Pushing the Tide

I could make out the rocks just before bumping into them. Night had come and it was incredibly difficult to see the rocks and shoals that had recently uncovered at low water. I worked my way along the shore of Cape Lazo, hoping for a clear passage. No, not this way. More rocks appearing in the darkness. Maybe over here? Nope. I got out of the boat to get a better view, but all I could see were rocks stretching out in each direction. There was water just a few meters beyond where I was standing, but it seemed like I might have worked my way into a corner. The tide was still dropping fast; taking the time to paddle back and around might leave me stranded on an even larger shoal. I sighed, said, “boat, I’m sorry for this,” and started dragging up and over the short stretch of rocks.

On the other side I headed quickly for what looked like deeper water. It turned out to be more rocks, but luckily with a few shallow channels in between. I hurried through, and as I came around the corner I could see a car’s headlights and flashers on along the shore. I headed towards them, hearing someone shouting as I got closer. “Calvin...” came a voice through the dark. “Yes, I’m here!” I yelled back. As I landed I was greeted by Trevor and Jonathan. “We finally saw the reflectors on your paddles,” Trevor said. Jonathan added, “ten more minutes and we would have called the coast guard!” I thanked them both for their restraint and worked to load the boat. I had made to Comox, though a bit behind schedule. I told Trevor, “I am happy to be here, but I could really use a day off tomorrow.”

 Electrical tape is my new best friend. 

Electrical tape is my new best friend. 

Four days earlier I left Port Hardy and had one of the hardest days of paddling on the trip. It was not hard in the scary “oh no these conditions are huge” way that days out on the coast had been. Instead it was more of a trudging, drawn-out, demoralizing hard.

The first factor against me was the ebb current. Right now there are two strong ebb currents each day, with much weaker flood currents. When I left Port Hardy it was flowing against me, lasting all day. Throughout the trip I have noticed that these winter ebb currents last far longer than the tide tables predict. To further complicate things, I was entering the Johnstone Strait. The Strait has a peculiar pattern of flow where, at certain water levels, the flood current either only comes up the sides a bit, or never happens at all. That first day I could detect current with me for a little over an hour, the rest of the day was with it quite noticeable against me.

The first day out of Hardy also featured a brisk headwind. “Alright,” I thought, “I’ll be smart and stick to the shore to try and find eddies and stay at least a little bit out of the wind.” Right next to shore? Large beds of kelp, catching my paddle with almost every stroke. All of these factors added up to it taking 7 hours to go the first 15 miles. They were a hard, grinding seven hours. By the end of the day my wrist and shoulders were sore from pushing against the environment for so long. I was a bit downtrodden as I paddled into the night to find a decent campsite, falling many miles short of where I wanted to be.

 The Johnstone Strait goes on and on and on and on... 

The Johnstone Strait goes on and on and on and on... 

The forecast was for more favorable winds for the next few days, and I started trying to figure out what I could do to improve my lot with the currents. One option was to just sit and wait. If I waited about a week, the flood would take over the daytime hours. Of course, that was a long time to wait. Looking over the current tables, I noticed that the further up the Strait I went, the later the tides occured. That is, by moving geographically I was also pushing the current start times later each day. If I could put in two very long days, I would be able to push the tidal times to the point where I would have the current with me when I got on the water in the morning. That is, by going very far in two days I would be in a place where the current would seem like I had sat and waited for the week. This plan was ambitious. It meant covering the 74 remaining miles to the opening of Seymour Narrows in two days, fighting the current most of the way. I set my alarm for 4:30am, knowing that I would get little sleep.

 Time to get on the water. 

Time to get on the water. 

I woke up, got on the water at first light, and paddled until it was getting dark. I had gone 29 nautical miles in 10 hours and was once again shy of where I wanted to be. Maybe this wasn’t going to work after all. Still, I decided to give it another go the next day.

This time I got up earlier, 4am, and made it on the water just before it was light. I moved faster than I had anticipated, arriving at the campsites at Rock Bay before dark. The day had been better than the previous two, but the place I really wanted to get to was still over a dozen miles away. I ate a snack and though about my options as I drifted near the campground dock. The sky was clear, the temperature was cool but not cold, and the wind was light and diminishing. I knew there would be lit beacons every few miles on my way down the channel and that getting to the top of Seymour Narrows would set me up well for the next day. Still, stopping for the night and getting sleep sounded so nice after these three long days. I was dead tired and my blisters had returned with a vengeance. “Oh, what the heck,” I said out loud. I turned from the dock and started paddling again.

