Kayaking a Canadian Paradise

Sally Stuart

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My friend Nicki and I unloaded our kayaks off my Forester and set them on the beach in the rain. We had planned to explore Clayoquot Sound by kayak and camp on Meares Island that night.

The day before we had driven to Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island and checked into the Tofino Paddler’s Inn in the late afternoon. Formerly the Hotel Tofino, the inn was constructed in the early 1900s when guests arrived by ship because the island’s west coast had no road access. Set above a coffee shop and a kayak store, the inn is a popular hangout for kayakers. Since it overlooks Tofino Harbor and Meares Island, we could see most of the route we planned to take the next day. We spent that night and the next morning organizing our camping gear to make sure we had everything we’d need for the next seven days.

Meares Island backstory

In the early 1990s, Brad from Friends of Clayoquot Sound contacted me as Environmental Chair for the Washington Kayak Club seeking the club’s support to protest logging on Meares Island in Clayoquot Sound. After understanding the issues relating to Clayoquot Sound, I joined Brad and another environmental activist, Mike from Rainforest Action Network, in a meeting with the Canadian Consulate in Seattle to protest logging on Meares Island.

Most of Vancouver Island had already been roaded, logged, and mined with three-quarters of its productive forest cut down. Clayoquot Sound was the only area on the island with multiple large, intact rainforest valleys that provided high-quality habitat for hundreds of species. In addition, Meares Island had some of the oldest and biggest trees in British Columbia.

Totems on Meares Island

At the time, Canadian forestry company MacMillan Bloedel held the rights to clear-cut 90% of Meares Island, which became the staging ground for the largest-ever act of civil disobedience in Canada in 1993. Ten thousand protesters from Europe and North America descended on the Peace Camp to protect the massive trees of Clayoquot Sound. As a result of the peaceful blockade, direct action, and the court injunction that followed, Meares Island was protected and declared a Tribal Park by Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations.

Today, Meares Island remains unlogged. In January 2000, Clayoquot Sound became a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Biosphere Reserve. Clayoquot Sound is one of the world’s few remaining intact temperate rainforests.

Although I had vacationed with my family several times in Tofino, I’d never kayaked in Clayoquot Sound. Nicki, my friend since grade school, and I planned this kayaking trip to visit Meares Island, explore Clayoquot Sound, and see these magnificent trees for ourselves.

Our adventure begins

After breakfast, we drove to the kayak put-in, unloaded our kayaks, and loaded our gear—tents, sleeping bags, clothing, food, and cooking equipment. The forecast had called for rain, wind, drizzle and poor visibility. It was correct.

Rain coming down in sheets obscured Meares Island. After a quick check of our chart and compass, we pushed off our loaded kayaks and headed in what we believed to be the right direction to Lemmons Inlet and Adventure Cove where we planned to camp for the night.

Because of the rain and thick fog, we still couldn’t see Meares Island. With the tide running out and eelgrass visible below us, we were afraid of getting stuck. A Great Blue Heron fishing nearby looked like it was walking on top of the shallow water. After once again checking the chart and compass, we realized that we were over the Arakum tidal mudflats. Fortunately, we were headed in the right direction and soon saw more water beneath our kayaks.

Awed by ancient red cedars

We pulled our kayaks onshore in Adventure Cove and checked out our campsite for the night. Moss, salal, and ferns lushly covered the forest floor, and rain and moss dripped from the trees. After setting up tents and a tarp for our kitchen, we went for a walk through the old-growth forest. Black bears live on Meares Island, so we hung our food and toiletries high on tree limbs.

The next morning, we woke to sunshine and went for a quick paddle before breakfast. Afterward, we hiked 2 miles round-trip on a boardwalk through the forest to the famous Big Tree, a western red cedar with a massive 60-foot circumference. The trail took us through the fern-carpeted forest floor past Western Red Cedar trees between 800 and 1,300 years old, some of the largest on Earth. We were awed by the amazingly beautiful, lush forest and ancient trees.

Camping on Vargas Island

After packing up our gear, we headed to Vargas Island to pick a new campsite. The island’s western half was made into a provincial park in July 1995. Although the island was a popular kayaking destination, we had no competition for campsites.

Moonlight Beach looked inviting, so we pulled up our kayaks and set up camp. Our campsite on the northwest side of Vargas Island was cold when we woke the next morning. We saw a small island a short distance away and headed over to warm up in the sun. That afternoon we set out to find another campsite, one with morning sunshine.

Inviting campsite on Moonlight Beach

Basecamp on Dan’s Beach

Dan’s Beach looked perfect, a flat area with plenty of room for our two tents and a makeshift kitchen. Just a short distance from the beach, the campsite had a view of the open water over a salal hedge. Ravens, mice, an otter, and many birds shared our site. Later we learned that black bears, wolves, and cougars also live on the island. Fortunately, they didn’t visit. Dan’s Beach would be our base camp for the next few days as we explored Clayoquot Sound.

The next day was windy, so we explored the island on foot. The following day started out sunny and warm with no wind. After a quick breakfast, we packed a lunch and headed out to the open water off the west coast of Vargas Island. The warm sun glittered off the water. Large rolling swells lifted our kayaks and set them back down. Grebes, cormorants, loons, murrelets, and pigeon guillemots bathed and fed on the sea, while noisy gulls and terns called and chased each other.

Friend or foe?

A splash next to my kayak startled me. A huge male Steller sea lion and I locked eyes as he swam beside my kayak. Having read about sea lions ramming kayaks, I quickly assessed my situation. Although a long way from shore without a wet or dry suit, I was wearing my life jacket and was a strong swimmer. If the sea lion capsized my kayak, hypothermia would likely set in before I made it to shore.

Nicki and I had drifted apart, so she couldn’t hear me if I called for help. Not taking any chances, I paddled quickly and quietly to the nearest shore. The sea lion followed, frequently popping up before or beside my kayak. Was it being friendly and curious, or did it consider me a threat? After following us back to our campsite, the sea lion caught a large salmon before heading back out to open water.

With stormy weather in the forecast, we decided to head home. After spending time in the solitude and beauty of the ancient forests and waters of Clayoquot Sound, we gained a sense of the North Coast Natives’ unity with nature and the universe—the basis of their beliefs, myths, and history passed down through stories, songs, and dances.

Sally Stuart

Sally Stuart grew up on Mercer Island in Lake Washington and spent most of her childhood in or on the water. She started kayaking in the late 1980s, and after kayaking and camping for several years in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, she and a friend obtained a timeshare on a 32-foot Nordic Tug, Shanty Irish. Sally joined the Bellevue Sail & Power Squadron/16 for classes, achieved the grade of Senior Navigator and was elected commander in 2006, 2020 and 2021. Although no longer kayaking or boating, she is currently writing about her kayaking and boating adventures.

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