Winter Circumnavigation of Vancouver Island

Late last summer, I came up with a wild, ambitious idea: attempt a winter circumnavigation Vancouver Island. As far as I could tell, it had not been done before. While planning I had tracked down a couple people who had attempted this trip before and quit. They said they believed trip was possible, but it would take a lot of attention to detail while preparing and even more patience along the way. Others were not as generous: “crazy” was the word I heard the most from people who I told about my plans. Despite the doubts I decided to commit myself to the expedition. I also decided to make the journey solo.

I started from my home on Orcas Island on January 1, and within a day I was in entirely new territory. It was simply amazing, watching the environment change as I came out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, leaving behind the inland waters of the San Juans. As I slipped into the coastal rain forest the trees became much larger and more moss-covered, towering above shoreline. The the swell started coming in, gentle rises in the sea at first, but soon developing into the tall waves that hid most of the world around me when at the bottom of a trough. Then came the sea lions on the rocks, their barks and growls echoing out over the water, reaching me well over a mile off shore. It was clear that I had arrived on the wild Pacific.

At the end of the second week a huge storm rolled in. I pulled in to Hot Springs cove just a few hours before the swell started kicking up to near-record heights. I spent 6 nights there, luckily with my tent tucked away out of the 50-knot winds. Each day I would hike down to the point to look at the sea, a sort of pilgrimage to witness the storm that was keeping me off the water. There were mountains of water rolling in from the ocean, rearing up tall as they approached the land and then exploding as they hit, flying apart in a massive cloud of white spray that shot several stories into the sky. Once I left the protection of that cove I saw evidence of that storm every day as I traveled. Huge driftwood logs and truckloads of sand thrown up beyond the high-tide line served as a constant reminder of the power of the sea I was paddling on.

On this trip I encountered a wide range of conditions on the water. Some days were only a few miles long but involved weaving through rocky boomer fields in 3 meter swell, or running downwind on waves generated by the winter gales. In those conditions I would use the Ikelos, leveraging the larger blade to get the power and faster turns I needed. On other days the water was smooth and calm, but I covered over 40 miles, paddling for 13 hours and going well into the dark. When I encountered headwinds, long mileage, and current against me I would choose the Cyprus, my “low gear.” The smaller blade was much easier on my body as I pushed my fully loaded boat forward on those longer days. Having both types of paddles was important for me on a trip lasting 47 days: I had the ability to change gears to accommodate the conditions, mileage, and even how my body was feeling.

Where I work coaching sea kayaking we have a name for these carbon touring paddles. “That is a magic wand,” we tell our students. When they ask why we simply put it in their hands and have them paddle with it. They understand quickly: the paddle grabs the water and is so light they barely notice they are holding it. That light weight was one of the biggest considerations for me when selecting paddles this trip. Covering 700 nautical miles, more than half in challenging winter open coastal conditions, required a lot of paddling. Hundreds of thousands of strokes added up quickly and could have resulted in soreness or injury. For years now I have dealt with a couple different repetitive use injuries in my wrist and forearm. Having super-light paddles cut out significant stress, strain, and fatigue on my body, helping me make the miles each day while staying safe and healthy.

As I continued north up the coast the rain set in: at one point I went 21 days in a row with significant rainfall. While that might sound like a lousy experience, it was actually one of the most beautiful sections of the trip. Every day the coast slipped by, half-shrouded in grey mist, exposing itself to view and then drawing back in. Countless waterfalls cascaded off of the steep shorelines, each creating a unique sound as the water tumbled down to the sea. The endless waves pushed in against the rocks, breaking loudly on the shores. It felt like I was getting a glimpse of what the island was like most of the year, the true character of the coastline. It was a privilege to see it at this time of year, big waves pounding the edge of the land while cold rain drips from every rock and tree, the same as it has been for millennia.

In the ten days it took to get around the remote northern end of the island, the only people I saw were the lighthouse keepers at Cape Scott and two boats. Each day I was on my own, quietly slipping up the coast as I watched the sea and sky. Coming back to the populated inside passage felt like awaking from a dream that was so real I wanted to go back to sleep immediately just to feel the quiet of the wilderness again. As I headed southward the gentler miles gave me time to reflect on everything that had happened while I was out on the coast. I started interacting with people again, but, “you’re crazy,” was now gone, replaced with, “good journey.” I had completed the circuit, returning to the protection of the inland waters. The currents and sandstone cliffs looked the same as when I had left, but I doubt the view from my kayak will ever be the same again.

Author, Cavin Croll (IG: @Future_Water)