 Nightfall in Rock Bay. 

Nightfall in Rock Bay. 

The miles passed steadily as it got dark. I kept cruising, heading straight south down the long stretch called Discovery Passage. The night was beautiful and clear. I could see the treeline clearly against the sky as I followed the blinking navigation lights down the channel. I watched the backdrop of stars sliding sideways over the trees, using that motion to judge my speed. It was a beautiful and quiet night, so still and void of disturbance. I slipped past some cabins and a couple barges running late to get home. I love the feeling of paddling in the dark: no lights on, unnoticed, just a whisper moving past on the water. I arrived at the my destination 13 hours after I had left that morning. It felt good to have made up the distance to the narrows, but it was late and getting cold. I also knew that I still had one more day.

 Frosty packup in the morning. 

Frosty packup in the morning. 

The next morning I woke up before my alarm despite the short sleep. The night had been clear and cold, and my entire boat was covered in frost. I packed everything up and poured some extra hot water in my frozen booties to thaw them out. Such a nice toasty feeling to slip them on! I got on the water and made it to the narrows just as the tide was scheduled to turn. 

As the flood came on it started pushing me south, where I wanted to go. After spending so many miles fighting the current it was wonderful to have it going with me again. The miles went by quickly. When I stopped for lunch at Kuhushan Point the flood current was dying. I did not mind, as I knew this was a special place. I had crossed the area where the currents meet coming around the island. When I launched the ebb would be starting, but it would be with me. From here out the long winter ebb currents would help carry me home to Orcas. It taken a lot out of me, but the plan had worked.

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I definitely underestimated how long it would take me to arrive that night, but I made it to Comox. I was grateful for the helpful folks who took me in for the night: I had a lovely dinner with my hosts, Trevor and Monica, as well as their friend Jonathan. It was delightful to swap stories of paddling on the coast with other kayakers who knew and loved the area. I also loved getting to pet their sweet old dog Presley: he made it feel like home. I went to bed without an alarm and feel into a deep, restful sleep.

In the morning started to plan out my next few days. Pretty quickly I got excited about how close I was getting. Really, given the forecasted winds, I should leave that afternoon and knock off a few miles, which would set me up for a few big days and the crossing home. When I told my hosts this at breakfast they said, “well, okay... whatever you need to do,” though seemed a bit surprised. After all, twelve hours earlier I had firmly declared a day off. I went out to get a couple things squared away with my boat boat and started getting ready.

As I was putting things in order I called a friend to check in. She had been on a few long expeditions and I wanted some advice on heading home. While talking to her I realized that I was rushing to get on the water again. But why? I had made it through the stretch with the troublesome currents and things would be easier now. I had no deadline, no impending storm to beat home. In fact, all I had done for the past few days was paddle and sleep... was I taking the time to enjoy where I was? Did it matter if I made it back to Orcas in five, six, seven, even ten days? Why in the world was I rushing?

This is one of the funny things about traveling solo. I can easily slip into a mindset where I am always pushing myself to do a bit more: longer days, more miles, tougher conditions... but that was never the goal on this trip. Just getting around in the winter was what I am trying to do, and I have done all the hard parts already. Sure, the paddling is less of a thrill and I am definitely excited to get back to my own bed, but that will happen soon enough.

 Taking the time to smooth out the hull of my poor, abused boat.

Taking the time to smooth out the hull of my poor, abused boat.

By the time I hung up the phone I knew what I should do. The special space that is living on this expedition will disappear soon, evaporating the instant I step on shore back home. I want to enjoy my last few days before it is all gone, before I have to start attending to the everyday details that connect me to my life back home. I’ll never be here again; I think it would be wise to take some time to savor this experience as I finish.

My hosts got back from walking the dog and I let them know I would stay after all. “That’s a good choice,” they said, smiling at me. “Dinner is at seven. We’re having lasagna.”

 If you received this blog by email, click through to my site to find a short video from these days.