SECRETS OF COASTAL ISLANDS
by Judith Schultz, Edmonton Journal
Kayaks bridge the way to nature's hidden gems in Barkley Sound.
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.
Majestic Ocean Kayaking
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.
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
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
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.
Majestic Ocean Kayaking
Moss-hung, fern-choked, they have white sand beaches and shallow,
sheltered bays with purple and orange starfish clearly visible on
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
with a pair of whales is wet and wonderful.
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.
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.
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.
Majestic Ocean Kayaking
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.
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.
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
Neither will I.
125 Garden Street
V0R 3A0, Canada