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Losing Yourself in the Lost Islands


Every time you step outside in Prince Rupert, it seems the sidewalk is being lashed by rain (or worse). But out here, west of the mountains that cause so much gloom over BC's second biggest port, the air is soft like Scotch mist, the sky broken by patches of blue.

 

A tranquil beach begs to be explored on foot. Copyright Rick Hudson.We are hanging loose in the Lost Islands, west of Chatham Sound, a suite of bays, beaches, headlands and forested islets covering an area as untouched as any you'll hope to find on the planet. An eclectic group, the five of us range in age from 20-something to 60-something with skills that vary from "never done it before" to "forty years of wilderness paddling." No problem. A few basics, from our expert guide Frank McCurdy, and we're ready. We are on a SpiritWind charter, owned and operated by McCurdy, who started his own charter service two years ago after guiding for other companies for seven years. This is the company’s inaugural charter to this remote, beautiful and complex group of islands and we feel privileged to be in the company of such a knowledgeable, enthusiastic guide.

Leaving the rain of Prince Rupert behind, a water taxi whisked us out to the islands in about 90 minutes, offloading onto a beach on an island in Hudson Bay Passage. Tall sitka spruce and western cedar come down to the tide line. Set back under the canopy of trees in a carpet of wild lily-of-the-valley, the campsite isn't obvious. We pitch our tents on peat moss that feels like sponge and sleep softly through the night.

After lunch, Frank gives his first paddling lesson. There are single and double kayaks, so the inexperienced can get the feel of the sport in the company of someone more seasoned. Beneath the kayaks, the sea moves like mercury, gray and liquid, alive with the great Pacific swells that barely penetrate this far into the archipelago. This coast experiences 6-meter (20-foot) tides, so the inter-tidal zone is large and dynamic (read: strong currents!).

A geographic overview of the Lost Islandsí location on British Columbiaís coast. Copyright Rick Hudson.The shores are draped in golden rockweed, sea sacs, sea lettuce, and purple and orange starfish up to a foot across. The sunflower starfish is the world's largest, growing up to a meter in diameter. But don't touch it…the arms are brittle and break off easily. One of the best ways to spend a quiet hour is to wander around the pools, marveling at the diversity of crabs, anemones, fish and urchins that crowd together. There are white beaches too, in unexpected places. On close inspection they turn out not to be sand, but made up of clam shell fragments. At low tide, live clams deep below the surface send jets of water into the air.

The following morning dawns clear…a treat on this coast. We get on the water early for a pre-breakfast paddle, returning to the first of many great meals. Frank is keen to show what exotic food he can produce. There's tea, coffee, hot chocolate, granola, chopped fruit, yogurt, toasted bagels and jam, and lots of it. Then it's all aboard, and the two doubles and two singles head down Hudson Bay Passage to Edith Harbour. The weather is sunny and warm, the near trees brilliantly green, the far slopes like crumpled velvet. The shoreline is a maze of crenellated granite inlets and headlands that entice you to cut into little coves to explore them. Silvered logs cram the backs of bays, and there's great beach combing for glass floats.

Trip leader Frank McCurdy whips up feast for the hungry group. Cpoyright Rick Hudson.After several hours we arrive at Edith Harbour, where we pull out onto a beach that's disappearing under a rising tide. Lunch is extravagant again, as Frank produces an array of herb cheeses, olives, peppers, tomatoes, and bread. Later, I watch enthralled as my kayak's shadow bends and dances over a white sand seabed below me. This is like Baja California, except the air is a gentle 20 C (68 F), instead of a blazing 40 C (104 F)!

 

The next morning it's overcast, but the sea is calm and we paddle past Randall Island into the Moffat Group. Everywhere at low tide there are hidden channels and coves to explore. By the time we return hours later they have disappeared. From our lunch spot on a beach, we can admire the snow-capped peaks of the Coast Mountains behind Prince Rupert (where it's raining again!). Frank grills tortillas filled with sliced fresh mango, grated Swiss cheese and cumin. Hey, this is what wilderness travel should be about!

On the return journey, someone catches a nice-sized rock cod. The rest of us anchor to a bull kelp and watch as the fish is lifted from the sea in a net. Grilled with lemon and garlic, it'll augment tonight's dinner of stir-fried fresh vegetables and rice, finished off with freshly baked cake.

