Counter Clockwise: A Solo Circumnavigation of Vancouver Island

In the winter of 1952, when I was a little boy of five, my family sailed across the North Atlantic from Europe on a small troop ship. The storm we endured, the mountainous seas and howling winds, and the mélange of fear and awe it generated, will forever be etched in my soul. It may have been less than the perfect storm for the captain, but for me, it was mighty impressive and the first time I realized there was a power greater than my parent’s ability to protect.

Fast forward half a century to the San Juan Islands when my wife Pamela (then girlfriend) introduced me to ocean kayaking. For many years before she met me, she paddled the open coast of British Columbia, and had even built her own Hooper Bay sealing kayak. While I’d had years of white-water experience running McKenzie dories on the Deschutes, I was new to ocean kayaking. The summer I met her, Pamela invited me to join her and some friends for a month of kayaking, and I said yes.

I watched as three gray whales steamed right at me, performing a whale ballet as they pirouetted through the water so close I could have touched them.

After nearly a week of paddling out a deep inlet and heading north along the open coast of Vancouver Island, we settled on a long, white beach beside a creek that tumbled out of the rainforest. We paddled out to catch our supper each day, played baseball on the beach, and dove in the sea to cool off. Around a big fire at night, the sound of mbira and drumming kept the wild animals at bay. Gradually, we created a small neo-native village with a 30-foot longhouse made of driftwood poles and plastic tarps, plus a seaweed-chinked driftwood smokehouse to cure all the salmon we caught. It was bliss.

After a week of this I was ready to explore paradise. The urge to go off and trek along the open coast alone was compelling. By the time we made it back to our rigs at the end of the month and were driving back to civilization over the coastal mountain range, I’d made the decision. Next summer, I would set off from home and paddle around the island alone. Pamela—thankfully!—was willing to support me in the attempt.

Looking north and west toward Duncan Island and larger Hope and Nigei Islands that help define Goletas Channel. Cape Scott lies at the end of the long and narrow channel and marks the onset to the open west coast. I picked up the first intimation of deep oceanic swell that characterizes the Northern Pacific here, at Cape Sutil. Photo by Rob Lyons


On the inaugural trip with Pamela, I paddled a battle-scarred Orca kayak. I was uncomfortable in it because I was unclear on self-rescue protocol. Being fully aware of that fact, I decided that for the long and lonely kayak touring I had in mind and the little expertise I was starting with, something foolproof in the self-rescue department would be the smart move.

As a Southern California migrant with surfing experience, I could appreciate the concept: your ride was your life preserver. Just coming to the paddling scene, I could see the same logic applying to the sit-on-top kayak. No self-rescue tech required, other than what I would pick up from sea lions along the way,  namely, how to slither back aboard should I get bucked.

I found a 20-foot Tsunami Ranger that would be perfect for the trip, a big water fiberglass ‘sit-on-top’ boat with plenty of storage. Over the winter months and into spring, I rustled up gear and organized supplies. A friend of mine, Craig Petersen, had paddled around Vancouver Island four years prior. His insights (and a copy of his route penciled on a chart) were invaluable.

I accumulated a dozen charts, one for each section of the coast. I had tide tables and current charts for the straits and channels. I had Ince and Kotner’s A Paddler’s Guide to the West Coast, Washburne’s A Coastal Kayaker’s Manual, and a copy of Mists of Avalon that read like ambrosia in stormy weather.

One windy afternoon in July, everything was spread on a beach on Lopez Island. I fielded questions from local news folks and accepted good-byes from friends. The boat was stuffed to the gills. While saying farewell, Pamela promised to mail forty-pound packages of supplies to post offices at Campbell River, Port Hardy, Winter Harbour, and Tofino. An hour later, I was gone.

My plan was “learn while you earn.” I figured I’d get my sea legs paddling up the inside of the island, and by the time I reached the open sea at Cape Scott, I would be up to speed. The more challenging paddling was on the outside of the island with capes, wave-lashed beaches, and long rocky stretches where you could not safely get ashore.

It was high summer, and Georgia Strait was full of pleasure boats, fishing boats, military boats (conducting naval exercises), barges, cruise ships, and the ubiquitous ferries, including the big super ferries powering over to Vancouver and back.

Holed up in the tent which, in bad weather provided the rare feeling of true sanctuary, something I very much grew to like, even looking forward to and providing a welcome break from the rigors of travel. At this particular moment, I appear to be adapting my Churchwarden pipe for use with BC’s finest. Photo by Rob Lyon

But as I paddled north that first month my imagination soared ahead. Fifty miles to the west, to be precise, to the freedom of open water and deserted white sand beaches. Until then,  I found precious little public shore where I could take out, let alone pitch a tent, and guerilla tactics became necessary. Finally, after Campbell River, the busyness of humanity was reduced to logging and fishing, then through congested narrows and Johnstone Strait, eventually arriving at Sayward, Port McNeill, and Alert Bay.

