Matt Jackson/Canoe & Kayak
Sea fog lifts during a mid-morning departure from Dodd Island.
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updated 7/20/2005 6:44:26 PM ET 2005-07-20T22:44:26

Paddlers find ocean swells, boisterous sea lions, and mischief-encouraging phosphorescence on Canada’s west coast.

Sea fog was still raking its fingers across the mountains surrounding Toquart Bay as we pushed off from our launch site, kayak noses pointed like compass needles toward the first island, a half-mile offshore. It was almost noon, and the water was silk-smooth. With every stroke of my paddle I could feel a tangible serenity spreading through me, but for one gnawing question: How does a paddler compel a 1,000-pound sea lion to get off his kayak after it’s used it as a haul-out rock?

I had heard the story from one of our guides. “You don’t want to get too close to sea lions because you never know what they’re going to do,” Robert warned me. “Those particular paddlers had to be rescued after the sea lion tipped their kayak over.” Yes, paddlers may be enamored of these charismatic sea creatures, but apparently the feeling is not always reciprocated. I guess when several hundred pounds of barking blubber is concerned, it pays to keep your distance.

There were 10 of us in the group, from places as far away as Scotland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. This was the first day of a four-day trip into the heart of the Broken Group Islands, a shattered jigsaw puzzle of rocky islands and islets that sits adrift between Bamfield and Ucluelet on the west coast of Canada’s Vancouver Island. The Broken Group are part of Pacific Rim National Park, which is perhaps best known for the West Coast Trail, a multi-day backpacking trail that runs along the coastline south of Bamfield. Long Beach is the most famous surfing beach in Canada and is located just north of Ucluelet.

The Broken Group are something of a paddling mecca, so kayakers shouldn’t expect to find complete solitude. I counted two dozen kayaks departing from Toquart Bay as we were preparing to leave. Still, that shouldn’t dissuade paddlers from visiting, for there is nothing else quite like it on the West Coast.

Matt Jackson
There are dozens of narrow passageways and tidal lagoons to explore where bat stars and sea cucumbers, purple urchins and teal-colored anemones congregate. We found a sunflower star the size of a large frying pan, with 21 arms and thousands of tiny tentacles, propelling itself at warp speed (for a sea star) across the ocean floor. Tallina, one of our guides, spotted a giant moon snail oozing along in four feet of water. After trying to extricate it with her paddle for our viewing pleasure, she succeeded first in demonstrating the effective use of her holy-crap strap. The holy-crap strap is reserved for those occasions when you find yourself suddenly upside down in the water, staring at the back end of a moon snail trying to make its escape.

We pitched camp at Dodd Island late that first afternoon, and when we rose on our second day the sea fog had returned, blanketing the campsite. We launched mid-morning, and as we slid between Walsh and Chalk Islands, pin-drop silence embraced us. We approached the Tiny Group, a medley of islets arranged like broken pieces of a plate dropped on the floor, and it was only then that the shriek of an eaglet cut through the mesmeric calm. The mist parted, and at the top of a large tree we could see the nest, the eaglet staring down at us.

For the rest of the morning we zigzagged through a series of narrow passageways adjacent to Jarvis Island and into Jaques Lagoon. At low tide the lagoon is a potpourri of sea life, but it was high tide when we arrived, so we contented ourselves with exploring a large fish trap that the Nuu-chah-nulth people used for centuries. West Coast natives erected these traps in the intertidal zone and chased fish into them during high tide. When the tide dropped, the fish were stranded.

We didn’t have to worry about trapping our dinner because our guides had bought fresh seafood at the Ucluelet fish market. When we returned to camp we feasted on stir-fried prawns and Asian noodle salad. Our tummies appeased, we set off on a hike around the perimeter of Dodd Island; short detours inland produced some fine old-growth specimens, primarily Sitka spruce and western red cedar. We finally reached a small rocky spit and watched as the last vestiges of sun disappeared behind the coastal mountains.

The next day it was time to explore some of the outer islands, so we squeezed between Turtle and Turret Islands and crossed Coaster Channel. We found some “culturally modified” trees at Gilbert Island, which is just fancy talk for cedar trees that have had bark stripped off and planks cut from their trunks. West Coast natives used cedar trees for everything. They cut planks from the trees to build longhouses, and they used bark and roots to weave blankets and clothing. From the largest cedars were carved gargantuan dugout canoes—some more than 40 feet long—that were used for hunting whales in nearby Barkley Sound.

