I got lucky the last days of the trip: the wind stayed relatively calm, there was only a bit of precipitation, and I was invited in for a couple more nights of drying out and warming up. The five days from Comox back to Orcas had chilly mornings with more frozen booties, a mixture of headwinds and tailwinds, and a few clear nights with the sky full of stars. The stars shining above the mountains was something I had not seen in over a month with all the rain. I sat out and gazed at the sky as the frost started setting in. It felt like I was seeing the night sky with fresh eyes.
The most memorable parts of this final section were all the encounters with sea lions. I started bumping into them in the bay that first day out of Comox. They were in the water, mostly floating with their flippers up in the air, or swimming with just their noses poking out. They would surface every few seconds and blow out a spray of water and air. Someone told me they were swimming out in the currents, hunting for the herring which were just starting to run.
They were everywhere coming down the southern shore of the Strait of Georgia. The marine mammal protection laws say that you need to keep a certain distance, but that was simply impossible: there were groups of two to six sea lions every quarter mile, sometimes more, and I could see them out to the sides of my heading as well. Often they would follow me as I came by, staying just off my stern, sometimes for a minute or two though a few times for over a mile. They were not being aggressive, just tagging along, surfacing and blowing spray behind my stern. Once in a while they started barking as I came by and chasing me a bit faster than usual, opening their huge mouths and growling when they surfaced behind me. Even though I knew I would be okay if I kept moving it was a bit disconcerting: a 650 pound animal swimming towards you and making that much noise never fails to give you a bit of a flight response!
As I approached Dodd Narrows on day 45, I could see down one of the long Gulf Islands channels, and suddenly there was a very familiar sight: the top of Mount Baker, crisp and white with snow, over 95 miles away in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. I am used to seeing Baker towering over the landscape while paddling throughout the San Juans, but had not seen it since I left the inland waters on day 3. It was a white beacon above the trees, welcoming me back to my home waters. As I carried on south I saw more signs of home: the unique sandstone weathering on the Gulf Island cliffs, folded and pitted like a honeycomb or the surface of a morel. The formations looked just like the ones on the shores of Sucia Island, where I had spent so much time the past two summers. I was getting close.
The last night on the trip I stayed on Saturna Island with a couple, Fred and Ruth, who teach kayaking during the summer. They run a company called Kayaking Skills, and Fred had contacted me back when I was just starting the west coast portion of the trip, offering a place to stay when I got around the island. Truthfully I did not know if I would make it that far, but here I was over a month later paddling onto the beach in front of his house. We had a delicious soup for dinner, with veggies and a thyme spread on toasted pitas, just the kind of fresh food I had been craving for a while. As I feel asleep I heard the wind pick up and a heavy rain start to fall on the metal roof.
The rain passed by morning, leaving only the wind. It looked like my last day would provide one more opportunity to paddle into a headwind. After the usual tea and oatmeal I got on the water and said goodbye, heading for the last big crossing of the trip. As I arrived at my jumping off point there were clouds overhead, but visibility was good. I could see Orcas and all the surrounding islands I was used to, only this time from the back side. The navigation would be much easier with the clear views around me.
The tides in the San Juans are complex, flowing in many directions as they bend around the many islands. The different tidal streams push you around in different directions as you try to get from place to place. The speed varies by the hour, and the direction of flow shifts multiple times each day. It is the kind of puzzle that I absolutely love. I checked my heading, set the bezel on my watch to zero, and starting paddling off into the wide open water, using the flow to shape my course back to the beach I had started at almost seven weeks earlier. By the end of the day I was home.
Since arriving I have received a lot of congratulations for completing such a big endeavor. I know this was an ambitious expedition, but most of the time it felt smaller. When I left I did not know what would happen, so I took it bit by bit. Each day I would make a plan on how to deal with what was in front of me, solving the puzzles that the day’s wind, weather, and tide presented... and I just kept doing that. I would consider up to four days ahead, but no more. It just kept working out, day by day, puzzle by puzzle. In that way I steadily made my way around the entire island.
I told that to someone the other day and they pushed back, saying that it could only feel that way because of my skills, which must be high. But gaining those skills has been a stepwise process as well. I started my formal kayaking training in the fall of 2013 when I took my BCU 2-star training. Since then I have taken small steps each year, attending courses, symposiums, and assessments regularly along the way. In between I would spend as much time in my boat practicing as I could. At some point I just knew that I loved being in a sea kayak and wanted to learn how to do it at an expert level, but getting here was a case of increments: small goals leading to much bigger ones.
