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Broughton Beach Memoirs

For our 25th anniversary two years ago, Shonna and I had planned a week of glamping and kayaking on Vancouver Island.

But not long ago, a friend aptly referred to 2020 as the ‘year of cancelled plans.’

Spirit of the West Adventures has an incredible reputation, and we had no doubt they’d sell out once people began travelling again. So, In July of 2021, we booked for 2022. With the worldwide shortage of vehicles, we even booked our rental car and flights nine months in advance.

We’re not road trip people. Spending four days driving to and from Vancouver Island in the middle of summer is not our idea of a vacation. That’s why we’ve taken several trips to the Island together without ever having to endure the ferry.

Right up until the day we left, I worried about the well-publicized flight delays, cancellations, airport issues, and rental car problems. I didn’t truly relax until I sat in the Comox airport parking lot.

After quick stops for lunch, groceries, and the liquor store, we hit the highway for an easy three-hour drive to the north Island.

While eating dinner on the deck of a bar and grill in Port McNeill, near our comfortable room at the Dalewood Inn, I texted my buddy, Darrel. His aunt used to teach here, and I knew he’d visited as a kid. He joked, “Don’t forget to check out the Burl!”

Say, what now?

Darrel is fascinated with oversized roadside attractions and shared that the world’s largest burl was somewhere in Port McNeill.

Shonna said we had to find it to send him a photo. It was only a block from where we sat. Gotta love Google Maps.
I captioned this with “BEST VACATION EVER!”

The following morning, we drove the ten minutes to Alder Bay Marina, met the group, and loaded our luggage on the water taxi for our ride to the Spirit of the West base camp.

We arrived on Swanson Island to a well-oiled machine. Returning guests waited on the beach to unload our gear and supplies, after which we loaded theirs. As our boat became their boat, their camp became ours. Following a guest and guide introduction, we checked into our luxurious tents and met in the dining area for a freshly prepared lunch. That afternoon, we were on the water.

For the next five days and four nights, we were now a community of ten guests, two kayaking guides, a camp staff member, and our chef.

On a trip like this, everyone must haul kayaks, load and unload supplies and gear, and follow instructions. The other guests were younger and older than we were, with more and less kayak experience. All were genuinely nice people and a pleasure to hang out with for a week. We couldn’t have asked for a better group.

We were required to wear masks on the water taxi and the crew wore them while preparing and serving food, but the rest of the time, in this outdoor environment, we were able to forget about COVID for awhile.
THE CREW

P.J. is an easy-going pro with eight seasons under his belt. A natural leader, this guy loves his job and sharing his knowledge. Even when our easily distracted (WHALE!) wide-eyed group was only half-listening to what he was trying to tell us; he patiently got us back on track with his great sense of humour.

In addition to her skills as a kayaking guide and guest wrangler, Rebecca is an unapologetic whale nerd. She gave a talk about whales one evening, and her enthusiasm was infectious

Kenna was a jill-of-all-trades on this trip. Usually she’s in the Spirit of the West office, but she was helpful in the kitchen, general duties around camp, upbeat and friendly.

Josh is a wonder in a camp kitchen. He’s a genial, funny guy and incredibly modest about his exceptional culinary skills. Though after our tsunami of compliments every time he put food in front of us, his ego might need some deflating.

THE FOOD

We started each day with delicious coffee and a big breakfast. Lunch went with us in the kayaks, served on whatever scenic rocky beach we landed on. Appetizers waited for us on our return to camp before delicious meals each evening, served with red and white wine.

We’d been encouraged to bring additional refreshments, and most did. Before our trip, I had rigged a collapsible cooler bag with an aluminum bubble wrap insulation lining. It worked so well that I still had ice for rum and coke on the third night and our beer stayed cold the whole trip.

The meals were better than a lot of restaurant fare I’ve had; fresh, tasty and abundant. For dessert one night, Josh warned us that he had never made lemon meringue pie before. It was one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
THE CAMP

Surrounded by water on three sides, this place is stunning. A wooden staircase leads from the kayak beach up to a network of boardwalks and paths to accommodation tents and support structures.

Each trapper-style tent sits on a wooden platform beneath a corrugated roof. Furnished with comfortable beds, duvets, towels, luggage racks, solar-charged electric lamps, and personal headlamps, all had a view of the ocean.

