Triangle Island, Cape Scott, BC 16–21 June 2022

alexsidles

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Joined
Jan 10, 2009
Messages
522
Location
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]

Triangle Island is the most remote island in BC, excepting the islands of Haida Gwaii. Haida Gwaii hardly counts as remote, though, in light of the thousands of people who live there, with their cars and ferries and planes. By contrast, Triangle Island has not had any permanent human inhabitants since pre-contact days. It is truly remote.

The absence of humans does not mean no one lives there. Triangle Island is actually quite densely inhabited. Over a million seabirds breed on this tiny, treeless island. It is the most significant seabird colony in BC, and one of the most significant in the entire eastern Pacific.

Triangle Island is the farthest seaward of the five Scott Islands that lie offshore of Cape Scott at the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island. The two most landward islands, Cox and Lanz, are large, forested islands lying six miles (10 km) and ten miles (17 km), respectively, off Cape Scott. Landing and camping are allowed on Cox and Lanz.

The next three islands, Beresford, Sartine, and Triangle Island, lie fifteen miles (24 km), twenty-one miles (33 km), and twenty-nine miles (46 km) off Cape Scott. These three islands are ecological reserves. Landing is prohibited. Each of the ecological reserve islands is also subject to a 300-meter boat exclusion zone, so it is not even lawful to approach closely without permission.

To reach Triangle Island, I staged on Lanz Island. From Lanz, I paddled some twenty-one miles to Triangle to visit the primary seabird colony at Puffin Rock, then paddled back to Lanz that same day.

00 Route map labeled cropped high.jpg

00 Route map. The San Josef River has the nearest road access to Cape Scott.

The long days of the summer solstice gave me more flexibility to travel where and when I wished. The first day, for example, I had originally planned to camp at the boat launch on the San Josef River, having just completed the twelve-hour drive from Seattle. Instead, there was still enough daylight to launch on the river and make it to the Helen Islands off Cape Russell, an isolated and beautiful site.

01 Launch on San Josef River.JPG

01 Launch on San Josef River. This muddy boat ramp is the closest point of approach for vehicles.

02 Paddling on San Josef River.JPG

02 Paddling on San Josef River. The river flows through a dignified old spruce forest.

03 Arriving at Helen Islets.JPG

03 Arriving at Helen Islands. At midnight, I was awoken by the howling of a family of wolves on nearby Cape Russell.

The transit from the Helen Islands to Lanz Island proved to be some of the most difficult paddling I’ve encountered, thanks to the confusing currents that prevail in the Scott Islands. The currents in the main channel off Cape Scott are straightforward: flood goes northeast, ebb goes southwest. Nearer the islands, however, the currents shift directions and swirl unpredictably, and the flood and ebb do not reverse 180 degrees. The speed of the currents also increases nearer the islands, from one or two knots to two or three knots. The swells and wind-waves are refracted and bent by the islands and the offshore reefs, such that the waves’ angle of approach constantly varies as the kayaker approaches. Tide races form in the vicinity of every channel and every point.

So long as I was in the main channel approaching Cox and Lanz, the currents posed no difficulty. Within two or three miles of Cox, however, the increasing velocity and changing direction of the currents, and a sudden increase in windspeed to fifteen knots, combined to thwart my final approach. I spent two hours trying to enter the mouth of the channel between Cox and Lanz, to no avail. The flood that had propelled me north was now relentlessly pushing me east and even a little bit south, preventing me from entering the channel.

I gave up the attempt and approached through the backdoor, paddling up the east side of Cox and entering the channel from the north rather than the south. This way proved feasible but exhausting. The flood’s east-setting component and the fifteen-knot wind were both on my nose across the top of Cox, but I made it into the channel before the dreaded ebb could begin, which would have pushed me southwest away from Cox Island into the open ocean.

The transit from the Helen Islands to Lanz Island would have been seventeen miles (27 km) under my original route. It was twenty-two miles (35 km) under the route I was forced to take, going around the east side of Cox Island. The twenty-two-mile transit took almost ten hours, the last four hours of which were spent just closing the final four miles to Lanz.

