Sea Kayaking & Touring

Solo Circumnavigation of Vancouver Island

by justine-curgenven
Friday, July 08, 2016
   Sea Kayaking & Touring
Friday, July 08, 2016
Justine Curgenven discovers the richness of solo paddling around Vancouver Island, while facing challenges of rounding notable headlands like Cape Scott, strong headwinds and how to pee at sea.
Justine Curgenven
by Justine Curgenven

   Full Bio

Black choppy waves thudded chaotically onto my deck, the frigid water smashing up into my face. Heavy rain hammered down noisily and stung my face, while a headwind blew the cold into my bones. The small island I was hoping to camp on was a few miles away, but had disappeared into a black haze. Darkness would soon follow. Ahead of me was a long rocky carry with the kayak from the low water mark, and I was already shivering. Why then was I laughing wildly into the elements, my Cheshire cat grin plastered with rain, my sodden hair hanging limp around my rosy cheeks, my tired body only just warm enough after 10 hours of paddling? It was day 5 of my circumnavigation of Vancouver Island and I felt truly alive. Wonderfully, happily vibrant and alive. I felt only joy at being immersed in nature, shrouded in a private wet and wild bubble. I had wondered how I would deal with challenges by myself, with no-one to help me, to delegate to or to blame. I surprised myself by my almost unwavering positivity – perhaps when there is no-one to moan to, the only sensible option is to get on with it?

Justine Curgenven - Orcas Island WA
Justine Curgenven - Orcas Island WA

I set out from Orcas Island WA on a warm, sunny, calm day at the end of April. The current helped me across the International border to the Gulf Islands. Stopping at a small marina, I phoned Canadian customs, gave my passport details, and assured them I had no drugs, weapons or vegetables in my kayak. A gentle push from the wind and current combined with first day excitement, helped me cover 60 km to Wallace Island. This was pleasingly more than the 35 km/day required to finish in the 32 days available to me.

Eddy Hopping
Eddy Hopping

Every day was different around Vancouver Island. Up the East Coast, I often had a view on both sides as I threaded up through islands, admiring everything from small rocky outcrops to magnificent snow-capped mountains. I enjoyed jumping on conveyor belts of tidal current to accelerate my progress up the middle of channels, watching the large scale change in scenery as another mountain appeared around the corner or the clouds changed from wispy threads to puffy cotton wool pads. When the current opposed me, I loved dancing along the rocky shoreline, maneuvering my kayak inches from the steep granite outcrops in the eddies. Admiring the coarse crystals, bright red anemones and hardy lichens, and sniffing the musty aroma of the many trees whose roots had found weaknesses in the rock.

Following the seas on the West Coast
Following the seas on the West Coast

I didn’t feel alone. Eagles made their piercing calls from the air, while the evocative pining sound of the loon never failed to pull at my heartstrings. Seals slid into the water as I passed, and quietly popped up behind me. Otters seemed able to detect me coming from at least 100 meters away, no matter how quiet I was. They would bob their heads up like Meer cats, looking for several seconds at this strange object coming towards them, before they disappeared into the depths. I never tired of seeing them carrying babies on their bellies, wrapped up in kelp, or in rafts with dozens of others. Grey and Humpback whales were frequent companions, passing by with a pffff and a beautiful cloud of sparkling breath lingering in the air for several seconds before fading away to nothing. On the North Coast, 5 Orca cruised by the beach I was camped on, purposefully heading towards the horizon. One magnificent male with a steely black fin that cut the water like a dagger. On the East Coast, dozens of sea lions lazed around on the surface, snoozing with their friends in the sun. Sometimes I’d slip by unnoticed, on other occasions they’d wake up with a noisy splash, followed by an even louder display of snorts and grunts. On the exposed West Coast, their long craning necks often pierced the turbulent water beside me as I was concentrating on weaving though a boomer field. The more critical my route choice was, the noisier and closer the excitable bobbing seemed to be.

Justine Curgenven - West Coastline
Justine Curgenven - West Coastline

I paddled for 3 weeks without taking a day off. This wasn’t through design. Headwinds slowed me down along most of Johnston Strait, but they were never so bad that I couldn’t paddle. The forecast always promised a change for the worse, so I thought I better make progress while I could. Rounding Cape Scott was one of my rougher days, with 8 foot breaking waves slamming around my kayak at Cape Sutil. Off the notorious headland itself, the biggest challenge was a 5 foot swell exploding onto the many offshore rocks with an intimidating crash. The current had recently turned against me, so I was trying to stay as close to shore as possible while avoiding the boomers. A 15 knot wind opposed the 1 knot current, but conditions were manageable, with much smaller waves than at Cape Sutil. It was a matter of keeping cool and choosing a safe passage. I easily passed through 2 small tidal races, with breaking waves lapping over my deck. Still, I was very glad when I entered the safety of the next bay.

