The bow of my kayak digs a groove into the sand, and I get out and stretch. Maria sheds her dry suit and takes off running down the perfect, uninhabited two-mile crescent of warm sand. Bruce pokes around in tide pools. I wander up the beach, following wolf tracks. An eagle whistles from the trees. Somewhere in the bay I hear, but can’t see, the spout of a gray whale.
Then the reverie is over. I wake up.
I’m at home. As I write these words, the coronavirus is burning through the world. Fully half the world’s population is on lockdown. I have no idea when the pandemic will come under control, what the world will be like afterwards, and when we’ll be able to venture out in kayaks again. But when we can, I know exactly where I’ll head: the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island, where steep mountains descend to swell-battered sandy beaches and rocky offshore reefs, where whales, sea otters, wolves, and bear frolic. It’s my favorite place on earth to paddle.
Much of British Columbia’s coast is comprised of deep glacially-carved inlets protected from the open sea. Long-distance paddlers use this network of fjords as a pathway for the epic journey between Alaska and Washington. By contrast, the west coast of Vancouver Island—the westernmost margin of the west coast, part of a more loosely-defined “Outside Passage”—is best suited to exploring nooks and crannies, where getting anywhere is secondary to finding secret coves, rock gardens and surf beaches.
If the west coast of the West Coast is a passage at all, the direction of travel is inward.
I made my first sea kayak journey to Vancouver Island’s west coast in the early 2000s. I launched into a series of fog-wreathed islands, and learned quickly to stay on top of my navigation far more than on the straight-line Oregon Coast or even the San Juan Islands. By the end of the first day I’d been seduced by mist and sunsets, tide pools bursting with life, cavorting sea lions, and the sound of water surging through rocks. By the time we reached the crux of our first trip—a rugged exposed island with big sea arches—the scenery was second to the bigger feeling of an endless coast where our island group was part of an unbroken chain stretching hundreds of miles. I’ve returned nearly every year since to different parts of the West Coast.
Sounds and Points
The Outside Coast stretches from the north side of the Straight of Juan de Fuca west of Port Renfrew up the entire west coast of Vancouver Island to Cape Sutil. Measuring the coastline is futile: the decision to measure in a straight line or around the edges of bays says more about the person doing the measuring than any real distance. As your eye skips over charts and maps, you’ll notice a series of island filled sounds: Barkley, Clayoquot, Nootka, Nuchatlitz, Kyuquot, Quatsino. Between these sounds are capes and headlands that form crux moves: Cape Beale, Pachena, Amphitrite, Rafael, Maquinna, Tatchu, Rugged, and Lawn Point all present challenges for kayakers. Three big points—Estevan Point, the Brooks Pennsinula, and Cape Scott at Vancouver Island’s northwest corner—have fearsome reputations that that even big ships take seriously.
Inside the sounds, there are often routes protected from ocean swell that can offer alternative paddling if the weather turns bad—if you can get to them from wherever you are when the weather hits you. But even on the outer coast, skilled planners can use the coast’s complexity to plan a less demanding route. Offshore rocks, reefs, tiny islands and kelp beds can break up the swell. Headlands with big curving coves offer places to land with some protection from the swell. The result is something that doesn’t exist on the outer coasts of Washington, Oregon, or northern California: intermediate-level outer coast kayaking.
Another aspect of Vancouver Island’s west coast is blatantly obvious from a look at maps, charts, or Google Earth: it’s utterly wild. Paved roads reach a few spots on the west coast—Point Renfrew, Uclulet, Tofino and Tahsis. A boat takes you to Bamfield; small largely First Nations villages like Zeballos, Fair Harbour, and Winter Harbour are reached by long drives over rough logging roads. Between these towns are many miles of wilderness with few, if any, settlements between them.
There are wolves and black bears on many islands: the wolves are an endemic subspecies, canis lupus crassadons, the Vancouver Island Gray Wolf. They’re fairly secretive so you may not see them, but you’ll likely see their tracks. In summer, Gray Whales abound. Sea lions gather where they have haul-outs, like Batley and Howell Islands in Barkley Sound and Rafael and Dagger Points in Clayoquot Sound.
