First Ocean Kayak Trip

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Typical Gulf Island cliff scenery.

I’m fortunate to live close to Kalamalka Lake – a gorgeous marl lake – which takes on a stunning turquoise hue during the summer months. It is 16 km long and surrounded by mountains clad in ponderosa pine. It is located a few kilometers south of the City of Vernon in the BC Okanagan. My girlfriend Karen and I keep our kayaks on a light utility trailer that we hitch to her Jeep for the five-minute trip to the nearest boat launch. Being so close we can paddle often during the summer months. The Okanagan summers are hot and dry with temperatures peaking in the high 30s Celsius so the water is warm and great for practicing wet exits and solo and assisted re-entries.

Despite having this piece of paradise in our back yards, the lure of the open ocean is always there. I have been missing it badly since selling Rainbird in 2014. The West Coast (Vancouver) is a six hour drive away. The coast is normally at least a refreshing 10 Celsius cooler. This summer Karen and I decided we were ready for our first ocean trip and a great opportunity to see how our boats perform when loaded up. Karen has a carbon fiber Necky Eliza – a serious touring kayak designed with women in mind. It measures 15.5’ overall with a 21.5” beam and has a retractable skeg. Last year she made a solo overnight camping trip, paddling 27km down Okanagan Lake in plus 30 Celsius heat, before making a 15km crossing back to Vernon the following morning. I admired her greatly for such a feat of endurance but I’m not a lover of heat and had no desire to repeat it!

We put the kayaks on the roof of her Jeep for the long drive and short ferry ride to the BC Gulf Islands. Our destination was Montague Harbour on Galiano Island. It’s a great launching point for novice ocean paddlers, with plenty of trip options in sheltered water. There are many islands to visit, with relatively short crossings, and although tidal currents can almost reach double digits in places these areas can be avoided or navigated at slack water. The other main hazards come from the big ferries that cross from Vancouver to Vancouver Island and commercial and recreational traffic that can be heavy in the summer months. The islands are blessed with a dry microclimate and don’t get much fog, especially during the summer.

We departed early afternoon on a warm, cloudless July day. This was the first time I had loaded up the Storm LT. I had taken care to pack heavy items as low down and close to the cockpit as possible. This made her feel reassuringly stable. We were planning on 2 or 3 days paddling but Wallace Island, our first destination, has no drinking water so we were carrying several days supply. I had a couple of gallon jugs in my boat and Karen had a 5 litre bladder and some bottles. It was an easy 14km paddle and we averaged 4.5km/hr with a little help from a flood tide. The Gulf Islands are formed from soft sandstones that erode in weird and wonderful ways making for a fascinating trip off Galiano’s cliffs.

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All the gear – and there was a little room to spare!

After a couple of brief stops we reached Wallace Island in the late afternoon. We hauled our kayaks and gear across a rocky bay and into a small, grassy meadow where we set up camp. There were 3 or 4 other tents and several boats moored in nearby Conover Cove. We were soon visited by inquisitive raccoons and deer and I realised we would be wise to use the metal food storage lockers available on the site. The deer munched their way around the campsite during the night, crashing through the trees and in my dreams they morphed into bears, making for an uneasy and restless night! We had planned to venture further north before heading back to Montague Harbour but the forecast wasn’t encouraging, with strong winds expected in the days ahead. The possibility of being marooned on a small island for several days, with winds of more than 15 knots, wasn’t appealing. We lacked the knowledge and experience to be out there in those conditions so we decided to head back.

The return trip was uneventful but hot and by the time we dragged our boats onto the beach in Montague Harbour we were tired and in need of a refreshing shower and a meal. Like most of the campsites in the Gulf Islands, the only facilities are pit toilets and a few taps strictly for drinking water. These islands are very dry and water is in very short supply. So we took the Jeep to Sturdies Bay and made use of the Island’s only public shower located in the launderette and ate out at one of the Island’s few restaurants.

Over dinner, Karen summed up the novel ocean kayaking experience as, “Incredibly satisfying, physically demanding and it put a smile on my face all the time! I just love how peaceful it is.” I couldn’t agree more. Kayaking is a much more intimate experience than sailing but it is physically more demanding not only because of the paddling but all the work of packing and launching and pitching tents and carrying water. It has a beautiful simplicity and one cannot escape this fact when crawling around troublesome diesel engines in dirty bilges or scraping off acres of barnacles under a 30’ hull!

I can only describe the Gulf Islands as sublime. Visitors are rewarded with rich wild life including frequent orca and dolphin sightings, seals, sea lions, otters and, of course, bald eagles. The islands have a great sense of community and operate at a pace dictated by the vagaries of wind, tide and ferry schedules. They are the perfect antidote to the frantic hubbub of Greater Vancouver.

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Karen pauses beneath some fascinating cliff erosion on the east side of Galiano Island.

The wind was not quite as strong as forecast but it did give us an opportunity to get out for day trips. We soon learnt how physically and mentally challenging wind and tide can be. At one point, whilst circumnavigating a small island, we were paddling like crazy, hugging a rugged, inhospitable shoreline against a strong breeze and an adverse current, perhaps making no more than 1.5 km/hr, and knowing that we really couldn’t turn around and be sucked through the tidal overfalls that we had just left behind. Somehow we found the energy to push ahead at this pace for nearly an hour before escaping onto a sandy beach protected by rocks for a well-earned break.

The Storm LT and the Eliza handled the conditions very well but the following day conditions became marginal for us while experiencing 15-20 knot gusts on sheltered water. It became obvious that the Storm’s rudder won out over the Eliza’s skeg. Karen is a strong and experienced paddler but she couldn’t stop the Eliza from lee cocking. This is a very unsafe condition and she is determined to get out on the lake on a windy day to figure out how to tame it. A kayak should have slight tendency to weather cock into a strong wind but this tendency is sensitive to boat trim, deck gear and skeg position.

Overall, I am very happy with the Storm LT. I have invested 400 hours in her construction and I can say it was time well spent!

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Sunset from Montague Harbour, Galiano Island.

 

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