Kayaking Cape Scott:
Gale Force Around Northern Vancouver Island
by Markus Kellerhals
Photos by Linda Bily
"Winds around northern
Vancouver Island: northwest gales 35-40 knots....," crackled the authoritative
voice of our weather radio. Conditions in our cove, tucked behind the
jutting thumb of Cape Sutil, seemed so placid that it was hard to credit
this forecast. Weather forecasters have the advantage of supercomputers,
satellite photos, and reams of weather data; Linda and I had the advantage
of a beach-side seat. We bushwhacked out to the exposed tip of Cape
Sutil, Vancouver Island's northernmost point, for a peek before setting
out. The sea was a dull grey, reflecting the overcast, but looked reasonably
Paddling out into the
big swells was a bit intimidating at first. Surprise! The waves were
much bigger than they had seemed from shore. Linda's boat looked very
small - a colourful chip of driftwood. A current setting around the
cape complicated matters, transforming rounded swells into steep pyramids.
After a few minutes of white-knuckle paddling we relaxed slightly, realising
that the waves were not quite ready to fall on us. We pointed our bows
west, and stayed well offshore. The coastline we paralleled looked inviting,
but the crashing surf that extended well out from shore did not.
After announcing our
plans to paddle around Cape Scott, Linda and I were bombarded with nautical
tales of terror about this westernmost scrap of Vancouver Island. Salty
dogs and barstool mariners alike, assured us that we would face incessant
storm force winds, pea-soup fog, uncharted reefs, rogue waves, and miles
of exposed coast. Even if we only experienced a fraction of these terrors
we were in for an exciting paddle. Personally I think some of our well-wishers
may have confused Cape Scott with Cape Horn.
The first three days
of our journey had been uneventful. We launched in Port Hardy and enjoyed
gentle, fog-bound paddling through the archipelago that lines Goletas
Channel. The pre-trip prophets of doom seemed to have been proven wrong.
But now we were beginning to wonder...
We landed at the mouth
of the Stranby River in Shuttleworth Bight. The sandy beach was patterned
with bear, wolf and deer tracks. Paddling upstream in search of fresh
water we were surprised to find a well outfitted homestead along the
banks of the river. Nobody home though. Paddling this calm spruce-lined
stream was an excellent antidote to the morning's excitement. The dank
smell of moss and decaying wood soon replaced the salty tang we had
grown used to. After filling our jugs, we wandered through the forest,
picking our fill of huckleberries.
The next morning was
a repeat of the last - again dire warnings on the radio - but on the
sea before us hardly a breath of wind. No matter how fine the conditions
look, I am reluctant to paddle an exposed coast when the forecast is
for gale to storm force winds. Linda and I discussed our options and
finally decided to go, based partly on our knowledge of a semi-sheltered
landing at Fisherman Bay. We paddled by enticing stretches of sand -
another area to explore when the surf is smaller. Arriving at Fisherman
Bay we chose a spectacular surf landing on Nissen Bight over a more
sedate landing in the cove.
For the next few days
we were expecting company. Most of the beaches between Nissen Bight
and our take-out in San Josef Bay are accessible via trails in Cape
Scott Park. Sure enough, as we approached the beach we spotted several
clusters of tents. By the time I wobbled up the beach, dragging my boat
a few metres, we had a sprinkling of spectators. One man seemed quite
impressed and immediately bombarded me with questions. I stuttered answers,
"From Port Hardy....five days....yes all our food...lots of bears",
while trying to keep an eye on Linda. She rocketed through the surf
in fine style until her bow suddenly gybed left. Her high brace was
too little too late. Over she went. "Of course she'll roll!" I assured
the bystanders. "Oops, what's that head doing sticking out of the water."
Moments later a bedraggled but still smiling Linda emerged onto the
beach, swamped boat in tow. "So much for impressing the hikers", she
The following day, the
long awaited gale finally arrived. Though skies were still clear, the
sea was covered in whitecaps and the surf was building. Since rounding
Cape Scott was clearly out of the question, we went hiking instead.
The 13 kilometre hike
from Nissen Bight to the Cape took us past most of the highlights of
the park. The trails we followed were built by Danish farmers who attempted
to settle the Cape Scott area in 1897. The settlers were defeated by
a combination of factors: lack of an all-weather harbour, distance to
markets, and government failure to build a promised road. Most of the
settlers admitted defeat after a few years and moved away, but a few
hardy souls stayed and farmed as late as the 50's. The rainforest has
almost completely reclaimed their homes and farms. A few rusty tools
and rotten planks beside the trail linger as the only reminders of their
valiant but doomed settlement attempt. Hiking through the rich meadows
at Hansen Lagoon, it is easy to understand what attracted the settlers
to this area. Even on this stormy day the meadows steamed in the sun,
ruffled by only the slightest breeze.
