Kayak Bill Camps

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by chodups, Oct 21, 2017.

  1. chodups

    chodups Paddler

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    At one point or another every paddler who travels the BC coastal waters hears about Kayak Bill Davidson. For me it came on August 4, 2005 in the Shearwater bar at the culmination of my first coastal kayaking trip with Dave Resler, Keith Blumhagen and Larry Longrie. Having run out of food we had cut our trip short and paddled in from Quinoot Point. We were feasting on pizza and beer when a dark haired, sunburnt man walked up to our table and sat down. He smiled and introduced himself as Keith Webb. We poured him a beer.

    He had something to tell us that he simply had to get out. He began recounting the trip that he had just completed following in the wake of Kayak Bill. He told us how Bill had established camps at remote locations on the coast while living a semi-hunter/gatherer life style for 28 years and how he had just returned from visiting some of those camps. We poured him another beer. He talked for hours about Bill’s journals, charts, windscreens, fire stands and many camp sites. Keith’s friend Brian Clerx showed up so we poured him a beer, too. Brian lived nearby and talked about his friend, Bill Davidson. He told us how Bill had spent a couple months each year painting in a cabin on his property in order to finance his next ten months of living off the grid. He told us about the boardwalk and trail that Bill had built through the forest for his daughter and invited us to his home to view one Bill’s paintings. I was intrigued.

    Fresh from his trip Keith submitted an article about Bill to Sea Kayaker Magazine where it was posted online. https://web.archive.org/web/20130624123958/http://www.seakayakermag.com/2005/Oct05/KayakBillReq.htm

    Over the next two years Keith and I stayed in touch and I learned more about Bill Davidson and the life he lived. When Dave Resler and I returned to the coast in 2007 we had eight Kayak Bill camps marked on our route that would start in Klemtu and end at Shearwater. On that trip we discovered that what Bill labeled as a “Bivi Camp” was not always a desirable campsite and contained no obvious infrastructure. In fact, some the spots he marked as Camps took a vivid imagination, lots of determination to find and showed little if any signs of his passing. Often there was nothing to see and in most cases there were much better, albeit, well known and obvious places to camp. Many were just sites he used as stopovers on his way from one real camp to another. Some camps we could not find at all.

    Continued..........



     
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  2. Yeti

    Yeti Paddler

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    Brandon Pullan is apparently working on a book about Billy Davidson, following on from his early life as a climber.
     
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  3. chodups

    chodups Paddler

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    I have been eagerly awaiting the release of Brandon's book. I expect that it will answer a lot of questions that I have.
     
  4. chodups

    chodups Paddler

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    Dallas Island was one of Bill’s primary camps. At ~21NM from Shearwater it was midway to his camps on Aristazabal. Dallas is located along the eastern edge of Milbanke Sound and at the entry to Finlayson Channel where it provided superb shelter and a clear view of conditions on Milbanke Sound prior to committing to crossing over to Higgins Passage. It was a one or two day paddle from his shack on Brian Clerx’s property that he referred to as “Denny Island Camp”. By leaving Shearwater near the turn to ebb he could get to the Ivory Island / Blair Inlet complex at the turn to flood. This would give him a push north to Dallas for the final 7 NM. If conditions or tides didn’t cooperate there were bivy camps scattered along Seaforth Channel and a couple of camps in Blair Inlet where he could hole up.

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    In 2007 Dave, Greg and I stayed at the Dallas Island Camp. Bill had spent eight days here in June 2003 on his way out to his more remote camps and had spent two more nights in October on his way back to Denny Island Camp. He was headed back to Shearwater to do some painting and resupply for what would turn out to be his last trip. He had just two months to live.

    The camp was still in decent shape and we were astonished to find a narrow boardwalk that left his shelter and wandered through the forest. At a fork in the boardwalk was a signpost with fanciful carved arrows pointing in both directions. There was no lettering on the arrows to suggest where they led but choosing the right fork we found a platform built over a freshwater seep surrounded by Skunk Cabbage. It was Bill’s water supply. Following the other fork we found that it branched across the island and led up the hill.

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    Ramps, stairs and flat catwalks wound through the forest in ways that suited Bill. Seldom direct and often incredibly indirect to visit a favorite tree or to cross a ravine that didn’t need to be crossed. The boardwalk was constructed of available materials. Some of the stairways that climbed up the hillsides were made from round sections of logs cut to length and set into the ground. Handrails were the norm and were built of long straight-ish sections of driftwood while the upright standards were often twisted and appeared to have been purposefully chosen for their artistic value rather than their function. Some trees that had fallen across ravines had been shaved flat to provide a walking surface. Some exhibited a cross-hatch pattern that had been hand-carved for traction while others had crushed shells pressed into their surface to provide secure footing. One large sloping tree bridge had shallow stairs cut into it which could have only been accomplished with a ridiculous amount of effort. Part of the path was constructed of 16 foot lengths of 4 x 12 lumber that he had found somewhere. These pieces of lumber were very heavy and placed far into the forest. He had to drag them for hundreds of yards along a winding up-and-down boardwalk to set them in place. It had all taken a tremendous amount of time and labor. Hung along the trail at strategic distances and at head height were small pieces of brightly colored plastic doo-dah flotsam to mark the way. He had a large pile of them stored at his camp.

