“No! Don’t go there!” I shouted. “There’s a reason they call it “The Mouth of Hell”!”
I moaned in dismay as I watched Kym turn back to wave as she approached the narrow passage between the high forested cliffs. Suddenly the current sucked her boat through, and she disappeared.
It was 3:30, the end of a paddling day that had started early that morning. We should have been starting an easy return to our island camp on Vernacci Island, about half hour’s paddle across Nootka Sound. By mid afternoon high winds often blow up, and we were pushing it. Kym was wiry and tough, but new to padding and I felt responsible for her, though she believed the strength and determination she showed in running would get her through anything.
I held my boat steady against the pull of the water, saw Kym lift her paddle in greeting before paddling fiercely as she turned the bow of her kayak into the rushing water. She was instantly pushed back. The small lagoon looked intriguing and Kim beckoned me in, but I would have been bad company. The guidebook we had read warned paddlers not to attempt the passage except at slack water, and now I was angry and worried, as the tide tables noted slack water at 6 pm. We were stuck here for two hours till Kym could get out. I knew this lovely afternoon could change in a matter of minutes.
As I slowly paddled around the bay, checking out the prosperous fishing camp, and thinking over the situation, I had a very bad feeling about none of us having VHF radios, and was very concerned about my own preparedness. I had done many trips with guides and friends, but had always secretly relied on a stronger paddler to rescue me, on someone else to have a radio, and on someone else to do the navigation. Our genial friend Sean was a self-sufficient paddling companion and had made it clear from the beginning that Kym and I should expect to help ourselves. I had pushed my dismay out of my mind.
That morning we had set out early, eager to explore the outer coast of Nootka Island, and Yuquot, our destination for the day. We glided over the gently rising and falling swell of Nootka Sound, like something huge breathing under us, the sea and ourselves at peace on a perfect west coast summer day.
Sean paddled a big high volume kayak that suited him, and Kym’s rental boat was the same model as his, far too big for her. My boat is long and narrow, not a boat to relax in, so when we rounded Yuquot Point I was pleased to feel the swell of the open ocean powerful but gentle. As well, the winds (Yuquot means “the winds blow all ways”) were asleep this morning.
We paddled north and stopped at a small lagoon halfway to Maquinna Point. As we pulled our boats up the sand and away from the small surf, a couple appeared from behind tall rocks, walking south on the beach. They had hiked down the north coast of the Island and now were walking to Yuquot to catch the floatplane back to Vancouver. I checked out the impressive equipment supplied to them by their outfitter, and determined to buy a VHF radio as soon as I returned to Victoria.
We paddled back to Yuquot, and beached our boats on the coarse sand in the small cove behind the point. A friendly orange cat welcomed us to what was Chief Maquinna’s summer settlement, a whaling society with 1500 people and 20 longhouses, on the day Captain Cook made the first European appearance here in March 1778. Now, the two remaining aboriginal people accepted our payment for landing. We walked uphill through a golden tall grass meadow fragrant in the hot sun and buzzing with bees, to the historic Yuquot church built in 1889. Stained glass windows from Spain and impressive house post carvings and other large painted carvings attest to the collision of cultures. I stumbled out into the sun, and followed the winding path along the seaside cliffs where salal and ferns and trees are slowly pulling the Yuquot cemetery into a dream of green. We returned to the beach and our boats, said goodbye to the cat, and pushed off again, planning to explore the shoreline up to the fishing camp at Nootka and Boca del Inferno Bay, and from there to paddle quickly across the Sound back to Vernacci.
Sean had been fighting feeling sick all day, and at 3:30, after leaving Yuquot, decided to go directly for Vernacci. Kym and I did not want to miss exploring this part of the Nootka Island coast. The sky was sunny and clear and the sea was flat. Sean was capable on his own, and it was only a half hour paddle to Vernacci. We watched him paddle away, and continued our happy exploration, gliding happily through the tiny Saavedra Islands, in and out of Santa Gertrudis cove, only big enough to shelter two sailboats, and on to Boca Del inferno Bay.
Which is where we were now, at 4 pm. I was feeling less optimistic about the rest of the day by the minute.
About an hour and a half later, as I paddled out from behind a float building, I saw Kym paddling fast out toward the mouth of the bay. I shouted and paddled quickly to join her. She said she had been surprised to find that she could not get out of the lagoon but finally powered through 30 minutes before slack. We decided to go for Vernacci, against what my rising apprehension told me: stay at the fishing camp.
As we left the bay we immediately felt the force of the wind, now strong and crossing the breaking waves, creating big slop over out boats from behind. I figured we had at least 40 minutes of ugly paddling to get back to Vernacci. Neither one of us liked this at the outset but we pushed out and got into it. After about 15 minutes, I was very afraid, my fear augmented because I felt responsible for Kym. The big seas were now breaking broadside over our boats and I saw Vernacci slipping on our right by as we struggled to keep from broaching. If we could get turned into the breaking waves paddling would be easier, but Kym could not bring herself to change course, fearful of capsize. We were now committed to paddling as hard as we could to the first land we could run into, a small island straight ahead.
Finally we fell shaking onto the sand of a small sheltered beach. As we sat on a log, trying to settle ourselves, I looked at my watch and saw we had been paddling flat out and bracing constantly for an hour. From my chart, I thought (where was that someone else who always took care of navigation?) we were on Villaverde Island, not far east of our camp. When we had stopped shaking, we got back in the boats to cross still chaotic water to a smaller island, and by then I had had enough. There was no beach so I left Kym holding my boat with one hand and a tree with the other. I climbed a cliff and waved my pfd on my paddle, shouted and whistled for what seemed a very long time with no result. I invited Kym to join me in my tarp and wait for morning in the brush at the water’s edge. She declined, determined to go on.
I reluctantly got back into my boat, exhausted, but wanting to stay together. The chop and wind kept us alert as we paddled consistently and patiently on, and in half an hour we were elated to see the pink buoy marking our little camp cove and Sean’s large form on the beach, as we rounded the point of Vernacci. We stumbled from our boats to hug him. As we drank hot ginger soup, he told us he at first thought we had stayed for dinner at the fishing camp, but then he had grown increasingly worried. We all agreed that we would not do another trip without radios. We relaxed in our beach sauna that night and then slept well, knowing that the day could have turned out very differently.
The remaining days of our trip were much more tranquil, filled with the beauty and mystery of the land and sea. I live through the winter days in the city, waiting till I can again be truly alive where the voices of eagles ribbon the air, and where the spirit presence of those who have gone before is felt. I wait to be back where I can stand at the meeting place of land and water, where I feel finally at home, where I can feel the earth breathe.
(Previously published in Focus Magazine)