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Friday, August 03, 2007

Queen Charlotte Islands, Solo Sea Kayak Expedition

A Sacred Passage On the wild and unpredictable coast line of Graham Island I was about to encounter the scariest and the most challenging paddling I had ever done. For the first time in my sea kayaking history I felt convinced, that if I accidentally capsized, I would be unable to get myself out of a potentially life threatening situation. Every point and every headland I was aiming for seemed to take hours to reach and finally pass. I tried to paddle faster and faster, but the motions of the sea were far too confused and sporadic, my boat was heavy, laden with gear and my wrists tender, it was a sluggish ride. Without a doubt I was also taking on water through my ‘water tight’ hatches. I felt like a snail trudging along at a tormenting speed and it frustrated me. I cursed out loud at the slowness of my boat and the pain in my swollen wrists, swearing at the wind and the intimidating seas. I wanted so badly to be around the dreadful Kindakin Pt and for the first time in my relationship with the sea, I disliked it. Thick, grey, soot-like clouds hovered like a curse. 2-3 meter seas rose and fell beneath me with wind roughing up my ride. The forecast was for 2 meter seas and wind coming from the NW at 10-20 knots. Upon reaching the point, I could smell a scent that comforted me like I would never have imagined. Cigarette smoke! Thank goodness, fisherman, people, safety. I noticed one was relatively close so I changed my direction slightly and aimed for the small sport fishing boat I only got a glimpse of when I was high up on the crest of a significantly sized swell. As I approached I noticed three men, all looking at me, then eachother, perhaps confused as to why a paddler would be out here. I attempted to speak but hadn’t for a few days, and from confused looks on their faces I realized what just came out of my mouth was more like a jabbering noise rather than words that made any sense. One of the men, I assumed it was the guide, told me of a very recent revised forecast he heard on his VHF radio, it spoke of seas building to 4 meters and winds were expected to be 30kn, rising to gale force by noon today. It was 10.45 am. I thought to myself, all I have to do is paddle the rest of this headland, into Carew Bay, my protected sanctuary where a beach lay awaiting. Turning back was not an option, the wind would be against me and the distance further. After this brief human encounter I moved on quickly, saying farewell, thanking them for the info and calling out half in jest “keep an eye on me would ya”. Within minutes after, it was as though the weather knew I had just heard its recent plans, and wanted to show me it meant business. Clouds, black as night congregated, mean looking and dense, laden with water bursting to get out. They hovered like unwelcome shade on a summers’ day, over the unforgiving seas. The ocean by now contained a color like deep charcoal, the entire scene was frowning, furious and giving me it’s meanest, darkest look. With every second stroke I had to brace as the headland, reef riddled waves kicked and bucked beneath my hull, the seas were literally building right before my eyes. Mountains on the land horizon that stood 2000 m from the sea to the sky disappeared as the peaks of the rising swell grew higher and higher. I still had a very long way to go. I could taste anxiety on my mouth. I looked behind and noticed the small fishing boats struggling in these building seas. Shortly after, one by one they slowly, unsteadily motored away, down the inlet I wanted so badly to be in. They too had had enough and were getting out of this now treacherous place. I was alone once again. I shouted out into the wind, apologizing to my family for putting them through the loss of me to the arms of the heartless sea. There was no other choice but to keep going but I was not certain I could paddle in these conditions without capsizing, and then what? Sure I can roll. Of course I can get back in my boat, but in seas like this? And if not, could I swim to and scramble up on the rocks? I don’t think so, not with huge, curling, cresting, waves crashing over the jagged reefs. I paddled hard and forcefully and although I had little hope, there was nothing else to do but to try. The Queen Charlotte Islands, also referred to as Haida Gwaii, are often described with words such as Sacred, Spiritual, Powerful, Special and Challenging. They are a geographical treasure with haunting scenic vistas and challenging outdoor pursuits. A thriving coastal culture, Haida Gwaii offers the promise of a magical journey to the centre of your soul. Every piece of writing you receive prepares you for an absolutely unforgettable experience where your personal comfort levels, your skills, both physical and emotional and perhaps even spiritual, will be pushed and challenged like never before. In fact some text deters one from even going, as it informs you of the dangers when you venture in this unique, dramatic and unpredictable region. My solo journey by kayak around Haida Gwaii was all that and much more. This triangular archipelago is made up of more than 150 islands, most of them uninhabited. Glaciers and volcanic activity have shaped the landscape over the past two million years. Snow topped mountains, valleys, fjords that plunge into the sea, riverbeds and shorelines are the remaining evidence of mother nature’s actions. The waters surrounding Haida Gwaii are known for their drastic and dramatic interaction with the notorious bad weather that frequents this region and can change without warning. The total area of Haida Gwaii is approx. 