It's taken me a long time to get to this trip report, of a canoe trip I did with Monster through Desolation Sound in June. Here is the story; this is the longest trip report I've ever done and I'll be astonished if anyone reads it right through.
Read some of it, read all of it, skim and look at pictures only, or, well, nobody's obligated to read any of it for that matter but at least I have it on record for my own memory.
Here's our path:
Friday June 14 - Saturday June 15, 2013: "I've got a system!"
The first day was a harried start: all-nighter getting ready, sleep deprivation, missed ferries, car-camping test run the first night which turned out to be a blessing as we discovered forgotten items, broken tent pole, rescued drunken idiots at the next campsite over as they almost fell into the fire, etc etc. We were awoken at the crack of 10 AM by the sound of some yahoo chopping wood, and the shrill voice of the ranger as she read him the riot act.
"But it's just a tree....I was just getting some firewood."
"Oh no you're not! This is habitat. $500 fine!"
This is what a real camper's campsite SHOULD look like:
On our way out, the yahoos from next door came over to chat, and the woman bragged about how good at camping she was. "I can get my tent set up in like no time at all. I have a SYSTEM. I have to be efficient because I have a two-year-old. I have to integrate him into my SYSTEM."
The rest of the trip, every time we set up camp we stated that we had a SYSTEM.
We spent a good chunk of the second day replacing forgotten items and making up shortcomings in our food supply (ie not enough chocolate) and finally we were on the ferries from Campbell River to Quadra Island, and then to Cortes Island. On the Cortes Island ferry we talked to some locals and asked them if we should be concerned about returning to the car after two weeks to find smashed windows. "Oh no! You won't have ANY trouble on Cortes Island! It's the safest place imaginable to leave your car."
We got to Squirrel Cove and the woman who ran the shop and boat launch told us we could leave the car with her for $5 per night (two weeks, do the math) because "there have been a LOT of break-ins." We conferred amongst ourselves and decided that she was just trying to get money. I told her we'd decided to leave the car on the road and she said solemly, "OK. Don't leave ANYTHING in sight. We've had soooo many break-ins. One guy had his whole door torn off." I have lived on an island myself, so I asked her a question that probably most people wouldn't think of, and she was caught off-guard, not having rehearsed her answer. We both felt she was probably making it all up to get her $5 per night. (The car ended up being absolutely fine on the road).
Squirrel Cove, and off we go!
First destination: Teakerne Arm for Camp 1. The water reminded me of a painting:
Sat June 15 - Mon June 17: I feed an eagle
We stayed at Teakerne Arm for two nights, enjoying the layover day to look at the falls, go for a swim (a short hike into Cassel Lake), and fish.
A note about food. For years I've been hearing about the amazing oysters in Desolation Sound. Legend has it you can gorge yourself on oysters until you're sick of oysters. We'd bought practically a year's supply of lemons and butter in anticipation of nightly oyster feasts. Imagine our disappointment when we learned of a shellfish warning ("the worst it's been in years!") and we could only LOOK at the scads and scads of oysters lining the shores:
But all was not lost; there are plenty of fish in the sea and these poor little guys were our dinner that second night. Kind of ugly but tasted amazing!
I should add that I fed one of the throwbacks to an eagle, who was watching me with eagle eyes and swooped down to get it once I tossed it back. I think feeding an eagle provided good fishing karma for the rest of the trip.
Mon June 17: The best day of all; also, "we don't need a tarp tonight."
Although it was painful to leave such a beautiful place, it was time to move on. I felt really drained and awful as we packed up camp; a holdover from the fatigue I'd been feeling from the harried life I'd been leading in the weeks leading up to this trip, I am sure (moving, family stuff, elder care stuff, etc etc). So I can't speak for Monster but I was feeling extremely sluggish and incapable that morning. As soon as we got on the water, however, that all changed as every new corner turned put us into more and more remote country and it was BEAUTIFUL. I was so happy I didn't even notice the 25+ km we had to paddle that day. Well I did notice, but it didn't bother me.