The sheer, unrelenting adversity had me angrily asking myself why I had even come to the Scott Islands. Why hadn’t I just gone to the Broughtons like a normal person?

My struggles to reach Lanz Island shook my confidence in the overall trip plan. The Triangle Island leg would involve a forty-two-mile (70 km) open-ocean paddle. If conditions to Triangle were anything like the final approach to Lanz, I would be on the ocean for at least a full overnight, possibly longer.

Compounding my worries was the thickness of the cloud cover. I had originally hoped to arrive at Triangle Island around dawn, when the seabirds would be most active. A dawn arrival would require a midnight launch from Lanz, paddling out to Triangle by moonlight. Unfortunately, the clouds were so thick the moon was totally obscured. All that came through was a dim, diffuse light, not bright enough to see approaching breakers or boomers. Shining a headlamp was worse than useless. It only blinded me from the glare reflected off the fog and drizzle.

04 Kayaking out of Helen Islets.JPG

04 Kayaking out of Helen Islands. The islands and coves around Cape Russell would, by themselves, justify the journey.

05 Distant view of Cox and Lanz Islands.JPG

05 Distant view of Cox and Lanz Islands. Islands peeking over the horizon exert a particularly powerful summons on kayakers.

06 Channel between Cox and Lanz Islands.JPG

06 Channel between Cox and Lanz Islands. Try as I might, I could not enter this channel during a flood.

07 Lanz Island landing beach.JPG

07 Lanz Island landing beach. I identified what I suspected was an ancient First Nations house site on the southern part of this beach, subsequently confirmed by a traditional knowledge and use study.

Having arrived exhausted on Lanz Island around five o’clock, I would need more than just a few hours’ sleep before facing the ocean again under such uncertain circumstances. I set up camp in a sheltered corner of Lanz Island’s long, sandy beach and took a full rest day the next day.

A day on the beach was just what I needed to restore my strength and my spiritual fortitude. I spent the morning birdwatching and tidepooling and the afternoon reading. I also mulled the complex problem of the tides, the winds, the sun, and the moon and came up with a strategy that I hoped would get me to Triangle Island and back.

08 Rest day on Lanz Island.JPG

08 Rest day on Lanz Island. There was plenty of fresh water on Lanz Island, which was good news for me, in that I had poured most of my drinking water into my car’s leaking radiator during the drive from Seattle.

09 Barnacles on Lanz Island.JPG

09 Barnacles and mussels on Lanz Island. A stranded kayaker could survive for weeks just foraging off the beach.

10 Sea stars on Lanz Island.JPG

10 Purple sea stars, Lanz Island. This species often assembles in clusters.

11 Orange sea star Triangle Island.JPG

11 Purple sea star, Lanz Island. This “ochre sea star” is a different color but the same species (P. ochraceus) as the purple.

12 Townsends warbler on Lanz Island.JPG

12 Townsend’s warbler, Lanz Island. This spectacular species is my favorite of the Pacific Northwest warblers.

13 Mink on Lanz Island.JPG

13 Mink rubbing in the sand, Lanz Island. Likely in 1938 or 1939, brothers Hans and Lars Fredricksen, settlers living on nearby Cape Scott, introduced mink to Lanz Island and raccoons to Cox Island, where the ravenous predators promptly eliminated all breeding seabirds from each island. The brothers then drowned at sea, leaving the mink and raccoons to roam wild to this day.

A midnight launch for Triangle Island was out of the question, due to the dimness of the moon. Instead, I launched at three o’clock in the morning, taking advantage of the tail end of the flood to ascend northward out of the channel between Cox and Lanz Island. At all costs, I wanted to avoid the south end of the islands, where, as I had learned during the transit to Lanz, the flood would push me relentlessly eastward and the ebb would push me too far south.

Having cleared Lanz Island in the predawn darkness, I caught the turn to ebb for the long transit to Triangle Island. The ebb’s west-setting component was stronger than its south-setting component, except in the vicinity of the islands. By offsetting my heading thirty to forty-five degrees north of Triangle, I could work my way toward the island crabwise. Tide races and refracted or curved swells near Beresford and Sartine Islands still tended to throw me off-course, but at least I was able to make progress.

