Swoosh…dip,swoosh…dip, swoosh…dip and smack! Less than 50 metres from our kayaks, the humpback’s fluke whacks the water as it dives deep searching for krill.
Last summer, I left the isolating effects of these strange pandemic times to embrace another form of isolation: to seek solace in nature; to lose myself in a remote marine environment. I signed up with a company to kayak in a marine wilderness area near the Broughton Archipelago, nestled between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland. I decided to travel solo on this trip. I often prefer it that way. I’m more open to meeting others and experiencing nature.
Base camp is a half-hour boat ride from Telegraph Cove on Vancouver Island. While waiting for the water taxi, I read about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that hit this tiny outpost. An eerie feeling echoes through me: one hundred years later, we are living with the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’m travelling solo, but I’m not alone. Joining me is a family of five from Calgary: Cynthia, a physician, her developer husband, Phil, and their three children, Sophia, 15, Kevin, 13, and Lyndon, 11. They are excited about seeing orcas in the wild for the first time and fishing the rich waters. They have come to get away from city life during the pandemic; they want to be far away from civilization.
As we leave this historic village, we spot a pod of resident orcas about 200 metres from us. JD, the owner of the company, cuts the motor.
“There’s A23 and A25,” he says. “They’ve been active in this area lately, hungry for salmon.”
Salmon is the life blood for the local community. He drops a hydrophone in the ocean; we listen to the orcas sing underwater. They are skilled communicators, making sounds for orientation, navigation, and feeding.
As the boat approaches our base camp, I am struck by the haunting beauty of the wilderness. A thick forest of Western red cedar, Sitka spruce, and hemlock cover the island. The treetops sway gently in the wind as if they are welcoming us with a slow dance. I am humbled by the natural beauty and the history of the area.
The campsite is located on small Compton Island, on Mamalilikulla- QweʼQwaʼSotʼEm Band First Nation territory. They have given permission to the company to use their land. Normally, the company leases their land, but last summer, owing to the pandemic, the First Nation waived their lease so the company could keep operating.
We step off the boat onto the midden beach. I imagine how, for thousands of years, Indigenous people have lived here, fishing, farming clams, and hunting. The shells are the remains of their cultural heritage and their present-day life. I catch a glimpse of two deer darting into the woods. These hoofed mammals are ubiquitous.
The campsite is well set up. There are five safari-style tents placed on raised wood platforms, all facing the inlet. The tents have real beds, duvets, pillows—even hot water bottles to take the chill off during the night. There’s a large, well-equipped outdoor kitchen, with a propane-fuelled stove and fridge, and an outdoor dining area, with a large, beautifully carved cedar table. And, overlooking Blackney Pass, stands an outdoor shower, with hot water. Comfortable camping, indeed.
The first morning, after a hearty breakfast of buckwheat pancakes, fresh fruit, and bacon, we set out in our kayaks to Blackfish Sound, a wide channel known for feeding humpback whales. Humpbacks migrate, annually, moving from their summer feeding grounds in the high latitudes to warmer winter breeding waters closer to the equator. In years past, I have seen them in Hawaii during the winter as they begin their migration north. Perched high on a bare branch in the thickly treed shoreline, a bald eagle surveys the scene. It’s watching a seal feasting on a salmon, patiently waiting to swoop down and scavenge any leftovers. I continue paddling and soon a sea lion joins me, swimming a few metres away. I keep pace with it until it dips down into the ocean. I paddle to the middle of the Sound and pause to watch two humpbacks. They are circling around me, dipping, blowing, and slapping their flukes before diving down. Am I intruding on their space?
When I return to the campsite, dinner is almost ready. Amy, our cook, grew up in Winnipeg and sure knows her way around a kitchen. She has prepared pickled bull kelp, which she harvested that morning in the inlet. We nibble on the bright mustard-coloured delicacy while she puts the finishing touches on dinner. She is preparing pierogies from scratch, a recipe passed down from her husband’s grandmother, who came from the Ukraine. Grandma made sure Amy was married before turning over her recipe. I grew up in Winnipeg, known for its Ukrainian cooking. I bite into the potato–cheddar cheese pierogy, topped with fried onions and a dollop of sour cream, and for a moment, I’m transported back to the city in the heart of Canada where I last had these delicious morsels.