After hours of paddling, we rounded a corner at the northern end of West Redonda Island, and were treated to sweet late afternoon light and plenty of wildlife: dolphins, eagles, and this adorable little family of mergansers that you can see if you look closely:
They cheaped and chirped, but when the mother saw us she panicked and frantically tried to protect her babies from this strange and giant intruder (a canoe) but with the sheer cliff walls there was really nowhere for them to go. Too bad we couldn't tell her we had no intention of hurting her babies.
At every turn I became more delighted with the scenery:
An eagle greeted us at Conis Point, which was to be our camp for the next two nights.
Camp 2 had a half decent beer fridge:
It was such an amazing, warm, sunny evening that we uttered the fateful words,
"Let's not bother to put up a tarp over the tent tonight; look at it! It can't POSSIBLY rain tonight."
Cue the spectacular lightning bolts, roaring thunder, and torrential driving rain accompanied by gale-force winds. Midnight, still up and sitting by the fire, we decided this would be a good time to rig up a tarp and as we did so, the intensity of the downpour increased exponentially. Fork lightning lit our way as we struggled with knots, trees, and a wildly flapping tarp in the dark. I could only laugh at the misery of the situation. Fact of the matter is, the old tent I'd brought along does leak a bit and the plan had been to protect it and our piles of gear with a tarp every night. Don't ever tempt fate.
Tues June 18: More fish
We woke up to light rain, but since we didn't have to go anywhere (another layover day) we just stared dully into the drizzly grey distance sipping coffee under the comfort of two large golf umbrellas....
....and then the sun came out and it was time to catch more fish. Actually, Monster was the fish catcher on this trip, while I supervised.
My supervision resulted in the capture of a beautiful Pacific Red Snapper, which was then breaded and coated in Cajun seasoning and panfried. I actually cringe to watch the killing of any living creature including fish, but my desire for fresh seafood overrode that. We had trouble eating it all but we managed.....
What followed was another gorgeous evening; no rain this time, though we were properly equipped with a tarp.
Wed June 19: Searching, searching for a campsite...and a wild ride at the end
It was time to pack up and move on from Conis Point. The day was mostly pleasant and calm.
We passed this guy on a little floating raft with a shack on it, and asked him, "Are you here for crabbing?" He replied, "No, I just live here."
A note on camping: you might think that on the coast, you could pull over anywhere you like to camp. Not so. Monster had warned me about this. Most of it looks like this, ie sheer cliffs rising sharply from the water, or simply nowhere flat to lay a tent:
Beaches tended to look like this:
We did see a good campsite at the entrance to Waddington Channel, but some bunch of yahoos before us had left an obscene amount of garbage and what should have been a gorgeous place was now totally unappealing.
Oyster catcher hanging out near the entrance to Waddington Channel
We decided to keep moving. We paddled and searched, and checked out promising little inlets that turned out to have NO camping potential. It was really beautiful but the day was getting on and we were tired quite anxious to find something. Finally, we could just make out what appeared to be some kind of settlement far off in the distance and made a beeline. As we got closer we realized it was logging equipment, and where there is logging equipment, there must be a flat place to pull in.
The winds kicked up at this point and we paddled harder. The little logging settlement was getting closer but not quickly enough; the winds kicked it up a notch. We were 10 minutes from shore when the waves became huge and the bow was starting to take on water. I was becoming nervous and paddled furiously while Monster worked in the stern to keep the boat at the correct angle against the waves. We finally hit beach, and I was quite thankful to have my feet on land, finally. Turned out there was a perfect spot for a tent just tucked away in the trees, and the whole thing was just out of sight of the logging equipment, so we could actually still feel we were in remote country. Retroactive visions of a dumped canoe danced through my head, and I was very pleased that wasn't the case, fully due to a very experienced stern paddler.
Thurs June 20: Maurice, and a tribute to Denis Underhill
This was another layover day. This fellow came to visit, and became our camp pet. Monster declared, "His name is Maurice."
It rained on and off, but camp was pretty comfortable. Throughout the trip I was reading, "I Heard the Owl Call My Name" which was fitting for the scenery around us. Great book!