    Due to soaking rainfall and our non-waterproof cameras we took just one photo that failed to show anything of what we had seen.

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    Two years later while paddling the Outside Passage Dave, Greg and I stopped off at Dallas Island to eat lunch and see how the camp was faring. Blessed with sunny weather I intended to take all of the images that I hadn’t taken on my last trip. A bright new blue tarp had replaced the old and smoke stained one but the “trail” to the boardwalk showed no sign of foot traffic and was blocked by a fallen tree. Picking my way through the branches and over a tree trunk I searched for any sign that would point the way but the forest had overtaken the trail. The path was no more. I retreated to Bill’s shelter and looked around. The fire stand had been disassembled and replaced with a crude fire ring that was littered with beer cans. The bed and bench were no longer in place. Bill’s piles of odd and carefully sorted flotsam were scattered or gone altogether. The windbreak had been modified and whole sections were missing, again, probably cut up and burned as firewood.

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    On August 1, 2017 I stopped at Dallas for the night. I was expecting the worst but was pleasantly surprised to find that someone had put a tremendous amount of work into cleaning the camp up. The frame of Bill’s shelter was in place and some of the windscreen was still standing. Large pieces of wood that I recognized as furniture components had been pulled out of the camp and neatly stacked nearby. The fire ring remained but all trash was gone. Curious about the cleanliness of the site I searched the edges of the beach and forest and found the trash piled behind a large log and covered with a blue tarp. In some plastic buckets I noted bits and pieces of Bill’s life style that would be hauled off and disposed of. Just as well as it looked like garbage.

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    Through the efforts of others, the site has been returned to a fairly pristine condition and the cleanliness will discourage power boaters from littering. Once again it is a very nice place to camp. My hat is off to whoever put the effort into making this site whole again.

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  5. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

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    Great job of documentation, man. Photos of the trail remnants and your narrative suggest a dedicated, perhaps obsessive degree of attention toward leaving his mark.
     
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  6. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    Jon,

    Thank you for posting this wonderful memory of your search for the relics of Kayak Bill. Kayak Bill somehow manages to touch many people's lives, including those like myself who never met him, even long after he is gone. There is something fascinating in his character that endures. To live the life of solitude and independence that he did strikes me as larger than human. I'm glad that you and the anonymous cleaners of his camp are keeping his memory alive. It is a great service to the paddling community and anyone else who admires Bill's greatness of spirit.

    Keith Webb and Neil Frazer's 2005 Sea Kayaker articles were a big inspiration for me, so much so that I dedicated a 2011 Inside Passage solo to thinking about Kayak Bill's life. Sea Kayaker published an account of that trip as "The Dilemma of Solitude," which I will link here as a contribution to your commemoration of this remarkable person:

    http://paxriverkeeper.org/prk/file/SK_DEC_2012-DLD.pdf
    ("Dilemma of Solitude" begins on pg. 14)

    Alex
     
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  7. chodups

    chodups Paddler

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    Alex,
    I have the edition with your article handy and read it again a couple of weeks ago. So interesting how your adventure turned into something so unexpected and pivotal. I've been in touch with Keith and Neil recently.
     
  8. chodups

    chodups Paddler

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    Tiny Roar Islet is tucked into Blair Inlet and protected from most of the unpleasantness that can occur on Milbanke Sound. I suspect that prior to the establishment of the Dallas Island Camp this was Bill’s primary staging and receiving site for comings and goings with the outer coast. He planned camps to be about 25 miles apart and set up what he called “intermediate camps” or “bivy camps” in between. There were several of these camps set up along both sides of Seaforth Channel. I think that after the establishment of Dallas Island Camp, Roar became an intermediate camp and probably didn’t see that much of Bill.

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    Located an hour north up Reid Passage was a log salvage operation that he called “Kevin’s Float Camp – Beachcomber”. In 1994 he dropped in for a visit and met a recent college grad who was working at the camp. Over time he would stop by to say “Hello” and enjoy a fresh cup of coffee. During one of these visits he told the young man that he was thinking about heading out to the Goose Group to get away from the tourist traffic.

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    Thirteen years later and fresh from our experiences at Dallas Island we entered Blair Inlet and searched Roar Islet for Bill’s signature windscreen. We found nothing. The islet is just 300’ x 150’ with 150’ of beach. How hard could this be? Two years later we searched again and netted the same results. Nothing. Then a photo posted by another kayaker of a “fire pit assumed to be Kayak Bill’s” confirmed that the camp had existed.