Every tent has a washing area, compost toilet, and a metal bear-bin style cabinet to ensure that toiletries don’t attract wildlife. While we didn’t see any this trip, there are plenty of black bears in this part of the world, but with plenty of food from the sea and careful camp cleanliness, they’re not a problem.

A natural stream feeds two propane showers. We never had to wait to use them, and there was always hot water.

Communal areas include a large kitchen with a covered dining area, a lounge with comfortable couches, a gas fireplace, and a woodfired hot tub.

We were not roughing it.
KAYAKING

Shonna and I have a bit of kayaking experience. We had one day in Tofino years ago, plus four days with Spirit of the West in 2019. We enjoyed our time on the water, but neither of us has ‘the bug.’ So, we won’t be buying sea kayaks or taking a trip like this every year. But what drew us to this experience was the location and a leisurely means of touring the islands, allowing us to be out in the fresh air and physically active.
Our exceptional guides taught us about the landscape, currents, tides, wildlife, and the indigenous people who first inhabited the area. Each day, a different route would introduce us to new experiences.
Vancouver Island is a coastal temperate rainforest. While we prepared for rain and even expected it, we didn’t have any on our whole trip. Every morning we were socked in with fog until after noon, and I loved it. Kayaking in calm foggy waters is a spiritual experience, the forest and rocks drifting in and out beside us as we crept into little coves and inlets.
It was quiet, often punctuated only by the sound of humpback whales surfacing nearby.

On our final afternoon, a weather system arrived earlier than forecast (surprise, surprise), and we had to cross Parson bay with 8-knot winds. It was a workout, each of us paddling hard to stay with the group to get from one sheltered beach to another. We endured wind and choppy waters all the way back but arrived on our home beach with enthusiasm. It felt like a team effort.
WILDLIFE

From the dining area one late afternoon, we saw a large orca in Blackfish Sound headed our way. Initially thought to be alone, it soon became apparent there was a pod of them close behind. They never got near the camp, but it was a thrill, especially since they stayed awhile.
Other critters included bald eagles, dolphins, seals, sea lions and plenty of seagulls.
On our last morning, the tide was out as far as we’d yet seen. Pretty soon, the whole group wandered around the shore, checking out crabs, urchins, and other tidal life, calling out the best finds so everyone could share in the wonder.

But the highlight of the whole trip was the humpback whales. I could never have predicted so many in one spot. Easily identified by their signature blow of vapour when they exhale, you couldn’t look anywhere for long without seeing one.

When closer, you could hear them, like a rapidly deflating tire, but with more depth. While lying in bed at night, it was a frequent sound in the darkness. Then, in the morning, we’d wake to that sound in the fog, right outside our tent.

Everywhere we went in camp, walking on the shore, eating a meal, sitting in the lounge or while out in the kayaks, humpbacks were the soundtrack of our experience.

But hearing them is not nearly as thrilling as seeing so many of them, sometimes incredibly close.

From our camp and in the kayaks, we saw them surge feeding, breaching, surfacing fast and slow, way out in the channel, and right inside our bay. I took this shot standing beside the hot tub one evening.
Late Wednesday evening, half the group paddled around the bay with P.J. so he could show them bio-luminescence in the water. Dry and comfortable, I’d opted out, but Shonna enjoyed the experience. Those of us who stayed on land watched them from the shore. Then, suddenly, a humpback surfaced right off camp and looked like it was going into the narrow channel between our camp and Flower Island, where our kayakers were paddling in the failing light.

When it exhaled, P.J. told everyone to back-paddle fast. The timing and distance of the blows indicated the whale was heading into their path. Fortunately, it changed course, but it was a tense moment.

Here’s Flower Island and the narrow channel from the dining area.
On our final morning on the water, we paddled across a channel in the fog, grouped for safety. Whales were blowing all around us, and while they sounded close, fog plays tricks with noises. It was creepy but exciting, paddling in a cloud with limited visibility.

I was in a kayak close behind Shonna’s when suddenly a humpback surfaced immediately to her left, parallel but heading the opposite way. P.J. told us to group closer together and paddle for the shore ahead. The whale circled and surfaced again to our right, a little further away this time.