Alcids were present in small numbers everywhere in the Scott Islands, but it wasn’t until I was west of Beresford that I began to see large numbers, especially of common murres, rhinoceros auklets, and tufted puffins. Most precious to me were the Cassin’s auklets, of which more than half the entire world’s population breeds on Triangle Island. Cassin’s auklets generally forage far at sea, so their presence is a sign that a kayaker has come to a remote and unusual place.

Gradually, Triangle Island emerged from the haze and took shape. The island is high and pyramidical in shape, with a century-old, abandoned lighthouse plinth on its highest peak. The island’s slopes are steep and emerald grassy-green, perfect habitat for burrow-nesters like the puffins and auklets. The beaches are steep and rocky, and home to Canada’s largest rookery of Steller sea lions (and the world’s second-largest rookery). Even from a kilometer at sea, I could hear and smell the sea lions growling and jostling for space on the beach.

A mile or so east of Triangle Island is a small cluster of rocks, so obscure that they don’t show up on Google Earth’s imagery of the area. Two dozen sea otters were hauled out here, the first time I have seen this species on land other than in captivity. From a distance, I assumed they were baby harbor seals, albeit very dark in color. Not till they slid into the water and began spyhopping did I recognize them as sea otters.

14 Sartine Island seen from kayak.JPG

14 Sartine Island seen from kayak. Sartine Island looks and feels like the back of beyond, but it’s still only halfway between Lanz and Triangle.


15 Triangle Island seen from sea.JPG

15 Triangle Island looms from fog. Tide races around the rocks a mile east of the island were particularly large and confusing.

16 Steller sea lion rookery Triangle Island.JPG

16 Steller sea lion rookery. Unlike the haulout sites familiar to all Pacific Northwest kayakers, this is a true rookery, a ground for birthing pups.

17 Plinth of lighthouse.JPG

17 Plinth of lighthouse, const. 1910, dismantled 1920. At 700 feet above sea level, the lighthouse was so frequently shrouded in haze that it was rarely visible to mariners.

18 Tufted puffins off Triangle Island.JPG

18 Tufted puffins off Triangle Island. Triangle Island is by far the largest tufted puffin colony outside Alaska.

19 Rhinoceros auklets and tufted puffins off Triangle Island.JPG

19 Rhinoceros auklets and tufted puffins off Triangle Island. Some 80,000 rhinoceros auklets breed here, and some 60,000 tufted puffins.

20 Common murres and tufted puffins Triangle Island.JPG

20 Common murres and tufted puffins off Triangle Island. Common murres are abundant in Oregon and Alaska, less so in BC and Washington.

The big bird attraction on Triangle Island is the arctic species that nest here. Triangle Island is home to the eastern Pacific’s southernmost breeding pairs of horned puffins, thick-billed murres, and northern fulmars. One of my main purposes in kayaking out this far was the hope of seeing one of these rarities.

Fulmars actually forage in our offshore waters year-round, where they are not hard to spot during pelagic trips. I’d previously seen horned puffins in Glacier Bay and Haida Gwaii. Thick-billed murres would be a life bird for me.

My research before the trip had led me to believe that Puffin Rock, off the southwestern corner of Triangle Island, would be the best spot for thick-billed murres. About 6,000 common murres breed on Puffin Rock. Mixed in with this giant colony are a dozen or so thick-billed murres, first detected in 1981 by Anne Vallée herself.

Common murres and thick-billed murres are difficult to distinguish at a distance, and I was bound by the 300-meter boat exclusion. I was bobbing in the bay off Puffin Rock, glassing every murre that flew by, when the Triangle Island cabin crew came up on the radio. They were a four-person team of bird biologists manning a research station on the island, and they invited me ashore. I was grateful for the break, grateful for the company, and grateful for the permission to access.