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    It wouldn’t be until my third visit to Roar Islet in 2012 that I found the entry into the site. His square fire pit lined with flat granite slabs was just barely peeking up through the ground cover in a tiny semi-clearing that was so well nestled into the trees that it had never needed a windscreen and was hidden to the degree that I had walked past it numerous times and never saw it. Some perfectly split pieces of cedar fire wood were scattered and peeking through the pine needles and salal. Pulling back the surface layer I found an odd collection of plastic bits and pieces that I was starting to associate with Bill’s life.

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    There were no other signs that the camp had ever existed and now, five years later I bet that it has been completely taken by the forest.
     
  9. chodups

    chodups Paddler

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    Years ago I read a 1992 account by Neil Frazer about a time that he and his wife stumbled upon Bill’s camp at Swordfish Bay. They were seeking shelter on a cold, rainy, miserable day and pulled into Swordfish hoping for the best. He described a tiny, well-tended camp beneath a tarp supported by driftwood. Not large enough to set up a tent but it contained a single bunk and a fire box made of large rocks. It was integrated into the islet to such a degree that it was hard to detect. The camp was scrupulously clean.

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    In 2007 while camped at Cultus Bay I paddled the 2 NM south for a look. I found that the entrance to Swordfish Bay is choked down by an islet and the tombolo that ties it to Hunter Island. The entrance on the west side of the islet is constricted with rocky shoals that act nasty with southerly swell and wind. The islet seemed the logical place for the camp so after touring the rest of the bay I landed on its bright gravel and shell beach. Not a windscreen in site. No wooden structure. Only a clearing barely large enough for a single tent just above the Spring Tide line. The ground cover was well over my head but I attempted to beat my way into the center of the islet. It was ridiculously difficult and didn’t seem to match Neil’s description. I did find Bill’s signature fresh water well consisting of a 5-gallon bucket with holes in the bottom buried in the ground but nothing else. No other signs of his occupation.

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    I returned again in 2009, 2012 and recently in August 2017. The tiny clearing remains but the bucket was and remains nowhere to be found. In August I took the time to bushwhack my way into the heart of the islet from the tiny clearing but, once again, found nothing. While searching the northwest corner of the islet along the edge of the tree line I found an area that made sense but didn’t show any of the usual signs of Bill’s camps. No ropes or large lumber. No windscreen but one may not have existed at this camp. It made sense because it was very close to where I had found the bucket-well in 2007. It was about the right size for a clearing to be but the beach is composed of large rocks and wouldn’t be kayak-friendly.

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    I appreciate the strategic location of Swordfish Bay and find it to be one of the most compelling solo campsites on the coast. I suspect that it was an early camp that Bill created on his northward migration from Echo Bay and that it became a secondary camp when he pushed out to Goose. I’ll be back.

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  10. chodups

    chodups Paddler

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    Extended Point had strategic value as a staging site for comings and goings from Calvert Island and crossings of Smith Sound. It is southernmost camp that I have visited. I’m sure that Bill had camps between there and the Broughtons but I haven’t heard anyone talk about them. Perhaps he didn’t build any and just used camps established by others. Do you know?

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    2009

    I first searched for the camp in 2009 when Dave Resler and I were southbound from Prince Rupert. I “knew” exactly where it was but we didn’t find anything. The top of the beach seemed too steep, the logs too high and the forest too thick. We came up empty. I knew that it was there someplace.​

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    Three years later I was on a solo trip from Klemtu to Port Hardy. I was positive that I would find it that time. It had to be hiding in plain sight right where I “knew” it was. I just needed to look more carefully. Quitting Calvert Island, I crossed Fitz Hugh Sound, made my way south towards Extended Point and cruised right into the same place. I looked high and low and finally, accepting defeat, I crossed Smith Sound and stewed over my failure.

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    2013​

    In 2013 Glenn Lewis and the Outer Coast Crew were finishing up their survey of Calvert Island and Queens Sound and they paddled right to it. They knew where it was. They had lunch, took photos, relaxed………Geoff Mumford took a number of photos that are featured here.

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    I had been close. Stubbornly close, which resulted in me missing the camp that was hiding in plain sight. With Geoff’s photos and Glenn’s direction I was able to paddle right to it. Upon arrival the tide was near high slack and the three tiny beaches were choked with floating logs that blocked access. Rolling, bumping, jostling. There was no way to land without fear of damaging my boat or body. I had been there twice before but 50 yards away and never looked in that spot.

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    I bobbed in the surge just out of harm’s way and thought about Bill Davidson living in this camp that was hidden in plain sight. It would not have been my first choice.