Sea otters, once hunted to near-extinction, were re-released in Chechleset Bay on the South Brooks in the 1970s. They’re now thriving, extending their range down the coast to Kuyuqout Sound, Nuchatlitz Inlet, and points south in big adorable furry rafts. Salmon run up the rivers, and rockfish and cod loiter near undersea rocks. On one trip, another group caught enough fish in a few hours to feed their entire group—and ours—several times over. You’ll see some signs of logging on the hillsides, but outside of the occasional building, fish farm, or fishing boat, you will be magnificently alone.
Where to Go?
The sea kayak was designed for places like the west coast. It’s the perfect craft in which to disappear into a wilderness seascape with everything you’ll need for a week or two. It facilitates everything from long stretches of flat water to the rough stuff.
Your first decision will be what part of the coast to explore. In such a huge area, it’s very easy to bite off more than you can paddle—and there’s nothing wrong with an exploratory pace. The most crowded areas—Barkley and Clayoquot Sound—are heavily visited because they’re the best known and have the easiest access—but they’re far from the only great spots.
Most of the land on the west coast is Crown or First Nations land. On crown land, remote camping is generally allowed; camping on First Nations land (look for the letters “IR” on the chart) requires permission from the band. The Broken Group section of Barkley Sound is part of Pacific Rim National Park, where camping is at designated spots on certain islands.
On the outer coast, vast beaches typically provide lots of camping options for groups. If you venture up the inlets away from the pounding surf, camp spots will become smaller and less luxurious.
May through July and September are typically the best months on the West Coast. It can always rain: the area is the world’s largest temperate rainforest, after all. Locals call August “Fogust”. On fair-weather days, expect a strong Northwesterly wind to pick up in the early to mid-afternoon. Storms typically come from the Southwest and Southeast, so if the wind starts to shift toward this direction, batten down the hatches.
In the inlets, expect morning outflow winds as cool air drops out of the mountains and flows toward the coast. In the afternoon it will reverse and blow up the inlets from the coast. Pay close attention to the size, period, and direction of the swell, tides, and tidal currents. There are not tidal current tables, so you’ll need figure these out from the tides, the chart, and the shape of the landscape.
By now, you’ve probably realized that you should know something about navigation and route-planning for sea kayaking if you’re going to paddle the West Coast. You’re exactly right. I spend a lot of my time listening to the VHF marine forecast, watching the weather, and looking at the chart.
One of the biggest skills for the west coast of Vancouver Island is seamanship—using the information on tides, currents, swell and weather to craft a safe course for a 22-inch wide craft in a very large sea. Seamanship involves thinking several days ahead to when you might need a weather window to make a crossing or round a headland. That chess game is a big part of the fun and adventure.
Over my many years paddling the West Coast, my trips seem to have gotten longer, but my paddling mileage has gotten shorter. That’s because I’ve shifted from needing to reach that nest island up the chain to wanting time to surf and play in rock gardens. That said, a week or two is typically the sweet spot for me. You’ll want to plan for some bad-weather days as well as day paddles, surf play, or rock gardens, maybe fishing, or just beach lounging.
Kayaking exposed coasts like the West Coast of Vancouver Island is a lot like classic, old-school alpinism, where climbers—instead of sport climbing on the nearby crag or the rock gym—backpack into the wilderness to try a route on a distant peak. It’s equal parts technical skill, planning and judgment, and endurance.
There will be long periods of simple paddling mixed with challenging moves around headlands, constant assessment and re-assessment of the sea conditions, all the skills that go into wilderness journeys. Windswept beach camps, jutting headlands, and surf landings are our alpine cols and knife-edge traverses.
Finding a fantastic surf beach three days paddle from the nearest road, covered only with wolf tracks, is one of the purest pleasures I know. The feeling of a vast wilderness, teeming with life, is every bit as rich.