Vancouver Island Kayaking

In late June I did my big trip for the summer, which was to paddle down the entire pacific coast of Vancouver Island. I started in Port Hardy, about 30 miles inside Cape Scott, the way northwest tip of the island, and finished in Port Renfrew, inside the Strait of Juan de Fuca (about 60 miles west of Victoria, at the southeast tip of the island). This was about 350 miles of kayaking, which I did in 11 days.


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This was a great trip. I’d been to Vancouver island many times before, but never to see so much of it from so up close. Tons of nice beaches, islands, bluffs and sea stacks, and the wildlife was absolutely first rate. Feeding grey whales pretty much every day, plenty of otters and sea lions, occasional porpoises, tons and tons of seabirds of all stripes, including some puffins in the northerly parts.

Mostly, though, this trip was about staying on the water all day. The first eight days averaged more than 35 miles per day, which at my leisurely kayaking pace meant getting on the water around 6am and off it around 8pm, with few breaks in between and usually a cold lunch. This wasn’t hugely faster than the pace I’ve maintained in the past — my average pace for a full day in Alaska in 2009 was about 30 miles per day — but at the end of the trip I was worn out and will need to keep things going easier in the future.

The main reason I pushed this hard is that weather conditions were great. There were lots of gray skies and occasional rain (the norm for much of the island), but what really counts while kayaking is wind and swell, and for the most part this trip had neither. This wasn’t an accident, I’d been watching forecasts and swell models in the weeks leading up to the trip, saw a good opportunity and took it.

Vancouver island’s west coast is pretty deeply indented with fjords and other places to hide from the weather, but also has many exposed sections of coast, and frequently five or ten miles or more of coast with no reasonable place to land in a large swell. If such a swell came up or threatened to come up, I could have ended up stuck for a while or forced to abort the trip, and I wanted to minimize the chance of that happening.

The start of the trip was the run out to Cape Scott from Port Hardy. This is the closest place inside the cape you can drive to, after several hours on highway 19 going up the island’s eastern side. I’ve been here several times before for scuba diving. Browning Pass, home to some of the world’s best diving (possibly *the* best), is 10 miles to the west. I’ve spent three weeks over the years diving with operators in the area (God’s Pocket resort, just east of the pass, is my favorite dive resort anywhere), and also a somewhat nutty trip in 2007 where I kayaked to the pass from Port Hardy with a rebreather and dove there for three days.

I’d seen very little of the coastline to the west of Browning Pass, and after getting past Shushartie Bay (eight miles west of the pass) and out of the cover of Nigei and Hope islands, the coast started getting swell and took on a new character. This was one of my favorite stretches of coast on the trip. This area only gets the northwest swell, not the bulkier southwest swell, so the paddling is lively but unlikely to be all that dangerous. All the animals that like the exposed coastline and would be around the rest of the trip were here too — large groups of sea otters, whales, birds, and so forth.

Even when quite close to the cape conditions stayed calm. Below shows some encrusting hydrocoral just inside the cape. This only grows in very exposed spots, and normally in deeper water. Previously I’d only seen it in the intertidal at Cape Flattery, and finding a small amount here was a treat.

Cape Scott marked an abrupt transition to the southwest swell. I’d hiked at the cape before, back in 2007, when the waves to the west of the cape were barely ankle slappers. It wasn’t quite so calm now, and care was necessary around the cape’s wash rocks, but still not bad and comparable to a calm day in Big Sur.

Past the cape the coastline is fairly exposed for a while, and I continued another 30 miles to south of Quatsino Sound to camp for the night. This was a long day, and the sun was setting as I approached the campsite. One of the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve seen in a long, long time, I could hardly take my eyes off it.