Humpbacks don’t have the echolocation of orcas, so their spatial awareness isn’t the greatest. P.J. later told Shonna the whale had been about forty feet away, far too close. The problem with whales is they don’t always let you know where they are until the last moment.

It startled all of us but was a wonderful experience, one that several said was the trip’s highlight. I know it certainly was for Shonna and me.
LOOKING UP FROM THE CAMERA

Our next-door neighbour Chris was a kayak guide years ago in this area. He once told me that guests were often so focused on getting photos they missed out on the experience.

I left my pro camera in camp each day rather than stuff it into a dry bag in the kayak, where I’d be too afraid to take it out while on the water, anyway. I brought an older point-and-shoot in the kayak and got some good shots. While still careful, I had accepted that it was an older camera, and if something happened to it, I’d be OK.
But for most of the shots, I had a waterproof case for my iPhone and a GoPro-style suction mount to secure it to the kayak in front of me, backed up with a tether for when I handheld it. I took plenty of videos and selected screenshots from those when I got home.

Around camp, I used my Canon DSLR to take photos of any wildlife. But too often, I focused on getting a shot of a humpback or orca swimming by rather than simply watching and enjoying the moment.

Even forewarned, I fell into the same trap.

Thankfully, I downloaded a bunch of photos to my iPad the first couple of days, and when I saw that very few of those long-distance whale shots were remarkable, I spent the rest of the trip watching more with my eyes and less time looking through a lens.

While I am pleased with many photos I took, none of them come close to the experience of being there—the smell of the air, ethereal light, moisture in the fog and the quiet peace. No camera or video will capture that, certainly not with my limited skills.

It’s a lesson I’ll likely keep learning, but I intend to be more selective on when to take photos and when to simply enjoy a time and place.

COMING HOME

After the kayak portion of our trip, we spent a couple of days in Courtenay, staying with my friend Darrel’s folks, who might as well be family. Saturday evening, we enjoyed a visit with old Bow Valley friends who moved to the Island years ago, before we flew home Sunday.

While no vacation is perfect, this one was pretty darn close. After more than two years of planning and waiting, it was a relief that it went so well and that we enjoyed ourselves this much. We probably had unreasonably high expectations, and it still exceeded them.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Please visit their website for more information about Spirit of the West Adventures and the different tours they offer. These aren’t bargain tours; as in all things, you get what you pay for, and this company over-delivers. Our tour was the 5-day Whales and Wilderness Glamping.

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Back to the Drawing Board

Although I have a few paintings in progress, I have none to share right now as I’m dealing with more time-sensitive work.

Shonna and I returned Sunday from a week in the islands off northern Vancouver Island, a vacation initially booked for 2020 that we had to cancel. I shouldn’t need to explain why. But we finally got to take the trip, which was well worth the wait. It was one of the best vacations we’ve ever had, glamping and kayaking in the Broughton Archipelago.
I’m anxious to sort through my photos and write about the experience. But I’ll have to fit it in between catching up with work and taking care of the rest of this week’s duties.

But these are some quick edits.
One of the highlights of this trip was the abundance of humpback whales. They were everywhere! There’s nothing like dozing off in a comfortable bed in a large tent at night and waking up each morning to the sound of whales exhaling just offshore.

I had to draw double the editorial cartoons the week before we left to cover my newspaper clients for my week away. So this week, I’ve got the usual cartoons, month-end bookkeeping and invoicing, plus preparing for another Mountain Made Market at the Civic Centre this Saturday. I’ll be in my usual spot inside the foyer, so stop in and visit if you’re in the area.
I’ll have another post soon with more photos and thoughts on the trip. I often forget that time away from the desk, especially in a natural environment, does wonders for my state of mind. Refreshed and rejuvenated, I am looking forward to putting a lot of energy into the paintings I’ve got on the go, and excited about the ones I’ve planned for the fall.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Kayaking With(out) Whales

After a trying year of challenges, both business and personal, Shonna and I had been eagerly anticipating our vacation this past week. Booked in early May, it was the light at the end of the tunnel of our still as yet uncompleted kitchen renovations which occupied our entire summer.

That light didn’t turn out to be as bright as it first appeared.