Gilbert Island is where we saw our first sea lion. As we discreetly followed it around a corner, a loud chorus of barking echoed across the water, and we knew that we weren’t far from the outer rim. Hundreds of the ornery creatures lolled in the surf or basked on rocks.

We stopped for lunch at Dicebox Island, which was once the site of a Nuu-chah-nulth village and also is a fine place for exploring tide pools. We spent nearly two hours poking around on the outer edge of the island and basking in the sun. We then packed up and paddled back across Coaster Channel, skirting the edge of Turret, Trickett, and Lovett Islands before heading out onto open water. The wind had picked up, and so had the swells. They were midsized at most, but large enough to offer some excitement after an otherwise relaxing day. As we paddled, the waves would lift the tail ends of our kayaks, rolling down the length of the boats before slipping out from under the front ends. The front ends would then drop into the water with a sploosh! It was like being a slow-motion bronc rider at a western rodeo.

As it was our final night, we gathered some driftwood and built a small fire. Tallina brought out some bananas, which she parted with a knife, stuffing each of them with marshmallows and squares of chocolate before placing them on the hot embers to bake. There is nothing quite like a beach fire on the last night of a trip, and the chocolate-marshmallow banana splits only made it more memorable.

Matt Jackson/Canoe & Kayak
Hand Island offered an ideal lunch spot, but the starfish wasn't on the menu.
There was even a final surprise. Everybody had gone to bed except for three of us, and we were dousing the last embers of our fire when we noticed a strange phenomenon that Robert had mentioned earlier in the trip. Every time we touched the water, it would light up with brilliant green phosphorescence. We dropped a rock in, and tiny green waves would radiate out from its center. We would skip a rock, and little green ping marks would flash across the surface. We would spook a fish, and a green lightning bolt would streak through the shallows.

After we’d entertained ourselves for many long minutes, I finally said good night to my colleagues and retreated back toward my tent. They weren’t far behind. As I slipped my boots off, a sudden and bizarre idea struck me. I stopped what I was doing and listened carefully. I waited for all the tent zippers to stop zipping, and for the sleeping bags to stop rustling. Then I quietly slipped from my tent and tiptoed back down to the water to take a pee.

Getting there: The Broken Group Islands are located on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Take the ferry to Vancouver Island and then drive toward Ucluelet along Highway 4. If you’re taking a guided trip, you can park your car in Ucluelet, saving yourself a jarring drive to Toquart Bay. If not, there is a rough logging road just outside Ucluelet that leads to Toquart. Alternatively, kayakers can take the MV Lady Rose cruise ship from Port Alberni, which will drop them at the Sechart Whaling Station, just outside the national park.

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Logistics: The Broken Group Islands can be paddled almost year-round, although weather in the winter months can be cold and very rainy. The region is known for its ferocious winter storms, so the most common months for paddling are late April through early October. On the outer rim of the islands, large swells and occasional rogue waves can be dangerous, and when the sea fog rolls in, navigation can be a problem. Sea fog is particularly prevalent during August and September. And remember to  keep your distance from sea lions, as they are unpredictable.

camping/Lodging: The Tauca Lea Resort & Spa (800-979-9303 or www.taucalearesortandspa.com) is a local favorite, and the front desk will book sea-kayaking trips for guests. There are eight campgrounds in the park; a warden will arrive daily to collect campground fees. There are also several campgrounds in the vicinity. Be forewarned, though: they are quite expensive and they get booked up rather quickly. Call (250) 726-4355 for the Ucluelet Campground.

Outfitters/ Resources: We booked a trip through Majestic Ocean Kayaking (800-889-7644 or www.oceankayaking.com) and found the food fantastic and their guides first-rate. The Sechart Whaling Station (800-663-7192) outfits do-it-yourselfers. Kayakers must be proficient with a map and compass and will need chart #3671 (Barkley Sound), available at any local marine shop. Useful books are Kayaking Vancouver Island, by Gary Backlund and Paul Grey, and Island Paddling: A Paddler’s Guide to the Gulf Islands and Barkley Sound, by Mary Ann Snowden. For a complete list of guides and outfitters, see our Adventure Paddling Directory on page 89 or log on to www.CanoeKayak.com.

Matt Jackson is a freelance writer, photographer, and very infrequent public urinator who lives in Canmore, Alberta.   

Copyright 2013 CanoeKayak.com

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