The fishing fleet was anchored along the way, awaiting the salmon season’s opening. They were a pretty friendly bunch. One guy named Sam, who reminded me of a healthy old tree, waved me over and gave me a fish. Norwegian fishermen invited me aboard their boat, where I sat in the galley with the crew to eat enormous plates of delicious fried fish fillets and a big salad (the best part, at that point). In retrospect, these were great mid-summer, small boating adventures, but I was Jonesin’ for the outside at the time.

In Port Hardy, I spent the night sleeping on the government wharf tucked discreetly under the sliding dock ramp. After the bars shut down in the wee hours, the loud voices of a cacophony of drunken fishermen trooping down the noisy planks just above my head jolted me awake. Several equally drunk women screaming curses at the top of their lungs followed. I was happy to get underway early the next day.

Within sight of Cape Scott, I encountered a pod of gray whales feeding close to shore:  the fifteenth of August, a little over a month since I left Lopez Island. I camped in a little bay. At dusk, a fog bank rolled in that was so thick  I could only see my hand in front of my face. Sounds were dampened; the haunting tremolo of loons mixed with the fluted respiration of whales and the cadent bleating of a foghorn down at the cape made a mournful symphony. I crawled outside my tent to pee several times that night, having trouble sleeping, feeling both excited and anxious. Rounding the top of the island on the morrow would undoubtedly create new wrinkles in my game. The guidebook I brought billed this stretch of coast as: “…a challenge to even the most advanced sea kayaker…” which I certainly was not (a reality-check made on more than one sketchy occasion).

Another sunset and a profound feeling of not loneliness so much as being alone and wondering what the next day’s paddle will have in store. This long empty beach lay along the southern flank of Brooks Peninsula along the narrow littoral between what seemed like infinite water and infinite timber. Photo by Rob Lyon


The Outside


I glanced to my left as I approached the breakers off the rocky cape, and did a double take upon seeing a man and a woman sitting on a rocky shelf eating lunch. No doubt they’d hiked out to the point over Provincial Park trails.

They waved, and I—an otherwise friendly, outgoing, and quick-witted person—was too stunned to reply!

Another hundred yards and the hikers were forgotten.

Room with a view. A shallow cove very near Cape Scott with a Jetboil full of the morning’s fuel at hand. Unfortunately, I timed the morning launch with a minus tide, necessitating more than the usual quotient of schleppery to get afloat. Photo by Rob Lyon.

A turbulent, wave-lashed reef lay ahead where deep green swells rose to crash over rocks, tossing plumes of bone-white foam skyward. My heart was in my mouth as I threaded through the tumult. Not realizing it at the time, I know now that the greater part of my fear stemmed from the irrational belief that the white-water madness in front of me was chaotic and that the waves might just as well rise up to crash wherever they wanted or even chase after me!

I paddled into Hansen Lagoon later that day, relieved to have passed the initial challenge of the outer coast. At the mouth of the lagoon, I pulled out my fly fishing rod, tossed a fly along the edge of a kelp bed, and had a tremendous strike. Slamming my rod against the boat’s hull, an enormous salmon took one massive surge of line and leaped into the air, flashing silver and white, then dove into the tangle of kelp and broke my line. Ashore, I set out my break-down crab trap and feasted on succulent Dungeness crab that night.

Over the course of the journey, I ate a lot of fish. Salmon were ubiquitous, augmented by ling cod, black rock bass, quillback, and calico rockfish; all were plentiful. I trolled a fly for salmon while I traveled, and if I had no luck by the time I was ready to go ashore, I tied a lead jig on the end of my fly line and pulled up dinner. Stuck ashore in bad weather, I ate horseshoe barnacles. Unfortunately, the threat of red tide prevented me from harvesting mussels, clams, and oysters, but the “Dungies” were delicious compensation.

Whenever possible, I camped by creeks and streams for fresh water. Unfortunately, it was a historically dry summer, and I occasionally had to filter water gathered from funky rock pools above the tidal zone. I carried a hand-held spinnaker sail that offered a change of pace when the winds were right. My 3-person/4-season North Face tent was reliable in the storms, even the hurricane-force winds I encountered, and it had sufficient room to provide comfort when I was forced to hunker down for two or three days in bad weather—a huge plus for my spirit. I had three fly rods, as many reels as well as a fair bit of photographic equipment to keep me occupied and happy.

The big swell off the island’s northern part was legendary among kayakers. Riding those twenty-foot roller coasters was quite the thrill. The most challenging conditions, though, were the reefy shoals with sunken seamounts or rocks, and I had to keep an eye out for boomers that broke from the biggest wave sets.


Cape of Storms


At Winter Harbor, I collected a box of supplies at the tiny post office. I posted dispatches for various magazines and the local newspaper. From there, it was about ten miles to Brooks Bay at the northern side of the great cape.

