Kayak Bill Camps

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

  1. chodups

    chodups Paddler

    Nov 2, 2005

    Sometime in the early ‘90’s Bill had established a camp in the Goose Group. He built it to get away from “tourists”. It was both a natural and unfortunate choice. Natural in that Goose is very remote and requires a committed crossing that limited traffic and unfortunate in that he built it on a reserve near the north end of Duck Island. The reserve marked the site that had once been a seasonal harvesting village. After finding it destroyed twice he moved from Duck Island to Gosling Island and it was there that he would spend the last days of his life.

    The access to the Goose Group filtered out most casual visitors by requiring a significant crossing of Queens Sound or a northern approach with a crossing of Golby Channel. A typical crossing of Queens Sound is between 7 – 8 NM. Crossing Golby from the McMullin Group sounds pedestrian at 2 NM but the water through Golby can move surprising fast during medium to large exchanges and the addition of a typical wind component can make for a challenging transit that some may look at and choose to forego. Most of the traffic into Goose Anchorage consists of pleasure boaters passing through or locals from Bella Bella / Shearwater who motor out to camp and fish. During the ‘90’s there just weren’t that many kayakers out there.

    Bill had his camp at Swordfish Bay which required a 7.5 NM crossing and a camp somewhere on Horsfall Island that he described as a “Good complete camp (wet spot in rainy season)”. It doesn’t show up on the materials that I have gathered so I don’t know how distant it was from Goose but it would have reduced the exposure to ~5 NM. When he was on the move he favored his own camps but wasn’t tied to them and would use common camps when they made sense.

    On October 12, 2003 after four months away Bill Davidson paddled in from Cockle Bay to Denny Island and immediately started preparing for his final trip. He painted ~1/2 of the 29 days before departure and in the end had a $500 grubstake. He spent about half of it on debts, tobacco, supplies and $50 for a meat grinder. He had $260 left over and on his final evening “in town” he dined with his friends Brian and Andrea Clerx.

    Early on November 7th Bill departed Denny Island and paddled south down Hunter Channel against a rising tide. Passing through the Prince Group to Queens Sound he encountered moderate to strong northwesterly winds that made for a very rough crossing. He arrived at Gosling Island Camp near sunset and found the camp “used” and in need of repairs. The water seep was also “unusable” so he spent the next two days putting things back into order.

    Over the next two weeks he encountered two separate groups of hunters and saw a number of deer near camp. He built a trail to the SE beach, hunted deer and engaged in standard camp improvements. The weather was typical and borderline nasty for the next four weeks with strong winds, showers, freezing rain and hail.

    On December 6th he reported overcast skies with moderate to strong east to southeast winds and light rain. Also of note were “Lower back & stomach pains”.

    Bill Davidson kept track of everything that affected him on any particular day. He religiously recorded the wind, rain and changes of both. He recorded any meaningful activity that he undertook, every out of the ordinary encounter, if he read, if he painted, how much money he received and what he spent it on, the number of candles he had left and what color they were, what the level of the water was in his wells, how many mice he saw raiding his camp, how many he eradicated, how many and what type of bugs were bothering him, what he ate, if he burnt garbage, what animals he saw and in many cases what time the moon rose or set.

    On Sunday December 7th Bill made his last entry when he journaled that the conditions were “overcast with light rain showers and light & variable winds. Fog & drizzle with light north to northwest winds by noon.” After that there was nothing more. There was nothing about winds in the evening, whether the moon was visible, what he did or what he ate. Lighthouse weather reported 6.1 C with winds N-NW @ 11kt gusting to 24kt. That afternoon, evening or perhaps the next morning the things that had mattered to Bill no longer did and he opted out.

    I have visited the Gosling Camp on two occasions, once in 2007 and again in 2012.

    Gosling Beach

    Both times I was struck by how remote the Goose Group seemed and yet what a toll traffic had taken on the group. There were regrettable signs of heavy and careless usage everywhere. Four years after his death the windscreen was standing and was clearly visible from our Snipe Island beach.

    230c GP.jpg
    Windscreen 2007

    His shelter stood with both tarps in place along with most major elements, including the firestand, in a mossy, shaded Hobbit Forest just above the beach.

    230a GP.jpg
    Shelter 2007

    Bits and pieces of his life were scattered about by people who had indiscriminately picked through Bill’s estate and discarded what they had no use for. The order that was displayed on Dallas was absent on Goose.

    230b GP.jpg
    Shelter 2007

    In 2012 I returned for a couple of days with the intent of camping nearby in the Hobbit Forest.