How many times have you been out in the wilderness and craved pizza? The following photos show that there was really nothing to crave that we didn't already have:
The following is an aside, only sort of related to my trip report but relevant in my eyes:
It was this evening, June 20, that I started to talk a lot about an older fellow I used to know named Denis Underhill. I first met Denis in 1991 when he was in his late 60's and teaching a backpacking preparedness course. This fellow was THE original retreader. He took great pride in showing much younger beginners how to enjoy the outdoors safely. I had never really done much backpacking apart from summer camp when I was 12, and didn't know how to start, so I took his course, and then joined some groups he took on the West Coast Trail, three years running (for which he didn't charge a penny beyond food and transportation costs). This man had grown up in Vancouver, hiking the local mountains. The first group he ever led was to Deeks Lake in the 1930's when he was 11 years old. Denis was a child of the Great Depression and remained frugal all his life. He didn't believe in buying fancy gear, instead preferring to show us how to use everyday odds and ends to build equipment (examples being large tin cans for candle lanterns, a backpack made of an old pair of trousers, old recycled vitamin containers for peanut butter jars, burned-down candles as firestarter, etc. etc.) He didn't use a tent "because I have not been able to find one I like" instead preferring to buy large sheets of plastic from the hardware store to make a tarp with, using fibreglass tape to reinforce the edges and make the loops. (Buy a ready-made tarp? Oh, no no no, too expensive and heavy). He also had no use for Goretex, and accurately predicted that the modern candle lanterns from MEC "will break." This man was meticulous, precise, and skilled; he had the right knot for everything (knots that held when called for, but untied easily). He could build a fire under the wettest conditions, and spent a great deal of time showing us which driftwood would burn well when wet, or burn cleanly with no sparks, versus which ones were better as kindling. He was curmudgeonly and set in his ways, but also had infinite patience with those of lesser skill. One time a group camping next to us had their stove break down; he took on the kindly grandfather role and managed to troubleshoot and get it running again. When he came back, he mentioned "that's why I don't bring a stove." (It was true - we cooked over fire on all those West Coast Trail trips).
Here's Denis in 1991 helping me cross Adrenaline Surge (note the external frame pack I'd borrowed from my dad)....
...descend some West Coast Trail cliff (where on the WCT this would have been, I don't know, but Denis' WCT trips were unlike most other people's WCT trips)...
...doling out trail mix...
...and divvying up his famous Logan Bread
When we tried to express appreciation for his efforts, he always said, "Don't thank me; just pass on the knowledge to someone else."
Sadly I am all thumbs when it comes to knots, have no affinity for practical skills, and don't remember much of what I was supposed to have learned. I lost touch with Denis after about 1993. But now, on this Desolation trip 20 years later, I was singing his praises to Monster, telling him about his incredible tarping skills, knot skills, fire skills, and other Denis stories. Monster listened with great interest and said, "Sounds like the kind of guy I'd love to meet. Curmudgeonly old geezer who knows his sh**."
I replied that he absolutely would have LOVED to meet Denis, and I said that when we got home, I should look him up. I had no idea if he was still around, as he'd be getting pretty old by now. I suddenly had regrets that I hadn't kept in touch, and a sense of urgency that if I were to look him up, I should hurry up and do it. I wanted him to know that I was still backpacking, coastal camping, and loving the outdoors and that he had got me started.
Throughout the rest of the trip, Monster would ask me, when certain situations arose, "How would he have done this? What would Denis have said?" Denis had made an impression on someone without even meeting him.
When I got home from this trip, I was chatting with my mother, and she said, "Guess whose obituary I saw in the Vancouver Sun?" Oh, no...damn...he passed away the same day that I had resolved to look him up.
"In memory of Denis, please introduce a child to the wonders of nature."
Friday, June 21: "Yes, but have you ever camped with fresh bear scat ALL around you???
This day looked promising to do a large-ish crossing and head down Homfrey Channel, so we packed up and headed out, taking our time en route for a little fishing.
Is this the third or fourth great catch on this trip? We've lost count. Dinner tonight!
The weather was perfect and calm.
I don't remember much else about this day other than it was again difficult to find a camp spot. We had crossed over to the mainland by now; it was getting late, and every promising little inlet turned out to be kind of no good. The winds picked up and we had another wild ride into the waves (fun but also pushing my comfort level) until we decided to retreat into Atwell Bay, where there was nowhere to put a tent save for an old logging camp with plenty of flat spots and it seemed ideal to us.