The researchers had been coming to Triangle Island for years. They were mainly focused on the nocturnal burrow-nesters, the rhinoceros and Cassin’s auklets, but they knew all about the horned puffins, thick-billed murres, and northern fulmars.

I, in turn, was able to interest them with a sighting of a pair of ancient murrelets offshore of Triangle Island, a possible (possible!) indicator that this species may be breeding in very small numbers on the island. If confirmed on Triangle, this would be yet another southernmost breeding species for the island, although there are unconfirmed breeding reports from as far south as Washington.

The researchers sent me right to the best spot for horned puffins and thick-billed murres. Sadly, the murre colony on Triangle Island is in a state of collapse. For nearly a decade, no chicks have fledged here. The researchers believe there are too many eagles spooking the adults. As a result, there were no murres at all on the breeding rock, although there were plenty in the water.

In the bouncy waters off Puffin Rock, I was unable to pick out any thick-billed murres among the vast flocks of common murres. I did, however, spot two horned puffins flying out from high on the bluff, just where the researchers had pointed me. I’m proud to have become one of the few people to have seen the eastern Pacific’s southernmost breeding horned puffins.

21 Kayaking into south bay Triangle Island.JPG

21 Kayaking into south bay, Triangle Island. There is almost no flat ground anywhere on the island, although the researchers tell me it is not too difficult to walk the ridgelines once you have ascended the slopes.

22 Research cabin Triangle Island.JPG

22 Research cabin, Triangle Island. Power from solar, water from a spring.

23 Research crew Triangle Island.JPG

23 Research crew, Triangle Island. This crew was on day three of their ten-day shift.

24 Tufted puffin flying off Triangle Island.JPG

24 Tufted puffin flying off Triangle Island. Puffins are often curious about kayaks and swoop close.

25 Horned puffin Triangle Island.JPG

25 Horned puffin, Triangle Island. One of the handsomest seabirds in the Pacific.

26 Flock of common murres Triangle Island.JPG

26 Flock of common murres, Triangle Island. It’s not clear what will become of this population if they cannot find a way to resume breeding.

27 Sooty shearwater offshore Triangle Island.JPG

27 Sooty shearwater off Triangle Island. This species was the only tubenose I encountered—not even any storm-petrels, which breed on Triangle.

I ran into trouble on the way back to Lanz Island. There must be some kind of time zone error in my electronic map, because my GPS subtracted two hours from the time of day just as I was arriving at Triangle Island. I didn’t notice the switch. Instead, I wrongly believed that it was much earlier in the day than I had thought and that I had made much better time to Triangle Island than I had expected. These two erroneous beliefs made me think I could spend all morning socializing and birdwatching at Triangle Island and still make it back to Lanz with time to spare.

I only noticed the error during my return, when, a mile or so east of Triangle, the GPS added back the two hours it had earlier taken away. Until this moment, I had thought I was in the early stages of the favorable, east-setting flood current, which I would need to reach Lanz. I had also assumed, based on the erroneous time-zone shift, that it would be a transit of six hours or so—plenty of time to reach Lanz before the flood ran out. In reality, I now discovered, the flood was already almost half over, and my morning transit had taken eight hours, not six. At that rate, I would lose the flood long before I reached Lanz Island.

Losing the flood would be catastrophic. Once the ebb began, it would pull me southward and westward. The southward pull could be resisted at the cost of some forward speed, as I had demonstrated during my transit to Triangle, when I used a crabwise heading, but the west-setting current would be directly adverse. With my speed already reduced by the crabwise heading, I would have no chance to reach Lanz Island, or, indeed any other island, before nightfall. I would be stranded at sea in the dark, unable to reach any point of land.

The only thing to do was to power to Lanz as fast as possible, before the flood ran out. Every minute of delay now would mean an extra minute of fighting the ebb later, and the ebb would only grow stronger with time. I put the hammer down for twenty miles, at times reaching speeds of seven miles per hour, and even then, the ebb caught me a few miles short. I faced an agonizing, yard-by-yard crawl across the top of Lanz, the adverse current strengthening every second, until I finally reached the channel and coasted south to my old, familiar beach.

