This a repost of this trip report as the pics didn’t appear in the first attempt. A tip of the hat to the site administrators for allowing this. Please enjoy.
Broughton Archipelago by SUP - Aug 5-12, 2017
This post took a year to get around to posting, but better late than never. The year’s paddling vacation consisted of eight days on a standup paddleboard expedition in the remote waters of the Broughton Archipelago, located off northern Vancouver Island. I was first inspired to visit the area after reading Monster’s canoe trip report on this forum some years ago. He documented the remoteness of the area, and his amazing pictures said the rest.
We knew this trip would push the limits of expedition SUPing, having spent the last few years building up to longer and more challenging trips like the Deer Group, Vargas Island and the Gulf Islands. The Broughton is known for big water, countless clusters of islands, confusing water movement and no fresh water. Not exactly ideal stuff for a paddleboard.
I had been planning this trip for some time and came close to doing it few years ago. But the tides weren’t cooperative as most of the paddling route must be well coordinated with the tides, especially the big crossings which must be paddled at slack. Luck had it this year the tide tables were perfect and the weather forecast was good. We scheduled a trip of up to ten days of paddling, averaging 10-25 kms per day.
The trip ended up being 122 kms total over eight days, with a supply stop in Echo Bay and full rest day at the end. We navigated big open ocean crossings, dense fog and limited visibility, and massive cruise ships. Amazing sights of marine wildlife - whales, orcas, dolphins, eagles - were some of the payoffs. This is also an area rich in history. We gazed on ancient fossils, abandoned native villages, midden beaches, and found evidence of old commercial fishing and hand logging. This trip was years in the making and it feels great to have finally done it.
We drove up island from Victoria to Port McNeil. Once there, we learned that all of the campgrounds around Telegraph Cove were full. Well, mostly full. There was one spot at Alder Bay for $30 which consisted of a patch of grass next to some giant RVs. We passed and got some intel from locals that there was a campsite at a lake, some 10 kms up the road. Ida Lake turned out to be a pretty nice spot, aside from the extra driving and a few bugs. I wondered if that was the lake Monster encountered the cougar.
We drove back to Telegraph Cove the next morning and hit the water just after 8am. We planned to catch the last of a flood tide as this is the only safe way for paddlers to cross Johnstone Strait. After grabbing the last space in the main parking lot, we found some coffee and put in at the main boat launch.
Despite days of preparation, both of us were feeling a bit nervous getting started. There are several big ocean crossings to get into the Broughton area. The largest previous crossings we had done was around 3 kms in the Deer Group. Johnstone Strait alone was twice that distance, and known for massive water movement and potentially rough conditions. We had considered taking a water taxi to avoid the open ocean parts but the costs were so high that we decided to paddle the whole way, during the best possible tide conditions.
Aside from some fog, the crossing ended up being very calm. There were little signs of current and no waves. We crossed the strait in about an hour in the thick fog using a compass, and made our way around the west side of Hansen Island through the Plumper Group. There, the currents picked up and we began to experience the first of many confusing encounters with moving water over the coming days. The water would flow in the opposite direction of what one could reasonably expect, based on a read of the marine charts. We would see a lot of this in other places, including parts where the current flowed strong in opposing directions, only feet apart.
Once through the Plumpers, we moved east along Hanson Island. Here, we had our first good sights of the abundant sea life that flourishes in this area – humpback whales, porpoises, dolphins, sea lions, seals, and eagles. The smoke from the Interior wildfires hung in the sky, distinct from the fog, about halfway up the mountainsides of Vancouver Island. The smoke would be there, for the whole trip, although it lessened near the end.
After another hour or so paddling the fog had lifted and we had a clear view of Blackfish Sound and Swanson and Harbledown Islands. This was our planned destination for the next day as these islands led to the cluster of medium and small islands that form the archipelago. However, the sound looked so calm that we decided to cross it then to get to Harbledown. After an uneventful crossing, we heard the sound of massive tidal rips in Blackney Passage, followed by a pod or orcas surfacing behind us.
