Discovery Island, Haro Strait, BC 2–3 Nov. 2019

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Nov 4, 2019.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    I try to make at least one kayaking trip to British Columbia every year. As much as I love our beautiful Washington waters, I must admit BC is the west coast’s kayaking mecca. I’d go there every day if I could.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have time these days to take the kind of week-long or month-long trips that are my preferred mode of travel. All of my recent trips have been two- or three-day affairs. The best kayaking spots in BC are at least half a day’s drive from Seattle, which is too far for such short trips.

    But what if, instead of merely kayaking in BC, I tried kayaking to BC? The straight-line distance to Discovery Island, BC from San Juan County Park—the best boat launch on San Juan Island—is only about 9 miles (15 km). With good weather and careful attention to currents, I could paddle across Haro Strait and get my trip to Canada without a long drive.

    00 Map.jpg
    00 Route map.

    01 Departing Smallpox Bay.JPG
    01 Leaving Smallpox Bay. Wind is the big threat in Haro Strait, but I had perfect conditions.

    02 Southern Gulf Islands.JPG
    02 Southern Gulf Islands. These, too, are an enticing destination but out of range of this trip.

    Haro Strait is the best place in the San Juans to see orcas, and the Orca Network has reported numerous sightings of J pod within the last couple of days. Regrettably, there were no orcas when I crossed the strait, but a pair of Dall’s porpoises made an excellent consolation prize. One surfaced just ten feet in front of my kayak, gave a kind of started gasp, and plunged back underwater with a splash. Perhaps he didn’t have his sonar on, or maybe he just wanted to play with me.

    The ebb tide helpfully pulled me south down Haro Strait at a steady three knots. I was careful to complete the crossing before getting pulled too far south, lest I get sucked out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

    03 Cadboro Point.JPG
    03 Cadboro Point. Hugging the shore here ensured the helpful currents didn’t help a little too much.

    04 Marbled murrelets in Cadboro Bay.JPG
    04 Marbled murrelets in Cadboro Bay. I was hoping for, but did not see, ancient murrelets, which sometimes flock with marbled murrelets in winter.

    My first stop was the Royal Victoria Yacht Club in Cadboro Bay. The yacht club was several miles out of my way, but I must clear customs, and the yacht club had the nearest telephone reporting site. The yachties here were so proud of their club, their boats didn’t just claim “Victoria” as their port of registry; they claimed “RVYC Victoria!”

    Clearing customs was such a quick process the ebb tide was still running when I exited Cadboro Bay to cross to the Chatham and Discovery Islands. The current in the Baynes Channel narrows was absolutely tearing along, so fast I missed my intended target of Strongtide Island and was nearly carried beyond the Chathams altogether! Luckily, I managed to reach sheltered waters behind the westernmost cluster of islets, just before being swept out into Juan de Fuca Strait. From there, I was able to crawl my way back up the island chain using back eddies and the occasional frantic sprint against the current to regain Strongtide Island—a name that fits only too well.

    Once I entered the heart of the Chathams, the ebbing current’s southward flow was favorable to my plans. I cruised through a lovely watery maze with scarcely any effort.

    05 Pigeon guillemot Baynes Channel.JPG
    05 Pigeon guillemot in Baynes Channel. A lot of alcids, mergansers, cormorants, and loons came to Baynes Channel to intercept fish being swept through.

    06 Channel between Strongtide and Vantreight Islands.JPG
    06 Channel between Strongtide and Vantreight Islands. These little bays created eddies without which I couldn’t have navigated the Chatham Islands.

    07 Harbor seals in Chatham Islands.JPG
    07 Harbor seals in Chatham Islands. The seals here must see a lot of kayakers, because they were singularly uninterested in me.

    08 Greater yellowlegs in Chatham Islands.JPG
    08 Greater yellowlegs in Chatham Islands. This is one of our most handsome shorebirds.

