On an otherwise quiet night, the only sounds were whistling birds, raindrops in the trees and small waves lapping the shoreline. But then, out of the darkness, a whale exhaled. I couldn’t see the humpback due to the thickness of the fog hovering over Blackfish Sound.
It was beautifully eerie on this final night of a five-day kayaking expedition in the Broughton Archipelago. Earlier in the evening, we had parked our kayaks roughly 100 metres from the path of a whale, obeying the allowable distance. But eventually we found ourselves surrounded by passing humpbacks, and schools of dolphins, some of which popped up directly in front of the kayaks. Over the speakers of a whale-watching boat, the playful voice of Captain Wayne told his passengers: “Please don’t feed the kayakers.”
Blackfish Sound is a veritable playground for ocean wildlife, sea kayakers and whale watchers. It lies between Hanson and Swanson islands, where we stayed Monday and Thursday in tents on a campground leased by North Island Kayak, a company based in Telegraph Cove on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. We roughed it Tuesday and Wednesday at Cedar Island. No outhouse or electricity. Just the ground to set up tents.
Departing Monday from Telegraph Cove, our group of five kayakers and one guide kicked things off by crossing Johnstone Strait. It took just 10 minutes to spot a group of porpoise/dolphins — easily mistaken for Orcas. By the second day, we had seen our first humpback in Blackfish Sound. Later Tuesday, we had entered the archipelago, where overcast skies created a dreamy atmosphere. Our guide — Josh Julien — said the mountainous landscape resembled a painting. He was right.
Throughout the week, we were followed by seals. They’d pop their heads out of the water, scope out the situation with those wide eyes, disappear, then re-appear in a different location. At one point, a seal nosed the rudder of my kayak. Another popped its upper body out of the water to inspect the bow of a fellow paddler.
The biggest thrill happened on the final day. Within minutes of departing Cedar Island, the body of a humpback appeared about 10 feet in front of Jan. Then its tail swept by Jan’s wife Heather, whose shriek continues to amuse Josh.
It’s amazing seeing something that big up close. Adult humpbacks can reach lengths of about 17 metres and weigh about 40 tons. I felt helpless and awed at the same time.
But aside from the surface action, underwater also teems with life: jellyfish, sea cucumbers and an assortment of colourful anemones can be found along rock lines near shore. This is when the paddling slows to a crawl, and becomes restful, even meditative. But when the time comes to cross the ocean, the arm and back muscles kick into gear, especially when battling currents. A novice kayaker, I was gripping the paddle too tightly. My left wrist was swollen at the end of the first day (it still hurts) and my right thumb developed a large blister. Equally challenging was keeping clothes dry. North Island Kayak supplies guests with a 10-litre dry bag to store essentials while kayaking, and a 20-litre dry bag for clothes and gear at the campsite. Call it getting by with the minimum. When it comes to clothing, we discovered it was more about ‘levels of damp’ as opposed to dry.
Kayakers need to prepare for rain. We had plenty. But that’s not a bad thing. In fact, ocean kayaking is pleasant in the rain, provided proper gear is worn. Cotton is not proper gear. Once wet, it stays wet.
But if our spirits had dampened, everything brightened come meal time. Josh’s cooking was stellar. Salads, egg dishes, pancakes, wraps. We ate well.
Here’s one recipe we named Josh’s special: sauté garlic, jalapeño peppers and quinoa in oil. Add potatoes, carrots, spinach, corn and feta cheese — and anything else desired.
Our leader was up each morning at 6 a.m. to prepare breakfast. He even provided brown sugar for our morning coffee. Then, after a day of kayaking and unloading gear, he would cook dinner. Spoiled us silly.
I hardly slept the second night. Too much coffee, chocolate and hot chocolate. It wasn’t raining but moisture in the trees kept a steady flow of drops hitting the tent. One never knows what might pop into mind while lying awake in the middle of the night. At one point, though I hadn’t heard it in decades, I had the following Bugs Bunny tune running through my head:
Oh, we’re the boys of the chorus,
We hope you like our show,
We know you’re rooting for us,
But now we have to go.
Looney Tunes, indeed. But I made up for it the following night with a 10-hour sleep. Made sure I drank herbal tea during the day.
All part of the experience, which was everything I expected — and then some.