Hop in a kayak to find an is­land to call your own.

A kayak trip to B.C.’s Bro­ken Group Is­lands, just south­east of Ucluelet, uncovers white-sand beaches and turquoise-blue wa­ters within reach.

Vancouver Magazine - - Featuring - by Mar­garet de Silva

It’s a game that’s easy enough to play: What would you take if ma­rooned on a desert is­land? But a four-day kayak­ing trip to the Bro­ken Group Is­lands proves an even greater pack­ing chal­lenge, where wind, blan­ket fog, tor­ren­tial rain and glo­ri­ous sunshine are all pos­si­bil­i­ties.

The Bro­ken Group is a clus­ter of more than 90 is­lands nes­tled in the calm wa­ters of Barkley Sound in Pacific Rim Na­tional Park. For beginner pad­dlers, it doesn’t get any bet­ter—pris­tine wa­ters, white-sand beaches and an oa­sis of still­ness in the no­to­ri­ously rough Pacific Ocean, all ac­ces­si­ble for along-week­end get­away from Vancouver.

How­ever, the se­cluded lo­ca­tion (the is­lands can be reached only by boat from Port Al­berni, Ucluelet or Torquart Bay) and the lack of drink­ing wa­ter, elec­tric­ity and shel­ter mean it’s a trip that re­quires prepa­ra­tion.

Lured by the promise of Robinson Cru­soe-like ad­ven­tures on de­serted beaches, our group of seven novice kayak­ers sets its sights on a self-guided tour through this re­mote ar­chi­pel­ago.

What the hell do we even bring? I won­der, men­tally try­ing to squeeze in food and wa­ter, plus ev­ery­thing from toques and mitts to biki­nis and flip-flops. Dad-chic cargo pants with zip-off legs help carve out more room for snacks. But drink­ing wa­ter, bug spray, first aid kits, fire starter, head­lamps, tents, sleep­ing bags and pads, lay­ers of cloth­ing (and a sur­pris­ing amount of choco­late) are the real ne­ces­si­ties.

We set out from Sechart Lodge, the quaint bed and break­fast where our wa­ter taxi dropped us an hour ear­lier, about a kilo­me­tre north of the Pacific Rim Na­tional Park Bound­ary in Sechart Chan­nel. We have barely cleared the launch and I spot seal heads bob­bing two me­tres from the bow of the dou­ble kayak I share with my hus­band. Sud­denly every­one in our group of pad­dlers is scream­ing out wildlife sight­ings like ex­citable kids on a first trip to the zoo: sea urchin and starfish in the shal­lows; mus­sels and crabs hanging off ex­posed rocks; bald ea­gles fly­ing over­head. I scan the hori­zon for the big guns (sea li­ons visit in late summer and early fall, while grey and hump­back whales cruise the coast from Fe­bru­ary to October), but no dice.

We take ame­an­der­ing route through the Tiny Group—an is­land clus­ter in the mid­dle of Bro­ken Group, about 10 kilo­me­tres from Sechart Lodge—nes­tled in shal­low wa­ter so clear and turquoise that it looks like a trop­i­cal Thai la­goon. With the sun beat­ing down on our backs, it’s hard to believe we’re still in Canada. But ap­pear­ances can be de­ceiv­ing, and shocked shrieks con­firm our lo­cale when we brave the ocean for afreez­ing dip.

Stop­ping for a snack break on dry land, my hus­band opens the main hatch be­tween us. “That’s strange,” he says. “I think we’ve sprung aleak.” Sure enough, an alarm­ing amount of wa­ter is lap­ping around our dry bags. But it’s fresh wa­ter, not salt. A re­view of our sup­plies quickly re­veals we’ve lost nearly four litres of drink­ing wa­ter due to a slow leak in one con­tainer. It’s not quite the dooms­day sce­nario that it could have been, since we’ve over­es­ti­mated sup­ply. (The best ad­vice I can of­fer: al­ways be pre­pared. It’s bet­ter to come back with ex­tra wa­ter than strug­gle to find any on the is­lands.)

Des­ig­nated camp­sites ex­ist on seven Bro­ken Group Is­lands: Hand, Tur­ret, Gi­bral­tar, Wil­lis, Dodd, Clarke and Gil­bert. Our plan is to is­land-hop in a clock­wise di­rec­tion over three nights, start­ing at Clarke and ending at Gi­bral­tar.

Our hull makes a sat­is­fy­ing scrape as it beaches nose-first on Clarke Is­land—a des­ti­na­tion well worth the 15-kilo­me­tre pad­dle. This vast white-sand strip stretches end to end across the is­land and serves as the per­fect back­drop for our wa­ter­front digs for the night. Over a flask of vic­tory whisky (day one, still alive!), we lazily ad­mire the killer sun­set pour­ing over the rocky west side of the is­land.

