August 10 / Day 13
Heavy fog to low overcast, Winds calm increasing to W @ 15 knots, Seas calm to swells to 1.5 meter with 2-foot chop, Seas moderate at times
I awoke to a foggy morning which came as no surprise since it was August and I was kayaking in the Great Bear Rain Forest. The day's task was to set myself up for crossing Queen Charlotte Strait during the brief weather window that would open in 24 hours. Crossing the “Queen” to Vancouver Island is a crux move that is exposed, requires consideration and the right conditions. I had left a dozen yachts anchored at Fury Cove yesterday who were waiting for tomorrow’s forecast conditions to make their crossing. I was following suit, but being unpowered, I had to paddle for two days just to get to a place where the crossing would be possible. I was nearly two weeks without rest, the left side of my face was was tender and swollen after being humbled on my arrival at Red Sand Beach and I was pressing hard to get to a place where I could take advantage of tomorrow’s weather window that should allow a safe crossing. That window was forecast to open near dawn tomorrow and slam shut with a return of high winds in the afternoon. After that it would remain closed for several days. I was towards the end of my route and on the part that I’ve never been fond of. It’s the part that is littered with a disproportionate number of objective risks, timing issues, attendant critical decisions and is accentuated by the fact that the “Queen” don’t play. Lots of moving parts and what I really didn’t need was more fog.
I wanted to stage at Skull Cove or Shelter Bay. Shelter Bay offers a crossing that is about 5 NM less than from Skull Cove but would extend today’s cockpit time by ~2 hours. I consider the crossing from Shelter Bay to be generally less “sporting” as it reduces the length of exposure and should require less physical and emotional energy expenditure tomorrow.
On the other hand, I felt that I was fading and wasn’t sure that I had an additional 2 hours in the tank that it would take to get to Shelter Bay. I wanted to go no farther than Skull Cove but energy not spent by stopping there would be required in the morning. I couldn’t even believe that I was so tired that I was factoring in when I could afford to expend 2 - 2.5 hours of energy to make it back to Port Hardy.
One of the components that adds to a route’s “sporting” quotient is the time spent in the shipping lanes. The risk posed by shipping traffic can be reduced by communicating via VHF with Comox Traffic, announcing your presence and your intent. Nothing feels quite like hearing Shipping Traffic notify a container ship that “Sea Kayaker White Tempest” is in play, has an established route and better not get run down. Unfortunately, my ability to contact Comox Traffic or anyone else had been eliminated by the Raven that chewed the end off of my FM antennae three mornings ago at Wolf Beach. That mundane and somewhat humorous wildlife encounter would factor into my decisions.
When traveling south and setting up for crossing the Queen you must address a couple of significant objectives. I believe that the best strategy with winds from the north or west is to round Cape Caution shortly after the turn to flood. That takes wind against current issues out of the equation and ensures that you have time to cross Slingsby Channel well before it starts ebbing. Slingsby is one of the last places on Earth that you want to put yourself in a wind/swell-against-ebb-current situation as it is a fire hose that empties the majority of the Seymour / Belize Inlet complex into Queen Charlotte Sound. Both Cape Caution and Slingsby Channel possess a great deal of potential bad juju.
I left Red Sand Beach a little after 8:00 AM and paddled about 2.5 hours before reaching Cape Caution. Visibility was poor but sea state was benign so I stayed in close and mostly maintained a visual with the shoreline. Passing very close to Cape Caution I angled out to the south to avoid the giant eddy that forms behind the Cape and well into Silvester Bay on a flood. That current conspires to pull you into its counter rotation and it took a conscious effort and imagination to avoid it. With visibility the eddyline is obvious and clearly marked with logs and other floating debris but with the fog I had to use my imagination to visualize when I thought it was. The fog lifted to form a solid overcast down to about 75 feet which made it possible to see the distant shoreline but difficult to identify features. I was guessing where I would find Wilkie Point where I was desperate to rest and eat something. I prefer Wilkie over Burnett Bay as a rest stop because it is protected, a simple in and out and you are less apt to run into other travelers whose conversation will put you off your schedule.