Yet again, I was shaken by how easily the currents in the Scott Islands had jammed me up. I had learned to fear the flood on Friday during my initial approach to Lanz Island, and now I had also learned to fear the ebb. For my return to Vancouver Island, I was particularly worried that the ebb’s powerful west-setting component would make it impossible to reach the island, notwithstanding the ebb’s beneficial south-setting component.

I decided I was more worried about missing Vancouver Island entirely than I was about missing any particular destination on Vancouver Island, such as San Josef Bay. With that thought in mind, I departed in the morning on the flood, counting on its east-setting component to carry me to Vancouver Island even at the cost of having to fight its north-setting component. Sure enough, I was able to hug Vancouver Island just off Lowrie Bay, making slow but steady progress against the flood until I reached San Josef Bay.

Cape Russell discombobulated me with its minefield of rocks and boomers, which I entered when the current was running so fast I could only make a mile and a half per hour to the good. At that speed, I wasn’t able to maneuver to avoid obstacles, so I had to be careful about my route through the various dangers. Just when I finally hit the right angle between the Winifred and Helen Islands, a gray whale surfaced in my path, blocking the only clear path through!

28 Departing Lanz Island through kelp patch.JPG

28 Departing Lanz Island through kelp bed. Cox Island looms in the background through the mist.

29 Sea otters in kelp at Lanz Island.JPG

29 Sea otters in kelp, Lanz Island. I had somehow gained the idea there were few or no sea otters in the Cape Scott region, but in fact I saw dozens, including off VI and off each of the Scott Islands.

30 Sea otter San Josef Bay.JPG

30 Sea otter, San Josef Bay. Such incredibly handsome animals.

31 Cape Scott seen from ocean.JPG

31 Cape Scott, seen from ocean. You know you’ve been kayaking in a remote location when Cape Scott, of all places, feels well-populated and hospitable.

32 Approaching Cape Russell.JPG

32 Approaching Cape Russell. Beware the currents and reefs.

Arriving late in the day, I was too tired to begin the drive back to Seattle. I camped out one last night, this time on the beach in San Josef Bay. This turned out to be a fortuitous stop, as the beach was one of the loveliest I’ve encountered anywhere. It was pouring rain, but I discovered a pair of large caves at the north end of the beach where I could take shelter and watch the water come down.

The spruce forest in San Josef Bay is truly ancient: not just individual trees that are centuries old, but multiple centuries-long generations of trees, as evidenced by the species composition and stand structure. In our part of the world, we don’t have pyramids or the like to remind us of the vast breadth of time, but our forests can serve as that reminder, if we just leave them alone.

33 Entering cave San Josef Bay.JPG

33 Entering sea cave, San Josef Bay. At high tide, most of the floor of this cave floods.

34 Larger of the two caves at San Josef Bay.JPG

34 Larger of the two sea caves, San Josef Bay. You almost expect to encounter a dinosaur in a place like this.

35 Maidenhair ferns dangle from cave roof.JPG

35 Maidenhair ferns. Ferns dangled from the ceilings and mouths of the caves like lacy curtains.

36 On the beach in San Josef Bay.JPG

36 Alex on the beach, San Josef Bay. Crossing the San Josef River bar is easier the higher the tide is.

The Scott Islands, and Triangle Island in particular, are a wonderful place to disappear for a few days. The kayaking is hard enough to demand real attention and planning without being so challenging that it feels overwhelming. The islands look and feel like ancient wildernesses, the sort of place a modern person does not often venture.

As beautiful as the island were, it was the wildlife that stole the show. The day I went to Triangle Island, I saw eight alcid species in a single day: common murre, marbled murrelet, pigeon guillemot, rhinoceros auklet, Cassin’s auklet, ancient murrelet, tufted puffin, and horned puffin. I’d never previously seen more than six species in a day, even in Alaska.

Mammals were everywhere, both on land and at sea. Besides the family of wolves, which I only heard, I saw: mule deer, black bear, mink, river otter, sea otter, Steller sea lion, harbor seal, harbor porpoise, gray whale, and Pacific white-sided dolphin.