Something about it did scream "bear" though.
We unloaded the canoe and wandered around to decide where the best spots might be for tarp, fire, etc. In doing so we noticed dense salmonberry bushes bursting with ripe fruit, and piles of fresh bear scat were plentiful. Monster didn't like it, and suggested we pack up all our stuff and take it out to this floating dock (complete with wood stove and a structure for putting up a tarp) that was just off shore.
I was tired (well, exhausted actually) and didn't want to; I said, "Oh come on, we've both camped in bear country lots of times; it'll be fine."
Monster's reply was, "Yes, but have you ever put your tent in a spot surrounded by fresh berries and fresh bear scat ALL AROUND you?"
I conceded that I hadn't, and suddenly the floating dock looked very, very attractive. (Yes, bears can swim, but at least we'd hear them coming).
So we packed everything up and this became Camp 4 (it's a little further out than it looks in the first shot):
We didn't know who this dock and its facilities belonged to, and we half expected to be greeted first thing in the morning by a fleet of angry officials, but it was the weekend and nobody came. We did find out later that it was actually put there by an outdoors club, for kayakers to use. There was also a clubhouse there that looked appealing, but it looked even more off-limits:
Saturday, June 22: "What's that building? Oh, it's a lodge....with showers and clean white towels."
The weather was cloudy and calm, perfect for paddling.
We were well into the groove when we noticed a building way off in the distance. As we got closer, we got more and more curious as to what it was.
"Looks like some kind of lodge...."
"I see boats too..."
"Looks really nice..."
"Let's go over and investigate...."
"Looks like a fishing lodge..."
"Let's get out and look at it..."
A friendly fellow saw us and came out. "Hello, hello! Welcome!! Where did you come from? Come on in, and have a look around!!! We just opened this season!! We have campsites, and rooms..."
The name of the place was Homfray Lodge. He showed us the inside of the main lounge, which had yet to be furnished but looks like it's going to be really nice.
We decided to get a tent spot, but the owner quite wisely told me I should at least "go have a look at the rooms." There were large self-contained cabins for families, as well as smaller rooms he'd envisioned for kayakers, who would all use a communal "cookhouse." I thought it was quite a bit nicer than a "cookhouse."
I think this was the most welcome sight of all:
Hot showers!! Clean fluffy white towels! Sold!!
Before all that though, a fish had to be caught for dinner. There were only a handful of other guests at the lodge, and they all said, "Well I hope you'll have better luck than we did." Within 10 minutes of paddling around the point, Monster had caught yet another Pacific Red Snapper, and we rushed to paddle back to show off how quickly we'd done it.
BBQ's a good place to cook it.
It was really a lovely place to be, with just the owners (two brothers), some of their family including teens and kids, and a few guests. They built a fire for everyone and we sat around chatting and sharing stories until everyone dropped off, one by one, to go to sleep.
Sunday, June 23: "We're stuck here, but there are worse places to be stuck."
The day started out gorgeous. We didn't exactly hurry to get out.
We probably should have hurried to get out, as the calm weather didn't last long. We listened to the marine weather forecast, and it sounded less than ideal, though still do-able. The owner of the lodge said it was unusual for the winds from the south to hit Homfrey Channel. So we made a break for it. About 20 minutes into our paddle, we stopped here to have a bite to eat:
It was so beautiful, but looking across at where we were about to go, we saw whitecaps, which was no good for us. Weather WAS coming into Homfrey Channel. We radioed the lodge to inform them we were coming back to wait out the weather. They very kindly offered to let us pitch a tent in one of their tent sites for free.
We spent the day hanging out, exploring the trails and a waterfall...
and of course catching dinner, a rockfish this time. Were we getting tired of seafood yet? In a word, no.
It PISSED with rain that evening, and we took shelter in the main lodge sitting close to the wireless router glued to our smartphones, updating Facebook and the like. Sad, I know.....
Monday, June 24, Part 1: We cheat.