We wanted to see orcas and other wildlife from a kayak and we did a fair bit of research to not only choose the best time of year to go, but the ideal place to see them. We researched different companies and were confident that we had put our best foot forward in advance.

We had only kayaked once before a few years ago in Tofino and liked it enough that we wanted to try a longer trip.
Because of my workload and commitments to my newspaper clients, I can only take a week off at a time, rarely more than once a year. Whenever possible, I try to have it be a working vacation and since Shonna loves wildlife like I do, it’s usually easy to do on Vancouver Island.

To drive to Vancouver Island would be a total of four extra days on the road, hotel stays, ferry crossings and delays, so we always choose to fly from Calgary to Comox and rent a car. We’ve taken our Island trips like this for years.

On Tuesday of last week, we drove up to Campbell River from the Comox airport, took the ferry over to Quadra Island, and checked into a wonderful little B&B called Chipperfield Hollow, where we stayed on our first and last night on Quadra. We’d highly recommend it.

That evening, we had a pre-trip meeting at a local inn, just a short walk down the road, where we met with our guides from Spirit of the West Adventures. They operate a number of different tour options, but the one we selected was the Johnstone Strait Ultimate. Four days, three nights with a base camp. This company was suggested by a neighbour who used to guide in that area and our research supported that recommendation.

The next morning, we boarded a water taxi for the 2.5 hour trip up to the camp in Johnstone Strait.

Rather than give you an itemized itinerary, let’s just jump to the pros and cons.

First, the good…

The company was top notch. From our initial booking and advance emails we got all summer, our experience with their service couldn’t have been better. While on the trip, the three guides were professional, friendly, safe…I could just go on with positive adjectives.
Shonna and I rented rain gear and sleeping bags from them which were better than expected. The tent we slept in on a solid wood platform was equipped with comfortable Thermarest mattresses, and had an incredible view. The camp in the Johnstone Strait was in a perfect spot, the tents and platforms well laid out, a covered dining and kitchen area, camp toilets, even a propane heated shower in the trees and a wood-fired hot tub.
The food they provided exceeded expectations. From the appetizers and meals at the camp to the lunches and snacks they brought with us while kayaking, we certainly didn’t go hungry. They accommodated all dietary restrictions, confirmed well in advance. I can’t eat salmon or shellfish; so on the first night when they BBQ’d salmon for everyone, I got ling cod fillets that were delicious. Gluten free options, dairy free options, all were available for those who needed them.
The kayaks were in great condition, as was all of the other equipment. Safety was their top priority, not only while on the water, but in camp as well. This included briefings about possible bear encounters, keeping food out of the tents, etc.
Our kayaking trips were enjoyable. Shonna and I shared a tandem kayak the first couple of days, and then we each had a single kayak on the last full day. We kind of had to put our foot down with the other guests the evening before, explaining that we had done our time in the double, and just because we were a couple, didn’t mean we didn’t want to use the single kayaks.

For the first time ever, I checked two bags on the flight. The weather on Vancouver Island can turn on a dime and if it starts raining, it can go on for some time. Even when it stops, good luck in getting anything to dry because of the high humidity out there. So we brought plenty of clothing for that eventuality. We left our extra bags at the B&B on Quadra, but took plenty of clothing with us.

With perfect weather the whole time, we didn’t need most of it. It wasn’t even that cold at night. It didn’t start to rain until we were on the beach on our last day loading our gear to go home. We felt bad for the incoming group arriving in the rain because the forecast wasn’t good.
Each morning, we were socked in with fog, which made for an ethereal dreamy kayaking experience that I consider the best part of the trip. Eventually it lifted and we’d have beautiful sunshine and blue sky for the rest of the day. Better still; the water was a flat calm most of the time, unusual for that area.
When it came to the parts of the trip we were promised by Spirit of the West Adventures, we had no complaints.

The key word, however, is promised, because there are certain things they can’t control, and that’s what took the shine off of the rest.

Here’s what was lacking…

Including Shonna and I, there were 13 people on our trip. I was the only guy. Most of these women were older than we were and it created a strange dynamic. Even Shonna said that a balance of men and women would have been much more preferable. While it’s always nice to hear other people’s perspectives on things and everyone was friendly and nice, it often felt like we were on vacation with our mothers’ friends. It would have been just as weird had it been all guys and Shonna the only woman.

