Kyuquot Sound, BC – June 2019

Wolf beach

This is a story from my first trip to Kyuquot Sound in 2010; I wrote it in my journal but I never posted it here. Not sure why; maybe because I lost my camera overboard on the trip or maybe because the woods kicked my ass. (Because of the lack of photos, for this post I’ve tried to recreate some images from my trip by using my non-existent art skills for your viewing pleasure.)

I was in the remote Kyuquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. I landed on the calm side of Rugged Point on a small protected beach and the first thing I noticed was two sets of canine tracks in the sand. Fresh and big, almost the width of my hand. Too big for coyote, plus coyotes aren’t found in this area – but wolves are!

Massive, very fresh wolf print on a beach. Vancouver Island

I’ve camped in wolf territory before and wasn’t that concerned at first. I once had a wolf wander through my campsite in Yellowstone. So I set my tent up on the beach over the tracks.

Wolf beach

I became a little more nervous after I went to the other beach just one hundred yards away and it looked like a dog park, wolf tracks everywhere. So once I got back to my tent I started thinking about camp perimeters, defensible positions and immediately searched for a weapon. I was obviously a little spooked. I have no problem with bears and have seen them often in the backcountry but I’m not as familiar with wolves. Plus there is something about wolves; bears eat honey and put out forest fires. Wolves eat Little Red Riding Hood and grandmothers.

I found a thick piece of driftwood 3 feet long with the weight of a Louisville Slugger. It had a large knot and barb on one end; A backwoods mace. I dubbed it ‘Wolfstick’ and it didn’t leave my side for the next two nights.

Wolfstick

With heightened alertness, I finished setting up camp and made dinner. The campfire was raging as twilight set in. When I said I have no problem in the woods alone with large carnivores afoot, I have to admit that sometimes, on the first night, I can still be a little sketched out. As darkness crept in and after a few nips of Jameson whisky, paranoia started to infiltrate my mind.

Shadows in the woods, odd noises in the dark, beasts lurking, skulking, hunting. Then a disturbing thought crossed my mind; what would I do if I saw a pack of wolves charging down the beach at me. This scenario seemed not only possible, but in my semi-inebriated state, entirely logical and inevitable.

So I ran through my options:

Plan Alamo.
As the wolves bear down I would jump up on the massive tree stump on the edge of camp. Thick underbrush surround 3 sides of the stump meaning the assault could only come from one direction, the East. Standing tall on the stump and as wolves launch themselves at me, I would bat them out of the air with Wolfstick. Facing overwhelming odds I would be like freakin’ John Wayne as Davy Crockett in my favorite childhood movie, The Alamo. Sounded good in theory but we all know how that ended for Davy.

Plan Dunkirk.
I could grab the kayak, drag it to the shore and launch into the water and safety before the blitzkrieging wolves got me. H and I have successfully used this tactic before to evade a large brown bear in Alaska, (but that’s another story.) Clearly the chance of this plan succeeding with wolves was zero. Unlike the British at Dunkirk the wolves would be on me before I could get anywhere near the water.

Plan Retreat.
I could basically make a run for it. The rickety wooden outhouse was under a hundred yards away down a path. I could make it if I was running for my life, which clearly, I was and I could barricade myself in the stinky, fly-infested outhouse. John freakin’ Wayne never had to barricade himself in an outhouse, but it looked like my best chance of survival.

On the second and third day I calmed down. I wandered the beaches and overgrown trails through the woods. I went for a long walk to a stream for water. I wasn’t now worried about an immediate attack but was still acutely aware of my surroundings and Wolfstick was always close by.

During my six day tour of Kyuquot Sound, I never did see a single wolf.

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Crazy Mink

Soon after arriving at camp in the Bunsby Islands, I did a little recon of the beach and immediate area. Nothing much out of place on this little NW island paradise, but on the small pocket beach, I did spot some tracks, thankfully not wolves or bears but small, delicate, almost cat-like.

Mink tracks

The tracks weaved up and down the beach and I deduced they were Mink tracks. Everyone’s favorite beachcomber energetically bounds all over, looking for food. They are said to be rare on Vancouver Island but I’ve been lucky enough to have seen them often; Fuzzy and adorable, I shudder now when I think of my Grandmother’s stole.

I was on the lookout to see the local critter and it didn’t take long; I was reading on the beach and glanced up to see a dark, small weasel zig zagging about 20 yards away; he hadn’t seen me yet. This was a rare ‘Black Mink’;the dark color of a chocolate lab. His immaculate fur looked so soft that I wanted to grab him and rub my face on his belly. He was bounding around speedily, up and under the driftwood, darting about like he’d raided my coffee stash. As I fumbled for my camera, he calmly turned and parkoured his way back into the woods.

