Skookumchuck (meaning “strong water’) Narrows, in BC Canada, has become a premier location not just for play boating in whitewater kayaks, but now also for sea kayaks. Over the years I have had a lot of fun surfing all manner of craft on the wave that forms in the narrows just outside Egmont BC on the strong summer flood tides. However I have started enjoying, more and more, surfing the wave at bigger flows with my sea kayak.
The Skookumchuck wave (AKA Skooks) is a pressure wave that forms, for up to five hours twice a day, over a rock shelf in a narrow inlet, and only on the flood tidal exchange when the current gets above 8 nautical miles an hour. Generally sea kayakers chase the clean green glass wave that forms at lower flows below 11 knots of current, and sometimes push it to 13 knots. At these higher flows it is often considered more suited to shorter whitewater play boats as the wave turns into a raging retentive foam pile for a couple of hours in the cycle, perfect for dynamic moves and aerials. This being said a number of us have started riding our sea kayaks on the foam pile and have been discovering a whole new world of controlled and super dynamic high octane sea kayak surfing.
A number of years ago a member of “The Hurricane Riders” (a group of extreme sea kayakers) chased Skooks at 16.2 or so knots, and the stories and footage told a tale of hard earned thrills, big swims and short punishing rides; a tale of warning that kept many a sea kayaker away from anything near these flows, until now. For years I have always wanted to go see the big flows at Skooks and try to surf it in a sea kayak. The newer sea kayak designs now allowed for a lot more dynamic surfing and on much bigger features. Finally this last summer there was the opportunity to not only surf Skooks at 16 knots, but at the highest recorded flow in the last three years of 17.4 knots - which is about 32 kms/hour, or 15 miles/hour. I WAS IN!!
I met up with Mike Gill and Spencer Jones in North Vancouver where we loaded our Sterling Sea Kayaks on the roof and headed for the ferry. Skooks is located on the mainland north of Vancouver, though due to large fiords it is necessary to catch a short ferry to access the area. The day was stunning, clear skies and warm sun beaming down. After disembarking the ferry and driving almost an hour to Egmont, we loaded our kayaks up at the government dock and paddled into the rock shelf at Skooks.
On arrival we found Ben Marr and his entourage of whitewater kayak buddies there to surf the monster. The channel was dead flat and still as we climbed out onto the rocks and set up our day camp. The current started to flow, and over the next 3 hours changed dramatically several times on its journey to peak flow. It all begins with a little glassy hump of water that quickly becomes a wave you can surf with a sea kayak, soon it becomes deeper and steeper, and on this particular day it became a surging roaring pile of white water much sooner than usual, and it still had an hour and a half until peak flow. Of course during this whole cycle we had been surfing the wave and its numerous transitions, though now it was predominantly Ben’s wave with his carbon play boat. This still didn’t stop us getting out there and ripping some top turns off the foam piles in the sea kayaks, and at one instance I managed to bury the bow and pull off a mid-air roll, land it and surf back on to the wave. I had been trying to pull that move off in a sea kayak for a while now, and I was so surprised it finally worked I buried the nose again, capsized and flushed off the wave.
Gradually something totally new to my eyes happened; the foam started to green out again as the depth and speed of the water increased. An even bigger green wave formed, almost mutated in its immensity; there were surges and ripples on its face, almost suggesting it was a convulsing beast trying to rise from the depths. The sensation of punching out through the eddy fence and riding this “bull” was breathtaking and exhilarating. Ben Marr had switched from his whitewater kayak to a fiberglass surf kayak and was getting beautiful big carving rides, similar yet different to the intense long board like rides we were getting in our sea kayaks. Then another change began; the eddy line to enter the wave from the side became a pulsing surging raging foaming pit of an eddy fence that blocked all but the most determined and precise drives out of the eddy onto the wave.
After numerous beatings on the eddy line, everyone but Ben Marr and myself had given up. Ben’s surf kayak drove over and soared out onto the wave, yet the sea kayaks longer noses were more than willing to catch and throw you violently sideways and then upside down, barely having left the eddy. I would be damned if I was not going to surf the most spectacular green glassy megalithic beauty of a wave that now loomed up out of the depths. Watching Ben ride the lighting that was this wave, and make it look so good, I yearned to be on it. Ben finally exited the wave with style and it was again my turn to try. I lined up the wall of water that was the eddy line, doing my damnedest amongst the swirls in the eddy to keep on course. I hit the surging 2 foot foam wall, buried my blade on my right side and drove myself and the kayak, up and over the wall and onto the glassy quicksilver like water waiting for me there. I kept the boat straight and instantly it raced forward and across the face, dropping me deep into the pit.
Everything was moving so fast and it was hard to remember to breath and relax as my kayak bounced and surged on a high speed wave face that stood still. The dichotomy of the speed of water and the frozen motion of surrounding landscape is often intoxicating at Skooks. The ability to be ripping across a glass clear wave while looking down and watching a motionless starfish clinging to the rocks below as you zigzag above it for minutes, is wonderfully abstract and bizarre, but at this speed and size of wave it was mind blowing. It was like the world around stood still as my little world exploded with speed and sound. The feeling of the boat bouncing almost airborne brought a surge of adrenaline. I surfed up to the crest of the wave and then, driving back down the face, carved a bottom turn back across the face with an aggressive tilt of the kayak; it was so addictive. Once my pulse calmed and I caught my breath, I found my comfort and thought about how hard it was to have got on this monster; I was in no rush to get off. I indulged, dipped, dived, carved and soared across the wave face. I felt the exhilaration of big wave surfing to some extent, that feeling that big wave surfers must feel, though they must feel it to an even higher level. It was intense, it was on the edge of what I knew was safe and possible, and I loved it. Eventually I felt I should come off while I still had the energy to choose when that would be. Back in the eddy Mike yelled out to me “that was the best 12 minute surf I have ever seen”. I couldn’t believe it had been that long, I didn’t want it to end. I managed to get one shorter surf before the wave again changed and began its 3 hour wind down to a smaller wave, foam pile and then a little ripple, all while the sun set to a dark red then eventually we were all swallowed in darkness.
Paddling back to our put-in upon dead calm sea’s with the stars coming out in the darkness over our heads, I couldn’t help but think how amazing and intense it was to surf this place at such a large flow. This had been a day for the history books of my memory for sure. I hoped to get a chance to surf such flows again one day, and worried I may never be satisfied surfing at Skooks again, knowing it may be another 3 years until it flows that high again.