We happened upon the first group of kayakers here. They proceeded to ask us the questions we would be asked countless times over the next week:
What are you doing?
Where do you keep all of your stuff?
What do you do when you fall off?
Why are you doing this?
We learned that one of the kayakers somehow got cut on the leg and was getting a water taxi out to get stitched up. They also told us about a nearby camping spot at Red Point that was good for whale watching. We headed there and met a bunch more kayakers, with the same bunch of questions. After setting up camp, we had dinner and watched the cruise ships go by with the soundtrack of whales surfacing. At some point in the night we were awoken to the sound of humpbacks breaching. It’s amazing how sound carries out there. The sound of the whales crashing into the water was so loud, despite being several kms away.
We got up early with the plan to catch another slack tide and make our way to Village Island, a reserve that was abandoned in the 1960s. I’d wanted to visit this place since I did my MA thesis, which examined the village relocations that took place in the area. I interviewed a number of folks in Alert Bay who used to live in smaller villages located throughout the area, including Village Island. In the decades after WWII the village inhabitants moved to places like Alert Bay and Campbell River, looking for better access to schools, jobs, hospitals and other amenities. Village Island gradually depopulated and eventually was completely abandoned.
We paddled over to Mound Island where we discovered what was the biggest clam garden we ever saw – and we saw a lot of clam gardens over the next week. It must have been 200 meters long, stretching down the beach from the former camp. How long did it take to make this?
We paddled further, past a fish farm and finally came into sight of Village Island, which is nestled in a protected part of the island. We pulled up on what appeared to be a big midden beach, only to discover it was midden mixed with masses of broken glass. Sharp shards of broken bottles and jar were everywhere. We had to watch every footstep to avoid a trip-ending injury. I read that the beach was the former garbage dump for the village, which explains the number of broken bottles and jars there.
We parked the boards and made our way up from the beach on a trail through overgrown bushes to the old townsite. We were only wearing shorts so the legs got scratched up pretty good on the blackberry bushes as we explored the remnants of the village. Only a few of the houses still stand, with the rest in varying states of ruin or complete disintegration.
I walked north to the edge of the village where what was the former day school stood, partially collapsed. I had read about the school in anthropologist Harry Wolcott’s book A Kwakiutl Village and School
. The book has photos of the village when it was a thriving little fishing community. You’d never know today this was the same place or that there were around a dozen homes there. The only signs there now are a few houses, some power poles and a decrepit dock, located at the north part of the island, past the former day school.
It was by now close to lunchtime so we decided to depart and paddle on with the hope of finding a spot on Crease Island. The fog had not lifted and we weren’t sure what the weather was going to do. We stopped for a quick lunch before rounding Crease, which gave us a good look at Knight Inlet, the next big crossing. It looked calm enough so we paddled across and made our way along the west side of Owl Island to check out camping on one of the three site identified on the map. From there we paddled around the islets adjacent to Owl and discovered some amazing large fossils in the rock.
The fog had by then rolled in again and we started looking for a place to camp. We found that the two spots on the northern part of Owl Island were already loaded with kayakers, so we crossed over to close by Cedar Island, where we found a nice sheltered bay and campsite all to ourselves.
Cedar Island has a nice beach and landing, where we discovered the first signs of hand logging: part of a steam donkey axle embedded in the sand, rusted through bits of steel cables, and stumps with notches cut out for falling. There also was a clearing just off the shore that would have housed a cabin. The cabin was now long gone, given way to a few flat spots with room for about six tents.
We spent the evening exploring the island, imagining what life would have been like as a hand logger, falling giant old growth trees all by yourself with nothing more than a few basic tools.
The next part of the plan was to paddle east towards Gilford Island, with the goal of reaching the Fox Group. It began again with heavy fog and limited visibility. We paddled out at low tide, and had to walk the boards through a shallow passage in order to get through some tiny islets next to Cedar Island. Once through, we paddled east, and stopped for a bite to eat in a small landing of midden. This one was not very old as it hurt to walk on the shells, which had not yet eroded to have soft edges.
