Black choppy waves thudded chaotically onto my deck, the frigid water smashing up into my face. Heavy rain hammered down noisily and stung my face, while a headwind blew the cold into my bones. The small island I was hoping to camp on was a few miles away but had disappeared into a black haze. Darkness would soon follow. Ahead of me was a long rocky carry with the kayak from the low water mark and I was already shivering. Why then was I laughing wildly into the elements, my Cheshire cat grin plastered with rain, my sodden hair hanging limp around my rosy cheeks, my tired body only just warm enough after 10 hours of paddling? It was day 5 of my circumnavigation of Vancouver Island and I felt truly alive. Wonderfully, happily vibrant and alive. I felt only joy at being immersed in nature, shrouded in a private wet and wild bubble. I had wondered how I would deal with challenges by myself, with no-one to help me, to delegate to or to blame. I surprised myself by my almost unwavering positivity – perhaps when there is no-one to moan to, the only sensible option is to get on with it?
I set out from Orcas island in America on a warm, sunny, calm day at the end of April 2016. The current helped me across the international border to the Gulf islands. At a small marina, I phoned Canadian customs, gave my passport details and assured them I had no drugs, weapons or vegetables in my kayak. A gentle push from wind and current combined with first day excitement to help me cover 60km to Wallace island. This was pleasingly more than the 35km/ day I had to make to finish in the 32 days available to me.
Every day was different around Vancouver Island. Up the East coast, I often had a view on both sides as I threaded up through islands, admiring everything from small rocky outcrops to magnificent snow-capped mountains. I enjoyed jumping on conveyor belts of tidal current to accelerate my progress up the middle of channels, watching the large scale change in scenery as another mountain appeared around the corner or the clouds changed from whispy threads to puffy cotton wool pads. When the current opposed me, I loved dancing along the rocky shoreline, manoeuvring my kayak inches from the steep granite outcrops in the eddies, admiring the coarse crystals, bright red anemones & hardy lichens and sniffing the musty aroma of the many trees whose roots had found weaknesses in the rock.
I didn’t feel alone. Eagles made their piercing calls from the air while the evocative pining sound of the loon never failed to pull at my heartstrings. Seals slid into the water as I passed and quietly popped up behind me. Otters seemed able to detect me coming from at least 100 metres away, no matter how quiet I was. They would bob their heads up like Meer cats, looking for several seconds at this strange object coming towards them, before they disappeared into the depths. I never tired of seeing them carrying babies on their bellies, wrapped up in kelp or in rafts with dozens of others. Grey and humpback whales were frequent companions passing by with a pffff and a beautiful cloud of sparkling breath lingering in the air for several seconds before fading away to nothing. On the north coast, 5 orca cruised by the beach I was camped on, purposefully heading towards the horizon, one magnificent male with a steely black fin that cut the water like a dagger. On the East coast, dozens of sea lions lazed around on the surface, snoozing with their friends in the sun. Sometimes I’d slip by unnoticed, on other occasions they’d wake up with a noisy splash, followed by an even louder display of snorts and grunts. On the exposed west coast, their long craning necks often pierced the turbulent water besides me as I was concentrating on weaving though a boomer field. The more critical my route choice was the noisier and closer the excitable bobbing seemed to be.
I paddled for 3 weeks without taking a day off. This wasn’t through design. Headwinds slowed me down along most of Johnston Strait, but they were never so bad that I couldn’t paddle, and the forecast always promised a change for the worse, so I constantly thought I better make the most of being able to make progress while I could. Rounding Cape Scott was one of my rougher days, with 8 foot breaking waves slamming around my kayak at Cape Sutil. Off the notorious headland itself, the biggest challenge was a 5 foot swell exploding onto the many offshore rocks with an intimidating crash. The current had recently turned against me so I was trying to stay as close to shore as possible while avoiding the boomers. A 15 knot wind opposed the 1 knot current but conditions were manageable, with much smaller waves than at Cape Sutil. It was a matter of keeping cool and choosing a safe passage. I easily passed through 2 small tidal races, with breaking waves lapping over my deck. Still, I was very glad when I entered the safety of the next bay. I celebrated by successfully completing my first solo wee at sea. I managed to put a small glass jar through my pee zip and fill it. The only issue was that I usually filled that jar two and a half times so I had to be very careful about making sure I stopped the flow at the right times!
