It had been two hours since we last stepped foot on land. My arms had begun to tire; I laid my paddle across my lap and allowed myself to drift. My surroundings were vast – steep rolling bluffs thick with lush green pines, shrouded in a hazy sea mist and set to the enormous backdrop of a boundless grey sky. Where the bluffs met the sea sat rugged cliffs and pebble stone shores dotted with driftwood and thick green-brown seaweed. Deep breaths, I reminded myself- meant to both revive my depleted energy, and take in the intoxicating sea air of the unbelievably untouched western coast of Canada where I found myself.
Afloat between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver island, on the icy dark blue waters of Johnstone Strait, our kayaks were brightly colored specks among an astonishingly vast and wild landscape. We were on day three of a four day tour, and we had one aspiration: to witness orca whales undisturbed in their natural habitat.
It being July, it was the perfect time of year for such undertakings. The pods of orcas were migrating from the cold waters of Alaska to Hawaii’s warmer seas to breed, charting a course through the straits off the coast of British Columbia, where we now sat, waiting.
Three days before, we had traveled from Portland, Oregon to Vancouver in a rental, dusty and lovingly worn in from the first half of our three week road trip across the US and into Canada. Following a night in a hotel in the city, we boarded the large ferry with the car to Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, and proceeded to drive the two hours to the small coastal town of Campbell River, my now-husband and I taking turns choosing the music and chatting while taking in the scenery, steadily becoming more and more remote.
At the port, we grabbed another smaller ferry, holding maybe four cars at a time, to Quathiaski Cove on Quadra Island – a place well suited for the setting of a novel about quaint, remotes fishing villages where the locals all know one another and the quality of life is undeniably better than everywhere else. We spent the night in a lodge in which a large wood carved statue of a bear stood guard in the lobby, anxious for our final journey in the morning. It felt perfectly Pacific Northwest, with First Nations totem poles and art dotting the lobby, carved wood details throughout the halls, and patterned wool fabrics in deep reds and greys adorning our room.
A tiny vessel picked us and our backpacks up at the dock around 7 am, and we zipped across the waves for our hour-long ride, navigating our way through the channel between Vancouver Island and the Discovery Islands, a chain of tiny islands home to very few residents, known for salmon fishing and their untouched northern wilderness. At one point, we leaned over the edge and peered at Pacific porpoises swimming along in our wake, our jolly, wader-clad captain steering and pointing.
While the small civilization of Quadra and Campbell River grew further and further away, even smaller, uninhabited islands dotted the distance. One of them, our home for the next four days.
As we arrived, the boat slowed and stopped about twenty yards from the rocky beach, and we transferred to a small dingy before finally reaching land again. Past the beach sat a towering forest so thick it appeared to be nighttime within, its silence staggering.
Our group, whom we met upon arrival and whom now sat scattered among us in the waves, was a hodgepodge of amateur adventurists and travelers. My husband and I, a young couple from Chicago; a husband and wife from Seattle – one a plastic surgeon and one a professional food stylist – escorting their teenage niece on a summer voyage; a professional photographer and his son from the far reaches of England; a trio of Canadian friends in their late 50’s on a girlfriends’ adventure; all led by our two experienced guides – a personable Kiwi and professional wilderness guide hailing from Milford Sound, New Zealand, and a young, reserved, outdoorsy Canadian who had just completed her guide training.
What we all sought after on the rugged, wild coast of Canada varied, I suppose. What we came away with, was an experience unrivaled.
A Whale Song
“Look! Over there!” our guide shouted to our group, spread like pegs in a game of battleship among the waves. “It’s a momma and her calf!”
His voice held a mix of excitement and relief, both emotions evoked from three full days of no orca sightings. But finally – there they were, about a hundred feet before us.
“Wait, can you hear that? Is that…? Listen.”
We all sat silent in trepidation, excitement building as we watched the two pop above the water then back below, near to the beach. Orcas passing through the strait are known to frequent the beaches of smooth black stones, known as “rubbing beaches,” as they enjoy rubbing their bellies on the stones in the shallows. The pair were doing just that, regarding each other as loved ones do, with a natural tenderness and playfulness.
And then, a faint noise cut the quietness of the wilderness, where there was only the sound of the wind and the water hitting our kayaks. It was an acoustic moan; a long, muffled groan; an ambient underwater sound – what was referred to as a “whale song.” Whale’s use vocalizations to socialize, and echolocating to measure distance undersea – the unique language of whales, their own beautifully rhythmic form of communication.
But this was slightly different – we didn’t have the hydrophone. Earlier in the day, wasting time while we awaited a chance sighting with the whales, our guides had given a lesson in using the microphone used to record or listen to underwater sound. We all gathered around in our kayaks, trying to listen with the earpiece and understand the sounds of the sea.
“They’re echolocating above the water – I’ve…I’ve NEVER heard that before!” Having led hundreds of group trips around the world, he was no stranger to whales or the wilderness or the vast ocean.
What we were witnessing was truly, unequivocally special.
Back at camp that night was like the others before it, but better. An incredible meal of fresh wild salmon and campfire-grilled greens was followed by a huddle around the beach fire, abuzz with excitement from the day’s discoveries.