More than just the diversity, it was the sheer abundance that was delightful. Seeing so many animals thriving together makes me think the planet might turn out all right in the end.

Alex

[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]
 
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mick_allen

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"Triangle Island is the most remote island in BC . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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wow.
 

CPS

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Oct 27, 2020
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BC
Wow! What a feat.

Great to follow along and great pictures too.
 

AM

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Jan 30, 2006
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Location
Vancouver
Alex, that is your most impressive trip report yet! Amazing photos. Twice I’ve tried to get out to the Scott Islands with friends, only to by stymied by wind — your report on the currents confirms that we made the right decision not to go for it. But to paddle to Triangle and back….that is quite incredible.

Cheers,
Andrew
 
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a_c

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Dec 23, 2014
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Victoria, BC
Wow, what a trip. Thanks for this wonderful report.

Alex, I'm curious what kind of camera you use. It's obviously a higher quality DSLR, above the normal point-and-shoot that so many of us carry. How do stow it safely and have it ready to use to take such great shots, especially of the wildlife?
 

alexsidles

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Jan 10, 2009
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Seattle WA
Thanks for the kind words, everyone.

Andrew, this trip was only possible because I had such good luck with the wind. The difference between the fifteen-knot headwind on Friday (Helen to Lanz) versus the five-knot headwind on Sunday (Lanz to Triangle and back) was huge.

Besides luck, the other important factor was that I had budgeted five whole days for this trip, without attempting to squeeze in any additional destinations beyond the Scott Islands. Yes, I was tempted to visit Guise Bay and the cape, but I stayed focused on the islands, and that proved to be a wise choice. Without the rest day on Saturday, I would have been too tired and demoralized to make the attempt on Triangle.

According to John Kimantas's most recent guidebook, "Attempting to reach Triangle Island ... would be foolhardy for paddlers." I don't think things are quite that dire. In low wind and with good planning around the currents, it's a totally doable adventure. In ancient times, people didn't think twice about paddling to Triangle Island. The TKUS I mentioned in my trip report documents four shell middens and a house platform on Triangle. They must have been coming for centuries.

Paddlers still occasionally come even today. Mark Hipfner has been the director of the research station on Triangle Island since 2001. He told me he saw two other kayakers at Triangle Island three years ago. He even asked if I was one of those same guys!

AC, all photos in this trip report were taken with a Sony RX10 Mk. IV. It's a "superzoom" with a so-called "one-inch" sensor, the best balance I could find between high magnification (critical for wildlife) and large sensor size (critical for image quality). You can find them used on Ebay for under 1,000 USD. Make sure not to get the Mks. I or II, as they have far less magnification than the Mks. III or IV.

I gave up using a DSLR. Too big, too expensive, and too slow with the auto-focus. The RX10 has 12x magnification, equivalent to a decent pair of birding binoculars, and the same magnification you'd get with a 35mm DSLR sensor with a 600mm lens. Of course, a 600mm lens weighs eight and a half pounds (4 kg), won't fit into a drybag, and costs as much as a used car! There are times I miss the larger sensor size of a DSLR, but overall, I am very satisfied with the tradeoff and am not looking to upgrade from the RX10.

I carry my RX10 in a tough, rubbery, five-liter drybag, which sits on the floor of the cockpit on top of a large bilge sponge. In calm conditions, I can also stow the drybag under the emergency-release strap on my sprayskirt, where it is available for fast access. The camera has survived seaspray and rain, but a full-on soaking would probably destroy it—yet another advantage in carrying a camera that costs under 1,000.

Alex
 
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kayakwriter

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Feb 27, 2006
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That is one awesome trip. I did a trip round Cape Scott decades ago and was wondering if getting to Triangle was even possible in kayak. I've aged out of it being a possibility for me, but glad others are picking up the torch!
 

pryaker

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Mar 23, 2010
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Powell River BC
oh my! Your risk tolerance (and paddling skill!) is way higher than mine. Going around the north end of the island last year in benign weather had me stressed enough for years to come. Very cool trip, thanks for the report
 
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