by Lucas Aykroyd
Hint: Do not watch the very bad 1977 Bo Derek movie Orca before you take this sea kayaking trip off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. It will only distract you from the true raw beauty of these waters and cedar-laden shores.
Sea Kayak Adventures of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho has recently begun offering six-day tours of Queen Charlotte Strait, the lesser-known neighbor of Johnstone Strait, which features the world's highest concentration of killer whales. It's a chance to experience the British Columbia wilds without other groups of affluent tourists waving to you and local fishing boats tooting
their horns. One such tour was in late July.
Launching from the town of Port Hardy, the group of 16 (from as far away as Connecticut and New Mexico) packs a flotilla of stable two-person kayaks after an orientation session and simple how-to-kayak lesson. Then it's out on the water, where a salty breeze assists our passage along the Vancouver Island coastline. Our three guides (Jorge, Jackie and owner-operator Terry
Prichard) marshal the less experienced kayakers ahead to the first "lunch beach" as bald eagles lurk above in the trees.
SKA's culinary instincts are impeccable. When was the last time you went camping and feasted on deli sandwiches, Tarragon chicken and lime cheesecake instead of baked beans? Not to mention the wine and cheese hors-d'oeuvres that materialize shortly after final landing each day.
The pace of six to ten miles per day is relaxed enough to accommodate both teenage boys and retired couples. These waters are relatively sheltered, allowing you to concentrate on the rugged mountains of mainland B.C. in the distance and the outlandishly colorful sea anemones clustered on nearby rocks.
Even one foggy morning when someone tries out one of the guides' single kayaks and accidentally flips it, there is no danger. The guides race to her side, pull her out of the sea and bail out the water in mere minutes. Another day, we get a lesson in how to traverse a strong eddy quickly and efficiently.
As we navigate the perimeter of Nigei Island beneath sunny skies, we spot more wildlife. A minke whale's fin flashes above the surface, which is a rare sight. A shy doe trots away from the shore as the kayaks pull in, although her relatives can be heard sniffing around the tents at night. Sea lions, harbor seals and salmon also pop up from time to time.
Terry ensures the local history, geology and vegetation don't go overlooked. He incorporates nature walks into the morning routine and takes us through the ancient site of an Indian village where little remains but dry grass and gooseberries.
At night, his fellow guides not only cook and clean up but also join the rest of the group in campfire games and the infamous World Rock-Skipping Championships.
Naturally, as the end of the trip approaches, everyone is eager to spot a pod of orcas. They're not as numerous as in Johnstone Strait, so there are no guarantees. But just as we're about to turn into a channel and head back to Port Hardy, a shout goes up. And there they are! The orcas head north, their giant black fins emerging sometimes three abreast, blowing and breaching in a magnificent display that seems to last forever.
The sight of a baby black bear hunting hermit crabs near the shore minutes out of Port Hardy adds a nice closing touch. And back at "home base," connections to bus or air transportation for your return trip are easy to make.
SKA offers an ideal introduction to sea kayaking. Professional and personable, their guides ensure the journey is both enjoyable and safe.
And oh, those hors-d'oeuvres!