Friday, August 2, 2013

Vancouver Island Adventure: Journey to Kyuquot

This is the first of three posts about kayaking and camping on northern Vancouver Island in B.C., just north across the US-Canada border. Read the second post here and the third post here.

Unless you're arriving by float plane, the trip to Kyuquot is a long and varied voyage. As with life in general, my trip there was as much about the journeyan especially scenic and beautiful journeyas the destination.

Where exactly is Kyuquot? It's so remote that you can't drive there. I've been hearing about the place for years now through my cousin's friend Eric, who owns and operates the Kyoquot Inn.

Kyoquot/Checleseht, as the area is called by the First Nations people who have lived there for several millenia, is shown on the map below, tucked way up on the northwestern coast of Vancouver Island. I started my journey in Seattle, shown as a little red dot on the bottom right corner.

Vancouver Island with inset of Kyuquot/Checleseht. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

We leave Seattle about 5:30 a.m. to allow plenty of time at the border crossing into Canada and then on to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, where we catch the 10:15 ferry to Nanaimo. Okay, we could have left 30 minutes later and easily made the ferry, but better safe than sorry, right?

"It's not always this easy," I warn Matt. He's thrilled to see a wild whale for the first time when a female adult orca emerges from the sea beside the ferry in the Strait of Georgia and seems to wave her dorsal fin at us. This is our only whale sighting of the entire 10-day trip (and technically orcas are dolphins, not whales).

A Salish Sea orca, but not the one we saw on the ferry. Photo by Alisa Lemire Brooks.

After a 2.5-hour ferry ride and a 2-hour drive up the east side of Vancouver Island from Nanaimo to Campbell River, we grab a few groceries, gas, and about the best sandwich I've ever had at the Java Shack. Then it's north and west across the island for another hour+ through steeply forested and snow-laced peaks to the  Zeballos and Fair Harbor turnoff (our destination tonight), where we hit dusty dirt logging roads for the rest of our drive. 

Two and a half hours of driving 35 miles per hour past clearcut mountains and saltwater inlets brings us to Fair Harbour, which is indeed situated on a fair harbor. But it's basically just a dirt parking lot with a dock, a few campsites, and a trailer that serves as the store.

As soon as we roll to a stop to get our bearings, a gray-bearded, rustic-looking man sitting beside the harbor leaps up and comes to the car window, as if waiting for us.  In his strong small-town Canadian accent, Bill proceeds to tell us the parking options, the best spots to camp, who and how to pay, where to launch our kayaks, the high and low tide times for the next day, and generally anything else relevant to beginning our kayak trip.

We didn't know how clueless we were until we met Bill.

When we're settled at a lovely waterfront campsite, Bill joins us to enjoy the beautiful sunset and twilight over Fair Harbour. It's blissfully quiet except for the hungry mosquitoes buzzing around with their high-pitched whine.

Fair Harbour sunset
 We're planning an early morning start to kayak the 12+ miles through the labyrinth of inlets and islands of Kyuquot Sound out to the village of Kyuquot. Our goal is up at 5 a.m. and on the water by 7 a.m.

Fair Harbour early morning. Low tide.

Getting ready to launch for our 6-day camping adventure.
I said 7 a.m. launch, right? Ha. Despite our intentions, packing and organizing ourselves (and helping Bill, who will paddle out with us) took a lot longer than anticipated.  Although I wanted to get on the water before the daily inflow winds came barreling up the narrow fjord-like inlets, we don't launch until about 11:30, with the wind steady and persistent.

With Bill serving as our de facto guide, we paddle out of Fair Harbor and make our way into more exposed Markale Passage.  As we're rounding the Markale Peninsula beyond the outer harbor, we stop and chat with three incoming kayakers from Bellingham, Washington, who've just kayaked up from Rugged Point on the outer coast. 

While I'm expecting we'll see lots of other kayakers at the peak of summer based on this early encounter, we only see one other group of kayakers in over 6 hours of paddling today.

