Back on the water — kayaking trip report

This weekend I was trying to get some work done, but had this nagging desire to take advantage of part of the long weekend rather than slave away in my office the whole time. (currently in my office writing this blog post…). After getting a lot of long standing chores done on Saturday, I decided to hit the water and try to make it to D’arcy island which is the SE-ernmost of the Gulf Islands. I frantically packed at 4:00 trying to get on the water by 7 to leave me enough time to make the 3.5 mile crossing. Upon arriving at my chosen put-in I learned that my book was out of date and that there aren’t overnight parking spots there any more. Frustrated, I drove into Sidney to put in at the public boat ramp where an $8 fee and a 24 hour limit are enforced. Oh well. $8 is a pretty small price to pay when everything else was free about the trip.

Hustling I packed my boat and managed to slide it into the water at 7. Of course I forgot a thing or two but who needs a camping mat any way? And carrying more than a few ounces of fuel is for sissies. So, heading to D’arcy island from Sidney would have been a bit long, so I settled for the marine park on the NW end of Sidney island. The crossing was easy although my paddling muscles were griping a lot on the way over. I think I was paddling too fast trying to beat the fading daylight. So, I slid into the lagoon at 8:00 with plenty of time.

At first glance, the sandy beach looked like it had only one party. There were 5 kayaks perched up on the grassy bluff and from the water I could only see one big tarp set up. But, as I slid onto the sand I noticed that there were a lot more tents in the camp ground and then it occurred to me that people get there on the little ferry that takes walk ons and it was the Victoria Day weekend, so of course it would be packed. I was a little grumpy because I’d set out thinking I would be on a more remote and probably quieter site on D’arcy. Oh well.

Hee he. I like the person who did this. I appreciate 3-eyed smiling creatures of the forest floor. The flowers are from some succulent that lives on these and many rocky bluffs in the area.

I carried my stuff up onto the grassy field in back of the beach and set up camp. Despite the goose shit which was everywhere (the place seems to be the preferred rookery for Canada Geese in the area) the site was really nice. I had a view over the lagoon with a nice Madrone arching out from the bank over the water. I made burritos and then read the New Yorker and was falling alseep by 11. I woke once to a few drops of rain on my face so I got up and peed, put the tarp on, and stared blearily at the lights of Sidney across the water. Kayaking is so vastly different from alpine backpacking of mountaineering. There’s so much less of the harshness, so many hot sweaty nights, and sights like this one of a medium sized town just a couple of miles away. I really want to kayak in more remote places where a feeling of isolation can seep into the trip more. But before then, back to sleep.

This weekend was that of the new moon and featured a solar eclipse on Sunday. That perfect alignment of moon and sun guaranteed big tides and the current charts were showing a big swing dropping to low at about 10:45 and picking back up to high for the rest of the afternoon. The currents are a little out of synch with the water level so the ebb flow was to happen until about noon and then switch rapidly to a major flood. As a beginner kayaker and as a soloist I knew this could present some challenges. There is a lot of water that has to flow through these islands during a tidal exchange and as it does is sets up all kinds of eddy lines, tidal rips, and confused seas. I have not challenged myself in the boat that I own so don’t really know where it’s stability points lie and just how choppy of a sea I can handle her in. I’ve spent 10 days of river time in it last year and maybe 8 more days kayaking the gulf islands. Regardless, the wind was to be calm so chop would be less of an issue and I figured the worst that could happen would be that I would get flushed northward to Portland Island where I could overnight and deal with things the next morning. Plus, I would be wearing my wet suit, so if I wound up in the water I would have some time before I got cold. So, onward.

