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Vancouver’s rugged west coast offers kayaking adventures for experts, neophytes alike

January 6, 2019

A 12-day, 150-mile kayaking adventure off the west coast of Vancouver Island tested John McKee’s logistical prowess and physical endurance this summer.

One particular moment stands out to McKee, a retired engineer. It was the second-to-last day of the trip and thick fog had rolled in, swallowing him and his two paddling companions.

“August, they call it Foggest,” McKee said. “That’s because the fog banks start to roll in much more commonly.”

It was the kind of fog that made staying in the tent and reading a book seem like a good option. Or a good day to practice navigating blind.

The group chose the latter. Forgoing electronic navigation equipment (which they had), they plotted a course across a small bay aiming for an island that they knew was about 3 miles away.

“We were in some 10-foot swells in the ocean,” he said. “There were times you didn’t see your buddies. You’re bobbing up and down like a cork out there.”

Because of countless hours of training, McKee said the three knew they paddled roughly 3 miles an hour. It was disconcerting, he said, lost in the mist with little to nothing to orient themselves. But they stuck to their course readings and made it across the open expanse of water.

That was just one of many memories from the August trip.

In addition to dense fog, the trio also saw bears and wolves. They made camp on sandy beaches and spent hours catching waves in their kayaks or “rock gardening,” which is when a kayaker catches an ocean swell and rides through and over rocks.

The highlight of the trip came when the three friends paddled to Brooks Peninsula. The 12-mile-long land mass juts into the Pacific Ocean and sheltered McKee for much of the trip. Kayaking to the end of the peninsula requires some luck as the water grows rougher and the weather unpredictable.

They found a window of good weather and paddled out to the end experiencing, briefly, the full power of the Pacific.

“Our goal was to not just go long distances but to be able to play along the way,” McKee said. “We would spend some hours playing in an area and we wouldn’t even go a mile.”

While it was an adventure requiring advanced kayaking, packing and navigation skills, McKee encourages kayakers of all abilities to consider heading to Vancouver Island’s west coast.

“The relative isolation that you have when you’re out there, it is not a place where you see other people,” he said. “You get a little bit more of a unique experience.”

The Spokane resident said the trip, which he did with two good friends, was the longest and most committed water-based adventure he’s been on to date.

For those looking to make the trip a bit easier, he recommends Voyager Water Taxi. On his July trip, McKee said he met people who kayaked as far as they could, one way, and then had the water taxi pick them up.

Or, McKee said, “You could have this guy take you in and say I want you to come pick me up one week from today.”

Which doesn’t mean there isn’t some objective danger. The area is remote, and if something were to go wrong a rescue would be difficult. During a presentation to the Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club in November, McKee encouraged others to consider heading west.

“It’s a fantastic sport,” he said. “You’re human-powered, but you’re doing it from the water. It’s like backpacking in a lot of ways, but you can carry more gear.

“There would be ways to do the trip without needing some of the skill that we had.”

One of his kayaking partners, Bill Zale, agreed with McKee’s assessment. The coast offers plenty of protection. If a storm were to come up, Zale said, it would be possible to get in “close to shore and hug up near the little fjords.”

“You’re still very much in a backcountry environment,” McKee said. “But in terms of exposure to the kayaking portion of the environment, you’re not that exposed.”

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