In search of the elusive Orca
By Beth D’Addono
I felt the rhythm of my life change once I got out on a sea kayak in the middle of Johnstone Strait, an island-filled passageway off of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
I discovered that in this remote wilderness, a watch is a useless piece of hardware. My new totems became the ebb and flow of the endless tides fed by the Pacific Ocean.
Instead of thinking about voice mail and reaching for a cell phone, I was focused on the pod of dolphin that swam up ahead of my kayak and the bald eagles circling overhead.
I woke up with first light, napped on a warm rock in the sun when I was tired and was ready for my sleeping bag after losing count of the stars brushed across the night sky. I didn’t worry about working out at the gym, my body was challenged by paddling for four to five hours a day.
I didn’t have to plan my entertainment — I was constantly stimulated by the sounds, smells, tastes and sights of my sea kayaking adventure.
At first, the idea of sea kayaking for most of a day seemed a bit much. I’d paddled locally for a few hours here and there, and loved it. But would I be able to keep up day after day? A friend and I had always wanted to travel to the Northwest together — we figured that the northern tip of Vancouver Island was about as northwest as we were going to get. She was game — so was I.
We booked our trip with Northern Lights, a Seattle-based outfitter with 20 years of experience. The package of information we received with our trip confirmation was comprehensive and reassuring — the packing list was complete to the most minute detail. With every base covered, we were good to
We rendezvoused with our group in Port McNeill, a tiny logging town of about 2,100 on the pristine northern coast of Vancouver Island. The group divided evenly into thirds — one-third experienced, one-third beginner to intermediate, and one-third novice. The disparity in skill level would become a cause for frustration for some members of the group. But more about that later.
Our first meeting was filled with packing details — how to stuff our mountain of gear into the five dry bags provided. The feeling of triumph my pal and I experienced when everything — our sleeping bag, toiletries, flashlight, clothes — was finally rolled and tucked into its designated dry bag was the first of many small personal triumphs we would experience.
Over the next five days, our three guides, Kara, Caroline and Andrew, did a super job of creating an atmosphere of fun and wonder. They seemed to know the name of every tree, every bird, every island — and they could cook up an al fresco meal that would put an experienced chef to shame.
In Search of the Orcas
By day, we paddled, hoping to catch sight of the Orca that travel the Johnstone Strait in the summer. Although other groups out in the waters at the same time as we were did see whales, our guides made the call that weather conditions combined with the lack of experience of some of the paddlers made venturing too far out into the channel risky.
We had the sense that the whales were out there, just around the bend, but we were not able to see them. That was a big let down– although Orca aren’t a guaranteed part of a Northern Lights trip, they are more often seen than not. Most of us were philosophical about the decision — although a few people were bitterly disappointed, and questioned the guide’s judgment.
My friend and I made peace with the lack of whales. Sure, all the brochures showed pictures of Orca. But for us, the fun of camping, the beauty of nature and the thrill of accomplishment we felt as we gained skill with our paddling kept us in high spirits. We did see dolphin, along with dozens of bird species, including bald eagles, cranes, gulls, cormorants and blue herons.
We camped at three Northern Lights sites in five days. Our camps were comfortably rustic — as in no running water or electricity. But each had a BIF — bathroom in forest — a simple outhouse set up in the woods. Since we were carrying all of our own water supplies in the kayaks, a sun shower was saved until the end of the trip.
We could wash off in the seawater — at 55 degrees, it was bracingly refreshing. We shared a tent and spent evenings telling stories and sitting around the fire.
But the views from our humble tents rivaled any I’ve seen from a five-star hotel. At one site, my friend and I decided to pitch our tent on a rock that jutted out into the sound. It wasn’t the most comfortable night of sleep I’ve ever had — but the view of the mist rolling over the water in the early morning hours made us feel like we were on top of the world. All I knew was that our trip was over too soon.
Despite how wonderful a hot shower felt at the cozy Broughton Beach B&B where we stayed on our last night in Port McNeill, I missed the wilderness. Out there, I felt invigorated, energized.
And the last thing I wanted to do was put on my watch. Sometimes when deadlines overwhelm me, I close my eyes and picture the lagoon where we paddled one afternoon, a green, still place where the sky reached down to meet its own reflection in the water and blue herons eyed us suspiciously as we glided by them in our kayaks.
It’s one of those special places that I’ll always hold dear. My first extended kayaking trip was a wonderful experience. Maybe the next time, the Orcas will be there to share it with me.
Sea Kayaking Trips
Northern Lights Expeditions (800-754-7402, www.seakayaking.com) offers six and seven day guided sea kayaking trips along the British Columbia coastline from May through October, with prices ranging from $1195-$1795, excluding airfare to Seattle/Port McNeill B.C. The price includes everything except overnight stays in Port McNeill — food, beverages and naturalist guides are all included.
The best way to get from Seattle to the launch point at Port McNeill (if you aren’t driving), is to take a scenic Sound Flight seaplane, $210 each way (800-825-0722).
There is a weight restriction on luggage, $25 soft sided only, with a $.50 per pound charge for overweight bags.
Beth D’Addono is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania. Her last GoNOMAD article was about minor league baseball.