Most days were well within my comfort zone with beautiful scenery and plentiful wildlife to keep me entertained and smiling. I was lucky that the swell was rarely above 1.5metres. I tried to do what I felt like every day whether that was paddle fast with the current, or meander all the way around a bay, landing on beaches to search for glass fishing floats or have a wash and swim in a waterfall pool. I talked to myself, I talked to otters and eagles and headlands. I laughed out loud. I’m not sure whether I needed to talk, or needed to be heard.
I only felt lonely amongst people. In the wilderness, my expectations were of finding my own happiness from within and my surroundings whereas in a town I craved a meaningful human interaction and felt sad if none materialised. But mostly the people I met were wonderful, kind souls who laughed with me, fed me, put me up and shared stories. Carole cooked me prawns and squash in a remote cabin, Dan regaled me with stories of bears, cougars and near death experiences, Gina whisked me from a beach to her house and bbqed fresh oysters.
A challenging day was the 45km from Vargas island to Ucluelet. A 3-4 metres swell hit my right side while a 25knot wind pushed me along in the right direction. I mostly stayed far out to sea but around headlands and boulder fields all my senses were on high alert. Making contact with one of those rocks with this much energy around would be a very bad thing. I paddled inside the line of rocks when it felt safe to do so as I like being in that zone where the energy is diluted. My heart was in my mouth getting there, as the waves increased in size over the shallower water. Even though I had been watching my route for 20 minutes and making sure it was clear, I was still afraid that a rogue wave would appear and tonnes of water would topple over and hit me like a brick wall.
I was nervous of paddling by myself. Would I get bored or lonely? Would I manage to get out of bed? Would a bear eat me? Would I be over confident and get myself into trouble? There are so many reasons why I could have backed out and not done it but I am so happy that I went ahead. I am a richer, more balanced person now. It’s great to know I can survive alone and enjoy my own company. I can achieve goals and be happy doing it. The trip also reinforced the feeling that I am never more content than when I’m immersed in nature, whether it’s sun warming my limbs or rain drumming on my cheeks. There is a simple, pure joy that comes when sitting on my very own beach at the end of a long, satisfying paddle, eating my dinner while watching the sunset and listening to the sea crashing onto the beach.
I love good company on a trip. I enjoy sharing the physical and mental challenges and having someone to laugh, talk and share special moments with. My next trip will probably not be solo, but I will keep seeking out some time alone in the future.
I used a Valley Nordkapp sea kayak and Mitchell blades bombora paddles. On the water I wore a Kokatat Merdian dry suit with a drop seat and a pee zip, a MsFit Tour PFD/ buoyancy aid, Kokatat wool core thermals, and Keen Gorgeous boots on my feet. It’s the first time I wore these shoes and I loved them as they were lightweight and comfortable while being supportive with a good sole.
I used a fabulous Hilleberg Allak tent. It’s a 2 person tent so was a bit overkill but I decided it would be nice to have extra space if I had many weather-bound days – plus there was a bit more space between me and any bears or cougars that decided to investigate! Not that I had any visitors, or any weather-bound days in the tent! But the tent was super easy to erect and I loved the free-standing nature of it. I slept in comfort on an Exped DownMat 7.
I cooked on an Optimus Nova+ stove with an Optimus Terra HE pan set which I love due to it’s neoprene cover. I start cooking my pasta or rice, then put it in the neoprene cover to continue cooking while I cook my vegetables and sauce. This feature and the heat exchange on the bottom of one pan meant that I used less than 1.5 litres of fuel for the entire trip. Admittedly I cooked on fires a few times and was fed by others on occasions but I was still very impressed with how little fuel I used.
I also got some stylish fabulous blue KEEN Saltzman shoes which I had intended to wear on land, but they were too nice to cram into my kayak so I now proudly wear them around town instead!
Big thanks to Karel Vissel who sent me daily weather forecasts to help keep me safe and to Iridium for lending me the satellite phone which also allowed me to send daily updates. Karel has sent me forecasts many times in the past but it somehow felt more key this time as I was by myself and sometimes Karel was the only person I communicated with on a particular day.
Wow, it’s been a busy 2016 so far, but that’s just how I like it. Sorry I haven’t fitted in updating the blog. Here’s a brief update – more to follow when I get a chance I hope.
I spent a great 2 months in Indonesia, paddling with Sandy Robson 1000km or so along the West Papua and Papua coastline. Highlights included swimming with a whaleshark and the local culture and colour.