We then headed to Gilford Island, a reserve community that was similar in makeup and size to Village Island but was never abandoned, for reasons I could never fully tell. We waved to people fishing on the dock and in boats before rounding the corner and making our way north over to the Fox Group.
The fog never lifted that day and we began to wonder if this was what could be expected for the rest of the trip. It was a bit depressing to think that we’d only get fog and cold after waiting so long to do this trip, and for coming so far to do it. We made camp and had a delicious hot meal of pesto and pasta.
On Fox we met up with a group of kayakers from Maine and Ireland. They were on a long trip and had some interesting stories to share, including an encounter earlier that day with a cougar. They were paddling along the shore and came upon a surly cougar sitting on a rock. They paddled closer and the cougar did not run away. They showed us the pictures to prove it. It was a great story and the cougar did indeed look pissed off.
Today was resupply day, destination Echo Bay to get water and extra snacks from the store. We also were keen on visiting Bill Proctor’s museum, as we had been reading his book Full Moon, Flood Tide
every night on the trip. This was the perfect read for what we were doing as it has history of the area written in short vignettes – good stuff for bedtime reading, which doesn’t usually last long after a long day’s paddle.
We rode a flood tide up the passage and made it to the museum before noon. The stop was well worth it. Bill’s museum is an amazing collection of local artifacts. So much to see in such a small space. Bill was there, in his chair, chatting up visitors. We listened for awhile to some of his stories of the area. He seemed to have something to say for every topic imaginable – although he admitted that we were the first people he had seen to paddleboard to Echo Bay. I’m pretty sure he thought we were nuts.
Next stop was Echo Bay itself, which was just ten minutes away but a world apart. After four days camping in the rough, we turned a corner to see massive modern yachts, women walking toy dogs, and old guys on chairs sipping cold beers. And the same questions – where do you put your stuff, etc. Elizabeth dutifully answered all while I headed to the general store for supplies. It turns out Echo Bay has a decently stocked store – but unfortunately no beer. The fresh produce and fruit were just as good so I loaded up. After getting more water from the dock, we were on our way.
We paddled north to get a look at the Paddler’s Inn (a.k.a. the starting point for cheaters) before turning west towards Baker Island. By now it was afternoon with full sun, and the winds had picked up. The paddle west into the Benjamin Group ended up being a real slog through westerlies with whitecap chop. Fortunately, the winds calmed once we were into the group itself. The waters were also noticeably warmer here than the rest of the archipelago and good for swimming. This part of the trip was most pleasant and we didn’t see a soul. For some, that means alleviating themselves of life’s encumbrances.
The Benjamin groups was very nice, and seems to be one of the lesser-accessed parts of the Broughton. We wanted to stay the night here, and the Kimantas book shows a campsite in the Benjamin Group in a small bay. But all we found was a bare rock with a semi-flat top and no good beaches. We didn’t think it much of a place for a tent so we headed south down the passage to Insect Island, which turned out to be a short paddle away. That is a really nice spot overlooking water where four passages converge, with big midden beaches. And despite the name, the bugs weren’t bad. There was a large tour group camping there but the sites were so big and spread out, we had a nice private spot all to ourselves.
This was another early start, this time in order to catch the ebb tide west, towards Queen Charlotte Strait. The goal was to reach either White Cliffs or Flower Island, depending on the conditions and how far we could get before the currents picked up.
The morning fog was thick again but the first leg of the paddle from Insect was pleasant. But once we got into the smaller broken islands further west we had to rely on a combination of nautical charts, compass, and GPS to not get lost and end up drifting into the open ocean in the fog.
It was here that we caught our second glimpse of a pod of orcas. When you hear the sound of them breathing you know they are close. We saw a lot of humpies during the trip but the orcas are something truly special to behold.
We also checked out another island with a camp spot shown in the Kimantas book, located up a bay. There was a nice beach but at low tide it was over a hundred meters away consisting of slippery seaweed-covered rocks. It was still early in the day, plus neither of us felt like trucking the boards that far through the muck. So we forged on, but not forgetting to stretch.