    09 South side of Discovery Island.JPG
    09 South side of Discovery Island. The currents here were markedly weaker than the north side of the island or in the Chathams.

    CONTINUED IN NEXT POST.
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2019
  2. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    On the US side of the border, I hadn’t seen any kayakers other than myself. Between Cadboro Bay and Discovery Island, however, I encountered half a dozen, confirming my longstanding impression that kayaking is more popular in Canada than the US. A couple kayakers and even a zodiac crew stopped on Discovery Island for late-afternoon picnics, but they all departed before sunset. Secretly, I was pleased to see them go, for it meant I would have the island all to myself this evening.

    10 Evening reading on Discovery Island.JPG
    10 Evening reading on Discovery Island. There's nothing cozier than sitting on the shore of an isolated little bay, watching the sun go down.

    11 Sunset over Olympic Mountains.JPG
    11 Sunset over the Olympic Mountains. The Olympics always look wilder than our other mountain ranges.

    I did not encounter Takaya/Staqeya the wolf, although there were signs of his presence all over the island: bright yellow warning signs posted by humans, and other, subtler signs posted by Takaya himself. I stayed up late and woke up early, hoping to catch a glimpse of this handsome fellow, but to no avail.

    The next morning, I faced a navigational challenge on my way back to San Juan Island. In his guidebook, John Kimantas warns that Haro Strait off Discovery Island is subject to a countercurrent of enormous proportions that forms during the flood tide. Fisheries and Oceans Canada also confirms the existence of this eddy:

    Eddy map.JPG
    THOMSONR, . E. 1981. "Oceanography of the British Columbia coast." Can. Spec. Publ. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 56: 291 p. Information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada.

    Sure enough, I wasn’t more than four hundred yards off the east side of Discovery Island when the eddy kicked in and began shoving me south and east. The eastward push was helpful, but south was the wrong direction; I needed to be going north. Having read my Kimantas, I knew it would be foolish to try to fight the southbound current head-on, which is what my GPS kept suggesting I do. (Indeed, when I tried fighting the current as an experiment, my forward speed dropped to just one mile per hour.) Instead, the correct course of action was to paddle east-by-northeast across Haro Strait to escape the eddy’s clutches, then head north on the favorable flood.

    Despite Kimantas’s forewarning, I was surprised how large the eddy really was. It wasn’t till I was at least a quarter-mile across the international boundary that it finally released me. Even then, my current troubles were only diminished, not extinguished, because the “favorable” flood actually ran north-west, not due north, so I had to struggle against the westerly trend even as I benefitted from the northerly trend.

    12 Sunrise east end of Discovery Island.JPG
    12 Sunrise east end of Discovery Island. The sun rose not over a distant mountain range but over a thick bank of fog.

    13 Northbound up Haro Strait.JPG
    13 Northbound up Haro Strait. A GPS was indispensable for navigating in the fog and amid the constantly shifting currents.

    14 Bulk carrier Global Passion.JPG
    14 Bulk carrier M/V Global Passion. "Running over kayaks is our passion."

    All told, it took me three hours to make the crossing back to Smallpox Bay. But the time was well spent: I encountered several groups of harbor porpoises (although no more Dall’s), a few Steller sea lions, and a veritable army of harbor seals. At one point, I looked over my shoulder and found twenty of them trailing in my wake, escorting me through their waters.

    15 Harbor seal Haro Strait.JPG
    15 Harbor seal in Haro Strait. Who knows why they so enjoy following kayaks?

    16 Rhinoceros auklet Haro Strait.JPG
    16 Rhinoceros auklet in Haro Strait. This has always been one of my favorite alcids. They have such a great personality.

    17 Coast of San Juan Island.JPG
    17 Coast of San Juan Island. Yet another adverse eddy appeared here close to shore, slowing me to two miles per hour for the last two miles.