Breakfast was the last-minute bacon that I picked up at Fairway market right before leaving, a couple of eggs, and the last 1/2 can of beans from the night before. Yum! beans cooked in bacon fat is a winner. Packing went fast and I left Sidney island at about 9:00 and headed up the sandy Sidney spit. A bit before I left, four of the kayakers from the group of five boats I’d noticed the night before left to check a crab trap and then followed after me about a half hour back. At the end of Sidney Spit, I hit the first tidal rip with water splitting around the spit in the Ebb setting up an eddy line against the calm water of the lagoon. I resolved myself to losing some ground and merged into it doing down stream and was shocked at how much ground I lost and how quickly. Pushing back NW to clear the spit took a lot of effort but once in the channel the paddling eased a lot.

I meandered through the islands leading to Rum Island. There were odd eddy lines and some strong currents flowing between Rubly Island and Gooch Island. To avoid crossing what looked like a nasty eddy line, I tried to sneak into a gap between rocks but soon realized that the water was flowing as fast there as anywhere. So, I eddied out into some kelp and watched the water flow past. I knew that the tide would switch soon so decided on a snack and a pee (way too much tea that morning). As I waited I watched the trailing group of kayakers stay south of all the eddy line trouble and I instantly realized that experience and good boating judgement was in their favor. It’s so easy to get focussed on the problem and with those blinders on, fail to see all the other options that exist. In this case all I would have had to do was decide to give up on my planned route on the north side of Gooch Island and stick to the south side which I’m sure would have been just as scenic.

You can’t see it clearly, but just ahead of my bow the water is flowing at about 4 knots. I waited for it to slow before easing out of the kelpy eddy. It was a good time for a snack.

After waiting for a half hour I decided to brave it and found that pushing the now diminished current was pretty easy. Having a rudder makes such tasks easy as it helps keep your boat aligned with the oncoming waters to maximize your efficiency. I sprinted across the channel to the north side of Gooch island. The current was flowing against me here but was easily manageable and the island was beautiful to look at as was Comet island on the other side of the channel. I finally made it to the beach landing on the isthmus that joins Gooch Island to Isle de Lis just as the group that had been tailing me finished stashing their boats for a hike around the island. I pulled up and unloaded to haul my boat onto the beach in preparation for a rapidly rising tide.

Isle de Lis is beautiful but very small. It’s covered with Doug Fir and Madrone with the odd lodgepole/shore pine mixed in on the dry south side. Apparently there are cacti on the island, but I didn’t see them. There’s not much of a trail around, but a bit of bushwhacking took me to the other side.

The view from Isle de Lis (AKA Rum Island) toward Stuart Island on the left. Spieden Island can be seen right of center and San Juan Island to the far right. It was tempting to try to cross Haro Strait here but I also watched two huge freighters go past while I was there. I have night mares about being confronted by one of those.

Along the way I ran into the group of kayakers and we chatted for a second. I mentioned that I wanted to get out of there before the tide started to run and the winds piced up because I as a beginner kayaker. I noticed the group leader stiffen when he heard me describe myself as a beginner. The kayaking world is full of stories of all levels of kayakers getting into trouble and I could see him calculating my chances of handling any adverse situation that could spring up between there and safe harbor back on the mainland. As an inexperienced soloist I knew my chances would be slim and I’m sure he thought the same thing. But, we both also knew that the conditions were very good and the forecast was for stable weather for another 12 hours or so. So, he didn’t say anything but we didn’t talk at any great length about kayaking either. I’m coming to realize that one of the reasons that sea kayakers are gear freaks and a little snobbish about their experience and equipment is because there is a very real chance of getting into life threatening situations and that can happen very suddenly. A simple laps of concentration, snagging a paddle on some chop, a getting whirled in a tide rip can put you in the water and from there you are in a bit of trouble if you don’t know how to quickly get yourself back in the boat and warmed back up. I tried to push all of that into the back of my mind for the time being. I was where I was and I had to get back somehow and a helicopter was not my first preference.

Looking at the north side of the island from the sand isthmus joining to Gooch island.

A view down to the camp sites at Isle de Lis. These are all south facing and must be beautiful on a sunny day in the summer.