The British explorer Captain James Cook called Brooks Peninsula the “Cape of Storms.” The cape itself is about three miles wide and six miles long. Wind and water accelerate like crazy off the tip when conditions are right, which is most of the time. Slack is when you want to make your move.

What’s most challenging for kayakers about Brooks is Clerke Point, at the southern corner, where a reef runs a mile out to sea and makes for rapidly changing conditions. In the five circuits I’ve made of this cape to date, I’ve seen it flat calm, with elegant combers that would do Redondo Beach proud, and once, sporting some of the nastiest stuff I’ve ever seen: gnarly over-falls and rips. Twice I’ve surfed ashore at Amos Creek to wait out conditions. And once (I will never forget), while making a tight dash around the reef, I watched three gray whales steam right at me, performing a whale ballet as they pirouetted through the water so close, I could have touched them.

I made a smooth and uneventful passage this time, accompanied by a pair of orcas; it was a powerful, thrilling place to be. Once past Clerke, I made for a particular beach at the base, where I found Pamela and fifteen of her friends. Suffice it to say; it was an enjoyable week. When it came time for them to return, I paddled with them to the Bunsbys, then Spring Island. Then it was just me again, alone with the sea.

A quiet evening. Photo by Rob Lyon

This was an emotional nadir for me. After a serious girlfriend refresh, I came to miss Pamela very much over the weeks ahead. While the north coast had held me in thrall, I was now approaching civilization again. I picked up my last food drop in Tofino and continued on to Barkley Sound and Cape Beal, and paddled just out past the surf along the famous West Coast Trail. I had hiked the trail once ten years earlier, slogging through mud and gazing out from under a fifty-pound pack to the water, thinking (presciently) how a little boat would be the ticket, something I could pull up on shore for the night.

With a big sou’easter moving in, I stopped at the Carmanah Lighthouse, where the gracious keeper-family of Jerry, Janet, Jake, and Justine invited me to a Canadian Thanksgiving dinner. I was billeted in the coast guard cabin and taught the kids ‘Horse’ and ‘Around the World’ on their helipad-cum-basketball court in a bit of enjoyable international détente. It was cause for celebration for me as well—the Carmanah Light marks the entrance proper to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the broad channel that leads into Puget Sound.

After a long and exciting crossing of wind-swept Haro Strait, I surfed ashore in a nasty four-foot chop onto the spit along Fisherman’s Bay, landing on the beach that I had left precisely one hundred and two days earlier; I would never have guessed it would take me this long!

Coming down the east coast of San Juan Island, I could not make radio contact with a marine operator, so Pamela had no precise idea when I would arrive. There was no one out on the beach that evening, but there was one last beer in the kayak (I never missed beer-thirty the entire time in the field, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the trip), and I dug around to find it. Still in my stinking, torn wetsuit, and nearly out of food with rain clouds scudding overhead and darkness about to descend, I collapsed on the beach, leaned back against a driftwood log, and drank. Not long after, an older couple out for a stroll spotted me and called in the calvary.

Contemplation. Photo by Rob Lyon

Ironically, for such a solo journey, people played a big part in my experience. I was something of a curiosity, I suppose, and fishermen and lighthouse keepers made my day on more than one occasion. But, of course, I spent most of my time alone. The familiar sense of hearth and home had been conspicuously absent. In its place were brisk winds dancing in the treetops at the forest’s edge, the boom, cough, hiss, and crack of waves, the raucous cry of gulls, and the familiar tok-tok of ravens. At night in my tent, the wind rattled the nylon fly. In the morning, the clank of metal spoon on metal cup was the melody that filled the air as I stirred my instant coffee. And perhaps the leitmotif at the end of the long arm of civilization was the robotic voice on my VHF radio that I listened to many times each day to catch the latest weather intel from Environment Canada.

And finally, the metaphor.

I was on the water one day watching waves rise and fall when it occurred to me how a wave is really the ocean doing a wave thing. Not the form I typically take it to be. A moment later, as the other shoe dropped—the Aha—that every thing, every form, every stitch of mankind, myself included—is just like that wave.

That may sound obtuse, but for me, that simple insight, carried forward into my zazen practice today, might be the ultimate takeaway.

As I look back, the prime motivation of this trip may have been to slay demons—my deep fear of the relentless power of the sea—but I might never have done it without the accompanying awe. I trimmed some fat off the beast, reducing it to moments where I could see fear was clearly justified—but no more imagined maleficence, at least, like the rogue waves in hot pursuit at Cape Scott.

Rob Lyon is a free-lance adventure journalist who divides his time between the wilderness seacoast of British Columbia, the high deserts of the Northwest, and the lakes and streams of the North Cascades. He lives with his artist wife, Pamela, in the San Juan Islands, along the coast of Washington.

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