Slipping past Solander
by Dan Lewis, Tofino
A friend once asked Bonny and me where we would go and what we would do if we knew we had only a week to live. She found it remarkable that we responded separately with the same answer: back to the Brooks Peninsula.
The Brooks Peninsula is the Mount Everest of Vancouver Island's coast. Take a look at any map--the Brooks is on the west side, right near the north end. It juts ten miles out to sea, and the rugged rocky shoreline is constantly pounded by swell. The tip of the peninsula has been named Cape Cook by Europeans, and consists of sheer cliffs rising above a minefield of underwater rocks and reefs. It is just north of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth village of Kyuquot, a name meaning "place of many winds." The Brooks was a glacial refugium, never covered by glaciers during the last ice age, and thus home to rare endemic plants. The hills were not shaped by ice like the rest of the BC coast, and they are covered with gnarly little trees. You see it immediately and feel it instinctively in your soul--this place is different.
I have only paddled around it three times, and each time has been dramatically different. The first time it was flat calm, unbelievably so. As we set off to round the cape, I pondered the meaning of extreme kayaking. "Is this it?" I wondered. "This place is supposed to be so scary, yet it's like paddling a mill pond."
We rounded Cape Cook and began to head south. The wind began to rise so subtly that we didn't notice at first. It quickly rose to a breeze, then a stiff breeze. Within fifteen minutes the winds were howling an estimated twenty to thirty knots, from the northwest. I love paddling in wind, but this wind was blowing offshore, and if we were swept away from the peninsula, we would end up drifting down the coast, about ten miles out.
I wanted to get off the water, pronto. We decided to head for shore. I saw a tiny patch of sand, and we snuck in through a maze of boulders in the surf zone. The patch of sand turned out to be about the size of a tiny living room, and was covered in bear tracks. Still, it was much better than paddling in that spooky wind. I passed the evening in existential angst, wondering what the heck I was doing out there at the edge of the world, trying to understand why the wind had picked up so suddenly, and wondering if and when it would ever die down. The winds did finally ease that night. We got up early the next day and made good our escape.
A couple of years later I rounded the Brooks a second time, while circumnavigating Vancouver Island with my pal Pierre. We were young and hungry for challenges. The westerly wind was already blowing in the twenties when we set off. We pounded into headwinds along the north shore of the Brooks, rounded Cape Cook, and put up our kites to sail the rest of the way. My kite crashed into the sea, and I floated there amongst the boomers, untangling the lines as Pierre disappeared up ahead.
I finally gave up on the kite and began to surf wind waves, trying to catch up to Pierre. The sun was sinking over the horizon when I finally realized I wasn't going to catch up. I wasn't particularly worried--I felt a level of comfort from having been there before, a sense that I knew the place and would be okay. Just then Pierre paddled up from the sketchy-looking beach on shore. "Did you see the huge bonfire I built to guide you in?" he asked. Only then did I notice his blaze, completely dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape.
The third time I rounded the Brooks was with Bonny, as we kayaked home from Winter Harbour in September--a dicey time of year. The weather can be brilliant--clear, sunny, calm--but everyone knows that winter is coming and there is a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop. The first big storm often hits around the equinox, but it can easily arrive early.
We approached the Brooks from the north, mid-month. A storm was forecast, so we decided to hole up in the East Creek Valley. After weathering the storm, there was a bit of a window, and then another storm was predicted. The last thing I wanted was to get trapped on the north side of the Brooks Peninsula as the autumn storms began, so we decided to make a run for it, even though conditions were less than ideal.
By less than ideal I mean: winds forecast from the southwest at up to 20 knots, with combined wind wave and swell height reported at 3.9 metres. We figured we could manage it. With the sea state so huge, we knew we would not be able to land on any of the beaches. This meant about twenty nautical miles in the cockpits, so we had better be prepared.
We spent the day before our departure resting, spreading all our gear out in the sun to dry, and repairing everything that needed repairs--your basic pagan ritual to appease Neptune. We finally pushed off at dawn, under overcast skies and light winds. We quickly paddled the north shore. As we rounded Cape Cook we saw a vast area of boomers, whitewater cascading down over all those rocks and reefs between the cape and Solander Island--a wee island about a mile off Cape Cook. It is forbidden to land there as it is an Ecological Reserve, meant to protect the nesting habitat of seabirds.
We swung wide of all the boomers, trying to go out and around. It became apparent that we were not going in the direction our bows were pointed; rather we were ferry gliding on a line that would take us right past Solander--next stop Tokyo. We realized there must be a current off the tip of the Brooks pushing us backwards. The headwind had also picked up dramatically as we rounded the cape, and was combining with the current to push us off course.
It was time to think fast--no screwing up. We decided to ferry out to Solander, which would take us out around the boomers, then use the back eddies along Solander to creep upstream against the wind and current. It was that or turn back, which would not have been easy.
Sure enough, the plan worked like a charm. We were easily able to make progress in the eddies off Solander, and once we had cleared its southern tip, the current and the wind both died down. They must have been funneled between the steep cliffy shores of Solander Island and Cape Cook. The rest of the day turned into a slog, then a blur. We finally pulled out on a sandy beach just after sunset, exhausted and barely able to stand, let alone haul our kayaks up the beach and set up camp. We were famished and had to feed ourselves, then we fell into bed and slept for more than twelve hours.
As these tales demonstrate, it is scary out there and you need more than just paddling skills to survive the Brooks Peninsula. Most people approach from Kyuquot, and explore the south side, rather than trying to kayak around.
Our friend was astonished to learn not only that Bonny and I would want to do the same thing if time was short, but that we had already done it. Whatever your dream is, I urge you to go for it. If recreation is not a priority, it won't get done!
Dan Lewis and Bonny Glambeck operate Rainforest Kayak Adventures, a sea kayak company in Tofino. For info visit their website: rainforestkayak.com
Tofino kayaking expert Dan Lewis from Rainforest Kayaking in Tofino writes about a kayaking trip at the Brooks Peninsula.