“Hey, Joe!” I shouted.
Joe looked my way, then dropped from view.
On the North Coast, my trips run three weeks at least, and they’re steeped in those important, rusty Zen imperatives: Haul driftwood, make shelter. Ride swell, paddle water. Catch fish, build fire. That’s what it’s all about.
“What?” shouted Joe as he popped back into sight. We were half way into a five-mile crossing between the tip of the Acous Peninsula and the base of the Brooks Peninsula along the northern coast of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, a spot where the seas like to get lumpy. The eight-foot swell rolled at us pretty much abeam. Like a carousel, I’d go up and Joe would go down. Swell was an old friend of mine, but Joe was a first-time caller.
I tapped the radio on my chest.
“No way!” he yelled, and kept on paddling. “This stuff’s a bastard. Don’t want to stop.”
Then Joe dropped from sight again.
I pressed the talk button. “It’s cool,” I told him. “It’ll go right under you. Just keep those hips loose.”
Finally, Joe cued his radio. “Alright.”
I angled his way, glad to see he was gliding, holding his paddle like a tightrope walker’s pole. As I got closer, I could see he was smiling.
“Dude,” he shouted in those righteous tones that pipe up whenever God has a toe in his ass. “You’re right, it rocks!”
He waggled his hips for me. “Right friggin’ under the boat. Bastards look like they want to cream me!”
“Swell rolls and shit floats,” I told him. “If it gets real steep and you’re worried it might break, just stick your paddle into it and brace yourself.”
“But it won’t break here,” I assured him. “It just rolls ashore.”
“And if you ever do go over—and I haven’t in 15 years of paddling out here—but if you do, just flip your kayak over and jump back on. Just like we practiced.”
Backspace six months.
I was starting to feel the pull.
I have perhaps two active soul rhythms: one to God, or whatever you call the force that runs the show, and the other to water—salt water, in particular. And just as I’ve maintained a daily meditation practice for the last 30-odd years, I visit the coastal wilds with similar regularity. Now, it was time once again to leave civilized life behind and migrate north, following that rhythmic impulse to make a wilderness seacoast pilgrimage—a 15-year tradition.
It was dark of winter where I live in Washington’s San Juan Islands, but not too early to make plans. A few days later, and totally out of the blue, a buddy from Montana called up. Joe had been everywhere with me but the BC coast. He wanted to know what adventures I had on the books for the season. I told him that the big one was a coastal trek in BC. He was interested—never mind that he’d never been in a kayak before. I explained the drill—how immeasurably cool the place was, the type of boats we’d use, and roughly how I expected the trip to play out, for better or worse.
Joe was in.
“Man, I am so ready for an adventure,” he gushed. “You have no idea!”
That spring, Joe and I collaborated on an itinerary. He didn’t have a clue what he was getting into, other than probably the biggest adventure of his life. He had to trust me not to get him killed, basically, but I was good with that.
While Joe had been doing the Montana thing, I’d been spending a lot of time on the North Coast. Although I live in the San Juans, a paddling destination in its own right, I paddle almost exclusively in BC in high-end, big water, sit-on-top boats. Once my wife turned me onto it, I just couldn’t get enough.
I’d been on an epic honeymoon with BC paddling ever since. In true lover mode I went naked the first five years on all the big expeditions, all the better to soak it up; another mind or soul on the scene would have only gotten in the way. And I took my own sweet time about it, especially the quarter-year I spent circling Vancouver, an experience I seriously dug.
Sometimes we get scared out there for a good reason, but sometimes the spook’s just in our heads.
To put the big island in perspective, and acting on the logic of a SoCal transplant (who thinks the further north he goes the better it gets), I figured that if Vancouver was the sauce, then it must be chutney in Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte islands) and red molé in Southeast Alaska. Not so, I discovered. I circled Chichagof Island and toured the entire west side of Haida Gwaii. Known as a paddling Mecca, those waters were too far north for this sun-loving paddler. Rather than battle undependable weather, griz, bugs and a myriad of boats, I’d be content spending the next decade exploring the northwestern tip of Vancouver in depth.
Whether paddling the North Coast or running the high desert rivers of Idaho and Oregon—another passion, another story—I’ve always applied the same holistic MO. In roadless, remote stretches of western canyons, my buddies and I make the most of plentiful fish and partridge. Depending on the trip, we’ll bring photo equipment, shotguns, fly rods, Dutch ovens, loads of food, and even mountain bikes. It’s never about the boat, but about the whole, wild, unruly experience. On the North Coast, my trips run three weeks at least, and they’re steeped in those important, rusty Zen imperatives: Haul driftwood, make shelter. Ride swell, paddle water. Catch fish, build fire. That’s what it’s all about.
Making the crossing that day, I was glad to see Joe getting more comfortable in the saddle. We jigged up some fish for dinner just off the reef in front of a long, empty sand beach at the base of the Brooks, then paddled around the reef into a small bay with water—sweet Mama!—the color of a Tahitian lagoon, entering through small surf at the mouth of a freshwater creek. Speaking of rhythms, my ass was ready for anything but sitting after a long day on the water! We roughed out a quick camp, pitched our tents and stashed our ling fillets in a big blue barrel-cum-refrigerator in the creek along with our beers, carrots, cabbage and apples, and then hauled water to load up our gravity feed filtration setup. Hell, we were good.
We’d scored on the weather too, at least for the moment. I cracked open a couple of cans of O’Keefes malt liquor (most punch in a can up there) and rummaged in the front hatch of my 20’ boat, pulling out a couple of discs. That’s right, golf discs. If you’ve ever seriously thrown plastic, you can appreciate how utterly cool it was to toss long, gliding throws to colorful beach flotsam, running up and down the beach and diving into the surf to cool off. We set up an awe-inspiring course along our quarter-mile beach and cued up our A games. We felt like we were playing ultimate hooky.
Fresh ocean air whooshed under a broad cerulean sky with whitecaps on the bay and hot northern sun pouring down. Along the beach we found an effigy of a guy who’d camped there before us. From reading the note hanging around his neck, (a limerick-like poem that seemed suspect in the respect department) he had planned a day trip out around the tip of the Brooks and back. It didn’t work out. He got caught in a gale. They never found the guy or his boat.
At night the bears and wolves would visit our camp. In the morning we would study the tracks passing through the kitchen and alongside the tents. No one eaten, no food missing, good again. We kept up a daily rhythm of paddling out in the bay to fish, then surfing back to shore. Nearly a week passed before we felt the urge to move. A storm was expected later in the week. I’d taught Joe the basics of handling his boat and we were ready to round the Brooks, also known as Cape Cook. Now, conventional wisdom might look askance at a beginner attempting to round Cape Cook. And I’d have to agree, if he’s paddling a typical sit-inside sea kayak. But with our straightforward SoT boats and my surfer’s perspective, I was confident we’d succeed.
Sometimes we get scared out there for a good reason, but sometimes the spook’s just in our heads, throwing a wrench in our natural rhythms. Once we can sort it out, we can respond to real threats and turn our baseless fears inside out.
Excitement is a coin. It has something scary on one side and a shit-eating grin on the other.
Read the rest of Rob’s story in “North Coast Rhythms: Part II,” coming April 27th.