Nootka Island – A Kayak Trip

The Vancouver School Board runs a  program called “Take A Hike“. They describe the program in this way:

Take a Hike is a full-time alternative education program that engages at-risk youth through a unique combination of adventure-based learning, academics, therapy, and community involvement.

Take a Hike guides and empowers these youth to blaze a trail, a positive path with positive outcomes. With Take a Hike’s guidance, every youth will have an opportunity to blaze their own trail–one that is right for them, that empowers them, that gives them survival skills for life.

Earlier this year the TAH program invited me along on a nine day end of year trip to teach a little philosophy to the students. The plan was to explore the area around Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. I’ve done some paddling, and was keen to do a serious ocean kayak trip, but since I’m a prairies boy, I was hesitant since I knew that I didn’t have the necessary experience.  No such problem on this trip. The team included four adult leaders – Nick, Ryan, Lucy, and me, as well as seven students. All the adult leaders had more experience than me  and the students had done several kayak trips beforehand.

My trip was generously approved and completely paid for by the Faculty Professional Development Committee at Red Deer College. Here’s my trip report:

To me, what was most valuable about this trip was the human element. Granted, we travelled through some spectacularly beautiful country that sees an annual rainfall of about 4 meters – but we saw absolutely no rain on the entire paddling trip. And making a three kilometer crossing with three meter swells was as exciting as I could hope for.
That said, what I will remember was the dedication, expertise and consistency of the group leaders. This was a difficult trip -logistically, physically, and, for some, emotionally.

We carried – and relied on – a vast array of specialized equipment, clothing, and food. Each piece of gear, from spare paddles to satellite phone to spare clothing to sunglasses, had to be stored in a suitable location, and protected from the elements where necessary. And this process had to be repeated every day. Students had to learn how to use and care for all their equipment, how to tie up boats every night, and by the trip’s end, they were far more skilled and quick at loading kayaks on the trailer than I was. They had honed all the necessary skills on warm-up trips beforehand and all of them recognized the importance of safety at all times.

In addition, this was a physically demanding trip. Our paddling days were long and we moved efficiently on the water. There was simply no other way to reach our objective. Large groups move at a snail’s pace if individuals can stop at any time. And we never broke up the group. And once we reached camp, the work wasn’t done. There was still heavy kayaks to be carried above the high tide line, camp to be set up, meals to  be coked, etc.

As if that wasn’t enough, many of the students were nervous entering an environment they were acutely unfamiliar with. Many had grown up in urban Vancouver and they gawped in disbelief at the modest homes as we drove through Zeballos. On the first night, one asked, with real apprehension, if they should worry about rattlesnakes or poison ivy. And many could not leave behind their worries about the personal, family, or workplace problems that awaited them in Vancouver at trip’s end. To me, used to starting trips with a sigh of relief as I realized my life was less complicated , at least for a while, this struck me as doubly tragic.

But Nick and Ryan demanded even more from the students. They could have counted the trip as a reward for good behaviour, or just a trip to hone outdoor skills. But they intelligently realized that what these students needed was skills that equipped them for the adult life they would soon face. So, no matter how tiring the day was, they still insisted on respectful behavior, punishing inappropriate speech (such as swearing) with push-ups, and marking students on how well they planned and cooked meals, how well they took care of themselves, their leadership skills, and so on. Every evening we al participated in serious, open, and honest discussions at “circle”, where we processed what had happened that day and anticipated what we would do the next day. Aferwards, students would invariably write at least one page responding to a question Nick read to them. Every single day.

All these activities developed skills crucial to becoming a successful adult. Nick and Ryan could have dropped those standards, arguing that the rigors of the trip were more than enough to test the student’s mettle, but they were steadfast that creating competent citizens – not competent paddlers – was the real and most important outcome of the program. Lucy and I just followed along and helped out where we could. Although I’ve known my stepson Ryan for many years, it was the first time I met Nick and Lucy. By trip’s end, I counted them all as exemplary leaders, and it was hard not to feel some pseudo-paternal pride at Ryan’s abilities. I’ve done many climbing, paddling, and ski trips with Ryan, but this was the first opportunity for me to see his leadership skills.