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  11. chodups

    chodups Paddler

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    “Cape Calvert Camp” is located in Grief Bay at the southern tip of Calvert Island. At just under 8 NM northwest of Extended Point it’s an easy paddle provided that conditions on Queen Charlotte Sound are accommodating.

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    The bay is protected by the Sorrow Islands that sit approximately 800 meters offshore and block unfriendly seas from almost all directions. If Extended Point was Maintenance Hell, Calvert Camp was Paradise as most large logs either drifted past Cape Calvert or got caught up on pocket beaches to the west. The logs that did make it into the bay collected mostly on the rocky west end of Grief Bay leaving the eastern end relatively clean and the forest accessible.

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    The beach is shallow and comprised of the bright, classic-Calvert sand that lends the bay its tropical look and feel. Unlike most of Bill’s camps Grief Bay features a stream with reliable water. I would be curious to learn how such a beautiful place was tagged with names like “Sorrow” and “Grief”.

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    Since few paddlers travel the outside of Calvert Island and Inside Passage kayakers tend to stick to the east side of Fitz Hugh Sound the beach gets very little traffic, a common characteristic of Kayak Bill camps.

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    I stayed at Grief Bay during a solo trip in 2012. After two days of navigating moderate seas along the outer coast south of Choked Passage I pulled into Grief Bay and was immediately greeted by calm winds and seas. It was a transition that was almost disorienting and it made me understand what a great camp this had to have been. Wind and seas could rage but in Grief Bay there was no drama.

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    The beach was over 700 meters wide and I wondered if I would be able to find Bill’s camp. Walking just below forest I was pleasantly surprised to find the signature windscreen so easily. It was just into the tree line about mid-beach. Close to the stream but not so close that he would have been mosquito bait. Typical Kayak Bill. He hated mosquitoes.

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    I broke through the tree limbs and salal to enter the camp. Many of the signature elements were obvious. The firestand stood uncomfortably close to the firewood rack. It seemed a bit awkward. The rack was half-full of custom fuel cut to the oh-so-perfect length.

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    I wondered why the rack and firestand were located as they were and saw that the trees that Bill had anchored his camp around were not as mature or large as those in some other camps. The layout of those trees hadn’t accommodated a nice open rectangular camp and created an odd angle that was responsible for the awkward placement. Salal had filled the camp so all small artifacts were gone. I am always curious to see what sort of odd stuff he found useful but the forest had taken it.

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    In my opinion it was a far nicer choice for a camp than Extended Point. I believe that the two camps were probably active during the same period as he traveled north and south and used in conjunction with a mysterious camp that he built in Mustang Bay.
     
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  12. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

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    Jon, much appreciation for the field work and careful recording of Bill's travels and camps. He was a unique piece of history for devotees of his chunk of the BC coastline. Idiosyncratic, deliberate, careful, determined. Would that he had lived.
     
  13. chodups

    chodups Paddler

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    Mustang Bay is on the southeast edge of Hunter Island just off Naulau Passage. “Mustang Bay Camp” is ~26 NM from “Cape Calvert Camp” and ~32 NM from “Extended Point Camp”. Close to that “25 miles between camps” mark that Bill preferred.

    From Mustang Bay to Swordfish Bay it is just over 12 NM that can be traversed with little exposure. Naulau Passage is benign in almost all conditions and some southerly exposure would come crossing Kildidt Sound to the Serpent Group then running in the lee to the Kitty Hawk Group. I suspect Bill stayed put when “conditions” were expected.

    All that I know about Mustang Bay is this description:

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    “On tiny island in a group of 3 in mouth of Mustang Bay (Hunter Island). Have to go for water via kayak. “Two unintelligle words” of wood, good clamming, nice spot, hard landing @ LW”.

    Two clusters of three islets fit the description. A northern group with the largest island at ~700 meters in length and a more southerly group with the largest at ~170 meters. They all look like hard landings could be expected under various tide levels and winds. Good clamming? Not sure where that would be unless it is on the largest of the 6 islets.

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    I’m not certain when this camp was in use. During the last year of his life he didn’t travel to the southern camps and I suspect this camp was more than a bivi camp but probably not a whole lot more. Since choice driftwood for constructing a major camp would not have been plentiful I would be surprised if I learned that there was a full windscreen. Also, the fact that the island had no water source would be very inconvenient.

    It’s on a part of the coast where my travels don’t take me and searching those islets could be very time consuming and unrewarding. I doubt that I will ever go have a look but if you have information or are interested in having a look-see please let me know.

    I would love to know more about this one as it is a mystery to me. Have you been there?
     
  14. mick_allen

    mick_allen Paddler & Moderator

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    I read
    as 'fair amount of wood'
     
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  15. chodups

    chodups Paddler

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    Excellent Mick! That never occurred to me. Maybe there was a windscreen there.