“I think we had better all stay together just here,” said one of our guides calmly, “There’s a cougar coming down to the tents.”
Cougars are rarely seen in the forests of British Columbia as they are basically shy creatures. They see but are not seen.
We had just arrived at our first kayak camp in the Inside Passage off British Columbia. We had done nothing more than offload all the gear we had brought with us for six days kayaking round the islands.
Finally our untrained eyes saw the cougar less than 15 metres away calmly peering over a log. For several long minutes it watched us watching it and then sauntered up the hill to the tent furthest from where we were and lay down just beside the door of the tent. It remain there for the next 10 minutes before sauntering off into the forest.
Our guides took the opportunity to tell us what to do if we encountered a bear or cougar. The advice basically consisted of…don’t run, make yourself look large and threatening and if attacked fight back.
I had come to British Columbia to kayak among the islands of the Inside Passage, particularly those of the Johnstone Strait where there is a large concentration orcas.
From Port McNeill we took a water taxi to the first camp. Purists prefer to kayak to the first camp but the distance means a day there and back uses up valuable kayaking time in the islands so our group elected to take a one hour boat trip to the first camp.
We had arrived at camp in plenty of time to set up the tents on the platforms, prepare lunch and still have time to spend a good afternoon on the water kayaking. By early afternoon we had the kayaks on the water. Our camp was in a sheltered bay off Swanson Passage. From the water all that was visible of the camp was the Blackfish Café, a euphemism for the shack that was the kitchen. The tents, composting toilet and shower were all hidden among the trees.
Our afternoon kayak tour took us around several of the larger islands through passages and around islets to the south of Crease Island where our camp was. We drifted on the current south of the island paddling only to keep our direction. The sun was out and if it was not for the type of trees we could have been paddling down a lazy stretch of an English river.
The tide turned and this meant more paddling but we had timed it so that we were heading south and round another island to pick up the tide as it flowed back to the camp. On the way, in the late afternoon sun, we encountered several bald eagles perched on branches watching for unwary fish near the surface.
Dinner that evening was fresh pacific salmon; the same diet the resident ocrcas and bald eagles feasted on.
We sat chatting late into the evening as our guides gave us an idea of what we were likely to see and, as always, played down the chances. Wildlife anywhere does not stick to human timetables and chance plays a large part in the quality and quantity of sightings. Finally with thoughts of cougars still fresh in our minds we retired to our tents.
After a hearty breakfast of eggs, beans, hash browns and toast followed by bagels it was time to load up the kayaks for a days paddling. Water, food, first aid and other group supplies were distributed between the group.
We were paddling double and single kayaks giving a variety of combinations. As everyone had previous kayaking experience it mattered little which kayaks we were in. All equipment including spray decks, jackets, buoyancy aids and dry bags were supplied which makes it easy when flying in with limited baggage allowance.
Our first full day of kayaking started later than I had anticipated. This was to catch the tide running in the most advantageous direction for our intended route. The tides in Johnstone Strait and the passages around the islands can reach quite a few knots as they funnel down through Charlotte Sound to the north or from Georgia sound to the south of the archipelago. Paddling conditions can be tough at best and extremely hazardous at worst.
Our route took us along the south-west shore of Swanson Island, the one just across the passage from our camp. The water was clear and it was possible when close into shore to see marine life clinging to the vertical rocks that plummeted straight down for several hundred metres.
Our encounters with killer wildlife continued. High in the trees we saw bald eagles perched; their sharp eyes watching for prey. From its name you would expect to see an eagle with a featherless head rather like a vulture. However, bald is actually an old English word for white. The bald eagle’s head is stunningly white and one of its most distinguishing mark.
One of these eagles swooped down at the kayak in front of mine. Right in front of their bow it hit the water with a pair of wicked looking bright yellow talons before flapping its wings and lifting off before it had time to wet a single feather. Missed! The salmon beneath the surface lived to swim another day – unless of course the seals, orcas, dolphins or porpoises caught up with it.
As we turned north around the end of Swanson Island we could see a cluster of islands, pale in colour that were little more than a group of very large boulders piled up in the middle the sound. Named white Cliff Islets these were to be our next destination and playground. They were a lot further than they looked and we learnt that distances can be deceptive.
On our paddle across from Swanson Island we were kept company with a number of harbour seals. They would pop up and eye us curiously wondering what strange brightly coloured creature had invaded their waters. They seemed as interested in us as we were in them but they kept a cautious distance from us.
The islets gave us the opportunity to stretch our legs and explore among the boulders. A couple of stunted trees and tough grass were all the vegetation on the islets. Only the birds seemed to inhabit them and the occasional visiting human.
We turned and headed back to the other end of Swanson Island skirting as we did Surge Island. As its name suggests the can be a strong tidal surge here. Having timed our journey correctly we were able to make use of the tide flowing in the direction of travel. Back among the larger islands of the archipelago we found a beach and stopped for a late lunch.
Stashed away in the kayaks our guides had stored a scrumptious lunch. The sun, water lapping on the rocks, the stunning scenery and the satisfaction of a wonderful lunch combined to tempt us to stay until one of the guides reminded us that staying too long would mean paddling against a very strong tide through the narrow Swanson Passage. He also mentioned that a short cut was only passable at high tide even for kayaks.
On our way back we had to cross Blackfish Sound. The tide was still running strongly in the wrong direction, north. Kelp beds are notoriously difficult to kayak through; the fronds grab at paddles and kayaks so making headway is difficult. They are best avoided; except now. We deliberately paddled into the mass of floating stalks and fronds. Our kayaks were held in place against the fast flowing tide.
We would wait, our guides explained, until the tide turned and we could paddle across the sound while the tide was slack. As the tide began to slow we left the kelp bed and head across the Blackfish Sound.
Blackfish is the name the local First Nation tribes give to the orca. I wondered whether today we would be lucky. Halfway across I looked northward and spotted what looked like a conning tower of a small submarine heading directly towards us.
It was the enormous two metre fin of an alpha male. To be continued…
This is the first of three posts on my sea kayaking experiences in the Johnstone Strait between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland. You can subscribe to be kept up to date with the content of this site using the subscribe box in the sidebar or you can “like” the Travel Unpacked Facebook page to be kept informed of all new content on this site
For multi-day kayak tours whale-watching try Sea Kayak Adventures