The other group prepares to depart back to Sidney Island. I was waiting so I could change back into my wetsuit in privacy. I still had a long ways to go linking the islands back toward Sidney town and then back to my car. Little did I know that this day would add up to 20 km of paddling and 25km of paddling in less than 20 hours. A lot for these wimpy arms, shoulders, abs, back etc etc.

Mainly, I wasn’t thinking about these things. I went back to the beach to eat my lunch of kippers, rye crackers, multiple cheeses, chocolate, and trail mix. My only map was the backroads map book. Although it’s not the best chart, it provides a lot of trip planning entertainment when you have spare time. So, I ogled the map and waited for my wetsuit to dry in the thin overcast. As I ate the tide slowly crept up the beach indicating that the switch to flood currents had probably begun. As the other group prepared to leave, I got antsy to get back on the water. There was a little SE wind picking up and things started to look choppy from that direction. I knew there were some big crossings ahead so I wanted to get on them.

Heading from Gooch, I went North of Comet island and then decided to go between Brethour and Domville Islands. I was starting to get tired and knew that each north side passage was taking me further away from my car. I also knew that I would be pushing against the flood currents all the way back so wanted to have some strength for that. The east end of Brethour has one of the nicest houses I’ve seen on these islands. Many of the island houses are absolute monsters created by the super rich for sheer opulence, but occasionally, you run across a house that is modest and tasteful. This house was one such although maybe I only saw the guest shacks? Either way, who wouldn’t want to spend a night in a guest shack overlooking the islands and the expanse of Haro Strait in which all walls are made of glass? I’d be into it.

A small sleeping cabin on Brethour Island. Not a bad place to spend a night in my opinion.

After clearing Sheep Island I headed toward the Little Group Islands that break up the channel crossing on the way back to Sidney. The tide had started ripping very fast through these channels. I headed toward Dock Island and could immediately notice that I was slipping northward with the flooding currents. Looking at maps now, I realize that the broadside approach I was taking to the island, which thought was due west was actually almost due south, straight into the current. So, it’s no surpise that getting to the island was such a challenge. Halfway there I ran into a eddyline with waves radiating out of it so I was pushing into the waves as I headed toward it and then had following seas on the other side. This is a physics I would love to understand better but it seems that these features radiate waves in all directions. On the channel between Port Townsend and Whidbey Islands I’ve seen what look like ocean size swell rise out from such features. Very odd. In this case, it was enough to get my heart going and to force me to remind myself to breathe but overall things felt pretty stable. Like a lot of things, the fear that arises comes from projected possible futures much more than the reality of the situation. But, fear and humbleness is usually a better way of being than blind bravado when it comes to the ocean.

From Dock island onward things eased a lot. At Little Island I pulled up in the lee and coasted and streched my legs. By staying quiet I got to watch a bald eagle swoop down onto something on a grassy bank very close by. Having missed it’s target the eagle focussed on the sea weed but I think it was doing this to pretend that it had meant to go after sea creatures to begin with.

I need to name her. This craft has brought me a lot of pleasure in the 10 months I’ve had her. Yep, she’s big, heavy and plastic, but also a lot of fun and freedom.

From there onward it was a grind paddling into the current and along the urbanized coast north of Sidney and in the town proper. My shoulder was getting sore and it began to occur to me that I had done a lot of paddling that day. I pulled back into the public launch at 3:00 and was happy to change back into cotton and out of the sweaty wet suit. I can understand why folks prefer dry suits if only for a much less swampy butt. After arriving home and unpacking, I checked my route on Google Earth and leaned that my total distance for the whole trip was 25 kms. 5 of those were on the first night so that day I had covered 20 kms in about 6 hours. Not a bad clip. I think I could go further especially after the muscles build up again this season. The outer Gulf Islands like Pender and Saturna are about that distance from put ins at Swartz Bay so maybe reaching Cabbage Island on a long weekend is doable? Or maybe I need to learn to take a more relaxed pace?

Thanks for reading.

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