    I tried clearing US customs using the new phone app for boaters, but there wasn’t cell service in Smallpox Bay. I headed up to Roche Harbor where cell service was better, but I still managed to screw up the app. Instead of a photo of my passport picture page, I uploaded a photo of my own, smiling face. Customs did not accept this as a substitute. Luckily, the Roche Harbor customs office was open for business, so I was able to check-in in person.

    Overnighting my vehicle at San Juan County Park was an expensive proposition. Camping on Friday night was $29, and leaving the vehicle over Saturday night was an additional $18. The ferry from Anacortes added another $44 for a round-trip ticket. Still, the steep prices were worth it for such an advantageous launch point and such a beautiful trip. I encountered all the best highlights of late-season kayaking: long, bright sunsets, plentiful seabirds and mammals, and an island campsite all to myself. As always, BC kayaking delivered the goods.

    Alex
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2019
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  3. Man in qajaq

    Man in qajaq Paddler

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    Too bad you didn't see Staqeya. He makes paddling the Chathams/Discovery isl somewhat a celebrity sighting adventure.
    Nice that you made the paddle over.
    Thanks for the report.
     
  4. jamonte

    jamonte Paddler

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    Alex, I think this is perhaps the most ambitious overnighter I've ever heard about! I have some friends who once paddled from Discovery Island to Small Pox Bay, but that was at the end of a 900-mile trip down the outside from Prince Rupert. It would never cross my mind to cross over and back during a weekend, and solo to boot. Well done!

    I am curious about your safety assessment for this trip and what you did to mitigate the hazards. Obviously, you had some favorable weather conditions, but stable weather is never guaranteed, even during a three-hour window. And having back-to-back days favorable to this crossing is even more problematic. What was your contingency plan if the weather changed? Also, what did you wear for paddling clothing?

    Finally, what was your method of dealing with shipping traffic? (For example, did you put a radar reflector on your boat? Announce your presence on Ch 16? Or did you just keep an eye on nearby traffic?) I once crossed solo from Zipolite Beach (near La Paz) to Espiritu Santo and I was nearly run down by a cruise liner. One minute it was just a tiny white speck on the southern horizon and by the time I had paddled a mile, it was a full-size cruise ship screaming across my wake. This certainly gets the adrenaline pumping. (Which is why I asked about your paddling clothing. Personally, I wouldn't make such a large crossing solo in the PNW w/o wearing a dry suit, but then I'd risk overheating if I had to push hard for a sustained period of time. Hard to say which is the lesser hazard, hypothermia or hyperthermia.)
     
  5. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    Jamonte,

    As you say, the weather is the key to the whole thing. On calm days, a crossing like this is trivial for even a novice kayaker. During a storm, a crossing is impossible for even an expert. Between those extremes is where kayaking ability comes in.

    As a kayaker of meager ability, I only do big crossings or open-water paddling in winds of 15 knots or less. Here's how I prepare my forecast for paddling in Washington waters:

    First, I go on Windy TV to watch the wind speeds and surface pressure systems. Starting a day or two in advance of my trip, and continuing a day or two after, I watch the wind and pressure animation at various scales: a close scale to determine local wind speeds, a medium scale to check for wind hazards nearby (that might abruptly sneak into my area during the trip), and a distant scale to get a sense for how the surface pressure systems are moving towards me across the ocean.

    Then, I read the National Weather Service area forecast discussion for western Washington. I correlate the NWS’s discussion of pressure systems and fronts with what I observed in the Windy TV animation. I repeat as necessary until I have an understanding of what weather is happening and why for the next few days, both in my kayaking area and in the wider region.

    Next, I go to the NWS marine zone forecast maps to read the zone forecast (which includes windspeed and wave height) for the area where I’ll be paddling. Usually, I also read the marine zone forecasts for the next two closest zones, as well. The purpose of this exercise is to give me a clearer sense of what the big-picture weather movements I learned about above will feel like down at the local level. Often, I will go back and correlate once again what I see in the marine zone forecast with what Windy TV showed me.