I had 5 days back in Wales before heading out to the West coast of America where I was the keynote speaker at the Port Angeles Paddle and Film Festival. I rushed from there to Orcas island to see my great friends Shawna and Leon of Body Boat Blade.
I set off from Orcas island on Thursday 28th April to attempt to kayak around Vancouver island solo. I’m writing this from Comox after 5 days. I’m loving the trip so far. I certainly haven’t been bored or lonely, although I did notice that on the day that I set myself a target and fixated on my GPS speed that I enjoyed it less. So the last 2 days I turned the GPS off, enjoyed the scenery and was a lot more content. There will be times for studying speeds and working out landing options but not every day.
I feel that doing a solo trip is great for my soul, especially one is such a beautiful arena. The mountains have a dusting of snow on top, like someone sprinkled them with icing sugar and every day I see some of all of eagles, sea lions, otters, seals and birds. Nature is intensified when you are by yourself and I’m loving it.
I have set up a SPOT tracker every night to show my location. The SPOT shared page will display the last 7 days here.
I tried to set up a SPOTWALLA map which should show my position every day for the entire trip. It’s not working at the moment – it only shows the last 2 days but in case I manage to get help to get it fixed here is the link to that.
I use Facebook and twitter more than the blog these days. For more regular updates please see those. You can check the “CackleTV Facebook page’ without being a member of Facebook – click here. For Twitter – click here.
He’s watching me. The fire flickering besides me means I can’t see him in the shadows but I know his eyes are fixed in my direction.
The same man gave us some freshly caught fish, set up his fishing spear to hold the aerial of the sat phone up high so we could get a better signal and lit a fire outside for us. One of the women here swept the leaves away from the sand they are letting us camp on , prepared and cooked the fish and gave us fried bananas. The kindness of the people in Indonesia is humbling and wonderful. I have enjoyed watching the 4 people in this small semidetached wooden hut go about their daily business, skillfully descaling and gutting the fish, the practised ease with which they set up their cooking fire, the tshirt they put over the end of the water pipe to filter out the bits. I love the simplicity of their lives and like learning from the different ways of doing things. So I can’t be surprised that they like looking at us and learning from our methods. But I’d still like to be alone right now. I’ve only got two more days paddling so this is my second to last night and tomorrow is likely to be in a large village so won’t have the peaceful, contented feel to this charming quiet hamlet on the beach. There’s a tree that hangs over the sea that is pulsating silently with fireflies. Hundreds of tiny flashing lights illuminate the tree better than any Christmas lights display. The bushy outline of the branches visible against a black sky. The gentle chatter of insects soothes my ears while the sea lapping on the shore is barely discernable tonight. It’s warm of course, but it’s a comfortable warmth, not sticky and stifling like some evenings. I’d like to sit quietly on one of the beautifully carved wooden benches that compliment this tidy home, feeling the heat from the fire, watching the flicker of fire flies and crunching on the fresh fried fish that was plucked from the sea and plunged straight into the frying pan.
I find myself reflecting on the many positive experiences I’ve enjoyed in indonesia. Yesterday was taken from a book of dream days. In the morning we swam with a young whale shark, watching him feed on tiny fish, close enough to touch although I resisted the temptation. We visited a "bagan", a large wooden platform anchored semi permanently with a small living quarters for 4 men in the middle and fishing nets draped underneath the large criss cross of timbers. They use bright lights to catch fish at night and hand lines with live bait to catch bigger ones. These enterprising boats have learnt to feed the whale sharks so they don’t suck the small fish from their nets with a side effect that they stick around for tourists to see. The fishermen start by pouring water into the sea from a bucket. A whale shark approaches and tiny fish are alternated with the water. The shark sticks it’s mouth above the water and opens wide. We get to watch the feeding up close and study this 4 metre long gentle giant. After a few minutes he moved away swims in a circle them comes back for more.
For lunch we visited an even smaller floating home where 4 other men look after live fish in pens that will be exported to Hong Kong and Singapore. They buy the large fish from local fishermen, and when I first arrived they were injecting them with what may have been vitamins to sustain them as they are shipped to Bali then flown to their final destinations. We asked if we could eat our lunch on their floating platform and started to get out crackers. They said yes then produced a small red coral trout and asked if we’d like that with some rice. Wow and yes please! A slim young man with long hair put on a mask and jumped into one of the pens. He came out with a red stripy lobster with massive spines. This was chopped, fried and served up next to the fish. It was all delicious and I enjoyed talking to Robert and his friends about their work.