It looked OK in the morning, so we loaded the canoe. Then the weather came in, not just rain, but high winds, so we unloaded the canoe...or at least Monster did. I tried to help but the ramp was slippery (and steep since the tide was very low) and I went flying, bouncing on my back a couple of times, ow ow ow!! I wasn't sure if I was hurt or not so I was ordered to sit and watch Monster unload. I think I milked that a little bit.
The lodge owners built a fire just for me. (Then Monster fell too, but landed with grace and finesse, or so he claims - I was too busy enjoying the fire to witness).
Just gross out, though still a lovely setting:
So....guess we were staying at the lodge a third night? It was a pleasant place to be, and the people were great, but we weren't too enthused about staying a third night. Yet the winds were supposed to be just as bad for a few more days. And I was getting anxious: I *MUST* be home by Friday, because my father was turning 80 and there was a big bash planned for him for the Saturday. We were really only a couple of days' worth of paddling away from our starting point, but what if we got held up somewhere else?
In the end, we used the money we would have spent on the third night's accommodation to get Scott, one of the owners of Homfray Lodge, to power boat us and the canoe back to a more sheltered area.
The photos that were not to be posted on CT (Ahh, speed! Power!):
We had Scott let us out at Roscoe Bay, which involved navigating a shallow channel at low tide. Once Scott had left, we looked around us despairingly. Holy sailboat convention!! After the lovely remote regions to the north, this may as well have been downtown Vancouver, and we didn't want to stay. I didn't even take pictures. We loaded up the canoe, paddled against the tide and got out of there.
Monday, June 24, Part 2: Paddling for Dear Life on a 7 km crossing
The rough weather was behind us and threatening to catch up; the sunny weather was in front of us, and we somehow managed to stay just under that line in the sky that divides blue from grey.
I didn't straighten this picture because I don't want to give the impression that it was a smooth ride:
We were making good time, though I insisted on taking a few pictures (every time I did, it impeded progress):
The plan was still to camp somewhere along here, but as we got further south, all the campsites seemed so "well-used" (read: populated and/or littered) and we felt that we'd left the best of Desolation Sound behind us. We had a few days left to spare, so we decided that getting to Vancouver Island a little earlier and exploring some of the backroads and lakes would be fun.
Squirrel Cove (Cortes Island, where we'd left the car) was within our reach now, and we had a choice: 1) paddle more distance to a shorter open crossing, or 2) paddle less distance and have a longer - 7 km - open crossing. Weather had calmed and we chose Option 2; probably not the safest decision but we went for it.
The winds were actually quite strong halfway across but there is nothing like a little fear to motivate you to paddle furiously and with all your might.
With the wind at our backs we were making incredibly good time, but I wasn't going to be happy until we were on the ground. The waves were really quite huge and 7 km is a long way to paddle open water.
Apparently there was time for one picture, which doesn't quite do it justice as the large waves trying to slam the side of the boat prevented either of us from picking up a camera at the critical moments.
But you can see the shiny roof of the Squirrel Cove General Store; I couldn't reach it fast enough, though this picture makes me look calm and relaxed:
As we got closer, people in boats looked at us in amazement. Here's Monster trying to gather the energy to unload after the Big Crossing:
I went off to retrieve the car, which was parked up the road and had NOT been broken into. We were stuck on Cortes Island as it was too late to get a ferry off it; in fact, by the time we'd loaded up the canoe it was too late to buy dinner anywhere on the island. We both could have devoured a restaurant meal at that point, but instead we camped uncomfortably in the gravel BC Ferries lot by the terminal, uncomfortably cooking the remnants of our unappealing camp food, and sleeping in the car with our feet sticking out of the open end. In the middle of the night I vaguely became aware that my feet were being rained on. We woke up at 5 or 6 AM, and without coffee drove straight onto the first ferry off Cortes....
Tuesday June 25 and onwards....not so grand finale
Found a campsite in the backroads off Campbell River to organize and dry out our gear before exploring the lakes and finally heading home.
This campsite creeped me out a wee bit as I could swear I heard the faint sounds of dueling banjos:
Who does this?
I thought this was a grizzly bear holding a gun, but I guess it was a stump:
We did spend a few days exploring back roads and lakes (it pissed with rain), and I did make it back in time for my father's 80th birthday bash!
The day I got home was when the heat wave began and we didn't see rain for another two months.