    Occasionally, I also pull data from the National Data Buoy Center to study recent and current wave heights and windspeeds in my area. Again, the purpose is to assess how big-picture weather will manifest at the local level.

    Finally, the night before a trip, I go to the NWS detailed forecast page, which provides highly detailed three-day forecasts over tiny areas—a couple hundred yards square. I click around a few areas to confirm that the localized forecast for where I’ll be paddling is consistent with the forecast I’ve generated through Windy TV, the western Washington forecast discussion, the marine zone forecast, and the buoys.

    I come away from this exercise with a rich understanding of how the weather will be working over the course of my trip. Weather can change without warning if you don’t know what weather systems are in your area or on their way. But if you’ve taken care to track not just the local forecast but also the large-scale weather movements, it’s rare that you will be surprised.

    Once I’ve assured myself that the local weather for my big crossing will be within acceptable margins, and that there are no systems or fronts nearby or on their way that may disturb things, I approach the crossing with total confidence. For this Haro Strait crossing, I was confident enough in the calm weather that I wore my drysuit rolled down to my waist, like the world’s ugliest pair of pants. Like you, I hate wearing a drysuit, even in fall. I take any excuse to avoid buttoning up. Jeans and a long-sleeved shirt is the way to go.

    As for commercial ships, I don’t regard them as a big deal. I am constantly looking around on the water to see birds, so it’s rare that a ship sneaks up on me. When I see one coming, I just keeping paddling my course in a straight line, watching the ship until it gets close, and once it’s within about five minutes’ travel time of me, I point my nose toward it and paddle slowly forward. That way, if the ship changes course to threaten me, I can detect the maneuver in time to dodge. The beam of even a big ship is only about 30 meters or so. I can sprint that distance pretty darn quickly if I have to. I never announce my presence by radio, monitor call-in channels, or carry a radar reflector

    Alex
     
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  6. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

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    This is gold. Alex's advice to paddle directly at the bow of an oncoming ship is the key point. In open water with no possibility of ranging on landmarks, use your steady course and any deviation of the ship just jumps right out. Counterintuitive. Takes guts, first few times.

    In open water, rapidly moving, highly maneuverable pleasure craft are far more hazardous to kayakers than freighters.
     
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  7. jamonte

    jamonte Paddler

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    Alex, thanks so much for your detailed reply. I will definitely check out WindyTV as I've never heard of that site. It is great to see you explain your in-depth methodology for assessing weather risks, and your overall view pretty much matches my own. One of my favorite sayings is that on a calm day, a rank beginner could round Cape Scott in a rec boat while on a big weather day, a team of Star 5 Coaches wouldn't survive the trip. Weather is everything, but to someone unfamiliar with our waters, it might seem like the Salish Sea is essentially benign. Especially on a sunny day.

    I also like your idea of wearing a drysuit at half-mast, then pulling it over if conditions worsen. I will have to give it a try to see if I can do this in difficult conditions. In Baja, I often paddled without my spray deck, again to keep from overheating. Before the trip, I practiced pulling my skirt over my head and fixing it around the combing while at sea. Once I knew I could do this without much risk of dumping, I felt a lot better about leaving the beach with the top down. When you're paddling solo, there's so little room for error you have to practice every single technique and back-up technique in challenging conditions or your contingency plan really isn't worth much.

    Dave, I agree that private motorboats are by far the bigger hazard compared to commercial traffic. Commercial vessels are relatively predictable, but what makes them dangerous is their deceptive speed. With perfect visibility, a 50 foot high vessel is just barely visible from the seat of a sea kayak when it is seven nautical miles away, (due to the curvature of the earth.) Yet, if it's traveling at a speed of 30 knots, it will cover that distance in less than 15 minutes... the time it takes me to paddle one nautical mile. While crossing shipping lanes, I am constantly scanning the horizon (360 degrees) and monitoring all traffic. In a few minutes' time, everything can change.
     
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  8. nootka

    nootka Paddler

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