Perfectly Swell

The two Nicks are smiling in the big rolling waves, known as swell. Wave-battered rocks and sheltered lagoons, a crashing tall tree and peaceful ancient rainforests, walls of rain and sun-drenched sweeping sandy beaches, shrill bald eagles and silent banana slugs. Just enough physical exertion, excitement, and engagement with nature to qualify as an adventure. When used as an adjective, “swell” is archaic, according to the Oxford dictionary. For our younger readers, swell means magnificent, superb, a lot of fun – just like our early-season guided kayaking expedition to the Broken Group Islands and Clayoquot Sound.

How deep is the water?

A sea kayak guide has to answer a lot of questions. “How deep is the water?” is the most frequently asked, according to Arron, our guide from Hello Nature Adventure Tours.

Arron, a sea star

Arron has the abundance of knowledge and the variety of skills required to lead our group through the range of sea conditions, terrains, and environments we encounter on this seven-day, 110-kilometre expedition. Arron knows why hemlocks have such small cones, how sea cucumbers reproduce, why a swaying bull kelp forest is the paddler’s friend, and how the first man and first woman of the Tseshaht people were created on Benson Island. He cheerfully helps us arthritic old folks squeeze into our kayaks, then graciously allows us to rest while escorting the young men for a workout in the high seas.

Joining us on this trip are two Nicks: our oldest grandson (left) and his friend and classmate, also named Nick. We are celebrating their June graduation from Queen’s University. Later this month the Nicks enter the world of work, our grandson heading to London, England and Nick2 to Ottawa. Congratulations, Nicks!

Chairs and other comforts

It is the Helinox chairs that lead us to Hello Nature Adventure Tours. It’s not that we need Helinox chairs — we own four of them — but seeing those chairs on the “equipment provided” list is an indication of the quality and style of this Ucluelet-based tour company.

Warming up to Helinox chairs

The Helinox cots and the bacon-wrapped scallops get rave reviews from the Nicks. The kayak paddles, shorter and lighter than industry standard, get a big thumbs up from Cathy. This is her first kayak trip where Tylenol is not required for tired arms. Thanks are owed to owner-manager Kevin, who makes this trip work as British Columbia begins to emerge from covid captivity.

Broken Group Islands

The water taxi Clayoquot Whaler transports us to Dodd Island, where we launch our kayaks for our trip through the Broken Group Islands, one of the three sections that make up Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (the Long Beach Unit and the West Coast Trail are the other two sections). Captain Norm returns to collect us from the same beach four days later.

“Virtually any canoeist or kayaker, regardless of skill level, can explore the Broken Group,” says the Foreword to Douglas Brunt’s 2006 book, the Broken Islands. More than one hundred little islands, short crossings, and sheltered waters have made the Broken Group a classic but crowded paddling destination, with tents packed cheek-by-jowl in the summer months. Because of covid, these are not ordinary times. We are the first group to enter the Broken Group this year, and we encounter no other kayaks during our four days here.

Turret is a long, skinny, centrally-located island with many old-growth tress, including one huge Sitka spruce at the southern end. We establish a base camp here and make day trips covering 66 kilometres and most of the park.

Jacques and Jarvis Islands contain a sheltered lagoon with well-preserved fish traps formed by rings of stones. On a falling tide, fish would become marooned in the stone trap.

The outer islands are exposed and wild. Want to steer in swell and practice squeezing between wave-battered rocks? The outer limits of the park are for you!

Clayoquot Sound

“I’d like to do some storm-watching,” says Nick1, and he gets the full sensory experience. Ferocious winds and giant waves are forecast for Friday, making it unsafe to begin our trip to South Clayoquot Sound. Saturday morning the winds are just manageable, but we launch from Tofino in a dreadful downpour. Walls of rain obscure Lone Cone and Catface, the mountains that usually dominate the landscape. No one whines about the rain; paddling is a water sport, after all.

Milties Bay and Catface Mt.

Aren’t we lucky? The rain lets up as we land on a broad sandy beach in Milties Bay, on the northeast tip of Vargas Island. We scramble to pitch our tents and erect tarps to create cooking and lounging shelters. Arron and the Nicks head back to the boats to learn new strokes and to practice paddling without the rudder. They round the rocky Morfee and Dunlap Islands, where they see porpoises and otters. Doug and Cathy stay in camp, watching dozens of jellyfish wash up on the beach.

Sunday’s destination is Secret Beach, on the north of Vargas Island. We encounter serious swell off the series of white sand beaches. These beaches are destinations for kayak surfing, but we avoid the surf as much as possible. We lack the technical skills for surfing, and we didn’t bring helmets. An unnamed, unmaintained trail leads from Secret Beach to the western side of Vargas, where Arron and the Nicks see some spouting gray whales. Those who don’t enjoy crouching and crawling should skip this bushwhacking trail.

A surf launch from Rassier Beach and a chance to experience whitecaps and current await us on our final day, as we weave, through back channels where possible, on our way to the now-sunny Tofino dock. Clayoquot Sound has commercial and recreational boat traffic, but somehow it feels less tame than the Broken Group. We are glad to have chosen two such contrasting destinations.

Discover Ucluelet and Tofino times

Ucluelet is our land base for this trip. Ucluelet is “hard to pronounce, harder to forget”, according to the tourism website. Our Ucluelet highlights: the Wild Pacific Trail and the elk burgers at Howler’s Family Restaurant.

The storm-day allows us time to tour Tofino and to stand in line at the Tacofino food truck. We walk the Tonquin Trail. The Nicks hike the extremely muddy trail to the site of a Royal Canadian Air Force Canso plane that crashed shortly after takeoff on February 12, 1945. The pilot and crew survived and were rescued, and the plane remains surprisingly intact.

Oh, joy! We are fully immunized now, and at last, the coronavirus crisis is winding down. It’s great to be able to travel again. Having young people along made this west coast adventure extra-special.


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