True, our lead guide was male, but he was there to work and run the tour, so that doesn’t really count.
It’s not like it was planned that way, and only a few of the women knew each other before the trip. There was a balance of genders on the trip before and a balance on the trip after, just not on ours. It should be noted, however, that all of these women were fit and up to the trip. When it came time to haul kayaks and gear, everybody pulled their weight. I even learned a few useful tips from some of the more experienced paddlers.

On one day, with the currents looking like the afternoon might not be ideal for kayaking, we were told to bring some WALKING shoes as we would be going on an easy hike instead. Since we were told to make sure we always had dry shoes in camp, we had our water socks for kayaking, and I had a pair of Keen sandals for this walk.

Turned out that the hike was downright vertical in places, up a winding roller coaster of rainforest trail with criss-crossing roots to navigate. What made it more difficult was that I was carrying my expensive camera in one hand the whole time. The pace was brisk and at one point some of the other guests began asking how much further. The guide told a white lie and said we were at the halfway point when we were actually about a third or less. Four women decided to turn back to the beach and a guide went with them. Had Shonna and I known how much further to the top and how anti-climactic it would be when we got there, we would have done the same.

We had no time to stop and look at the forest around us and it felt a little like a forced march when she and I were in the Army Reserves years ago. Shonna does Cross-Fit every morning and I regularly hike here at home, but the pace and terrain kicked our asses. I don’t know how the guide did it in Crocs.

For our efforts on the return, we were drenched in sweat, I had two very large blisters on one foot from wearing shoes in which I would never do a hike like that, and felt we’d been a little ripped off. We didn’t pay for a kayaking trip to waste an afternoon hiking, something we can do at home.

Needless to say, we both arrived back at the beach pissed off and fuming, biting our tongues. We would have much rather paddled around the sheltered bay or relaxed at the beautiful location of our camp if we couldn’t kayak, perhaps wandering the shore, looking for wildlife.

Shonna and I have lived in the Canadian Rockies for more than 25 years and the main business here is tourism, just as it is for many parts of Vancouver Island. When it comes to seeing animals, there’s a saying in both locales… “Wildlife doesn’t punch a clock.”

That means you can try your best to find the animals you came to see, but sometimes they just don’t show up. We were in the right place, at the right time, and pretty much got skunked.

Technically, we saw two or three orcas. On the trip up in the water taxi, way off in the distance, there were some blows and dorsal fins. Then while at camp, we saw some blows even further away one day, but couldn’t tell if they were humpbacks or orcas. One night, Shonna and I thought we heard blows in the water outside of our tent and figured it must be orcas, but it was so dark we couldn’t see anything.

We think it’s fair that we don’t count these.
We did see a black bear on our beach a couple of times, then later while kayaking in the fog another morning and on another beach nearby. We’re pretty sure it was the same bear and surprisingly, I was just fine with him being that close, despite my earlier bearanoia tale while camping this past May.

Other than that, we saw some white-sided dolphins go by from our camp a couple of times, a seal and sea lion, a blue heron, and countless ravens and seagulls. The only reference pic I got that I can paint from, however, is the blue heron, and the photos I took at Point Holmes in Comox a couple of days ago might be a better choice.

No orcas, no humpbacks, no otters, no eagles. On all of our visits to the Island, this was the trip where we saw the least wildlife of any kind.

At the end of our trip, we spent a couple of extra days in Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland visiting with a few friends we don’t get to see often enough. We kept trying to put our finger on exactly why this trip was a disappointment, and it pretty much came down to the reasons above. We still got to spend some time off together away from work, which is always a plus.
Just as somebody can end up spending days in their hotel room in Mexico from drinking the water, or luggage can get lost, or a hotel reservation can be screwed up, it was simply bad luck. That doesn’t really take the edge off of the disappointment, however, or that our hard-earned money is gone, or the fact that we really needed a good vacation and it didn’t measure up, or that I didn’t come away with any reference photos or inspiration for paintings.

As in all things, shit happens.

Cheers,
Patrick

Some of these pics were taken by iPhone in a waterproof plastic case or are stills from GoPro video, so not as sharp as I’d like. But I wasn’t about to take my good camera out of the dry bag on open water if I didn’t have to. An orca or humpback would have been worth the risk.

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