Our last stop off the day was a floating mansion, an Australian motor boat that is being delivered to Thailand for it’s owner. The crew of John, Tracey and Jo are taking the scenic route and were also here to see the whale sharks. They invited us to stay overnight and we enjoyed a hot shower, a delicious meal of more lobster washed down with red wine, an air conditioned room and great chats. We even had our clothes washed. As we sat on comfy deck chairs on the front of the boat at sunset with a glass of wine I couldn’t believe the fairy tail day. Swimming with a whale shark, being cooked delicious fresh seafood and a bit of luxury with good company. It doesn’t get much better than that!
I’m the sort of person who ends up with scratched legs or face but doesn’t know how I got them. I get hay fever. Wounds never heal well. In my first week in Indonesia, I cut my ankle on a piece of coral as I pushed my kayak up the beach, my flip flops rubbed my feet. I cut my knee on my split paddles as I scrambled back into the boat after snorkeling with manta rays, my legs got peppered with mosquito and sand fly bites and a mild case of athletes foot between 2 toes took on a life of its own in the constantly wet and humid environment that is my kayak cockpit. My usual attitude of leave it and let my body deal with it was never going to work here. I’ve seen photos of infected coral cuts left untreated which flare up into bloated pusy infections.
One of my biggest fears of tropical paddling was my allergy prone, injury prone body getting covered in heat rashes and unable to cope with cuts that never dry. I quickly made friends with Sandy’s iodine bottle and brown dots and stripes now regularly adorn my legs like war paint. I need to allow an extra 15 minutes every night before bed to clean scrapes and nasty bites and apply anti itch cream, antibiotic cream, antiseptic cream and athletes foot cream to various body parts. It takes 20 minutes if it’s one of those humid nights where sand sticks like glue to everything.
After 2 weeks my athletes foot covered all my toes on one foot and the sole of my foot was tender and swollen. The other foot was even more swollen some nights although had very little athletes foot. Sandy got in touch with a doctor friend who thought I might have got cellulitis. I doubled my dose of doxycycline, the antibiotic I’m taking to try to prevent malaria and swapped from my general anti fungal cream to a specific athletes foot cream that Sandy had. Over the next week, the flakey skin slowly improved although the sole of my foot still looks like most of the skin might come of and my foot is still swollen some evenings.
More recently the tips of my thumbs and some of my fingers have been really sensitive and red. They are throbbing now as I write this in my tent and they keep me awake at night sometimes . I ruled out sunburn to start with because I wear lightweight hand covers made by kokatat specifically to block out the sun without being too hot. They are great and we are rarely apart during daylight hours but I now think that maybe the very tips of my fingers and my thumbs aren’t fully covered and they’ve got burnt. The doxycycline has an unfortunate side effect of increasing sensitivity to sunlight which can’t help.
Now I regularly put suncream on these extremities but they aren’t getting better. Maybe the cream washes off or perhaps it isn’t sunburn. The jury is still out on that one. Yesterday I put electric tape over the fingers and took some ibuprofen and my fingers are a bit better.
As a girl from chilly Wales, spending so much time in the heat I need to be constantly careful and mindful. A paddlers tan is usual brown hands and face. I’ve developed a new trend of a red stripe around each wrist like a thin bracelet. This was from one cloudy day where I wasn’t careful enough to make sure there was no gap between my hand covers and shirt sleeves. I have to be constantly alert to make sure things are tucked in, zipped up, suncream reapplied, lipsil handy and I’m often slightly uncomfortable – too hot, too sweaty, too sandy, too itchy, too tender.
It feels to me a bit like being in the death Zone above 8000 metres where your body can’t survive. You are slowly dying until you come down to lower altitudes. This hot humid climate is not so much life threatening as wearing, it feels like I have a limited time until something flares up or my tolerance runs out.
Having said that, I am proof that a clumsy cold weather lover can survive here. My initial cuts have healed pretty well, faint pink scars remind me of their origin. I’ve avoided heat rash on my body by tucking my shirt under my spray deck and making sure none of my skin touches the seat or spray deck. If I get really hot paddling I pour water over my self! I’ve got a bit too much sun at times but so far my religious application of SPF 20 lipsil has kept my lips blister free.
If you are still reading then hopefully this isn’t too boring or tedious. I am having a good time here but I wanted to share some of the challenges and their solutions!
I have about another week’s worth of paddling with Sandy to reach Nabire And I’ll fly back to Jakarta from there, then home!