This article was published by GQ magazine in May 1997.
Author: Bill Gifford
Photographer: Walter Smith
It was a calm day by the standards of the North Pacific. Ten-foot seas loomed from the general direction of Siberia, walls of slate gray water that blotted out the horizon. As each wave tossed my yellow sea kayak skyward, I recalled the advice of our guide, Gord Pincock: Relax and enjoy it. Stay loose in the hips and let the boat move beneath you.
From the crests, I could see the shore of one of the Queen Charlotte Islands, a far-flung archipelago off the British Columbia coast. The seas demolished themselves against a row of huge rocks that jutted from the water like sharks' teeth. Seven other kayakers bobbed nearby, their occupants intently paddling. Then the bottom dropped away, and my boat slid back down into the trough. My mouth was as dry as fresh Kitty Litter. But I tried to relax and enjoy it.
Riding the peak of a particularly huge wave, I glanced over at a photographer about twenty yards to my right. He'd stopped paddling to take a picture, critically raising his center of gravity - which was already perilously high, thanks to the huge black case lashed to the top of his boat, crammed with heavy photo gear. As he fiddled with the focus knob, our other guide spoke up from the rear. Until now she had been soft-spoken and gentle and the very essence of nice. But now she screamed, in a voice that could shatter windshields, the first commandment of rough-water sea kayaking: "Never! Stop! Paddling!"
Our sturdy boats - each one sixteen feet of rotomolded polyethylene, drawn to a sleekly pointed bow and stern and equipped with a stainless-steel rudder - had brought us to the far reaches of the Queen Charlottes, an untouched wilderness more than twice the size of Long Island. Too rugged for roads, the southern Charlottes are accessible only by boat or floatplane.
A sea kayak can take you places other boats can't. It floats in six inches of water, turns on a dime and is damn near impossible to sink, as long as you Never! Stop! Paddling! In a sea kayak, you feel closer to the water than on any other boat, because you are. Squeezed into a neoprene gasket called a sprayskirt, the paddler is literally part of his craft. When a minke whale breached nearby on our first day, I felt it in my hips.
Some days we rose at dawn to take advantage of a favorable tide or calm winds; other days we slept until noon. Gord rarely bothered listening to the marine radio forecast. The radio gave the big picture, but we cared about the microclimate, the winds and the rain patterns in our immediate area, which Gord had learned to read better than any distant forecaster could. Northwesterly winds usually meant fair skies with strong breezes, while southerlies brought rain. He knew where the tidal currents ran and how fast and when.
For two days, we paddled in relatively sheltered inlets and bays, protected from the North Pacific and its fierce winds. Then the winds calmed, and Gord led us past Ninstints Island, a last scrap of the North American continent. The Pacific was allowing us to leave sheltered water, and we accepted its invitation. But the water on the outside was wilder than it had looked. As the swells grew threateningly steeper, we fled into a tiny bay.
That afternoon we beached on an island where a dozen Haida totem poles mark the site of a native village that survived for millennia, only to succumb to smallpox in the last century. The site is considered sacred by the Haida as the spot where humankind originated. The Haida were seafarers, roaming the waters in twelve-man dugout canoes that, in all probability, were far tippier than our high-tech plastic kayaks. In fact, the sea kayak evolved on the other side of the world, from the bone-and-skin boats used by the natives of West Greenland to hunt seals and small whales. The modern-day rebirth of sea kayaking began, however, in British Columbia. We were to travel, in Pincock's words, "as a small nomadic tribe."
Pincock is one of the few guides to use single kayaks only; most prefer the stabler and more cost-effective doubles. Singles are a bit riskier, but you enjoy more freedom, independence and solitude, essential ingredients of the kayaking experience. To be trapped in a double kayak with the wrong person is not much of a vacation.
Our boats were packed fore and aft with gear, all sealed into tough waterproof bags: tents, lots of food and quick-drying synthetic clothing in garish, unnatural colors (our nomadic tribal costume, perhaps). My boat held more than a hundred pounds of gear, which I was grateful not to have to tote around on my back. On a kayaking trip, you can bring the espresso pot. It's backpacking for wimps.
My favorite piece of equipment, other than my air mattress, was a three-ounce wedge of lead attached to a treble hook, a lethal piece of fishing tackle known as the Buzz Bomb. One afternoon, having moored my boat to a thick strand of kelp, I dropped the Buzz Bomb into fifty feet of water and jigged it up and down. On the third jig, I pulled up a three-pound greenling. It made the best sashimi I've ever tasted.
The Buzz Bombs added succulent rockfish and cod to our camping diet. At low tide, we gathered spiny sea urchins, which we cracked open for their salty yellow roe. Gord showed us how sea cucumbers - slimy, unpleasant things which lolled on the bottom - couId be diced and fried up like popcorn shrimp. Even the kelp was edible, if you got desperate. We shared this bounty with otters, seals, puffins and dozens of bald eagles.
Sea kayaking is the opposite of an adrenaline sport like bungee mountain biking or extreme parachute snowboarding. The focus is not on what you're doing but where you're doing it. It's not about conquering nature but about adapting to it, living within the sea's parameters.
One of those parameters is that you can't drink seawater. To kayakers, fresh water is a precious commodity. In most of the world, even in wilderness areas, campers must boil or treat water from streams and springs. But the Charlottes fairly trickled with sweet, drinkable water, pouring from the mossy woods.
I kept a full jug of Queen Charlotte water on my foredeck at all times during the trip. When we finished and unloaded our boats, I stowed it in my daypack and forgot about it until a layover in Toronto. Thirst quenching and faintly peaty, it brought me right back to the Haida's island, where we had landed, exhausted but elated, after our trip into the Pacific. I'd gulped down a quart right then. Stranded in the departure lounge, I finished the bottle and went to check my voice mail.