The next (third) day I pushed hard again to get around the Brooks Peninsula. This is the second major landmark of the trip, a 5 mile wide mountainous range jutting about 10 miles into the sea. Before the trip I’d figured this would be the most important traverse of the trip; after getting around the Brooks the coast offers more protected spots to hide and there is a smaller likelihood of getting stuck. Psychologically, rounding the Brooks quickly would also be a big confidence boost to help with the rest of the trip.

Had good weather as I made my way along the north side of the peninsula, and stopped for an hour at a great sandy beach about 5 miles inside Cape Cook, at the northwest corner.

Moving towards Cape Cook, ran into a couple Orcas (only ones of the trip) close to shore, and conditions were calm until the actual rounding. Here I ran into a south wind curving around the peninsula, about 15kt at its most intense at the tip and then dropping as I made my way inside the peninsula’s south side. Not a large impediment, as the wind was pretty localized (short fetch, short waves), but south winds would stay to some extent well into the next day.

After camping several miles past Cook, the next day I continued buzzing my way down the coast, passing through several small archipelagos. First were the Bunsby islands, a remote and fairly exposed group of quite pretty islands. Reminded me of the outer portions of the Broken Group to the south, except with many, many sea otters. Here and to the north I kept seeing very large rafts of several dozen otters, more than I’ve seen anywhere in either California or Alaska.

Past the Bunsby islands was a nice little stretch of several miles of great paddling: tidefalls, caves, and lots of rock gardening before getting to Kyuquot, a small town accessible only by boat and the first place on the trip I saw much at all of other folks on the water (though it would still be another 100 miles before I saw another kayaker).

South of Kyuquot were a couple short crossings followed by a long and fairly exposed stretch of coast, on the approach to Tatchu Point and Nootka Island. A lot of islands to thread between on the way, but also a lot of rocks and breaking waves to worry about. Found a nice, sheltered spot to camp four miles north of Tatchu, but spots like this are the exception when facing the Pacific directly. Even in the right weather, traversing the coast takes care, especially around prominent points with large shoal areas. Tatchu was such a point; to avoid the sometimes large breakers occurring almost at random in the shallows around the point, I had to give the it a berth of more than half a mile. There were several other areas like this to the north and south, and while it’s slow to get around them this way it’s also pretty important for minimizing risk.

Afterwards, though, I got to stop thinking about risk so much for a day or so. Tatchu Point is near the entrance to Esperanza Inlet, which winds back into Vancouver Island and eventually gets behind Nootka, the largest island on Vancouver’s west coast. Someday I will need to see Nootka’s outer coast (circling Nootka would make a great kayak trip all on its own), but for now opted to do the protected inside route. Peaceful, a nice change of pace, and good to unwind a little. Passing through Esperanza took me past the namesake town of Esperanza, a mission community that was positively bustling (at least compared to the surrounding areas).

Many of the visible parts of Nootka, the surrounding area and, indeed, many areas of western Vancouver Island have been logged to some degree. I’m ambivalent about this. Logging scars the landscape, but people need trees, trees grow back (though not the same) and properly managed logging seems pretty sustainable. Some activity on the eastern coast of Nootka, with large pens of floating logs and a support ship bearing the largest helicopter I’ve ever seen, for transporting logs it looked like. Not long after, camped on Strange Island (great name!) for the night.

My campsite was about 18 miles from Estevan Point, the largest outcropping on the coast after the Brooks Peninsula. I got up early hoping to round Estevan by the early afternoon (weather forecast was a little iffy, and the earlier the better), but a persistent south wind delayed me a few hours and I didn’t hit the point until around 4pm. The wind slacked as I approached the point, and got to explore some. More areas of large breakers on the approach which needed to be skirted, but in doing so passed by some offshore islands loaded with sea lions barking at one another. Stopped on one island (away from the sea lions) in pouring rain to get a look at the lighthouse I’d soon be passing. This is one of the most distinctive lighthouses on the coast (and there are many). Side note: it wasn’t too rainy this trip, but having a drysuit and a good rain hat was great and it was easy to stay comfortable no matter how wet things got.

