (a bear perhaps?) had cut narrow, head high paths through the vines but you could be two feet from a relic and not see it. We found the ridge pole and a fallen totem but little else. The more modern buildings, homes and a school are in the process of rotting away and collapsing. In a few years there will be little left to identify the place at all.Scan 102600002

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Mamalilaculla-10Mamalilaculla-12  But the sun was out, weather fine and lunch simple but filling. Following lunch we made the seven mile return trip with slight changes from the course on the trip down to the village.

Friday: Since camp sites were scarce, the one we had a good one and the fact that taking down and setting up camp is a pain we decided to spend one more day on Owl Island exploring the area. The previous paddles had been more east, southeast so we decided to head north and explore new waters.

Setting out through a narrow channel between Cedar and Midsummer Islands we were surprised to come across a large fish farming operation operated by Marine Harvest. We paddled up to the pens and spent some time speaking with two employees who were working with the Atlantic Salmon which were maturing there. It was a most thoughtful and impressive operation and, the crew was kind enough to fill a few water bottles for us. (During our five days in the islands we did not see a water source. On Saturday we could have refilled all our bottles with rain runoff from our tarps but we didn’t know that at the time!) johnston strait harrison photo (26)johnston strait harrison photo (28)

Armed with a new understanding fish farming and regretting that we didn’t have any fresh salmon in our coolers we continued counter clockwise through the small islands north and west of Owl until we stumbled onto a narrow beach suitable for lunch and little else. (Did I mention there are not many beaches?) More wandering after lunch before returning to the camp to think about a Saturday departure.

Saturday: When we began our trip the forecast was calling for rain every day but one. We’d missed the rain for the first three days. On the fourth it found us. It was a steady Pacific Northwest rain driven by a moderate but annoying southeast wind.

We packed our gear and were surprised at how full the boats were despite the fact we had consumed three days of food. We were not sure we could have even made it to Owl Island the first day if we hadn’t had the taxi to haul gear. Clearly our packing skills had grown a bit rusty.

We headed east and then south between Swanson and Crease Islands. It was a good paddle but the drizzle was unrelenting. Found a campsite with a covered eating area on the southwest side of Compton Island. The site wasn’t as nice as Owl but served as a lunch spot and would have been fine if a camp site was needed.

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Out next challenge was crossing Blackfish Sound. At that point the crossing was less than two miles but the rain was still falling and a moderate breeze was blowing up the sound from the southeast. The waves looked “OK” so we launched toward Hanson Island, across the sound. By mid channel the swells were rising and we were surrounded by whitecaps. The ladies in the bows of the double kayaks, who met the waves first, were not happy with the conditions but they paddled on knowing a return to Compton would be no better and into the wind.

Rather than head straight across we eased our course to bring the swells more astern giving us a safer but slightly longer ride. Still, we arrived at Hanson with a feeling of relief. In my view crossings are never much fun. They are either boring, since there is no shoreline to observe, or too exciting, because the weather doesn’t cooperate.

At Hanson Island we were unable to locate a camp site we had been assured was there. We paddled west, northwest along the north coast checking every inlet to no avail. If the beaches were there they were well concealed by the high tide and dense forest. Reaching the end of the island we turned south, between Hanson and the Plumper Islands, with an eight knot boost from a retreating tide. David recalled a camp on the southwest side of the island which proved to be a wonderful discovery.

A commercial tour operator conducts summer tours from this base camp with the permission of the First Nations People. They had constructed a dozen raised wooden tent platforms and a covered area that could be used for a kitchen and dining. A sign indicated we were free to use the camp when they were not there so we made ourselves at home. By then the rain had let up a bit but the wind was blowing through the kitchen area right off of Johnstone Strait. Our tarps took care of the wind and soon we were settled into our new home, peeling off wet gear and digging through bags looking for that special dry thing we had been saving for a special occasion.

We were glad to be settled in and out of the rain, more or less.

Sunday:  Sunday morning we discovered our mistake from Saturday evening. We had camped within sight of our final destination, Telegraph Cove. Like a horse that spies its stable, there was no restraining us from leaving a day early after a night of rain, whatever the Sunday weather prospects were.

We could have spent Sunday exploring the small islands northwest of Hanson but decided there were good reasons to leave while the weather and water would allow a crossing of Johnston Strait. So we packed our wet gear and headed across.

Like Blackstone Sound, Johnstone Strait lured us in and then tossed a little wind and wave into our face. It’s only about two miles across but, with the wind and tide things can change. I took the lead with a Telegraph Cove GPS bearing and no chart on the deck. The others had charts and suspected I was leading them astray but silently followed me toward the wrong inlet. As we approached the other side the current began to set us to the northeast and we had to struggle to make the inlet I was seeking. But it was not Telegraph Cove!

My waypoint was ok; Telegraph Cove was on my bearing. But the entry to the cove was about one half mile further up the coast. The Cove itself curved inland, behind the inlet I reached but we couldn’t get there from where we were. Oh well….johnston strait harrison photo (45)

My paddling companions were kind and didn’t actually say what they had likely been thinking. We backed from my inlet, headed along a coast a short way and then made our way into picturesque Telegraph Cove.

At the time we were in no hurry for we planned to find a motel near the ferry and board an early boat on Monday morning. We had a leisurely lunch at the Killer Whale Café on the pier. It is to be recommended. Then we headed south toward Nanamio and the ferry, four hours away planning to spend the night. The further we traveled the more appealing a Sunday ferry appeared. We made an early evening boat and just kept going, arriving home after 1:00A.M. Monday.

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The mystery (for us) of Johnstone Strait had been solved. It is a wonderful kayak haven provided you know where to camp and where to find water. It is to be recommended partially because it is a challenge to get there. Maybe we will go again….someday.

Photos by: David Harrison and Kathy Dennis (double click on the photos to enlarge them)

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