    095.JPG Shelter 2012

    I found that the windscreen was gone. It had been removed and used for firewood in the many large bon fires that had scarred the forest with charred wood and fire rings. The camp was trashed to the point that if you didn’t know what you were looking at you would never guess that it had once been someone’s home. Empty beer cans, whisky bottles, jackets, socks and general garbage littered the woods.

    Shelter 2012

    I combed the area looking for some personal item that might have been his and finally found a whisk hanging from a string that had most likely been used to whip up chapatis using flour, sea water and seal oil.


    I hope it is still hanging there.

    Last edited: Feb 20, 2018
  2. JKA

    JKA Paddler

    Jul 25, 2016
    Banks Peninsula, New Zealand
    Hi Jon,

    This is a fascinating tale of the archaeology of an amazing guy, about which I know nothing than what I have learned here. Someone who truly did step away from the "rat wheel" to live his own life.

    I may have missed it, but where did you gain your information on his camps, and his life as recorded? Is this a diary of his that you have?

    Thanks for exploring, and sharing your findings.


  3. chodups

    chodups Paddler

    Nov 2, 2005

    Thanks John,

    If you haven’t read Neil Frazer’s, Keith Webb’s and Colin Lakes articles on their experiences with Bill take a look on my blog where I have gathered them all in one place. (http://3meterswell.blogspot.com). These are folks who shared their personal experiences with me. I tracked down some of his Calgary climbing friends and a fellow who grew up with Bill in the orphanage and got some great information from them. Bits and pieces come together and sometimes people have sought me out to share something that they want me to know. Some of the folks I have been in contact with have shared amazing resources like some of his journals and charts or conversations that they had with Bill’s family and friends.

    His camps happen to be in an area that I paddle so I incorporate visits into trip planning and sometimes I find what I’m looking for, sometimes I find something else and sometimes I completely miss the mark.

    If you do a Google search for “Billy Davidson Canadian Climbing” or some such you come up with lots of information and photos of his life as an aid climber in Alberta and some exploits in Yosemite.
  4. chodups

    chodups Paddler

    Nov 2, 2005
    Camp II-001.JPG

    Camp II on Thistleton Island has eluded detection for over 13 years but was “found” in July 2018 by Glenn Lewis. It’s probable that Glenn was the first visitor the camp had seen since Bill pulled down the tarp and moved three kilometers southeast to establish Camp III. I don’t know when that move occurred but it was prior to 2003 as Camp III was fully in play that year.


    Armed with Bill’s charts Keith Webb searched Thistleton in 2005. No dice. Glenn had been there a few times in past years, once with the specific intent of finding the camp. Both Keith and Glenn struck out. The nice beach at the northeastern end of the narrow passageway seemed to call their names as well as those of any other visitors the island entertained. It was the obvious location with a friendly beach and was surely where the camp had existed but no camp was found.

    Glenn’s study of Bill’s charts overlaid with his personal coastal experiences, specific knowledge of some camp locations, descriptions of Bill’s fastidious detail including Colin Lake’s account of his eye for detail in “Breakfast with Kayak Bill” (https://3meterswell.blogspot.com/2017/11/breakfast-with-kayak-bill-by-colin-lake_24.html) convinced him to take a closer look at where Bill marked his camps on his typically low-tech charts. Bill had carefully marked the camp’s location on a section of shoreline that Glenn knew to be rocky and inhospitable and was ~120 meters from a friendly place to land so that’s where he would look.

    In July Glenn landed on Thistleton and started searching the shoreline fronted by the rocky beach.

    kb 2018 043.JPG
    image Glenn Lewis

    In the exact spot that Bill had marked the camp he pushed through the overgrown boughs and fallen debris and stepped into Camp II.

    kb 2018 037.JPG
    image Glenn Lewis

    It was rough, overgrown and didn’t reflect some of the sophistication in the basic elements that some other earlier camps exhibit.

    kb 2018 038.JPG
    image Glenn Lewis

    That makes me think that he didn’t view this camp as anything more than a secondary site until something better could be found.

    kb 2018 040.JPG
    image Glenn Lewis

    Camp I and Camp III were both cozier, more developed sites with friendly beaches used while he pushed out towards more isolated locations. Camp II was his first camp on the outside of Aristazabal and I think it was simply a forward post that he was happy to leave behind.
    stagger likes this.
  5. chodups

    chodups Paddler

    Nov 2, 2005
    chart_4-001 - Copy-001.jpg

    Glenn Lewis and I had been searching for this camp for years. We had a copy of Bill’s chart showing the location of the camp on an island less than a kilometer from the main campsite at the west end on Higgins Passage. ‘We had pretty good beta on the location but the site was confusing.