It would be dishonest for me to claim that student behaviour was perfect throughout the trip. These were, after all, adolescents, and adolescents can be inconsistent and difficult to manage at the best of times, But what I saw mostly was a group who, by and large, took the adult leaders seriously and mostly did very well. I saw lots of promise in these students and I think the Take-A-Hike program brought it out. I had some dim understanding of the very different but challenging backgrounds these students came from and how much the program had changed them. It was for me a very vivid lesson on how much dedicated and hard-working teachers can change their students – for the better. So I did have fun on this trip, but the most profound thing I learned was the power of the same profession I’ve been practicing for the last fifteen years. And to be reinvigorated in that way is deeply rewarding.

Day 0: Red Deer to Vancouver

I flew from YQF to YYC to YVR, arriving in mid-afternoon. The little 19 seat plane from Red Deer to Calgary was short on comfort but far quicker than the bus. Ryan picked me up at YVR and we returned to his place where we packed the food  for the adult leaders.

Day 1: Vancouver to Zeballos

The next day, we drove the school van with  kayak  trailer attached to John Oliver High School where the party assembled. There was a frightening amount of gear – all necessary for the trip – and people running everywhere. To further complicate matters, we were traveling with a second group  bound for paddling on Johnson Strait.

Finally, we  loaded both trailers and squeezed into the vans, headed for Horseshoe Bay and the ferry to Nanaimo. Once across, we drove way north to Telegraph Cove where we unloaded two kayaks for the  other group, wished them well, and headed to the little hamlet of Zeballos  – at the end of an active and rough logging road- where we spent the night at the municipal campsite.The only excitement occurred when a student tried to shotgun an entire bottle of extremely potent hot sauce (borrowed from Nick) with unfortunate but short-lived consequences.

Day 2: Little Espinosa Inlet to Rosa Island: 16.7 km, 5.1 hours

We packed up and drove 15 km or so  to Little Espinosa Inlet where planned to put in. Once there, we were somewhat worried about leaving the van there unattended for a week. So Lucy drove the van and trailer back to the Zeballos marina and cadged a ride back to the Inlet. In the meantime we loaded the boats, prepared for travel, and students took turns jumping off the bridge into the tidal stream with a Gopro camera attached.

Once Lucy returned, we carried the boats to the water’s edge and set off. Little Espinosa Inlet was glassy calm and we didn’t any encounter any problems all the way to Rosa Island, a popular kayak campsite in Nutchalitz Provincial Park. As it was for every day, we kept snacks and water at hand so we could eat on the water and only beached once for lunch. The paddling guidebook said May was off season and therefore hazardous, so we never saw another kayak. We carried the  kayaks above  the high tide line ( a laborious but necessary task at the end of a hard day of paddling) and camped in the rainforest.

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We always paddled with spray skirts and the students always wore wet suits. Everyone kept a helmet on the deck and within reach in case we had to make a surf landing. On most days, wind and spray made wearing a jacket a good choice. We paddled close together most of the time and “sandwiched” together when we saw another vessel. Where navigation was tricky through shallow water, we sometimes traveled single file.

Day 3: Rosa Island to Shipwreck Camp on Louie Bay: 14 km, 7.1 hours

Our major concern today was the 3 km crossing of Nutchalitz Inlet, was exposed to winds from the north west. We decided to paddle a little bit to  the east and to cross close to Fitz Island. The crossing was safe and well within the abilities of all the paddlers in our group, although one student was seasick and threw up and two others required Gravol.

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A Greek freighter ran aground nearby and was apparently broken up and left on the beach at Louie Bay for salvage.
Coming around Tongue Point into Louie Bay, I was stunned to see what looked like enormous abstract sculptures, but I couldn’t believe any one would build them in such a remote location. I then thought they were just enormous boulders. The truth was a bit stranger.

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Circle meeting at Shipwreck camp. Nick insisted on these every night and required students to pay attention and participate. Students took the sessions seriously and they were a great way to talk in a focused way about the day’s events.