But it wasn’t long before I hear a noise behind me coming from a pile of driftwood. The mink pops out and then starts running down a log, straight at me. He’s only a few feet away and bearing down on me; the way I was sitting he was about to collide with my head. I nearly got my wish of rubbing my face on his belly, but just before impact I squeal, jump up run down the beach and he again bolts into the woods.

He has disappeared, I slowly walk back to my perch muttering “WTF is up with this crazy Mink!?” (Not sure if I should worry, but on these long solo trips I do find I talk to myself, even when not being charged by weasels.)

I sit, glance up and ‘Poof!’ there he is again, sitting on a log staring right at me. He wasn’t there moments ago. Crazy Mink has magically appeared on a piece of driftwood and is now giving me the stink eye. He looks at me, then slowly scans my messy camp, as if to say, “who the hell are you and why is your crap all over my beach?” He shrugs it off, and playfully bounces off down the beach again without a care in the world. I watched him leave again, muttering ironically to myself, ‘Crazy Mink.’

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Gimme Shelter

On day two I had just about finished setting up the tent when, ‘pop’!’ – one of the tent poles broke. I quickly disassembled the pole before it ripped through the rainfly. The ever-so slightly inconvenient issue of *maybe* not having a functional shelter for the next six nights on this wet and rugged coast was certainly not going to shorten this trip. Even though I’ll be completely off the grid and miles from anyone- No big deal. I’ll just hope for no rain!

Busted!

My initial optimism quickly faded when I realized I hadn’t had a complete understanding of the problem – a full explosive rupture on the joint where the poles connect. It had completely shattered with metal pieces now missing. Not only that, but on both pole sets, other joints also show stress fractures at breaking point. Thankfully I bought a new roll of duct tape for the trip; I was going to need it all. I taped the stress fractures and made a splint of flexible cedar strands for the break and taped it heavily.

 

Cedar splint

I used so much of the tape, I wouldn’t have enough to redo the splint if it didn’t hold. I found a spot sheltered from the wind and set up the tent. It looked ok – “That baby is going to hold!” I shouted. I felt like a backwoods MacGyver; pretty badass. I figured it could last the whole trip, only would time will tell, I thought. And that time was about 10 hours.

Splint on tent & solid ?

The splinted joint buckled but thankfully held. But the structural integrity of the tent was compromised – crooked, I couldn’t close the door and it threatened collapse. But it held up. 2 nights down – only 4 more to go.

Holding together, barely

I packed up quickly the following dawn. I couldn’t collapse the poles fully with the taped joints and so had to stuff them in the bulkhead, I was lucky not to break them even more.

I was hoping to find a sheltered spot at the next campsite where I would be for three nights. I found the ideal camping spot in the Bunsby Islands; a flat tent sized-clearing in the thick underbrush, just off the beach. Totally surrounded by thick vegetation and sheltered from the Pacific winds. I ran a guide rope to a nearby tree to keep pressure off the broken pole. This kept the tent upright, moderately stable. Still couldn’t close doors but I was fairly confident it wouldn’t collapse. It held strong for three days.

Camp Bunsby Point.

On the last night I camped further up off the beach in a sheltered spot behind a downed tree. The tent was now in really bad shape, but it somehow held together. I was surprised, the odds had been against it surviving, I really thought it might self-destruct. Lesson learned; check tent poles before getting on the water.

Last night

 

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Oystercatcher

Oystercatcher

Right when I landed on Smith Island I noticed a pair of Oystercatchers on the beach. They are an odd-looking, large black chunky sandpiper with bright red beaks and eye rings. As I unloaded the kayak they kept those eyes on me from the rocks on the small ismuth that I would be camping on for at least a night. This was unusual; Oystercatchers are usually shy and fly away making their distinctive call. I came to the assumption that they must have a nest nearby, maybe in the high grass off the beach. Unfortunately it was a small beach and we would have to coexist.

While on the beach late in the day, one of the pair was trying to lure me away from the area. Walking closeby then sitting down. As I took a step towards them, they got up and moved a little further and sit. And repeat.

