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Kayaking points north

Along the Inside Passage of Canada, whales and other wilderness wonders lie within arm's reach.

May 18, 2003|Janet Williams | Special to The Times

Hanson Island, Canada — Hanson Island, Canada

There is a place in the Canadian coastal wilderness that epitomizes my idea of heaven on Earth. The islands dotting the Inside Passage, a glacier-carved waterway to Alaska, sandwiched between Vancouver Island and the mainland coast of British Columbia, are lined with western hemlock trees reaching into sapphire skies. Bald eagles sit on treetop perches, their shrieks drifting in the saltwater breeze. Ravens soar overhead, their reflections mirrored in aquamarine waters that teem with whales, porpoises and seals.

It was here last July that I had one of those rare and fleeting moments that seem hard to believe even while they are happening. On an uninhabited island off the northern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, nine campers and I waited on a rocky ledge 15 feet above a frigid inlet. We stood, cameras in hand, eager for an announcement on our two-way radio. "A super-pod is heading in your direction," a voice crackled. Winding their way through the passage's maze of islands were 72 orcas.

Near the mouth of the channel a quarter-mile away, the whales came into view. Through binoculars we tracked black fins slicing the placid waters. We heard them blow as they surfaced for air, showering the breeze with a mist of seawater. A few broke from the pod, drifted into our inlet and then fanned out across Johnstone Strait. Four hugged the shoreline leading to our ledge. Showing off as they approached, they arched their tail fins high in the air before abruptly slapping them down.

Three whales suddenly stopped directly in front of us. One by one, as if on cue, they shot straight up like rockets, their massive bodies suspended in the air. We watched, stunned into silence, as the three curious killer whales glanced our way before quietly disappearing back into the sea.

Pampered at camp

I love wilderness adventure travel partly because it's unpredictable. A day spent kayaking among the Inside Passage's islands is shaped by nature, your itinerary determined by tidal currents, the location of wildlife or the whim of the wind.

But I am not an experienced kayaker, nor do I camp regularly. In fact, it's been a few years since my 47-year-old bones have slept on the ground with a pad not much thicker than a fat slice of steak. But experience was not necessary on this six-day kayaking and camping trip organized by Northern Lights Expeditions, an outfitter based on Vancouver Island for more than 20 years. Only a sense of adventure was needed, but that eliminated my husband. Along with his unnatural aversion to salt water, he is no Daniel Boone. His idea of camping involves room service and cable TV, so I went with my friend Mandy Bauman.

Our group of 10 campers and three young guides -- Luke, Michelle and Joi (pronounced Jo-ee) -- gathered the night before our departure in the lobby of the Haida-Way Inn, in the small logging town of Port McNeill on the northeastern shore of Vancouver Island. Our guides gave each of us five dry bags in which to stow clothing and gear. They were color-coded and printed with names of wild creatures so we could easily recognize our stuff. Mandy was "black bear." The others had cool names like "eagle" or "wolf," but I was amused to be dubbed "river otter" -- a weasel.

From the moment we met, our group fit like old chums gathering after a long absence. My fellow campers ranged from mid-30s to 60 and came from both coasts of the U.S. Amy and Ray Mathis had traveled from Florida; Alan Thompson, Beth Light, and Mike and Nadine Nielsen from Seattle; Rob and Kelly Easley were honeymooners from San Francisco; and Mandy and I are from the Bay Area. Our shared appreciation of wildlife and the outdoors created an instant bond, and we were eager to get started.

The next morning a water taxi shuttled us 15 miles to Compton Island, where the Mamalilikulla tribe lived for thousands of years. All that remains of their village is a blanket of crushed white seashells on the beach. Compton, like many of the islands in the Inside Passage, is uninhabited, and it would be our camp for the next two days.

Camping along the Inside Passage is not for fair-weather vacationers. Rain is always a possibility here. The group before us had rain every day, but we were fortunate to have a dry week. The mornings and evenings were cool, so I wore layers of clothing: three shirts and a jacket, tights under shorts covered by long pants -- excessive maybe, but I tend to get cold in a sauna. By noon temperatures warmed, and I went sleeveless under cloudless skies.

Insects were not a problem either, other than an occasional mosquito trying desperately to enter our screened tent. Our snug nylon domicile was impervious to most of the elements, even if it didn't always feel that way.

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