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by Judith Schultz, Edmonton Journal

Kayaks bridge the way to nature's hidden gems in Barkley Sound.

Photo: Majestic Ocean Kayaking
The water, this quiet morning, is as smooth as glass. Two sounds break the stillness: The swish of a kayak paddle and the screaming of a bald eagle, drying out her feathers after three days of wind and rain.

In mid stroke, I feel something looking at me. No more than six feet away are two round black eyes, just above the water line. It's a young harp seal, curious about this intrusion. He blinks, and disappears head-over-flippers in a bed of bull kelp.

We're paddling in the Broken Group, 100 small islands and big rocks scattered like so many pebbles in the middle of Barkley Sound, sandwiched between Loudon Channel and Imperial Eagle Channel. Both channels are open to the Pacific, with strong swells and high winds that come out of nowhere. That's why we hitched a ride by Zodiac into these sheltered islands with names like Turtle Island and Onion Island, and the Tiny Group.

Being sheltered doesn't mean these islands will suffer fools. The Thiepval Channel still holds a sunken ship, the MMCS Thiepval, that went to the bottom on a calm day in 1930 when it hit an uncharted rock. At least one island has ancient ruins from villages that were occupied some 6,000 years ago. On another one, the captain of a whaling ship once built his own hotel. The islands are deserted now, returned to their original inhabitants - bald eagles and pelagic cormorants, harbour seals and sea lions, sea otters and grey whales. And maybe a few ghosts.

We round the tip of an island and see, halfway down its length, a massive ruined tree trunk jutting over the water, weathered and grey. "Ill show you something you'd never expect to see out here," says my fellow-paddler, Tracy Morben. She points to the base of the ruined tree trunk. It's a human face, carved who-knows-when by some unknown artist. Tracy knows the secrets of the Broken Chain better than most people. She has spent years with Majestic Ocean Kayaking guiding and teaching kayaking in Pacific Rim National Park, and has seen the best and the worst of the ocean. "The weather changes so fast. Big waves appear suddenly, from a storm you can't even see coming. You need to know the tides, because in a few hours they can completely change the terrain".

Photo: Majestic Ocean Kayaking
We coast past rocky outcrops with sleek brown sea lions dozing in the sun. A few of them sleep on their backs, black flippers extended above the water to catch the warmth. Other islands, in the lee of the prevailing winds, are covered with Sitka spruce and cedar.

Moss-hung, fern-choked, they have white sand beaches and shallow, sheltered bays with purple and orange starfish clearly visible on the bottom.

We stop for lunch on a white sand beach, and Tracy hauls a small feast out of her kayak's storage space and sets it out on a giant log. Crows check the log for scraps, a long legged water bird paces in the shallows, gulls swoop low. In such a place, body and brain begin to relax. Still, there are rules here, cautionary tales, things to remember.

Don't wear jeans in a kayak - if you capsize, they'll weigh you down. Keep your lifejacket zipped at all times. If you happen to get blindsided by a wave and capsize, don't panic. "Pull the sprayskirt cord and you will pop out right away," Tracy says. "Normally, I'll have you back in your kayak inside of three minutes". That's a comforting thought, considering that even a few minutes in this water can cause hypothermia. Don't worry about it - just be aware. One more thing: Paddle with a buddy. Only an expert kayaker or somebody with a death wish paddles alone in these waters. It's a big ocean and it eats what it catches.

Eye to Eye with the friendlies

Moving encounter with a pair of whales is wet and wonderful.

We're halfway across Barkley Sound in a rubber boat when the whales show up. Two of them. The Friendlies, Brian Congdon calls them. He owns this Zodiac, and during many years on the water he has seen a lot of whales. Although this isn't a whale watch trip-we're on our way back to Ucluelet from a day of kayaking-there's something different going on here, and he cuts the motor.

The Friendlies are apparently fascinated by the Zodiac, and they play with us like two kids playing with a new toy, nuzzling the boat with their massive jaws, rolling over, swimming underneath and surfacing suddenly on the other side. Spraying great fountains of water into the air. Again and again, showers cover the boat. "Supposed to be lucky, whale spit," somebody says. Lucky maybe, but it smells bad, like a swamp in a heat wave.

Photo: Majestic Ocean Kayaking
The Friendlies are grey whales. Unlike the black and white Orcas, which are all identified within their specific pods by distinctive markings, the greys are mottled and nameless.

But the Friendlies are easy to tell apart, one being crusted with yellow barnacles, the other with two great gashes on his back, sore-looking wounds that must be the result of playing near a propeller. They're too close and too big for my little camera, and I end up with bizarre shots of blowholes and barnacles.

It doesn't matter - no camera could record what's happening here. Rolling over, they present nose and flipper near enough so we can easily touch them. I reach, and the dark skin beneath my hand is softer than I'd have believed, like wet velvet.

The Friendlies are a mystery. They could be travellers, part of the annual migration of 26,000 greys that make the journey from Mexico to Alaska every spring. They're likely adult males, Congdon says. Maybe 35 feet long. Maybe 30 tons. Certainly big enough and powerful enough to toss us around, should they be so inclined, but we know they won't. He drops a hydrographic microphone over the side, and soon we hear rhythmic clicking sounds. "I'm convinced those are directional signals," he says. Then from one of them comes the strange musical call that is the language of whales. I'm hanging half out of the boat, and as one great whale slides near me I pass my hand over his flipper again. Is it possible these animals like to be touched? That they sing to each other? That they will prop up their sick or wounded baby for days, holding it between two adults?

He rolls over on his right side, and for one amazing moment I'm eye to eye with a wild whale. The huge jaws open - do whales laugh? And once more the water fountains out of the blowhole. They've been with us for an hour, and now they've had enough. There's no dramatic gesture, no final breaching to wave goodbye, but suddenly the water is quiet. And empty. They've simply gone, and we'll never see them again. Not like this, playful, gentle, dog-friendly. One of my fellow kayakers, a young British exchange student, is moved almost to tears by the encounter. "I never imagined this," she whispers. "I'll never forget this."

Neither will I.

Majestic Ocean Kayaking, Ucluelet, British Columbia Article Courtesy of:
Majestic Ocean Kayaking
125 Garden Street
British Columbia
V0R 3A0, Canada
Toll Free:
(250) 726-2868
(250) 726-2860

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