Fog returned and I made my way across Burnett Bay by IFR. Soon enough I approached Slingsby Channel under ideal current conditions. "Ideal conditions" at Slingsby doesn’t mean flat water. Even with low wind and a flood current the surface gets odd. There is power there as waves and swell bend and collide creating a texture that can be fun if you can see it but not-so-much fun if you can’t. I spent 20 minutes of zero-visibility weirdness crossing the mouth of the channel.
Nearing the southernmost end of Braham Island, I reassessed my options of camping at Skull Cove or Shelter Bay.
- Skull Cove was less than 2 NM away. I could be there in 40 minutes and close to high slack of 4.1 meter but would be leaving in the morning at 2.5 meter. Never having seen the place at low tide I didn’t know if it would allow me the luxury of leaving when I needed to.
- Shelter Bay was over 7 NM away and would require a 2.8 NM blind crossing. I didn’t really think that I had another 2 hours of paddling left in me and I wanted to be done with sightless paddling..........at least for the day. If I went to Skull Cove and it wasn’t viable I would have a 2 NM blind crossing to make while paddling an additional 6.5 NM to make it to Shelter Bay.
I chose a course of 120 degrees that I felt would get me safely across through the fog and north of Southgate Island. From there I would simply follow the coastline that would lead me to the narrow channel between the Southgate Group and the mainland then continue down the coast to Shelter Bay. Foolproof, right?
It was an active crossing as the wind picked up and the conditions got somewhat snotty. When the tall rocky shoreline finally emerged from the foggy gloom I was pleased and assumed that it was leading me to shelter behind the Southgate Group. What I came to realize was that I had almost missed Southgate Island altogether and was on the westernmost and outside end of it. I hadn’t anticipated that the effect of the current flowing southward out of Schooner Channel, which drains the remainder of Seymour/Belize, would push me so far off course.
The texture of the water was making more sense to me now as it was colliding with the current in Queen Charlotte Strait and both were bucking the 15 kt wind. If I had been able to see anything on my way across it would have been easy to interpret but here I was on the wrong side of my intended cover. The ragged water became more so as the swell reflected off of the steep shoreline and progress slowed significantly. Enjoyable water under other circumstances but I was tired and visibility extremely limited. A white pleasure cruiser appeared out of the fog headed north and we passed in opposite directions about 40 meters apart. He was pitching, yawing and rolling all over the place and having a very rough ride of it. I felt fortunate to be in the craft better suited to the conditions.
Rounding the point of the island the passage between Southgate Island and its neighbor, Stevens Island, angled back towards cover. Here, the combined wave height was the same but standing waves struggling against the stiff current replaced the energy-sapping clapotis and offered a welcome sense of organization that allowed me to relax and focus my available resources. Conserving my remaining energy I used only the power of the waves and current to move forward so it took time and patience to surf my way upstream to cover. At least I was making progress and wasn’t getting beat up any more.
I landed at Shelter Bay at 6:40PM. Since 8:00 AM I had been out of the boat for only 15 minutes to eat lunch and another 5 minutes to pee at Skull Cove. I had been paddling over 10 hours and started out the day seriously beat and not in the mood for drama or physical exertion. I was too tired to unload and set up camp so I slid out of the cockpit, laid down on the beach next to the boat, clipped myself to the deck lines, closed my eyes and went to sleep.
I awoke before dark and went about the evening chores of unpacking, setting up my tent, sleeping bag and pad, carrying my boat to the edge of the woods, securing it to a tree, eating my usual calorie-rich pre-Queen-Crossing meal of Mountain House Freeze-Dried Breakfast Skillet and hung my food.
Time for bed but there was one semi-nagging thought. There was this sign warning about Cougars in the area. It said “Caution Cougar in Area. Arm yourself with rocks, sticks or weapons…. Maintain eye contact with the cat. Show your teeth and make loud noises…. If the Cougar attacks fight back. Keep the animal in front of you at all times. Convince the cougar that you are a threat, not prey. Use anything you can as a weapon. Focus your attack on the cougar’s face and eyes".
I was thinking that if a cougar was stalking me after landing he/she would have eaten my sorry ass while I was sound asleep on the beach. Missing that opportunity, they were now dealing with a pissed, bitter and tired man who had no time for their Cougar-bullshit and was in such a mood that he was best not-fucked-with.
I thought about showing my teeth, took two Ibuprofen and was asleep before I could count to 10.