Not a whole lot of suitable camping spots east of Estevan, and with the day getting later I had to move pretty quickly to make 12 more miles to Sharp Point This included the longest crossing of the trip, a relaxing six or so miles, afterwards traveling along a coastline pocked with caves. Would be great to explore these more, though the swell would need to be pretty much zero.

Sharp Point is at the entrance to Hot Springs Cove, a notch of an inlet a couple miles long. On the east side of the inlet are the eponymous hot springs, where I spent the next morning. This is a small park with a dock and a 2km boardwalk, at the end of which is a changing area and an otherwise undeveloped hot spring. The spring starts as a waterfall and cascades through several small pools before making its way into the surf. Was here by myself for about an hour, super relaxing. These are great springs.

The 25 mile run from Hot Springs Cove to Tofino passes across Clayoquot Sound (not to be confused with the more northerly Kyuquot Sound!), and was some of the best kayaking of the trip. Maybe I’m biased because of the blue skies that stuck around all day, but I don’t think this weather is unusual for the sound. Great protected rock gardening, beautiful sand beaches and coastline. Went along the outside of Flores island with a few whales about, through some rock gardens and then inside Vargas island for some more protected paddling before arriving in Tofino. Spent an hour or two here wandering around town in my drysuit, restocking food and a few other supplies, then camped a few miles to the south. (Another plus to this area is that it is very accessible for shorter trips; there is a good road to Tofino, and lots of services in town.)

Most of the coast between Tofino and the next town, Ucluelet, 25 miles to the south, is beach. Long Beach to be precise, pretty nice from shore but dangerous for a kayak, and I didn’t linger. I went straight down the unprotected coastline with a steadily building wind behind me, the strongest winds of the whole trip. By the time I got to Amphitrite Point, marking the inlet going into Ucluelet, the wind was in the mid teens with waves to match; not huge, but uncomfortable.

Inside the wind bent northeast into the Loudoun Channel, a 3 mile wide gap separating me from the Broken Group, a popular archipelago I spent a few days paddling around in 2007. The fetch seemed less here so I crossed the channel, made my way through the Broken Group, across the 3 mile wide Imperial Eagle Channel and spent the night a few miles from Cape Beale, the last major rounding of the trip.

The next morning, things turned worse. I wear contact lenses, and after days of paddling in full sunshine both my eyes got infections and I could hardly see (poor vision with the contacts out, plus a thick haze in my corneas as my eyes worked to repair themselves). I managed to round Cape Beale OK (no wind and light swell helped), but had no appetite for the next section of coast, that going along the West Coast Trail (where I backpacked last summer). This is 30 miles of exposed coast with few good landing spots. Instead, I landed at nearby Pachena Bay (at the west end of the WCT), which has a great beachside campground. Walked to nearby Bamfield for some food, then slept the rest of the day.

The next day my eyes hadn’t improved much, but the weather was great for paddling (gray skies, no wind) so I left anyways after some vacillation. Kayaked about 25 miles along the blurry coastline without landing, several times with nearby whales feeding right at the surface.

Was not too interested in continuing another 60 miles or so to Victoria, so the next morning ended the trip in Port Renfrew, a town several miles inside the Strait of Juan de Fuca. As I approached Renfrew it was clear that the swell and energy of the pacific coast were gone, and while I’m sure the paddle from Renfrew to Victoria is great, it was not part of the trip’s goals and I will need to see it another time. The last few miles to Renfrew were quite nice, actually, with several cave systems to explore and no swell to worry about while doing so.

Logistically, wrapping things up in Port Renfrew is trickier than Victoria, but things went smoothly. The guys who run the ferry at the east end of the West Coast Trail here were really generous and let me store my kayak and gear for a couple days while I traveled by bus back to my car, then drove back down the island to get my gear and head on my way (by which time my eyes were in much better shape!). Not a perfect ending to the trip, but good enough.

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