SATURNA ISLAND, Canada — About a mile ahead of our kayaks, out in the broad waters of Boundary Pass, a jet of water suddenly shot into the air.
"Orcas!" yelled Mark, our guide and a college student in zoology.
Then we saw them: a pod of 11 orcas, commonly known as killer whales, blowing spouts of water skyward, exposing their white bellies as they leaped free of the surface, then plunging into the cold salt water and speeding directly toward us.
Our two, two-person fiberglass kayaks, only 18 feet long, seemed helplessly fragile compared with the whales, the largest of which measured 30 feet and had a dorsal fin as tall as a man.
Taking no chances, I put on my life jacket. My three companions, less conservative, ignored life jackets and grabbed their cameras.
Within minutes the whales were around us, pursued by a researcher in a power boat and observed more distantly by an excursion boat full of tourists.
At the climactic moment, one whale jumped out of the water 25 feet to the left of my kayak, another about the same distance to my right. A third headed straight toward the other kayak but then dived beneath the surface, emerging seconds later far behind the tiny craft.
Soon they were gone, cruising at top speed, presumably toward a dinner of fat, juicy salmon in the Fraser River Delta, about 20 miles north near Vancouver, B.C.
Our encounter with the whales left us momentarily stunned.
Coming on the fourth day of a five-day voyage, it was the highlight of an already amazing trip, during which our party of four paddled 60 miles through the lush, sparsely inhabited Gulf Islands of British Columbia.
The Gulf Islands and the neighboring San Juan Islands, our starting point across the watery border in Washington, are rich with wildlife. We saw an incredible assortment of birds, starfish and other sea life, minks, otters, porpoises and seals.
Only hours before we met the whales, we "played with" hundreds of harbor seals as we paddled along the Belle Chain Islets, tiny bits of land forming a string about a mile off the east side of Saturna Island in the Strait of Georgia.
Closely Watched by Seals
All around us, seals popped their heads out of the water to watch us pass. Others, disturbed as they napped on the rocks in the sunshine, scurried quickly into the water. Pups barked for their mothers. Some seals simply lifted their heads sleepily, gave us a glance, then continued basking.
We dallied, reluctant to leave the seals, satisfied to let the current carry us through two-foot swells.
But we soon took up the paddles again, resuming the unending exertion required to speed us on our way. My shoulders ached for an hour at the start of each day as I strained to hold up my wooden paddle. But soon the constant push and pull of paddling became automatic. The pain receded, and I was absorbed by the beauty of the wide-open waters and tree-covered islands.
For the most part, our late-summer journey took us through serene waters. Mark, who listened to his transistor weather radio and read the tide tables each morning, plotted our route to take advantage of currents and to navigate through normally rough waters during slack tide.
When the tide was against us, we hugged the shore of the nearest island, catching back-eddies to ease our passage.
Only once did Mark tell us to put on life jackets. It was during our third morning, after we had crossed from our campsite on Prevost Island to the entrance of Active Pass, a particularly turbulent channel between Galiano and Mayne islands. But it wasn't the tidal action that stirred us.
Just as we entered Active Pass a jumbo-size British Columbia ferryboat emerged, setting off large waves in its wake. They slapped against the rock cliffs of Mayne Island to set off an interference pattern that produced five-foot waves.
We paddled like maniacs, which helped keep the kayaks stable. But one wave broadsided the right side of my kayak, tearing the coated cloth spray skirt from the kayak's cockpit and dumping several gallons of ice water on my lap.
After a couple of minutes the waves subsided, and we glided toward the tiny resort town of Mayne, our only stop in civilization during the trip.
We stocked up on groceries, then my companions returned to the beach to eat their prepacked lunches. I headed for the Springwater Tavern, where I quickly gulped down two Canadian beers, a bacon cheeseburger and fries.
The meat was a welcome change from our menu. The outfitter had neglected to warn us that the meals were strictly vegetarian--entrees such as vegetarian chili, rice-and-mushroom pilaf and bean-and-lentil burgers.
Nevertheless, the meals were satisfying. Kayaks are a bit cramped but there was plenty of room for a gas camp stove and a variety of food, including fresh salads with dinner and breakfasts of pancakes, maple syrup and fresh fruit.