Day 4: Shipwreck Camp to Third Beach: 5 km, 4.1 hours

We had initially planned to paddle out of Louie Bay to an unnamed bay further east, then beach the kayaks, and pack for  a 15 km overnight hike to Calvin Creek beach on the outer coast of Nootka Island. This seemed a bit complex to me and I discovered that Louie Bay connects directly to the island’s SW shore by a very narrow channel. A trip report indicated that at low tide we could walk on the west beach of Louie Beach and perhaps find the Nootka Island Trail that follows the coastline. And so we did. We set off early and walked easily on packed sand which turned into ankle-deep mud for  50 m just before we discovered flagging marking where the trail left the channel. The winding trail itself was abysmally steep and strewn with enormous deadfalls which were difficult to climb over or crawl underneath. Occasionally, we crossed pocket beaches covered with slimy and jagged rocks. Typically for the west coast, abandoned fishing floats marked where the trail re-entered the rain forest. We made slow progress over this terrain, which hadn’t seen a trail crew’s chainsaw, and Nick called it quits when we arrived at Third Beach, some 10 km short of our destination. This resulted in the only free afternoon on the trip.

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Lucy watches a pair of grey whales feeding just off Third Beach. We saw them just as we arrived at the beach.
On  arriving at Third Beach, I noticed an irritating pain in my left baby toe. At first I thought it might be just a wrinkle in my sock or an unexpected blister. I quickly decided it was more likely a broken toe  (confirmed this week by x-ray) . Nick
taped it and since we only had 5 km to walk to get to the kayaks, it gave me no further problems.

Day 5: Third Beach to Shipwreck Camp: 4.8 km, 2 hours. Shipwreck Camp to Benson Point: 5.8 km, 1.6 hours.

We hiked back to Shipwreck camp without incident and took two hours for lunch and to load the kayaks. We again crossed Nutchalitz Inlet with much calmer seas, then headed a bit east to Benson Point where  Nick supervised surf landings. Benson Point was, for my money, the best campsite on the trip. I prefer not to camp on sand and, while rainforest provides ample protection from the elements, it is too gloomy and dank for me.

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Lucy pulls a kayak ashore after surf landing at Benson Point through 1 m breakers.
Benson Point offered camping on grassy turf between copses that gave shelter from the wind. Fresh water is at the west end of the beach under a small waterfall. We arrived early and had a bit of sun, so I read in my tent and had a nap.

Day 6: Benson Point to Garden Point: 17.9 km, 5 hours.

No problems on the water, although we missed the small beach that marks the campsite and landed at the larger beach further east. We found no clearings, and Lucy and I waded back  west to find the sites. The group joined us and since this was to be the last night on the water Nick proposed solo overnight outings. Students could pick what gear they took, but had to light a fire and carry a journal, shoes, and whistle. Nick scouted locations on small islets accessible by foot in low tide. All the students participated; only one had to be “rescued” fearing the rising tide.

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Rafting up mid-channel for a navigation decision meeting. Every day, Nick appointed two students to  lead for the day.Their  decisions were only overridden when safety was a concern.
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A student wades ashore at Garden Point before his “shipwreck” solo overnighter. All the students did solos; three of them chose the shipwreck option.

Day 7: Garden Point to Zeballos: 21.1 km, 5.1 hours.

The group was understandably eager to get home and we opted to paddle the longer route directly to Zeballos village where our van was parked. The guidebook predicted we would have the wind at our backs as the sun heated up air over the mainland which then rose and drew in a breeze from the inlet. And this is exactly what happened. We raced along often at 6 or 7 km/hr. and finished our biggest paddling day of the trip in good spirits.

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Our last lunch break at a disused log depot just a few kilometers from Zeballos.
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A jubilant group of students celebrates a successful trip on their arrival at Zeballos. Though tired, they were efficient at loading boats and paddling gear one last time.
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Back in the van for the ride home. And it smells even worse. Some students nodding off.
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Students clown around over dinner at Telegraph Cove.
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Students load kayaks for the last time at Telegraph Cove.

Day 8: Telegraph Cove to Vancouver

We camped at Telegraph Cove and the next drove to Departure Bay, arriving at the ferry terminal with only minutes to spare.

Day 9: Vancouver to Red Deer

Back home without event. Super-happy to drop my monster duffel bag filled with dirty gear on my front step.

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