Shoulder season on the Sound: Hotham Sound


Feb 27, 2006
September 30, 2021

During the drive to Earl’s Cove, heavy rain showers coated the winding road with sheets of water a centimeter deep at times. It was uninspiring, but by the time we arrived at the ferry terminal, it had cleared.

As we approached Saltery Bay on our second ferry ride of the day, we could see Freil Falls (AKA Harmony Falls) in the distance off the starboard side. Shortly afterward, the ferry crew announced whales cavorting off the port side. I snapped a couple of photos of the “you can’t quite make it out, but this black blur is a whale” variety.

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By the time we’d landed it was late afternoon. Packing the boats for the first time on any trip always involves a couple of hours of faffing about, especially when you have to go park the car several hundred meters from the put-in after offloading. So we opted to car camp at Mermaid Cove that night, and make a single hop, all by daylight, to our intended destination at Elephant Point the next day.

October 1, 2021

What with a hearty breakfast and all the shuttle logistics, it was 12:30PM by the time we launched from Mermaid Cove. We landed an hour later at the Fairview Bay cabin for a pee and snack break. Half an hour later we were on our way again.

Launching from Mermaid Cove.jpg

PA020204 Fairview Bay Hut.jpg

As on previous trips, both Rhian and Melissia were paddling faster than me. Partially ‘cause I’m a couple of decades older, and partially because I was paddling my slower Tyee, having lent my Etain to Melissia for this trip. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!)

Shortly after leaving Fairview Bay the wind picked up enough for me to deploy my secret weapon - my Spirit Sail - and keep pace with them while paddle-sailing. It was wonderful for the ten glorious minutes it lasted until the wind died. Oh well, at least it gave Rhian a photo op. Besides, as we will see later, I had another trick up my drysuit sleeve.

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As we crossed St Vincent Bay and rounded Elephant Point, Melissia was moving at a pace that would have let her tow a waterskier up on plane.

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PA010300 Philip and Melissa with falls in the background.jpg

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I’d estimated three and a half to four hours travel time from Mermaid Cove to the camp on the northeast side of Elephant Point, and was childishly delighted when we landed at 16:00, bang on the low end of my window.

This left us lots of daylight to rig our tents complete with overtarps and to hang a kitchen/dining room tarp from the frame of the outfitter’s kitchen. (An online search had suggested the commercial tours that used to use this site haven’t run a trip in a couple of years, so we’d been confident we wouldn’t be in conflict with other users on a shoulder season weekend, and so it proved.) The frame fit my Guide’s Tarp as though custom-made for it.

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October 2, 2021
As expected, rain in the night. I managed to time my morning hair wash and toilet run during dry spells.

As I was setting up my gravity water filter after a run to the creek, I happened to glance down into the metal sink the outfitters had installed as part of their setup. Next to the filter-blocked drain, a tiny mouse was huddled into an unmoving crouch. I blew gently on him several times and he did not stir, so I’d assumed he was already dead. But when Melissa fished him out on the edge of a paddle blade, he stretched weakly. We set him down in the bush hoping he might yet make it, but when we checked later, he lay rigid on his back, all four paws in the air. So sad to think of him falling into the sink, scrabbling desperately to get out, then eventually curling up to die of hunger and exposure, the tiny heart beating ever slower as the spark of life ebbed.

On a much happier note, we feasted on a superb brunch of homemade hash cubed potatoes, corned beef and eggs. Pro tip: if you want to eat like royalty on a paddle trip, be sure your crew includes a former pro chef like Melissa.

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With the rain falling in a way the Irish would call “soft”, we suited up for a daytrip across to the falls. They were hugely impressive, even more so from closeup. Rhian and I agreed they had to be at least a Class 5+, given the limited opportunities to eddy out on the way down river.

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PA030244 the falls with kayakers for scale.jpg

After an impromptu onwater lesson in compass navigation with me showing Rhian and Melissa how to use “paddle shaft” sliding to determine a magnetic course back to camp, and how to transfer that to the deck compass, we paddled north along the east side of the Harmony Islands. As we rounded the north end of the archipelago, we spotted what we took to be the provincial campsite there, and congratulated ourselves on having a much better site at “home” with easier launching and landing, and more tent/tarp space.

PA030262 heading east up the Harmony Islands.jpg

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As we approached landfall back at camp, I was rather less far behind than usual. Just offshore, Melissa glided up, fixed me with a gimlet eye and asked “You were doing that trick of yours again, weren't you?” Yes, yes I was. The trick was waiting until the bright colours of our tarps were visible out to sea, noting the bearing to them on my deck compass, and using the changing bearing to determine we were being swept to port. I’d ferried right until the bearing to the tarps stayed constant. As a result, I’d been paddling more or less a straight line to camp, while Rhian and Melissa had gone in an arc to port and covered a greater distance. Oh well, even so, they were still a bit ahead of me, so we old folks are entitled to use whatever tricks we can to even the odds!

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We warmed up with rum-laced hot chocolate. Drink in hand, I sat and contemplated the cool, cloudy view up the sound, enjoying the three-part melody of the water: the rapid gurgle of the creek next to our camp, the gentle lap of the waves off the point, and the faint counterpoint hiss of the falls in the distance.
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PA030227 the falls from camp.jpg

As Rhian converted our dining room into a taco hut for dinner, we could see a black wall of rain coming down the sound for us. So after a full supper, topped off with hot steamed puddings and custard, we all retreated early to our tents. Pretty painless, given the cozy setup, the good books and the need to be up and on the water early the next day to catch our ferries.

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October 3, 2021

The massive bouts of heavy rain had played themselves out by the time we were breaking camp by headlamp in the morning, so we stayed nicely dry as we suited up and launched into a cool, gray morning.

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Just west of Culloden Point, we encountered numerous sea lions, all of whom were quite loudly huffy about us transiting their fishing grounds. Fortunately, this didn’t escalate to violence.

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The sun came fully out just as we passed the ferry launch. Rather good it hadn’t gone full solar earlier as we were layered for rain under our drysuits, and would have been “boil in bag” paddlers.

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We landed back at Mermaid Cove just after noon, well pleased to have explored new ground - and waters.