At one point I spotted them on a small rock outcrop twenty feet away. One settled down and sat for a few minutes before moving down the beach. I waited until they were further away before I took a look. Out in the open, sitting on some broken shells, were two perfectly camouflaged, beautiful speckled eggs. It was a non-nest; no nesting materials at all, just two eggs sitting in the middle of the beach. Hidden in plain sight- lucky I didn’t inadvertently step on them. I snapped a few quick photos and hurriedly retreated.

Oystercatcher eggs

I started dinner near the tent, quite a distance from the ‘nest’. I started to became concerned when the parents had not returned for some time. Had I scared them away? Were they going to abandon their eggs?

Eggs on the beach

Imagine my relief when they finally appeared to gently sit on the eggs. For the rest of my stay there I kept a respectful distance from the expectant family and diligently watched where I stepped.

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Bunsby Islands

The remote Bunsby Islands are deep within Kyuquot Sound and the destination for my 8 day solo kayak trip. At well over twenty miles from the launch site it would take at least two days to paddle there. But the big challenge en route is a five mile stretch along the coast, reef-infested and open to the ocean swell and westerly winds. It is unforgiving, with no place to land on the rocky shore. If things got bad and the seas got angry, there would be no place to hide. South of here, along a similar stretch of coast on my last trip, the water was big and I was terrified. This time around I was more experienced and ready for some payback. I pored over charts and the few disruptions of the route. Even so, as the trip approached, at night I found myself awake, fretting.

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I launched mid morning in a mist with a calm breeze and heavy cloud cover hovering low over the water. I was hoping to make it to Smith Island thirteen miles away, ambitious but attainable if the calm weather and water continued. I steadily cruised west through the inland waters towards the coast and open ocean. Low clouds from the Pacific broke up as they pushed though the trees turning into monstrous ghost figures floating through the forest. I passed the First Nations island village of Kyuquot wrapped in a heavy mist, late on this dark afternoon and pushed onto Smith. I was on the coast now as the swell started to roll under me and the open ocean lay out wide in front. I landed on Smith at twilight, quickly set up camp, made dinner and passed out after a big day.

1st night

On these extended trips I obsess about tides, weather and especially wind forecasts. Tides were not a big issue in this area, so all my obsession went on the weather. I would check my radio for the marine forecast multiple times a day, trying to get a idea for the upcoming days. Things get dicey if the wind gets above 15 knots; the swell gets bigger. 25-30 knots = a possible capsize and me getting wrecked onto the rocky shoreline. The weather forecast was high winds for the foreseeable future. So I decided to spend two nights on Smith and wait to see if it would change to the typical weather for this coast; calm in the early morning with the wind building by mid-morning.

Smith Island

Day three was a beautiful sunny day. I found an overgrown trail and started hiking round this gem of an Island. Through pristine old growth; massive cedars and douglas firs dripping with moss. Along pocket beaches with cobblestone beaches bordered with craggy rock outcropping. Around noon I got a glimpse to the north and my path to The Bunsbys. I could see miles of coastline filled with small islands and reefs, a wave-battered rocky shore and trees rolling down to the ocean. The seas were calm and the wind light, it was perfect kayak weather. My first thought: ‘that looks easy.’ My second: ‘I should have paddled it today! Did I miss my one window, was I being too cautious, was I psyching myself out, have I missed my bid to make a run for the Bunsbys?’ At that point I made up my mind to go for it at dawn the following day, even though the forecast was still windy all day.

Dawn

I woke up before dawn and looked out the tent, the wind was calm and the water flat. I quickly broke camp and was on the water just before six a.m. I rounded the south of Smith Island and the conditions were still good so I made the final decision to go for it. It would take over four hours to get to the Bunsbys, and there was no other village for days. I might see a boat, maybe. It was about to become as remote as it gets.

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I did feel minuscule in my kayak as I powered out to sea, out to a safe distance from the breaking waves in the shallows. Bobbing around hundreds of yards offshore does take a little getting used to, but you learn quick. Luckily the ocean was calm with only a genial 2 ft swell washing in from the northwest. A glistening vapor haze hung low over the water obscuring the shore as the sun rose above the pine forest. I traveled behind rock reefs and small islands that blunted the swell. I rested in the lee of islands, in dense kelp beds, sheltered from both wind and waves.

I finally entered a small protected bay on one of the first islands of the Bunsby group to scout for a camping spot. As I stepped onto land relief flowed through me combined with a tinge of pride. I had made it after all! After all the months of planning and fussing and waves, on day four I had landed in the middle of nowhere; perfect.

