Our six-person group – Graham, Geoff, Ted, Cathy, Joan and John – rendezvoused in the Port Alberni Tim Hortons at 11:30 am on the morning of Sunday, May 25. From here we drove in convoy through light rain in the direction of Tofino. Somewhere along this road, we knew, was the turn-off to the launch site at Torquat Bay, but no-one was sure exactly where. Each time we passed an unmarked dirt road forking to the left, we debated briefly whether this might be the Torquat turnoff, then drove on, increasingly worried that we’d already gone past the fork. Then, just as we were about to turn around, we came upon it, clearly and unmistakably signed. Future travellers may find it helpful to note that the turnoff is at 79 km past Port Alberni.
Thirty kilometers along a dirt road took us to the launch site, run by the Toquaht First Nation. The site has changed since 2013 – launching at low tide used to involve a hundred-meter hike across mud and clamshells, but at the new site the water is near, even at low tide.
We set off at about 1600 hours in light drizzle, first crossing the Loudoun Channel to the Stopper Islands, then on to the lighthouse at Lyall Point and southwards, past Hand and Brabant, to the gloomy campsite on the north of Dodd. The site was decorated with a raven carved from a tree-stump, possibly by a twenty-first-century camper with a hatchet rather than a nineteenth-century Tseshaht artisan. As we stood beneath the dripping trees, looking north at the cold grey rain falling into the sea, it occurred to at least one member of the party that five days of this was going to be a long time.
After a rainy night, Monday dawned calm and clear. We struck camp and went clockwise around Dodd Island, through the channel between Dodd and Willis and past the campsite on the north shore of Willis. From here we headed south, just scraping through the shallow channel between Trickett and Turret, then landing at the campsite on Clarke. This was strikingly beautiful – the site was on a peninsula at the north of Clarke, surrounded by white shell beaches and luminous blue water. Behind the campsite was a meadow in which, incongruously, there stood a tall brick fireplace and chimneypiece. After we had been at the site a few hours, a heavily pregnant deer wandered out of the woods and between our tents.
From behind the fireplace, a trail runs into the woods. Someone went to considerable trouble to build the trail – there are flights of wooden steps – but it has not been used or maintained for a long time. The steps are thickly covered with moss, and the trail beyond them is blocked by fallen trees. At one point the trail crosses a plank bridge over a concrete cistern, now disused.
At the far end of this trail there are cliffs and a view of the ocean to the south of the island. In the distance, tall bursts of spray were visible as the ocean swell broke over exposed rocks. At this point one member of the party encountered a mink, a weasel-like creature about 80 cm long with a light-brown coat. It seemed curiously unafraid.
The same mink, or possibly a different mink, visited our campsite early the next morning. An eagle swooped from a nearby tree and grasped the mink in its talons, but the mink turned, nipped the eagle with its teeth and twisted free.
Three of us witnessed a slightly more successful eagle’s attempt to swoop on prey: this particular eagle had swooped on a fish in the middle of the bay, but, having seized it, found it too heavy to lift. Unwilling to let go, it slowly flapped itself along the surface of the water, dragging the fish behind it, and after a long struggle reached a patch of rocks. Several other eagles immediately swooped down to contest possession of the fish.
The camp on Clarke Island was the only point in the trip at which we encountered other kayakers. Two German young men were on a guided tour with a Canadian guide, Jeremy. They told us that their plan was to explore Dempster, Wiebe and Effingham, then to paddle directly back from Clarke to Ucluluet. They also mentioned a geographical feature on Dempster, the “Dempster Squeeze”, a narrow passage from, Jeremy said, one side of the island to the other, suggesting an image of something like the Corinth Canal.
It was at about this point that the marine weather forecast began delivering warnings of 30-knot winds, due to begin in two days time. As the week went on, the due date moved ahead by twenty-four hours for every day that passed, so near-gale-force winds were perpetually in the offing yet never arrived. However, it is probably best not to conclude that “Gale warnings are always exaggerated; you can safely discount their predicted speeds by at least 50%.”
On the basis of these warnings, we decided that it would be prudent to retreat to the campsite on Gibraltar, with access to a lot of well-protected channels between the islands. So on Tuesday morning we again struck camp and set out south-west, with the idea that, since we were going to be forced to retreat to the inside of the island group, we should seize this opportunity to experience the Outside before the wind got too high.
As we went around the Drum Rocks west of Clarke, the swell gradually increased to about two meters. For at least one member of the party, ocean swells this big or bigger are still a new experience, somewhere on the spectrum between “exhilarating” and “panic-inducing”. Just the scale of the swell, areas of ocean the size of a tennis court humping up then dropping back down at stomach-turning speed, inspires awe. Then there’s the breaking of the swell on the rocks and the disturbing glimpses of boomers – innocent-looking patches of sea that only exploded into surf every few minutes, as an exceptionally large swell reached a hidden rock. None of this had really been apparent from a glance at the marine chart – it had looked easy to draw a continuous route west of Clarke and Benson, then heading across the Coaster Channel to Wouwer, but now every path seemed to be blocked by areas of white foaming surf.
Reassuringly, the more experienced members of the party did not seem at all dismayed by this quandary, but found a route through the apparent hazards to the north coast of Batley Island, then the calm inlet between Batley and Wouwer. After an only-marginally-successful search for sea-lions, we paddled across to Gilbert for lunch, where, coincidentally, we met Jeremy and the two young Germans, coming back from Effingham. One of the young men had been obliged to wet-exit while traversing a sea cave, but appeared unscarred.