Even this trip itself is a step towards a larger goal for me: I hope to kayak on a long arctic expedition in the next few years (those who know me have heard me talk about this for a while now). I figured that going around Vancouver Island in the winter would help me gain more of the skills and experience to set me up for that. I think it is safe to say that it has.
Along the way people have told me that they have found this endeavor inspirational. Although it feels a bit strange to hear it I appreciate the sentiment. I do feel proud of what I’ve done, but I believe that these kinds of adventures are attainable by anyone who puts their mind to it. With persistence, patience, planning, and practice your “crazy” goals can be achieved. In the end I hope that is the inspiration people are drawing: to make the decision to go after whatever it is that they find alluring in their lives. Not just in outdoor or athletic pursuits, but any dream that others tell them is too big, too risky, or too hard. Make the decision and get started. Keep at it each day and eventually you will get there; when you do it will feel so good. All you have to do is take the first step and keep your eyes towards the future water.
Some sincere thank-yous:
To the expedition sponsors: thank you all for believing that this expedition was not just possible, but worth supporting! The help I got from Werner Paddles, Kayak Waveology, Kayak Academy, and Body Boat Blade International made this trip financially feasible. They are great companies, and I hope you will visit their websites and see what they offer. https://futurewaterpaddling.com/sponsors/
To my family: thank you so much for your encouragement, and also thanks for the InReach as a Christmas present! I have been amazed at how many people followed my flags as I made my way around the island. That really added something special to the blog.
To those who hosted me: I cannot tell you how good it was to warm up, dry out, and have a home-cooked meal while undertaking this immense task. Thanks to Justine and JF in Uclulet, Alyssa in Tofino, Joanne in Kyuquot, Trevor and Monica in Comox, James and Sarah in Parksville, and Fred and Ruth on Saturna Island. You hospitality helped me succeed on this journey.
To Brian, Bud, and Sully: when I called from tough spots you told me exactly what I needed to hear. I am so glad you picked up the phone!
To Robin, for all your patient help as I was preparing for this journey.
To Mike, Laurie, Greg, Paula, John, Todd, Bonnie, Lynn, Shawna, Leon, Nick, Pete, Harry, Phil, Phil, Tom, Kiran, and everyone else who has coached me on and off the water. What you taught me over the past few years carried me safely through this journey. I hope to be able to do even half as well as you all as I coach other paddlers this summer.
And lastly, a very special thank you to Theo. In the fall of 2004 you offered a young, dumb, and cocky me a free last-minute spot on a fall break kayaking trip. I had never been in a sea kayak before, but I fell in love with it on one of those rainy mornings out there with you. Who could have possible guessed where that first experience would eventually lead me... thank you for always helping me see what was possible.
What comes next:
For now I will be taking a short break from the blog, but plan on keeping it going throughout 2018. Moving forward it will turn into a regular publication focused on all manner of paddling topics. I plan on including how-to articles on different expedition skills, ideas for improving different aspects of your paddling, and some more musings on what inspires me out on the water. If you are a paddler you should stick around. If you were here for the adventure story it may not be as interesting to you, so I understand if you click “unsubscribe” at the bottom.
I plan on putting together a slide-show about the trip and giving a presentation on Orcas Island sometime soon. I have also been contacted by some local kayak clubs, and I hope to present in the Seattle area in the coming months. After that it will be time to start coaching on Orcas for the season and then working at some great symposiums in the fall. I will post about those on my website and social media. I hope to meet some of you in the coming months!
One last plug: I will be coaching all season at Body Boat Blade in Eastsound, WA. We offer a variety of classes at all skill levels, including one called “Off-Season Paddling and Expedition Training.”. That class focuses on how to stay warm, dry, and happy when going out paddling and camping during the wetter and wilder times of year. If you are an experienced sea kayaker who wants to expand your paddling season I highly recommend it. I’m looking forward to sharing all the little tips, tricks, and systems I used on this expedition with the group. Check us out at www.bodyboatblade.com.
Some Stats for the Nerds out there (looking at you, Dr. Socci!):
Total trip distance: 700 nautical miles (on the nose!)
47 Days in total: 31 days on the water, 11 days weather, 5 days chosen rest
Longest day: 44 NM, Shortest Day: 6NM
Distances in NM For Days Spent Paddling - Mean: 22.6 Median: 21 Mode: 20
*If you get this blog by email, click through to my website to see a video of the sea lions. The quality is not the best, but it does give a good idea of paddling with them around.*