It's our fourth day already (how can time pass so quickly?) and we're moving camp. Everything is stowed in the four kayaks' hatches, and on a rising tide we head south past Baron Island, slipping though the northern end of the Connel Chain. Our lunch stop is at the only habitation we'll see for the entire week. A single-room cabin at the top of a sandy beach is the only remains of someone's dream many years ago to build a future out here. Around the buildings, salal and sea grasses grow tall, gradually reclaiming this tiny outpost.

On the beach, wolf tracks stimulate a vigorous discussion about the local wildlife. There are no bears on the islands, but deer, wolf and mink are common. The bird life is prolific too, with fish (bald) eagles on every snag, plus auklets, murrulets, guillemots, cormorants, gulls, harlequin ducks and loons on the water everywhere. Whales (humpback, grey, orca), seals, sea lions and dolphins are common (we saw Dahl's porpoises), and salmon jump frequently. (Frank encourages everyone to try fishing for them, but we were skunked this trip.)

At the end of the day, the new camp is in a broad curve of sandy beach. Behind, we pitch the tents in virgin forest again, on another carpet of green. There have been brief spots of rain during the afternoon, but tucked into a kayak with a waterproof jacket, it's made no difference to our enjoyment of the five-hour trip. That evening, however, it starts to rain seriously.

The forest floor makes for a plush camping spot. Copyright Rick Hudson.Dry underneath the kitchen tarpaulins, we try to light a fire in the downpour. There is considerable mirth regarding our ineptitude, but eventually the damp driftwood splutters into a blaze. This far north, it's light until 11 p.m., but the fire makes the gray evening a lot more cheerful, as the rain drums down on the taut nylon above our heads. Frank burns the dessert cake, claiming he was distracted by our fire-making antics. Who cares? Life is a view of forested islands and interlocking channels, of gray ridges and old-man's-beard trailing from ancient firs. This is a special place, and none of us want this seven-day trip, where we haven't seen another person, to end.But end it must, and the water taxi appears like an apparition from another dimension, in a channel off the beach. The loading goes quickly, and then we're picking our way out through the rock-strewn passages into Brown Passage and the trip back to Prince Rupert.

How to Get There:

Prince Rupert is the main starting point for kayaking adventures in the Lost Islands archipelago.

By car: via Prince George, Hazelton, Terrace and the beautiful Yellowhead Highway No. 16.

By rail: through the Canadian Rockies on VIA Rail Canada (www.viarail.com)on the spectacular Skeena Line (mid-May to October). Tel: 1-888-VIARAIL.

By ferry: from Port Hardy, BC, on the BC Ferries Inside Passage cruise (www.bcferries.com). It takes 15 hours, stopping at a variety of fascinating communities along the way. Sails north one day, south the next. Advanced bookings advisable. Tel: 1-888-BCFERRY.

Alternatively, leave from Bellingham, WA, on Alaska State Ferries (akmhs.com). Tel: 1-800-382-9229.

By air: Pacific Coastal Air (www.pacific-coastal.com) flies from Vancouver to Port Hardy. Tel: 1-800-663-2872.

Air Canada (www.aircanada.ca) and/or Canadian Regional (www.cdnair.ca) fly two medium-sized jets into Prince Rupert daily. The airport is on Digby Island, so you'll need to take the bus/ferry (Cdn.$11) to the city.

A double kayak navigates the placid waters of the Lost Islands. Copyright Rick Hudson.

Who to Go With:

Only SpiritWind (www.kayakadventure.com) offer tours to this remote area. They provide all kayaking and tenting equipment, water taxi to and from the archipelago, food and guide/cook for a 7-day trip for Cdn.$990 (US$665). Tel (604) 990-9565 or Fax (604) 986-5115
or write them at:

Spirit Wind Expeditions Ltd.
1532 Bewicke Avenue
North Vancouver, B.C., Canada V7M 2B9

Trip leader Frank McCurdy whips up feast for the hungry group. Cpoyright Rick Hudson.After several hours we arrive at Edith Harbour, where we pull out onto a beach that's disappearing under a rising tide. Lunch is extravagant again, as Frank produces an array of herb cheeses, olives, peppers, tomatoes, and bread. Later, I watch enthralled as my kayak's shadow bends and dances over a white sand seabed below me. This is like Baja California, except the air is a gentle 20 C (68 F), instead of a blazing 40 C (104 F)!