The wind had increased to about 15 knots as we headed north across Coaster Channel, with some white-caps. We went up to Onion Island, then through the calm interior waters of Jacques to the campsite on Gibraltar. The Gibraltar site is on a peninsula with extensive views to north-east and south-west.
The marine forecast on Wednesday morning warned of winds increasing to 35 knots by late afternoon. We decided that it would be safe to cross the Sechart Channel to the Pinkerton Group, monitoring the wind speed and coming back if it seemed to rising unduly.
The Pinkertons are outside the Broken Group and have a different feel – paddling between them is more like paddling up a forking river that runs through forest and meadowland. Inside the Group the weather was calm, but as we emerged back on the Sechart Channel, the wind had increased to 12 knots. We discussed strategies for crossing, but, just as we had decided on the best approach, the wind died away. We felt vaguely cheated.
We got back to the campsite just as a storm cloud approached. But although we could see rain falling over Torquat Bay, the cloud dissipated before it reached us, and there was brilliant sunshine for the rest of the evening. After the sun had set, there was a very faint phosphorescence in the water.
That night, we heard a wolf howling on the island.
As of Thursday morning, the marine forecast had changed to 35-knot winds on Friday afternoon, with more 30-35 knot winds on Saturday and Sunday. Weighing the options of being stuck on Gibraltar for a few extra days versus paying $70 per capita to be towed out, we decided to leave on Friday morning rather than, as originally planned, Saturday.
Possibly because we knew it was our last full day, we covered more distance on Thursday than any previous day. We began by crossing to the Tiny Group, where Geoff demonstrated the half-roll technique for the party, followed by a demonstration of the wet exit and assisted rescue. This was particularly impressive in that Geoff was the only member of the party wearing a wet suit rather than a full dry suit.
We now set off in search of swell, heading south-west between Willis and Turtle, then between Trickett and Turret. But the ocean remained obdurately pacific, with very little white spray visible even on Combe Rock to the west of Wouwer. Overruling a faction that wanted to paddle back out west of Clarke, the group headed north-east up the Coaster Channel in the direction of Dempster.
Once at Dempster, we began searching for the Dempster squeeze. We first came across an impressive pair of sea-caves, each so deep that we couldn’t see the back. The recommended procedure for entering a sea cave is to paddle in backwards, since paddling in forwards can lead to the situation where there’s no room to turn around.
However, going in backwards has the disadvantage that you can’t see where you’re going, and consequently don’t know when your head is about to strike the ceiling, or when a slimy tentacle is about to fasten around your neck. Ideally you’d have a rearview mirror. There’s also the factor that the backs of caves tend to collect paddle-entangling coils of seaweed and rafts of floating logs. So backing further into the cave began to seem an increasingly unattractive option, even though the sound of waves breaking at the inner end of the cave was still a long way away.
Just as we came around the eastern end of the island, we found the Dempster Squeeze, which unfortunately was not anything like the Corinth Canal, but was nevertheless a twenty-meter channel through the rocks, and under conditions of slightly more vigorous surf could have been quite exciting.
After dark that evening we were sitting around a campfire (carefully built below the high-water line), when a grey shape came out of the woods and strolled along the beach, about twenty meters away. Several of us switched on flashlights and saw two bright eyes looking back at us. The wolf didn’t seem at all frightened of us, even when we shone our lights on it and shouted.
We were torn between the feeling, “How wondrous to see a wolf at our campfire, just as if we were crossing the Misty Mountains on our way to see the Green Wizard” and “Uh-oh, we’re going to be sleeping in thin canvas tents on the same island as a large carnivorous animal with no fear of man.”
We did nevertheless survive the night, and in the morning the wolf reappeared and watched Graham making breakfast before continuing along his tour of our campsites.
We broke camp for the last time and headed towards Hand, thence to Lyall Point. Despite the forecast of 35-knot winds for the afternoon, the sea at 8:00 am was mirror-like, reflecting a clear sky.
The first obstacle to our return appeared as we approached the Stopper Islands: we had been planning to paddle between them, but in the interval that we had been away, the gap between them had closed up, leaving an uninterrupted barrier.
After lengthy exploration we found the way through, and in the shallow water between the islands found a small creature swimming across the surface of the water. This turned out to be a small mink, moving at an estimated 1.5 knots. It climbed out and shook itself dry.
Once past the Stoppers, a second problem arose: we couldn’t find the launch site, although several of us had made a point of looking back and trying to remember significant landmarks as we were on the way out. The signs that we had committed to memory – “Just next to a certain pine tree”, “Just below that anvil-shaped cloud” – now seemed ambiguous and unhelpful. The group spread out, covering 500 meters of coastline, without finding anything familiar.
Then two things happened almost simultaneously. Geoff found the launch site and paddled in to land, while the other members of the party saw a moderately large black bear walking along the shoreline towards him. We offered various useful pieces of advice, such as “Watch Out!” and “Bear!” but the bear ignored us, while Geoff turned round to see why we were yelling, and was thus unable to see the approaching bear.
Fortunately the bear turned out to be completely indifferent to Geoff and to the rest of us, and carried on with its own schedule, so at just after 12:00 we were able to land.
Broken Group 2014-5 photos