    Glenn had talked to a power boater who had met Bill at Higgins Passage and visited his camp. He described it as having no beach and set far enough back that it wasn’t visible from the water. Further, he mentioned that in spite of the lack of a beach Bill had concocted some means of dealing with his kayak.

    From the carefully placed ink dot that Bill used to locate the camp on his chart it was hard to discern exactly what he was pointing at. Glenn and I differed on where the camp would be and in 2017 I conducted an unsuccessful search that was cut short by the ebbing tide and an approaching weather system.

    In 2018 Glenn camped at Higgins Passage during a solo mission and searched about 600 meters of shoreline where it made sense that the camp would be based on the mark on the chart, the description of the man who described his visit with Bill and Glenn’s instincts on where a camp would be based on wind, weather and Bill’s choices. His search yielded no sign of Billy. Glenn has been to many of Bill’s camps in the past and knew how these camps disappeared in the forest so I was surprised that his search came up empty.

    It has often been said by others that Billy Davidson never carried a camera during his time on the coast but it turns out that is incorrect. Prior to leaving Calgary Bill was into filming and probably had some gear. When Brandon Pullan’s book on Billy comes out next year we will all learn more about this phase of his life but it would be safe to say that cameras were not unknown to him.

    Eight or nine years ago I established contact with a man who had grown up with Bill at the Wood’s Christian Home in Calgary. Following Bill’s wake, he ended up with many of his charts, journals and photos. Over the years he has shared parts and pieces with me but it wasn’t until last Winter that he offered a number of photos that Bill had taken at his camps. Most of them I could identify from previous visits while others suggested locations but lacked identifying factors. Four of the photos looked like the lagoon that I had searched at Higgins Passage in 2017. One photo was taken from the edge of the forest looking out towards the water where Bill’s kayak was in frame above the rocky shore and the entrance to the lagoon was obvious. With that information it was pretty easy to determine where the camp was and in July 2019 Glenn paddled into the lagoon on a 3.7 meter tide and stepped out on the steep rocky shoreline.

    After locating the cedar tree shown in Bill’s photo he started searching the edge of the forest. At first there were no signs of a camp but then 20 – 30 meters west of the Cedar tree he spotted a wooden step placed between the top of the beach and the upland forest. Stepping into the forest he spotted a coil of rope hanging on a limb where it had been placed at least 16 years prior. Clearing the salal that choked the path to the rope and another 5 – 10 meters of trail to the west he entered Higgins Pass Camp.

    Based on photos and the description provided by Glenn this camp was atypical in several respects of the camps Bill used during his latter years. Awkward and tide dependent beaches were not uncommon in Bill’s choices but this one seemed particularly tough. It is steep and bony making landings and boat handling difficult. Lagoon access is limited by tides. Recall that I was there with an ebbing 2.1 meter tide and had to leave before I was stranded by the falling water level. The camp seems to have been located far enough off of a normal choice for a beach that nobody would look there. When I took the photo of the clam garden below I had no idea that Bill’s camp was hidden in the clump of trees on the upper left.

    Higgins Lagoon Clam Garden 2017

    Billy’s journals make it clear that Higgins Pass Camp was a critical location in his plans. Strategically, it was ideal for crossing Laredo Sound to or from Aristazabal and beyond. It wasn’t a place where he camped for a night before continuing on. This was a place where he spent time.

    Why did he choose a location that was made inaccessible by tides?

    Was it just another brick in the wall that he built to isolate himself from the rest of the world?

    A place that nobody was going to find?

    Higgins 4.JPG
    Lagoon Beach at 3.7 Meter Tide
    image by Glenn Lewis

    Higgins 5.JPG
    Step and entry to the camp is on the left of the Alder Tree
    image by Glenn Lewis

    Higgins 15-001.JPG
    Camp Detail
    image by Glenn Lewis

    The fire stand is atypical. It is a design not appearing in any of his other camps, having a hard lid and that angled support. Different.

    Why aren’t there more stones lining the firebox?

    Why aren’t there any supports for the “bolts” or rods that normally support his grill?

    Higgins 16.JPG
    Fire Stand
    image by Glenn Lewis

    Why don’t the rocks and wooden components show more evidence of smoke?

    I hope to visit in July 2020. Maybe some questions will be answered.
    stagger likes this.
  6. drahcir

    drahcir Paddler

    Mar 26, 2010
    North Idaho (Sandpoint)
    I am not sure why I find Kayak Bill's kayak life so fascinating, but I do. I look forward to Brandon Pullan’s book, although it will likely focus on his climbing exploits (which I find less fascinating). Thanks to Jon and Glenn for their continuing detective work.
    chodups likes this.