3,840 sq miles, and 156 miles (250km) north to south. On the East lies Hecate Strait, a shallow marine valley that in some literature has been classified as the 4th worst body of water to cross in the world. And on the West is the Open Pacific Ocean with a continental shelf less than 5km off shore that plummets 2000 meters down into the immense depths of the vast Pacific. Haida Gwaii is considered to be one of the most precious places on our planet, a place of value to the entire world. It has no roads, few facilities and is teaming with wild life. An estimated 1.5 million sea birds nest along the shoreline from May to August. The ocean is alive with fish, mollusks, migrating whales and numerous other species. Mist enshrouded forests contain ancient trees that can reach up to 95 meters high, some as old as 1000 yrs. At the base of these giants are rich and luscious thickets of bright green mosses, ferns and berry bushes, but if you look close enough, you can see the remains of old long house pits and fallen totem poles camouflaged by the natural layers of forest growth. Many people are drawn to journey along the east coast of South Moresby where many village sites exist. One in particular, SGang Gwaay (Ninstints) on Anthony Island, has original, still-standing totem poles. They stand, erect, seemingly powerful, facing out to the picturesque scene of scattered islands which lead to the open sea. It is like no other place on the planet, and it feels sacred. Exhausted after this 5 hour treacherous paddle, I landed, absolutely drenched from waves breaking over my bow and hitting me like a wall of water. The clouds finally released their tension and the rain came tumbling down. As well, both hatches were absolutely full of water, the back hatch dangerously so. Both wrists were puffed up looking as though I had a plum tucked beneath the skin. I could hardly open my dry bags. I was exhausted, sore but safe. After the 19 day completion of Graham Island, due to a damaged boat and injured wrists, I was disappointingly forced to forfeit the goal of kayaking around the entire two main Islands of Haida Gwaii in one summer. Instead it was broken up into two trips in two summers. Graham Island was completed in the summer of 2004, and in 2005 I circumnavigated South Morseby in 25 days. There was an added challenge to journey, with only 3 weeks prior having gone through a separation from a 7 year relationship. Even though these trips were relatively short compared to my previous 62 day journey around Vancouver Island, they took me far further mentally, emotionally and physically leaving me with vital lessons and experiences one rarely has the chance to encounter. John Muir sums it up rather well. “A journey is a person in itself, no two are alike, and all plans, safeguards, policies and coercions are fruitless. We find after years of struggle, we don’t take a journey, a journey takes us”. I had my journey around Vancouver Island to compare, where everything seemed to go as planned. This set my expectations for my journey around Haida Gwaii. How different it was right from the word go. I had fewer encounters with people and marine mammals, my gear broke, my body failed and my timing was off. The conditions were far tougher; the seas bigger, the weather more trying and my intense focus was simply to travel these waters safely. I began to accept that this journey was ultimately about experiencing fear, uncertainty and revealing how I respond to it. During the journey around South Morseby, due to my recent relationship separation, I was sensitive, I was vulnerable and emotional. These emphasized states of emotions challenged and tested my response to the struggle and fear I sometimes had to face. However it also caused me to dig deeper like never before to search for the courage within myself to face my fears, deal with the situation and in some ways face who I really was. I gained even more respect for the power of the sea. I reinforced my acceptance of its power and at the same time seeing it as neutral. The sea is not out to harm us, hurt us, cause suffering, yet at times we blame it for our losses. When we place ourselves on the sea in our variety of vessels and ways, it does what it does, and we simply respond to it. I was grounded by the sea. The love - filled, romantic relationship I once shared with it has now simmered into a far more realistic, practical relationship with all the ups and downs and uncertainties that exist in any relationship. The sea scared me, I faced it, we had serious confrontations, but we always made up. Finally, my journey around Haida Gwaii enforced the values I hold in living a life using fewer resources, and causing less impact. One can travel lightly on this earth and still remain well fed, comfortable, sheltered and be entertained simply by indulging in the divine delight of nature and the wild. With this intimate time with nature, I gained a far deeper understanding of its needs and how it operates, which then enlightens me with the insight of the role I could play in preserving our precious coast and planet.

1 comment:

jsthomso said...

What a trip, and how descriptive! As I look forward to our upcoming family kayaking trip through (the easiest route through) Gwaii Haanas, I will be newly respectful of the conditions we may face. Thanks for the cautionary tale.

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