In Preparation for our July kayaking trip off the west coast of Vancouver Island, we pack plenty of water repellant gear. It rains over 200 days a year in this Pacific Temperate Rainforest, dropping over 200 cm of precipitation annually. The trees boast a mystical green lushness, many draped in clumping and hanging mosses. Along with abundant ferns and lichens, epiphytes are a part of a rainforest’s natural regeneration process. Sitka Spruce, the most numerous species along the west coast shoreline, thrives in salty air; they also protect inland vegetation from saline mist.
Driving several hours west from Port Alberni, we arrive at the coastal community of Tofino, in the heart of the Clayoquot Sound archipelago. Starting from a beach, our group of six kayaks is loaded with personal belongings and foodstuffs, all crammed into rubberized waterproof packs. We wear Neoprene Spray Skirts around our waists that are stretched over the hole where we sit. These are designed to keep us dry inside the kayak and keep water out.
Adventuring in these wild waters, we marvel at the rugged beauty and vastness of this unique National Park Reserve. Paddling tandem in 20′ kayaks, we lay low, quite vulnerable in foreboding grey seas. Gliding across this enormous bay of Clayoquot Sound, we are eager to explore this protected piece of heaven, where few dare to venture without a guide. Once we pass beyond the harbour’s protection, open water challenges force us to focus on maintaining a dynamic balance and lateral equilibrium, as we move through the rolling ocean swells. The objective is to remain perpendicular in relation to the water’s surface, as it rises, rolls and falls around us. When sea water splashes up, soaking us with cold salty water, material like my gloves become permanently sticky and damp, never fully drying. I must also be patient for opportune times to access my camera as we continuously paddle to keep with our group.
Far from shore, in the middle of the Sound, suddenly there are no waves, just flat waters moving us sideways and causing each kayak to go in a different direction. The incoming tide’s huge volumes of unpredictable currents are swift as they stretch far inland beyond our sight. It is essential that we manoeuvre through these erratic currents which react to rock ledges and uneven landscape below us. Although inexperienced in how to deal with these peculiar tidal currents, our guide calmly showed us where to navigate through and safely slip past turbulent swirling eddies and into deeper waters.
Nearing Vargas Island, new, precarious challenges becomes apparent. Ocean salt water is denser than fresh, translating into slower gradual swelling than we are accustomed to in freshwater lakes. It also has enormous volume which magnifies each wave with an immense capacity amount of water. Despite our rawness we manoeuvre ourselves with each paddling stroke, moving with the surging waves and trying to stay at least 20 feet offshore. The undulating rock shoreline is coated in spiky barnacles, slippery anemone, kelps and clumps of slimy starfish, all of which could dump or damage our kayak. They could also tear through our clothing and would be unreliable as hand holds if we needed to pull ourselves out of the water. We also remain alert, watching for shallow submerged rock outcrops just under the surface. Despite the potential perils, it is a privilege to be here gazing at the panorama of ocean, islands and fading curtains of mountains in the distance.
Landing on a sand beach looks easy, as the guide lands first, then plans to hand signal each kayak to land individually. The goal is to paddle into the shore perpendicular to the direction of the waves, specifically on a crest of the swell and moving at the same speed, all the while trying not to get turned sideways in the surf. This is not easy to orchestrate and we usually get catapulted through consecu- tive breaking rollers and delivered onto the beach soaking wet.
One of our idyllic stops is at Medallion Beach on the south side of Vargas Island. The beach here has gorgeous clean white sand and it is strewn with a jumble of huge smoothly shaped driftwood logs, gifts from the sea’s last high tide storm, lined up along where the forest begins. The beach is nestled between two imposing headlands which surround it with a dense, lush and impregnable wall of Sitka Spruce trees, most of which are laden in clumps of moss. Looking out to sea, off in the distance are small islands, black shapes that are glued to the horizon. They intermittently explode with blasts of water as full sized ocean rolling waves hit and break against them. We are excited to see a gathering of a dozen black fins, which we note as a pod of Killer (Orca) Whales. Several breach and then it is over and they return below the surf once more. Seeing these whales and knowing they are here, is a thrill.
Another afternoon we paddle in calmer waters, in between dozens of truck sized rock islands, floating among ribbons of numerous green leaf kelps, savoring the gentle sway of these lengthy seaweeds. Occasionally we pass through a cluster of floating brown Bull kelp. This bizarre looking plant has long Linguini like streamers, attached to a ball shape, which sits on the surface of the water and gently taps our hull as we pass by. Each ball has an empty cavity inside which can be severed off and if you blow into the attached stem, it resonates a plaintive Horn sound. Our guide harvests a sample, blows into the two-foot long stem attached and it emits an eerie melancholic sound, renowned to attract whales that are in close vicinity. At once we are alert and observant with excitement.
Suddenly, several hundred yards away, we see a plume of water spew into the air above the ocean’s surface. The spurt mists about 15 feet high, then disperses within seconds. Then there is another, followed by another. Yes, we are definitely in the company of whales. We paddle our kayaks closer then we stop to wait. Hastily, within 50 feet of our kayak are two huge wet arches of gray, moving side by side, each several feet out of the water. The sleek bodies of these massive creatures keeps going and going. The Gray Whales are gigantic, about 50 feet in length, truly a sight to behold. Even though we don’t see the whole mammal as they seldom breach, they seem so long. Being in the presence of these majestic whales, we are totally humbled.
A while later we sight another unexpected surfacing, only 20 feet away from us. The whale floats motionless in the water, exposing its 15 foot head, watching us, for what seems like forever. It dives below the surface for several minutes feeding on Crustaceans, and then resurfaces again, just as gently as it did the first time. Everyone is motionless and speechless. The whale does not move away after seeing us, it continues to resurface again and again, as it feeds, moving a bit closer to us each time. I look straight down into the ocean in anticipation, wondering where it is. As I gaze through the streamers of Bull kelp I see round grey blotches much like the barnacles we saw encrusted on the whale’s nose. For a few seconds I am very anxious, wondering if the whale is emerging directly underneath us this time. Then I realize that the blotches are not barnacles, but are spots on the kelp. Reassured I admit my momentary despair and laugh in relief. This was a spectacular encounter to be in close company with a calm great Gray Whale. Unusual and extraordinary, it is an experience I shall always remember in amazement.
It is an honour to seek the unexpected here in this vibrant ecosystem of Clayoquot Sound with ancient creatures and to savour the moments of awesome beauty and experience exhilaration, amid this wilderness habitat.
By wilderness writer & photographer Cynthia Percival.