Ship traffic - Johnstone Strait
Ship traffic - Johnstone Strait

I celebrated by successfully completing my first solo wee at sea. I managed to put a small glass jar through my pee zip and fill it. The only issue was that I usually filled that jar two and a half times so I had to be very careful about making sure I stopped the flow at the right times!

First solo
First solo

Most days were well within my comfort zone, with beautiful scenery and plentiful wildlife to keep me entertained and smiling. I was lucky that the swell was rarely above 1.5 meters. I tried to do what I felt like every day, whether that was paddle fast with the current, or meander all the way around a bay, landing on beaches to search for glass fishing floats, or have a wash and swim in a waterfall pool. I talked to myself, I talked to otters and eagles and headlands. I laughed out loud. I’m not sure whether I needed to talk, or needed to be heard.

Hotspring Cove
Hotspring Cove

I only felt lonely among people. In the wilderness, my expectations were of finding my own happiness from within and my surroundings, whereas in a town I craved a meaningful human interaction and felt sad if none materialized. But mostly the people I met were wonderful, kind souls who laughed with me, fed me, put me up and shared stories. Carole cooked me prawns and squash in a remote cabin, Dan regaled me with stories of bears, cougars and near death experiences, and Gina whisked me from a beach to her house to BBQ fresh oysters.

Packing at Hidden Cove
Packing at Hidden Cove

A challenging day was the 45 km from Vargas Island to Ucluelet. A 3-4 meter swell hit my right side while a 25 knot wind pushed me along in the right direction. I mostly stayed far out to sea, but around headlands and boulder fields all my senses were on high alert. Making contact with one of those rocks with this much energy around would be a very bad thing. I paddled inside the line of rocks when it felt safe to do so, as I like being in that zone where the energy is diluted. My heart was in my mouth getting there, as the waves increased in size over the shallower water. Even though I had been watching my route for 20 minutes, making sure it was clear, I was still afraid that a rogue wave would appear and tons of water would topple over and hit me like a brick wall.

I was nervous about paddling by myself. Would I get bored or lonely? Would I manage to get out of bed? Would a bear eat me? Would I be over confident and get myself into trouble? There are so many reasons why I could have backed out and not done it, but I am so happy that I went ahead. I am a richer, more balanced person now. It’s great to know I can survive alone and enjoy my own company. I can achieve goals and be happy doing it. The trip also reinforced the feeling that I am never more content than when I’m immersed in nature, whether it’s sun warming my limbs or rain drumming on my cheeks. There is a simple, pure joy that comes when sitting on my very own beach at the end of a long, satisfying paddle, eating my dinner while watching the sunset and listening to the sea crashing onto the beach.

Leaving Hidden Cove
Leaving Hidden Cove

I love good company on a trip. I enjoy sharing the physical and mental challenges, and having someone to laugh, talk and share special moments with. My next trip will probably not be solo, but I will keep seeking out some time alone in the future.

I paddled a Valley Nordkapp sea kayak and Mitchell Blades bombora paddle. On the water I wore a Kokatat Gore-Tex Merdian dry suit with a drop seat and a front relief zipper, a MsFit Tour PFD, WoolCore insulation, and Keen Gorgeous boots on my feet. It’s the first time I wore these shoes and I loved them as they were lightweight and comfortable while being supportive with a good sole. I had Kokatat hand covers if it was sunny, and Snapdragon pogies for cold days.

I used a fabulous Hilleberg Allak tent. It’s a 2 person tent so was a bit overkill, but I decided it would be nice to have extra space if I had many weather-bound days, plus there was a bit more space between me and any bears or cougars that decided to investigate! Not that I had any visitors, or any weather-bound days in the tent! The tent was super easy to erect and I loved the free-standing nature of it. I slept in comfort on an Exped DownMat 7. I cooked on an Optimus Nova+ stove with a Terra HE pan set, which I love due to it’s neoprene cover. I start cooking my pasta or rice, then put it in the neoprene cover to continue cooking while I cook my vegetables and sauce. This feature and the heat exchange on the bottom of one pan meant that I used less than 1.5 liters of fuel for the entire trip. Admittedly I cooked on fires a few times, and was fed by others on occasions, but I was still very impressed with how little fuel I used.

Big thanks to Karel Vissel who sent me daily weather forecasts to help keep me safe, and to Iridium for lending me the satellite phone which also allowed me to send daily updates. Karel has sent me forecasts many times in the past but it somehow felt more key this time as I was by myself, and sometimes Karel was the only person I communicated with on a particular day.


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