Coast Encounters of the Guard Kind

The Vitals

Dates: June 29 – July 2, 2018

Location: Broken Group Islands, BC

Partners: Brittany, Dawn, Nikki, AT, Tom, Nicole, Jeet, Christian

Time: Four days

Photos by Brittany

The Trip

July long weekend of the year of 30th birthdays in my 1988 cohort. Tom’s June birthday falls close enough to the weekend that his wife started planning months ago for a reprise of the mob-style gigantic camping trip that has lain dormant for a few years. The destination was the Broken Group Islands on the west coast of Vancouver island. To the east is the entire breadth of Canada. To the west, just open ocean.

Committing months in advance forfeits any ability to make last-minute choices based on weather so we departed Port Alberni in the rain aboard the M.V. Frances Barkley where we drank Kirkland coffee for year 2000 prices.

The rain persisted as we packed up the rented kayaks (four doubles and a single) at Sechart Lodge and pushed off into the Pacific and across the National Park Boundary. The first day felt like being Mary and Joseph on their way to Nazareth – no room at the inn. Dodd campground was full and we bypassed Willis based on the advice of some boats heading in the other direction. Around the bend to Turret we were just in time to see a group of boats slipping into the bay to land at another crowded beach. We tried to check it out but were barricaded by the wall-to-wall sea of orange so common to tents.

One last chance at Clarke Island paid off when we pulled up on a large white sand beach and were greeted with the sight of numerous sheltered spots for our five tents. The rain was still coming and going but some whale spouts and a place to call home buoyed our spirits.

The next day saw rain continue until mid-afternoon so we entertained ourselves with improvements to our tarp city. The break finally arrived around 3:00 so we could get on the ocean again and explore the nearby islands including Puffin Islet – devoid of any life except perhaps some grasses in the cracks between the rocks.

Day three was July 1st and sunny. With the trouble finding camping space on the first day we had decided to just take day trips from our home base so today’s destination was Dicebox across Coaster Channel from Clarke. The wind was pretty strong mostly from the west as we crossed but the only casualty was Brittany’s Nalgene – the latest addition to the Pacific garbage patch.

Dicebox lives up to the hype. We ate salmon berries, checked out the cave, scrambled on the west side above the crashing waves bravely following Christian’s lead. After a few hours we packed the boats to leave by paddling the gap between Gilbert and Effingham before facing Coaster Channel again.

The wind had refused to die down while we were on Dicebox, so Coaster Channel was now more forbidding with swells that could hide the boats from each other and would easily crash over the bow and add to the lake forming around my legs. In these conditions we couldn’t easily stay close together or communicate so we made a plan to regroup at the SE corner of Turret on the lee side where an anchored sailboat served as our target. Five boats set off and three reached the rendezvous. We watched the other two continue up the west side of Turret. They were moving well and were together so we weren’t exactly worried but we didn’t have easy means to ask them what was going on. The group was now Alex and Nikki in a double kayak, Brittany and Dawn in a double, and me in the single.

After a few minutes’ wait we continued with the original plan to circumnavigate Turret on the east side through Thiepval Channel.

This lee side plan fell apart almost immediately as we faced a strong head wind and also fought a small tidal current. Still, with effort, we landed at the beach at the north end of Turret along with another party of three that we had met on the ferry on the first day.

We spent a half hour resting and collecting driftwood to bring back for a fire. We also pulled out our cell phone and made contact with the other group to learn that they were sheltering along the east side of the island. Around 7:15 p.m. we made the call to try and cross back to Clarke. We had already portaged the boats over the beach which avoided an additional paddle around Trickett and Lovett but the strong wind made even leaving the beach a challenge.

After some hard paddling in my solo kayak I was able to pull behind a miniature island where I could hold my progress with only a little work. I watched over my shoulder as Dawn and Brittany got blown around by the wind before turning back for shelter at Turret. I couldn’t call them while out in the kayak so I continued with Alex and Nikki to Clarke where we landed sometime around 8:00.

As I pulled the kayak up on to the beach, our camp neighbours were shuffling down the beach towards me. They asked me how it was going and I said something like, “Alright. Pretty windy, right!”. It was clear pretty quickly that they were concerned at which point they revealed they had called the Coast Guard since we had been out for so long on a windy day. That switched the gears in my head since I hadn’t felt much concern until that point. I grabbed my phone and got in contact with Dawn to learn they were at a campfire on Turret at the camp area where shortly thereafter she and Brittany were joined by the other two boats we had lost on the Coaster Channel crossing. They had also failed to make the crossing in the heavy winds.

The Coast Guard was called again to update them with the information that we were all accounted for and either on Turret or Clarke, as the case may be. With the new data the boat announced they would continue en route and check on the Turret group personally.

From Clarke, we watched a Coast Guard boat sail from the south (Bamfield, I think) and over to Turret. The wind was not forecast to die down until well into the night so they made the call to transport the six people and three boats across the channel. They had lots of food but no dry clothes and it was getting dark. When they arrived back at Clarke they were dropped off by twos into the shallow water where they paddled 100 m into shore. We had built a big fire and pre-boiled water for tea for them and ended up eating a late dinner along with a big ol’ piece of humble pie.

In light of the days’ events, we gave ourselves lots of time on the return to Sechart Lodge where we arrived four hours before our return ferry and an incident-free trip back to Vancouver.

Exhaustion at the end of the trip waiting for the return ferry.

Epilogue: When I was learning to rock climb in university, the local guide who ran the courses in Kingston used to use a slot machine analogy for situations like this one. He would refer to there being, “Too many lemons”. Each lemon is some small factor that on its own is not dangerous or fatal but when too many line up you “win” a critical situation. The important thing to recognize is when the lemons are stacking up and your margin of safety is being eroded.

In our case we had a lemon in the wind. Not all the boats were equally strong and it became more pronounced as fatigue set in later in the day. Another lemon was the lack of dry and warm clothing we had packed since it was expected to be a day trip. As night approached we were facing down another lemon. The darkness was coming and our group, while able to contact each other, was split. Our group hadn’t thought of asking for assistance yet but we were getting dangerously close to a serious situation – perhaps the onset of hypothermia during a late evening attempt to paddle across the channel would tip the scales against us. The Coast Guard restored the margin of safety by reuniting the group where we would all have access to clothing, food, and shelter. While there is an element of embarrassment, the alternative is better left explored by the imagination. We are thankful for the assistance and learned an important lesson about ocean travel and conservative decision-making.

gregreynen