We ate unbelievably well at our remote camp – fresh caught grilled fish with lemon and dill, herbed potatoes and onions cooked in tinfoil hobo packs, and even wine; plus morning scrambled eggs with cold smoked salmon and hot coffee always enjoyed seated on driftwood along the rocky beach, paired with the rising sun and the seagull cries.
While remote and rustic, our camp was comfortable, well organized, and nestled seamlessly into the surrounding coastal forest that we felt a part of it.
Our camp area started as the rocky shore, where we kept the kayaks beached under the trees. The coast served as our launching point for each day’s adventure, as well as our community gathering space, hosting meal times and chats around the fire pit and providing an arena for watching the sunsets over the sea and stargazing the clearest skies at night.
Once over the berm at the shore, you entered the dense forest, greeted first by a makeshift wood “kitchen” where our guides prepared meals, stored supplies, and plotted the course for the day. Past the kitchen, the ground steeped upward, where our sleeping areas sat amongst the trees. In these parts, cooking areas were kept a comfortable amount of distance away from sleeping areas. Read: bears.
The hill path leading to our semi-permanent tent community was steep, warranting a series of switchbacks through the dense ferns and leaving you slightly winded. But the light hit the towering trees just right in a way that shed beams of dusty sunlight through the top growth, creating a kind of magic in the air. It smelled of wet pine, crisp air, and slightly dank ocean the way fresh mussels and seaweed smell before they’ve been out of water for long.
The tents were thick canvas, framed on raised wood platforms elevated from the damp forest floor. They held two army-green cots and a gas lantern hanging from the ceiling pole within. We read books at night with headlamps and zipped our sleeping bags up to our chins to sleep, but the thick canvas kept out bugs and held warmth and we could hear the sounds of the forest at night, alive.
In our free time we went on hikes and explored the coast, climbing on the rocks and driftwood and searching in tide pools. As a Midwesterner from Chicago, I witnessed my first Pacific starfish, the size of my hand and bright purple and such a novelty to my eyes. I was surprised at how hard and solid it was when I touched it.
Black Night, Black Bear
The darkness at was unlike anything I had ever experienced – so thick, so black, that stepping out of the tent after dark you couldn’t see your hand if you held it four inches before your face.
Lucky for me, this suspension in total blackness allowed for us to not notice the visitor who meandered through camp one night, admittedly my biggest fear and the aforementioned inhabitant of these islands – a Canadian black bear.
Fortunately, we were well equipped and prepped for such occasions, not so unheard of for this remote region. The bathroom, an open air wooden camp pit set atop the hill to the north of our sleeping areas, featured arguably the best view on this side of the island, but also its own air horn for bear run-ins during the most vulnerable and compromising of times. Our food and toiletries remained stashed in sealed plastic tubs near the camp kitchen, at the bottom of the hill and a safe distance from our sleeping quarters. There were rules: No food in the tents. Don’t run when spotted. Be loud when walking and bang pans or make noise to scare them away.
Our visitor likely wanted nothing more than to satiate it’s curiosity, followed by a walk to the beach to wet its paws or search for clams. I asked one of our guides that morning how she made it through the night of training which required them to set up camp and sleep and fend for themselves completely alone in these forests for a full 48 hours, and she shrugged her shoulders like it was nothing, in the way only a Canadian who grew up entrenched in this sort of haunting nature would.
A Rare, Untouched Wilderness
On days we didn’t see whales, there was plenty to explore. We were in the kind of vast wilderness which remained unscathed by human intervention; an environment as it should be, where flora and fauna and life and sea coexisted in the way nature intended. We were voyeurs in this landscape, treading lightly, taking nothing, leaving nothing. Asking only for the honor to experience it’s splendor and gain insight from its perfection.
The Discovery Islands area is vitally important to whale research, home to a number of organizations and programs dedicated to the education and conservation of marine habitat and orca populations. Among them is the Robson Bight Ecological Preserve. Near camp, a research station housed researchers, biologists, and native wardens who tracked whale populations – did you know every orca can be individually identified by their unique spots? No two orcas, in their black and white cloaks, are identical, allowing researchers to assign them names and chart family trees and track migrations.
Nearby the Preserve one day, we grounded our kayaks on a beach and took an hour to hike the dense forests, trekking up a bluff to a hidden waterfall for a scenic rest. We saw eagles glide through the sky and swapped stories as we walked and climbed.
After four days in the Canadian wilderness, we were dirty, sore, and out of clean socks. Our water shoes never fully dried, we hadn’t showered in days, and nothing was untouched by sea water. But, the feeling coursing through our veins following those days is nearly impossible to describe. We were elated, centered, serene.
When traveling, you inevitably walk away with more than you were ever searching for.
For us, that meant the start of a lifetime of travel, of exploration, of authentic connection to the world and the people and places in it. And a devotion to protecting and cultivating the wild natural spaces that so deeply touch us and remind us that life is complex and rich and fleeting and meaningful.
Resources For Canada Kayaking Trips
Out for Adventure Wilderness Tours*
Cost: $900/per person for four nights, accommodations, guided excursions, all gear, food + transportation included. *This story is from a 2007 trip; it appears this operator is no longer running tours, but I wanted to be transparent about what we paid and what our experience was
Cost: $1,425/per person for four days, three nights; includes camping, daily kayaking, water taxi, gear, and all meals.
What to Pack For an Overnight Sea Kayaking Tour
*Post coming soon!
Things to Do in British Columbia, Canada
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