The next morning it's overcast, but the sea is calm and we paddle past Randall Island into the Moffat Group. Everywhere at low tide there are hidden channels and coves to explore. By the time we return hours later they have disappeared. From our lunch spot on a beach, we can admire the snow-capped peaks of the Coast Mountains behind Prince Rupert (where it's raining again!). Frank grills tortillas filled with sliced fresh mango, grated Swiss cheese and cumin. Hey, this is what wilderness travel should be about!

On the return journey, someone catches a nice-sized rock cod. The rest of us anchor to a bull kelp and watch as the fish is lifted from the sea in a net. Grilled with lemon and garlic, it'll augment tonight's dinner of stir-fried fresh vegetables and rice, finished off with freshly baked cake.

It's our fourth day already (how can time pass so quickly?) and we're moving camp. Everything is stowed in the four kayaks' hatches, and on a rising tide we head south past Baron Island, slipping though the northern end of the Connel Chain. Our lunch stop is at the only habitation we'll see for the entire week. A single-room cabin at the top of a sandy beach is the only remains of someone's dream many years ago to build a future out here. Around the buildings, salal and sea grasses grow tall, gradually reclaiming this tiny outpost.

On the beach, wolf tracks stimulate a vigorous discussion about the local wildlife. There are no bears on the islands, but deer, wolf and mink are common. The bird life is prolific too, with fish (bald) eagles on every snag, plus auklets, murrulets, guillemots, cormorants, gulls, harlequin ducks and loons on the water everywhere. Whales (humpback, grey, orca), seals, sea lions and dolphins are common (we saw Dahl's porpoises), and salmon jump frequently. (Frank encourages everyone to try fishing for them, but we were skunked this trip.)

At the end of the day, the new camp is in a broad curve of sandy beach. Behind, we pitch the tents in virgin forest again, on another carpet of green. There have been brief spots of rain during the afternoon, but tucked into a kayak with a waterproof jacket, it's made no difference to our enjoyment of the five-hour trip. That evening, however, it starts to rain seriously.

The forest floor makes for a plush camping spot. Copyright Rick Hudson.Dry underneath the kitchen tarpaulins, we try to light a fire in the downpour. There is considerable mirth regarding our ineptitude, but eventually the damp driftwood splutters into a blaze. This far north, it's light until 11 p.m., but the fire makes the gray evening a lot more cheerful, as the rain drums down on the taut nylon above our heads. Frank burns the dessert cake, claiming he was distracted by our fire-making antics. Who cares? Life is a view of forested islands and interlocking channels, of gray ridges and old-man's-beard trailing from ancient firs. This is a special place, and none of us want this seven-day trip, where we haven't seen another person, to end.But end it must, and the water taxi appears like an apparition from another dimension, in a channel off the beach. The loading goes quickly, and then we're picking our way out through the rock-strewn passages into Brown Passage and the trip back to Prince Rupert.

How to Get There:

Prince Rupert is the main starting point for kayaking adventures in the Lost Islands archipelago.

By car: via Prince George, Hazelton, Terrace and the beautiful Yellowhead Highway No. 16.

By rail: through the Canadian Rockies on VIA Rail Canada (www.viarail.com)on the spectacular Skeena Line (mid-May to October). Tel: 1-888-VIARAIL.

By ferry: from Port Hardy, BC, on the BC Ferries Inside Passage cruise (www.bcferries.com). It takes 15 hours, stopping at a variety of fascinating communities along the way. Sails north one day, south the next. Advanced bookings advisable. Tel: 1-888-BCFERRY.

Alternatively, leave from Bellingham, WA, on Alaska State Ferries (akmhs.com). Tel: 1-800-382-9229.

By air: Pacific Coastal Air (www.pacific-coastal.com) flies from Vancouver to Port Hardy. Tel: 1-800-663-2872.

Air Canada (www.aircanada.ca) and/or Canadian Regional (www.cdnair.ca) fly two medium-sized jets into Prince Rupert daily. The airport is on Digby Island, so you'll need to take the bus/ferry (Cdn.$11) to the city.

A double kayak navigates the placid waters of the Lost Islands. Copyright Rick Hudson.

Who to Go With:

Only SpiritWind (www.kayakadventure.com) offer tours to this remote area. They provide all kayaking and tenting equipment, water taxi to and from the archipelago, food and guide/cook for a 7-day trip for Cdn.$990 (US$665). Tel (604) 990-9565 or Fax (604) 986-5115
or write them at:

Spirit Wind Expeditions Ltd.
1532 Bewicke Avenue
North Vancouver, B.C., Canada V7M 2B9