The trail rejoined the
coast at Nels Bight. This three kilometre long crescent of white sand
is a magnet for backpackers. We counted 23 tents strung along the beach.
Huge breakers were lashing the shores of Experiment Bight and the wind
howled across the narrow sand neck between Experiment Bight and Guise
Bay. We commended ourselves for not being out in the kayaks.
Finally we arrived at
the Cape. There are few better spots for storm-watching than Cape Scott.
The lighthouse is set back from the water on top of a hill, but the
foghorn is on the furthest point of land, practically overhanging the
water. Linking the lighthouse and the foghorn is a flight of 327 steps,
a wooden walkway built four metres above the forest floor, and finally
a suspension bridge hanging 15 metres above a surge channel. The lighthouse
keeper told us that during the biggest storms the bridge gets flipped
over by waves.
From our lofty overlook
we watched mountains of water roll down from the northwest. We tried
to imagine how small a kayak would look on those waves. Nasty weather
for kayaks, but for the sea lions below us, a chance to play. They lined
up beside a submerged reef. As each wave arrived a few sea lions launched
down the face to surf wildly across the shallows.
Two days later we rounded
the Cape in much calmer weather. Big swells were still rolling down
from the northwest, but the wind was calm. Since strong tidal currents
surge around Cape Scott, we waited until slack current (predicted by
our tide tables). Nonetheless, as soon as we passed Experiment Bight
a strong current began propelling us towards the Cape. We flew past
a grey whale who was moving slowly upstream. Just before the Cape we
approached a line of breakers. We quickly realised what was happening.
The current in our back eddy was converging with the main current, creating
a giant eddyline that concentrated wave energy in one area. Looking
seaward there was no sense of scale, the breakers could have been two
feet high or twelve feet high. Once among them, the breakers proved
to be much smaller than we feared. We paddled hard and braced for a
few bumpy minutes until we were back into gentle swells. That was it
- the dreaded Cape was behind us! We smiled with release of tension.
On our final day we
headed south towards San Josef Bay. The coast was rugged and steep.
Paddling close to shore, we balanced while the rebound waves tried to
punt our boats skyward. All morning we kept hearing a helicopter over
the roar of the waves. The lighthouse keeper had mentioned that the
Discovery Channel was filming a documentary about the park. No doubt
the film crew was getting some aerial footage of the coastline.
Linda was like a kid.
"We could be on TV!" I half expected an emergency landing so Linda could
work on her hair. My own appearance was beyond redemption after eight
days camping. Finally the helicopter came into sight. After wasting
an unconscionable amount of time filming boring old rocks, trees and
surf, they finally spotted us. The helicopter swooped down on us, with
the cameraman dangling out. For a couple of minutes they circled, getting
shots from all angles. I concentrated on keeping a straight face.
In the back of my mind
I worked on the narration. "Only the most intrepid mariners brave this
storm battered coastline." Dramatic music swells to a crescendo then
fades as the two kayakers slip out of sight around a headland.
Paddling from Port Hardy to San Josef Bay takes 7-10 days. There are
dozens of fine beaches, and a handful of estuaries to explore. The first
stretch north of Port Hardy is sheltered by a chain of islands. Paddling
among the islands is actually more interesting than following the coast
of Vancouver Island through Goletas Channel. The north-facing coast
between Cape Sutil and Cape Scott is totally exposed to the prevailing
northwesterlies. Past Cape Scott, a few bays provide sheltered landings
spots. This is a trip for kayakers with strong skills. Paddlers unsure
of their skills are advised to explore either end of this trip and skip
the most challenging middle section. There are no intermediate access
points. In an emergency, help might be available from the Cape Scott
lighthouse, and from park rangers stationed at Nels Bight.
The hiking trails are
a bonus for kayakers, though they also mean more people on the beaches.
We saw no people on any of the beaches that were not trail accessible,
and did not meet any other kayakers either. A thin strip of land along
the North Coast of the island from Shushartie to Nissen Bight was recently
added to Cape Scott Park. This represents a modest conservation victory
- at least this coast will not be logged right to the shoreline. One
day there may be a "North Coast Trail" along this shore, but at present
you will meet more bears than tourists.
Information about the
park is available from BC Parks in Port Hardy - (250) 949-2815. Charts
3575, 3597 and 3624 cover the entire area.