Sunday, 11 November 2012

Mitlenatch Island SUP

Mitlenatch Island  NW beach Oct.8/2012

It was one of the very last days of this amazing ocean calm, this warm high pressure ridge. For me with my work schedule, it was also almost certainly the last chance I would have to try and paddle to Mitlenatch Island and back. I had all but resigned myself to the idea it would have to wait until 2013. Surely this weather couldn't last? But it did- and just long enough.

I checked the 4:00 a.m. marine forecasts- and conditions were perfect. There was no wind, no system, no squall anywhere that would affect the area and so I had my chance. I was filled with energy, couldn't wait to get on the water and paddled away from Salmon Point about 30 minutes before sunrise. There was the island way in the distance. I aimed my board for it and started paddling. The sea was calm but with a cool breeze behind me that helped me along for a short time but that wind dissipated shortly after sunrise. I warmed up with the sun and settled into a steady rhythm.
According to my GPS watch, I was averaging about 10 minutes per kilometer. It also felt like I was getting a bit of a push from the flooding tide too.

This was a good thing because my Surf-Tech board is only 10' 6" long- so it's not the fastest board for this kind of longer distance paddling. I was glad I had my GPS so I knew for sure that I was making progress- even if Mitlenatch did not appear to be drawing any closer. I took a break after 1' 15" and sat on my board for a rest and a drink of water.

Rest stop- just over halfway there- looks close but never seems to get closer
       I was conscious of how at ease I felt compared to how I would have felt if I were in my kayak at this same point. In my kayak, I would have been stuck in one sitting position for the whole time and would not have been able to stand up, stretch, move around, lay down for awhile if I wanted to as I could do on my board- so physically I found it far better for my body. Mentally, I would have been more worried in my kayak and would have pushed hard until I got there. I wouldn't have enjoyed the open crossing nearly as much. Always in my mind would have been the mantra, 'Do not tip over!' Yes, not likely in these conditions and I would not have had much trouble getting back in my kayak but awareness of that vulnerability is always there- especially on solo trips. On my board, so what if I fell in? I was always tethered to my board and I'd just get back on it simple as that. No water to pump out, no such worries.
So I sat there in the morning sun completely relaxed and happy with my situation of being almost an hour's paddle away from the nearest land should something go wrong. But nothing would go wrong on this day- certainly not with the weather. I was the engine and then there was just the paddle, the board and an endless expanse of calm, sunlit sea. Life was simple. Life was good.

Another reson I was able to relax to the degree I did was that I had brought extra food, clothing and water in case I did have to spend the night on the island for some reason. I was carrrying a cell phone, a VHF radio, flares and a headlamp. I was wearing a farmer john wetsuit and friends knew where I was so I felt I'd covered all the bases a reasonable person could for such an adventure.

There were only two 'concerns' I had. One was the colony of sea-lions on the SW end of the island. It was mating season and the bulls were fighting. I'd been told this by my paddling friend and SUP mentor Darcy who had been the first one to do this trip on a SUP board a few weeks earlier.

Male sea lions are huge animals and have sometimes behaved aggressively towards kayakers- so it's best to avoid getting too close to them- especially in mating season. Fortunately, I knew where they were and so planned to go around the north end of the island and land on the east side instead.

My only other concern was transient killer whales- the mammal hunting kind. On a solo trip last May to Desolation Sound, I'd had what for me was a pretty scary encounter with a group of transient killer whales that ambushed me while actively hunting and  later killed a seal (see my other blog for full account). On this trip so far from any land, I really did not want to get ambushed and 'checked out' again by a group of these whales, the largest mammal hunting predators on the planet- while I was out there alone on a tiny board. It was an unnerving experience- not at all like the friendly encounters with the fish eating 'resident' killer whales.

Here is a photo I took in Desolation Sound early September this year showing just how big these whales are when viewed from a kayak's perspective. This is a transient killer whale, one of a small pod of four - curious and checking out Roy and Marilyn.