I was hoping to cross the mouth of Knight Inlet over to White Cliff Islets, where we would camp that night. We started towards the crossing but the tidal rips and standing waves we saw made us think twice. With the limited 200m visibility and heavy boat traffic we agreed to give up the plan. We instead paddled to Owl Island for lunch and, from there, caught a current south across Knight Inlet on the flood, not far from where we had crossed in the other direction three days earlier.
We reached Flower Island after another half hour or so of paddling, which made for about 30kms paddling for the day. We heard from kayakers earlier in the trip that Flower was good for whale watching, and we were ready for some more of that, preferably from the comfort of shore. Also attractive was the thought of having gained a full day in the itinerary that we could now spend chilling out on the island.
We reached Flower Island by mid afternoon. It has a half dozen small tent pads but there was just one other party there. We grabbed what I thought was the best spot. This island turned out to be a great spot for whale watching and shore fishing. Humpbacks feed all around the island, and two came within yards of the shore. We also were fortunate to see a large pod of bottlenose dolphins swim around the island before racing down Blackfish Sound. The campsite on Flower provides a great view of Freshwater Bay, the former home of Bill Proctor and the subject of parts of his book, which were fresh in our minds from reading it every night.
This was a rest day spent lounging around the island, watching whales, chatting with kayakers, and pondering how best to make the final two big crossings back to Telegraph Cove. The fishing from shore was also pretty decent, but I could only catch rock fish.
Flower Island is a good place to camp. The main downside was the lack of toilets (unless you count a well-used Rona bucket – I took the advice of another person camping there and didn’t look inside). Why there aren’t pit toilet on many of these islands is beyond me. There certainly is need for them. Another negative was the volume of boat traffic around the island, which is a hot salmon fishing spot. We counted a dozen boats fishing there are times, trolling back and forth all day. That said, there was some entertainment value watching guys pull in giant spring salmon, halibut, and cod. Oh yeah. And floatplanes.
The last day. We started out mid-morning, with the plan to ride the last of the ebb tide, and paddle diagonal across Blackfish Sound then cross Johnstone Strait, returning pretty much the way we had come. The plan ended up being perfect as the water was calm and the crossings uneventful, aside from the usual peppering of questions from boaters. One guy thought it would be funny to scare us by saying there were orcas nearby. I asked him for the coordinates so we could go see them up close. He mumbled something about a radio before returning to his cigarette.
We maneuvered through the Plumpers the same way we had come a week earlier. The final crossing back to Telegraph was again fortunately calm, aside from a few boat waves. Once landed in Telegraph, we walked around the boardwalks an visited the whale museum and pub. After an awesome hot lunch, we were back in the car and headed home.
This was likely the first time this route has been paddle by standup paddleboard, and it’s something most folks should not attempt. But if you want to do it, I suggest not attempting it unless you have all of the following: 1) previous multi-day SUP expedition experience, 2) knowledge of marine charts and tide currents, 3) good weather and a well-planned itinerary for the entire trip, 4) a VHF radio and GPS, and 5) solid physical ability. If you have these things, you likely already possess the necessary hunger for adventure and stomach for risk. Kayakers have died paddling in these straits and it would take less for an inexperienced paddleboarder to suffer the same fate.
If you want to experience the area but in a safer fashion, consider getting a water taxi into a sheltered area and paddle the inner islands where the conditions are more forgiving. If you have the cash, a ride into the area is not hard to find. Or be like Monster and take a canoe. It would afford a few more luxuries to carry and permit an easier time taking photos.
Other intel: campsites are limited, as most of the islands have limited or no beaches. The ones that exist are well documented in the Kimantas book. If there are others along the way, we did not see them. Drinking water is also very limited, but it can be had in a few places if you know where to look.
This area, while very remote, is also very popular and accessible through other means. You will see a lot of boats and other paddlers. Kayak tour groups frequent the larger sites at Owl, Insect and Mound. While these are sites with many tent pads, it takes only one tour group to make for cozy neighbours. If you want to avoid the extra company, head for the smaller sites, and early in the day to claim the best spots. Or join the fray and make new friends.