With the stars twinkling above, our guide Natalie gives my kayak a shove from the beach, launching me into my first night paddling experience. Much to my surprise, a riot of white light in the water greets my first paddle stroke, exploding into the shape of a mushroom cloud as I pull backwards to follow through. As the other kayaks in our group leave shore, I notice that each is fringed with the same curious white light where the hull meets the waterline. This strange but natural form of electricity is called bioluminescence, and forms when living organisms–in this case waterborne phytoplantkton–convert chemical energy into visible radiant light.
As we continue on our night’s mission, circumnavigating the small island we are camping on, all six members of our group are mesmerized by the bioluminescence dancing in the water as our kayaks glide silently forward. Who knew that night paddling could be so much fun?
But while our nocturnal experience proves enlightening (pun intended), most of the magic our group experiences during five days paddling through and camping in the Broken Island Group of Canada’s Pacific Rim National Park, comes during daylight hours. As part of a fully outfitted trip run by Batstar Adventures, a British Columbia-based guiding service, our group gets up close and personal with teal green ocean water, scouting bald eagles, old growth cedar trees, barking sea lions, breaching humpback whales and fluorescent sea stars.
The Broken Island Group, a smattering of 100+ islands and islets in the protected waters of Barkley Sound on Vancouver Island’s west coast (just south of the coastal hamlet of Ucluelet), is ideal for kayaking. The 5 by 7 ½ mile cove that is Barkley Sound shelters paddlers from the big winds, waves and currents of the Pacific just beyond. Kayakers can paddle quietly around this wilderness archipelago, finding tranquil sand spits and barnacle encrusted bluffs, or breach the invisible line between the Sound and the ocean to find more challenging swells. No two points within the Broken Islands are more than three hours worth of vigorous paddling apart, and eight first-come, first-serve island camping areas distribute the summer crowds accordingly.
But Batstar, through an agreement with the local native tribe, the Secharts, has exclusive usage rights to some of the choicest campsites within the Broken Group. We’re utilizing a campground on Keith Island – smack dab in the middle of the archipelago — as our base camp. At the end of the day, as I take my rightful place around the beach campfire and peer deep into the licking flames, I note that although my arms are tired from the 7+ nautical miles of paddling we did earlier in the day, I still find the strength to lift a forkload of warm cake, fresh from Natalie’s campstove dutch oven, from my plate to my mouth. As the sweetness of the cake pervades my senses, I realize that roughing it with Batstar is more luxurious than anything in my civilized life back in Seattle. Just then, Gitan, another guest on the trip, refills my plastic wine glass with some of the Pinot Noir he snuck into his drybag, and Natalie launches into a yarn about the Gumboot Ghost, a local legend reputed to torment the occasional Batstar client. Somehow, I’m not too scared.
If you go
Do-it-yourselfers who want to paddle the Broken Island Group can launch their kayaks from a ferry drop at the Sechart Whaling Station, a remote lodge on the inland side of Barkley Sound, where single and double sea kayaks, and a limited number of well-appointed rooms, are for rent. Lady Rose Marine Services, the Port Alberni, BC-based ferry company that owns and runs the lodge, provides the only transportation there via a three hour boat ride out Alberni Inlet aboard one of two handsome old passenger-only ferries (www.ladyrosemarine.com). If navigating the 100+ islands, many of which are enveloped by fog for a good part of any given day, along with planning, packing and cooking, is more than you want to undertake, Port Alberni-based Batstar Adventures (www.batstar.com) offers guided sea kayaking trips to different parts of Vancouver Island’s wild coastline, including deluxe three and five day immersions into Broken Island Group life (costs range from $1,200 to $1,500 per person in U.S. dollars). All Batstar trips include the use of top-notch camping and kayaking equipment as well as deluxe camp meals prepared by the guides themselves — so clients can focus on paddling and relaxing.
Most kayaking excursions in and around Vancouver Island’s Pacific Rim National Park (www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/bc/pacificrim/index_e.asp) begin at Port Alberni, where paddlers can catch a ferry out to the coast via Lady Rose Marine Services. By car, the best way to get to Port Alberni from Seattle (a 5-7 hour trip all told) is to drive to Vancouver, B.C. and take the ferry from the Tsawwassen terminal to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. From Nanaimo, follow Provincial Route 19A North for about 25 miles, then take a left at Exit #60 onto Highway 4, which heads west for 20+ miles into Port Alberni. Those who wish to continue via car out to Vancouver Island’s west coast (Ucluelet and Tofino) can just continue driving west past Port Alberni for another 65 miles.