I was still about 3 kms away from the island when I began to hear the roaring and bellowing of the bull sea lions- they were that load. It was an awesome sound, a huge sound like that conjured up an image for me of two different prides of lions fighting over the same carcass.  As Darcy had, I too ran into quite a strong current as I  drew closer to the island. To keep myself on track, I lined up one of the features on the island with a prominent peak on the mainland in the background and angled my approach to keep those two points aligned so I didn't lose ground.

Plenty of seals on the north end- dozens of them and they were very curious and seemed more like a welcoming party than anything else- a dozen or so 'herding' me into the beach.
By the time I pulled into the beach, the water was almost mirror calm and I was beginning to really feel the heat. I'd made it!

GPS watch- a great tool to have along

What a fantastic feeling!  A major SUP goal accomplished and on the most beautiful day in the history of the universe.
I wasted no time in stripping off my wetsuit and booties. Now I could dig my thermos out and have that coffee I'd missed earlier. Ahh, now that's what I mean.

Now in shorts and bare feet, I spent a really nice hour or so wandering about the island. There are many very special places in the world, but here on such a day on Mitlenatch Island on the west coast of British Columbia- there was no place on earth I would rather have been.

Mitlenatch Island- looking east
 From where I was, the islands of Hernando, Cortes and Savary were all closer to reach than the paddle back to Salmon Point. Next year- with a longer touring board and camping gear, I'll just keep going.
But this time, I needed to think about paddling back. Yes, I could have spent several more hours there but I felt that same restless energy I used to feel when having reached the summit of a hard climb. I was only halfway, I still had to get safely back down- and in this case, I still had an 11.4 km paddle to do.

The Volunteer Naturalist's Cabin/ Emergency shelter. The apple tree is on the left (pk photo)

I picked three ripe apples from the tree by the naturalist's hut to bring and share with Darcy and Darlene who were going to paddle out and meet me part way back, slipped my board back into the water, said goodbye to lovely Mitlenatch Island for this year and started the long paddle back.

The tide was still flooding and about 4 km on the way back my progress began to slow noticeably. That far out from a fixed reference, I probably wouldn't have noticed if it weren't for my GPS. If I'd waited until the tide changed and the ebb began, I would have had less of a workout. But this slowing didn't last too long before either the tide began to ease or I was out of the faster flow of it. I was getting really warm now so I stripped my wetsuit down to my waist and kept steadily paddling towards the point on the ridge near Mt. Washington that I'd picked out as a reference for the return while on the way to Mitlenatch.

I met up with Darcy and Darlene about 3 kms offshore and we sat out there on our boards in the sun drinking water and munching the apples I had brought back. Then, we began paddling back the last leg together- now motivated by the thought of a pub being there. Lunch and a cold beer in the sun-yes!

Darcy and Darlene - who paddled out to greet me on the return
 Those last few km's went by quite quickly and it was great to share that part of the return trip with Darcy who had been the one who inspired me to do it.

Darlene and I toasting Mitlenatch
If you go: Whether by kayak or on a stand up board, you need to really check the marine forecast  before setting out. The trip to Mitlenatch is a  serious and fully exposed 25 km return crossing from start to finish and not somewhere you want to be caught out in by rising winds.

Fog can really be a serious issue as well and this frustrated an earlier attempt. As fog can come in very quickly, I think you really need to be carrying a GPS or compass.

Given it took me just over 2 hours to cover the 11.4 km to the NW beach, I was clearly getting some help from the flooding tide- and was working against that same current for part of the return trip- so tide times are worth noting.

The closest launch point to the island is the Salmon Point Resort which also just happens to be a pub- this can be very motivating on the return trip.

Eatmore bars are a great paddling fuel.

Mitlenatch Island is a wildlife sanctuary- a park and no overnight camping on the island is permitted except in an emergencey. There are volunteer naturalists there from May until the end of September and they stay in a well-built driftwood hut with a woodstove.

For the record: Darcy Wardrop did the first known SUP trip to Mitlenatch in September 2012 and this accomplishment was repeated a couple of weeks later by Scott _____.
Mine was the 3rd known SUP trip there- and I think this will become a classic outing for the more adventurous stand-up paddler.

Paul Kendrick

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