After dinner, we sit around the campfire singing. There’s a lot of talent within the group, especially the Workaway volunteers who help run the camp. Workaway is an international program that allows travellers to experience different cultures. They pay for their room and food by helping out their host. Tom, 32, was a geophysicist working for a large oil and gas company in Aberdeen, Scotland. He quit his desk job, hopped on his bike, and cycled to Rome. From there, he went north to the Italian Dolomites, worked at a resort, and met his partner, Jen, from North Yorkshire. They have been travelling together in Canada for the past couple years. Tom picks up his guitar and plays the CCR song, “Bad Moon Rising” while Amy and Grayce sing along. Grayce, originally from North Carolina, is an artist, writer, and musician living in Toronto and thinking about moving west. Anthea is from Australia, and Fabian comes from Chile; he’s been in Canada only a year and speaks fluent English. We sing until it’s time to go to bed. That night, I fall asleep to the rhythmic sounds of humpbacks’ slapping their tailfins in the water.
The next morning, we go out on Tensing, a 38-year-old former US Naval whaleboat, and watch a pod of Dall’s porpoise skim along the shoreline, bobbing up and down in perfect single formation, like large bubbles dribbling. “They are the fastest cetacean on the planet, swimming up to 56 kilometres per hour,” Fabian offers.
I kayak every day, rain or shine, and, depending on the tides and currents, sometimes just go around Compton Island. Cynthia and her family like to go whale watching and fishing. Lyndon was beyond excited when he caught his first fish, an eight- pound salmon.
One day, I see a purple sea star (or starfish) spread out on a barnacled rock on the shoreline. It’s good to see they are returning after several years’ absence, owing to the sea star wasting disease. “Forty species of sea stars have been affected by this disease,” Grayce says, as we glide by. We stop at a small island, and, from our kayaks, we pick sea asparagus that appears in our salad at dinner that night.
One late, starless evening, we stand on the midden beach and throw stones in the water. We watch the bioluminescence—light generated chemically by organisms—as we swish sticks back and forth in the ocean. It’s as if fireflies are swimming underwater.
Another evening after dinner, we hike the kilometre-long trail to Sunset Beach, stopping along the way to pick ripe huckleberries, almost missing the sunset. I arrive just in time to catch the sun blanketing across a billowy, cloudy sky as it dips into the ocean, forming a pattern of shooting rays of gold. An orange glow covers the sea. When we return to camp, JD has just caught a 24-pound Chinook salmon.
“They like to bite in the early evening,” he says, as he’s filleting the fish on the beach, and then preparing it in brine to be smoked the next day.
On the second last day, we are treated to an appetizer of freshly caught Dungeness crab. Amy boils them up just right and serves them in a heaping bowl on the beach. We stand hovering over a table, legs astride, stuffing ourselves on these delicious crustaceans, savouring each mouthful of the plump flesh, dipping the succulent chunks in warm, melted, garlicky butter.
“These claws are so delicious,” Phil says, as he’s licking his fingers.We toss the empty shells into a pail underneath the table. Who needs dinner?
On our last day, the sun shining, we head north on Tenzing. JD’s pulling a double kayak at the stern of the boat. Tom and I are dropped off in the heart of Broughton Archipelago Marine Park to kayak back to our campsite. As we approach Blackfish Sound, there’s action ahead.
Tom excitedly says, “I’ve been here seven weeks and haven’t seen anything like this!” He quickly grabs his camera and starts taking photos. “I won’t have another chance like this,” he exclaims. Over the UHF radio, we hear the crackling voice of a captain in another boat shout, “This is craziness!”
We see several humpbacks blowing and gliding along the ocean, while a pod of surfing orcas and dolphins cavort between them in the shimmering water.
This time the humpbacks are making different sounds from what we’ve heard before. Their sounds are coming from deep within them, almost moaning, making an eerily sounding howl. What are they saying? Are they annoyed that the other mammals are taking attention away from them? As we leave the scene and return to camp, a flock of red-necked phalaropes skim just above the water’s surface.
I went on this kayaking trip to lose myself in nature during these strange pandemic times; I wanted to be in the richness of a remote marine environment. But I came away with much more: I gained a new appreciation of the wildlife so abundant in this area. I saw how orcas sleep in resting lines.
“Basically, they shut down one half of their brain at a time while they sleep,” said Tom.
And I was lucky enough to make new friends from all over the world who shared with me their love and understanding of the wilderness.
Indeed, it was a great get away during a pandemic.