Because we're fighting the wind and some lumpy, choppy sea as we make our way down the passage with some open water crossings, I don't take a lot of photos.  Mostly we paddle past forest-covered islands and mountains at water's edge, but evidence of the intensive logging here is still visible in some clearcuts scarring the hillsides.

At around 3:30 Bill points us to a little beach on the northeast side of Union Island, where we pull up and take a lunch break.  Here in Kyuquot Sound there just aren't many spots to land, with most shorelines consisting of rocky outcrops fringed with thick forests of evergreen trees.

A well-deserved break on Union Island, more than halfway to Kyuquot Village
Fortunately, most of our wind battles are over for the day.  We struggle a bit in Crowther Channel, but then we scoot across the narrow channel and round the end of Surprise Island, where we catch our first glimpse of the open ocean and that exhilarating whiff of ocean breeze.  From there into Kyoquot it's easy paddling along the protected shoreline of Vancouver Island amongst scenic little bays and islets.

Pacific Ocean ahead!
While I read it can be confusing finding your way through the little islands and coves to Kyoquot Village and Walter's Island, our destination tonight, it's cake for us.  We just follow the path of the power boats, like cows returning to the barn. Not that many, but enough to show us the way.

Around 5:30 I speed up my pace because at Kyuquot Inn, where we're pitching our tents tonight, the restaurant closes at 6 p.m.  No way am I kayaking 6.5 hours and missing a hot meal at an eatery run by one of the premier kosher caterers in Seattle.

With just minutes to spare, we cruise up to the easy-to-find Kyuquot Inn beach and land.  Proprietor Eric Gorbman is there with an easy smile, waiting for us.  We haul our gear up to the deck and enjoy one of the best dinners I can remember:  exquisitely breaded, flaky fresh halibut and a tangy Greek salad.  Was it the long day of hard paddling that made this dinner so memorable?  Maybe. But I think it would be just that good regardless.

Kyuquot Inn Proprietor Eric Gorbman
Kyuquot Sunset

We sleep very well tonight.

Next post in this series:  Kayaking the Bunsby Islands

When You Go
Logistics and planning for a longer kayak camping trip to remote Kyuquot takes time and energy.  For starters, I got the book Sea Kayak Nootka & Kyuquot Sounds  by Heather Harbord, which was informative but almost 10 years old (2004) and a little out-of-date. In researching the trip, I found general information but not a lot of specifics about kayaking from Fair Harbor, which was why connecting with seasoned Kyoquot-area kayaker Bill was a serendipitous coincidence.  A good nautical chart and a clear plastic chart holder for your kayak deck is imperative: get the Canadian Hydrographic Map of Kyoquot Sound. You can order online, but here in Seattle I got mine at Captain's Nautical Supplies in Interbay.

Or you could leave the planning to the experts.  West Coast Expeditions is based on Spring Island and offers guided kayak trips in the area.

While we had perfect sunny weather every day, I'm told it's not the norm, so come prepared for rainy and chilly weather.  FYI, generally the Kyuquot Inn rents cabins and rooms, not campsites for tents. Since Eric is a family friend, we were able to bend the rules a bit.  But anyone is welcome at the restaurant. Most sea kayakers head out to Spring Island in the Mission Group to camp, which is about a mile offshore from Kyuquot village and protected paddling.


Doug said...

You make a great travel writer Jill. I miss kayaking with you.

John said...

Looks like a lot of fun Jill! Thanks for sharing.

ron mitchell said...

This is now on my bucket list, Jill! You make it sound inviting.

Anonymous said...

Sounds wonderful Jill

Anonymous said...

Ah, you are one lucky lady and fine travel writer Jill.

jill said...

Thanks for the comments everyone! Doug, hope to kayak with you again some time.

Ron, you definitely need to explore Vancouver Island, especially by kayak.

Robert, thanks for your compliment! Now if only I could get paid for travel writing...