That night, we meet our only neigh­bours for the trip: solo kayaker Martin and two older gents who are com­plet­ing the jour­ney for the umpteenth time. The crew makes for a fun evening of s’mores and tall tales spun around the fire. Even though it’s a na­tional park, fish­ing is per­mit­ted with a li­cence and we jeal­ously lis­ten to their sto­ries of crabs, sea urchins and fish caught for fresh seafood feasts.

Overnight, the sooth­ing sound of gen­tle rain pat­ter­ing against the tent’s fly lulls me to sleep, but by morn­ing the weather shifts. At 9 a.m. our friends from the night be­fore are al­ready push­ing their kayaks into the ocean, ges­tur­ing wildly at the clouds dark­en­ing over­head while we blearily roll out of our sleep­ing bags. We scramble to pack up—our idyl­lic paradise has gone very Dead­li­est Catch, and we have the long­est cross­ing ahead.

My stom­ach churns at the thought of bat­tling swells. I’m prone to sea­sick­ness and the white­capped waves lap­ping in the dis­tance do not look invit­ing. We de­cide to stick to the shore­line, but we still have to cross the Coaster Chan­nel to reach the pro­tected in­ner is­lands.

The first part is the worst. Strain­ing with each stroke, I shoul­der-check for the shore and we are barely mov­ing. I’m not the only one strug­gling. I catch sight of my friend Chloe, the least experienced pad­dler in the group, and see my own si­lent ter­ror re­flected in her colour­less face. At one stage, the lurch­ing swell picks up her kayak and she nearly dis­ap­pears from sight.

We some­how make the cross­ing un­scathed, friend­ships and mar­riages in­tact. It’s easy to laugh about your fears from the safety of the shal­lows, but bat­tling the wind makes me un­com­fort­ably aware of na­ture’s haz­ardous power. This is truly the wilderness—there isn’t a soul in sight.

We agree to avoid open wa­ter and in­stead spend the af­ter­noon ex­plor­ing beaches and sea caves on Dice­box and Eff­in­g­ham. Reach­ing the Gil­bert Is­land camp­site, we see it’s com­pletely de­serted ex­cept for one sur­prised deer. Sun­light breaks through the is­land’s thick forest canopy in soft streams, giv­ing the area a sparkling, al­most fairy-like feel.

And then we hear it: that eerie, high­pitched buzzing just on the edge of our ears’ ca­pa­bil­i­ties. At just 10 min­utes in, jump­ing around wildly, we chris­ten the camp­site “Mos­quito Is­land.” The blood­suck­ers are undeterred by our bug spray, so we quickly build a smoky fire to ward them off. Still, armed with the day’s sto­ries and a bag of cheap red wine, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

Calm seas and sunshine greet us on day three, so our party of seven shoves off early for Gi­bral­tar Is­land. We en­counter a river ot­ter fight­ing a spunky crab on land and a sea ot­ter ca­su­ally lolling on its back in the ocean as we slowly nav­i­gate to our fi­nal camp­site.

By the time we reach Gi­bral­tar, we feel like old hands—salty sea dogs who can nav­i­gate a web of is­lands, start camp­fires, spin sto­ries, pad­dle through wind and waves, and, most im­por­tantly, stay alive. The lo­cal Tse­shaht First Na­tion beach­keep­ers drop by to check our per­mits and share the story of how the first Tse­shaht man and woman brought life to the area: a cut from the man’s side cre­ated the “life pulse” and the pop­u­la­tion of chil­dren cre­ated the scat­tered is­lands.

We cel­e­brate our last night with a smor­gas­bord of food (smok­ies, cheese, packet curry and at least four types of candy), card games, and an evening pad­dle on still wa­ters. My pad­dle dips into the black, and much to my amaze­ment, the ocean be­low in­stantly ex­plodes with blue fire­works of bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cence. Each stroke sprays il­lu­mi­nated droplets that cas­cade off the kayak and streak back into the wa­ter.

Our short moon­lit jour­ney to a pro­tected cove high­lights the magic of Bro­ken Group: it’s at once si­lent and teem­ing with life, big and empty, beau­ti­ful and ter­ri­fy­ing. This is the per­fect ending to a truly West Coast ad­ven­ture—all on our own steam.

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Bay Watch

Sure, you have to pack in food and wa­ter, but the pay­off is a re­mote ar­chi­pel­ago all to your­self. This stop, Hand Is­land.

Sechart Lodge

Kayak­ers in Ucluelet

Ma­jes­tic Ocean Kayak­ing

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