Camp “Bunsby Point”

I did a recon of the area to see if it would be a suitable campsite. It had a sheltered spot for the tent in the woods. A protected beach to launch and land. Lots of firewood. And sun! It wasn’t just suitable, it was a perfect camp spot. Best of all, it was stunning, jaw-dropping beauty, a scene of majestic nature. It was on a point that jutted out into the Pacific with views reaching far up and down the jagged coast. To the west, in the kelp-choked bay, I could see groups of sea otters. To the south, a pocket sandy beach bordered with old growth forest and misty views of Catface Mountain and Vancouver Island. It was my perfect campsite for the next 3 nights.

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I spent my days paddling around the Bunsbys. I glided past forested islands that felt unchanged since powerful native tribes ruled and battled over this area centuries ago. It was a true primal wilderness. I also got plenty of beach time in; by day; reading and watching fuzzy otters floating on their backs crunching on shellfish. By night; sipping Jamesons and watching the sunset over gigantic beach fires.

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This stunning place was as pristine and remote as I’ve been on this coast. The only sign of civilization I saw for those three days was a lone sailboat pass by. I was way off the grid. Obviously no cell phone service. I had my marine radio to call for help (but only if anyone was within range and listening!) I have a strange drive to find these wild places and spend time there solo for as long as I can. To find a true wilderness adventure. Me against the woods.

Sunset camp Bunsby Point

Ok. So sometimes I make it sound as if I’m in some sort of life or death struggle with Mother Nature. Sometimes my trips feel that way, but this time, that was definitely not the case. Mother Nature baked me in sunshine, not driving rain and angry seas. The local critters were soft and cuddly, no wolves and no bears. Relaxing wilderness solitude.

I only had one concern, I did still have to get back.

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Good Omen

Just before I launched my kayak, I checked my waterproof digital camera and couldn’t get it to power up. Strange and annoying; this is the camera that replaced the one I dropped overboard last time I was Kyuquot Sound; I lost all photos from that trip.

Thankfully this time around I had my phone with a good camera as an option so I put it in a dry bag behind my seat, just in case.

After only 5 minutes on the water, I see some movement on the far bank; something large and black on the water’s edge. I paddle closer, and sure enough, it’s a black bear digging around in the tidal zone. Good sized, jet black with a light brown face; He doesn’t see me as he searches for food on the rocky shore.

I fumble for the phone as I drift towards him and snap a few pictures before he turns, sees me and freezes. He is staring me down, totally motionless; Probably doesn’t see too many kayakers.

A crow call startles me, nearly causing me to drop the phone in the water, just like on my first trip here! I realize I’ve drifted not far from shore, about 50 feet from the bear- too close, so I quickly back-paddle as the bear continues to stare me down, transfixed.

On the long drive up to the launch site the previous day, I was just thinking that I’ve not seen a bear in the wilderness for a long time. I’ve driven by a few but that’s very different; It’s powerful, primal, seeing a bear when hiking or kayaking in the backcountry; in his territory, on his terms. Not in a car doing 50.

As I paddled on, I thought, whilst some people would think the complete opposite, seeing a bear in the first few minutes was a good omen; A sign of the adventure to come.

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Kyuquot Sound payback.

It’s been eight years since I’ve been out to Kyuquot Sound on the NW coast of Vancouver Island, BC. I had a few minor issues on that first trip; actually to be more accurate, Kyuquot kicked my butt. I came stumbling out of the woods reeling and stunned the first time around; The PTSD caused me to paddle calmer waters for the next few years.

Even so, I was touched by the remote, brutal coastal wilderness I had just survived and I knew I would be back; I felt I had some unfinished business out there. I was not going to be a one and done. This time around I’m doubling down and going further… further out into the wilderness, further off the grid and for longer too: 8 days.

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What I also remembered from last time, is that it takes forever to get to Kyuquot. After several long highways, a border crossing and a two hour ferry, I finally turned onto the road that leads to the launch. It was 8 pm, I had left Seattle 12 hours earlier and it was still 100 kilometers left to go on a primitive logging road through the woods. I bounced and slid my way along at twilight hoping not to get lost. I pulled into camp just after 10pm and set up camp on the banks of Kyuquot Sound.

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Sunrise; Broke camp, loaded up the kayak and was on the water just after 10am. It was cloudy with a light drizzle but calm winds and seas. Good, almost perfect conditions, as I had an ambitious plan to paddle 14 miles to an island campsite just off the coast. It was deja vu; the exact same conditions when I launched 8 years ago. As I pushed off the beach I was excited, yet nervously curious about the upcoming adventure and totally ready to conquer Kyuquot Sound.

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