Typical paddling in Johnstone Strait.
This is the final part of a 24-day kayaking honeymoon expedition on BC’s South Coast from Quadra Island to Kingcome Inlet and back again.
Trip route in blue – linking previous trips we have done in green (Discovery Islands), red (Central Coast & Cape Scott), and yellow (Broughtons).
Part 3: Pott’s Lagoon to Surge Narrows: 6 paddling days. 180km.
The third and final part of our journey would take us back home to Quadra Island and the high island peaks of the Discovery Islands. We planned to paddle Johnstone Strait along the Vancouver Island shoreline, stopping as we pleased. From there we hoped to travel through Mayne Passage and back to Cordero Channel and through Arran Rapids into Bute Inlet, spending our final night on Stuart Island before returning to Surge via Whiterock Passage.
Day 19: June 13 – to Pig Bay
L walking the logs at Pott’s Lagoon.
We woke up in our friend’s float house in Pott’s Lagoon and reluctantly turned off the propane fireplace and set out into another fresh June day. The wind forecast was lousy for one more day until it switched for the rest of the trip. Strong SE winds were gusting down Baronet Passage and we imagined the worst at the infamous Cracroft Point. Despite going against a slow current, we made extraordinary time with the wind at our backs, covering the 16km to the point in a little over 2 hours.
The marine life in Baronet Passage is exceptional, but we took full advantage of the wind and did not linger.
A stunning painted star we found in Baronet Passage in March 2021.
The wind that had pursued us down Baronet Passage failed to fully materialize in Johnstone Strait and the waters around Cracroft were surprisingly calm. Small rips and unsettled water sat just off the point, but we paddled within a few meters of shore and missed any issues. Due to our late start and the wind that now blew directly into our faces, we decided on a short day and aimed for the beaches in Pig Bay.
We turned our boats east and began the first strokes of our paddle back to Quadra.
A pair of humpbacks paced us as we paddled past the Sophia Islands. We took our time in the sheltered waters of Pig Bay to scope out the best camping – there are lots of beaches to choose from, though camping was a bit challenging. While the views may be appealing, the campsite on the point has fallen to disrepair – many of the DIY tent platforms are rotting through and camping is very limited.
Typical state of the beaches at Pig Bay.
We chose the second beach to the north – it had cleared upland and was clearly an abandoned commercial site, but significant driftwood made access difficult. We briefly stopped at the first beach to the north of the point before deciding to return to the unused commercial site. Unfortunately there appears to be no regulations on decommissioning commercial sites and this operator has chosen to leave all the rotting infrastructure in place, some of which is charming though it does detract from the wilderness setting.
Easy camping in cleared forest at Pig Bay.
We spent a great evening on the lovely pebble beach watching the sun set over Vancouver Island and Johnstone Strait.
Day 20: June 14 – to Random JS Beach (East of Adams River)
We left Pig Bay early the next morning hoping to make some good distance down Johnstone with a favourable wind forecast. Unfortunately for us, the current continued its slow westward flow against us, and as luck would have it, the forecast changed from light winds to increasingly SE over the next few days.
We would spend the next few days paddling long hours and fighting wind and current as we made our way back down Johnstone – a clockwise loop through the Broughtons would have made more sense if we had spent more time looking at current tables!
With the sun and calm waters we elected to cross from Swaine Point directly to the eastern boundary of Robson Bight. We still question this decision making.
L paddling near Swaine Point before the weather changed. A great day to not wear the drysuits.
The weather changed quickly, and the current, building wind and rain, and a desire not to enter the protected waters of the Bight turned an easy crossing into a multi-hour affair. By the time we stopped at the fine sand and pebble beach at Orca Camp, we were cold, wet, and grumpy. A bag of potato chips and chicken noodle soup quickly turned the mood around though.
Active logging was taking place in the watersheds above the world’s only protected orca sanctuary and commercial fishing boats operated at will. Oh well, make sure you don’t paddle a kayak along this shoreline.
Soup and tea always make things better. L after an interesting crossing.
We explored Orca Camp which was just being set up for the season and were more than a bit jealous of the outdoor, driftwood shower perched on the beach. No one was at the site and we wandered around a bit – the driftwood art was quite cool.
Driftwood art at Grey Wolf Expeditions Orca Camp.
As we passed Naka Creek, lighting struck somewhere in the near distance. We stuck close to shore and continued paddling.
We debated stopping at a small sandy beach in the Adams River estuary, but were unsure of the Reserve boundaries. We continued on for about 3km further past Adams River. We found a small patch of pebbles that would hold a tent between piles of driftwood and set our alarm for high tide. This was our second random beach camping in Johnstone Strait – we knew there was a suggested BCMT site around, but we had somehow missed it.
Beach camping in Johnstone Strait – cutting it close to hightide!
We had a great evening none the less and enjoyed the expansive views of Johnstone Strait.
Day 21: June 15 – to Mount Milner Campsite
We planned for another long day in Johnstone Strait and were dismayed to hear more SE wind forecast on the radio. It was only forecast to reach 15kn, but it was demotivating regardless. We launched easily from our pebble beach and enjoyed the crystal clear waters along the shore. We identified numerous species of sea star, including sunflower stars, striped sun stars, and painted stars. The intertidal life was phenomenal.
The shoreline was intricate and complex and we passed several buildings with First Nations art. It looked like a camp that had not been used for some time.
Clear waters near a First Nations camp in Johnstone Strait.
Windy Point did not live up to its namesake for the day luckily for us. As we crossed St. Vincent Bight we ran into our first group of Dall’s porpoise that we had seen on the trip. They are always so fascinating to watch swim with their distinctive “rooster-tail” splash. We saw Pacific white-sided on the trip, but only ever from a distance, so it was great to spend time with this playful group.
From St. Vincent’s Bight we continued towards Sayward. The shoreline remained interesting, with cliffs, intertidal life, and pocket beaches. Shortly after our Dall’s encounter, it began to rain again. Some of the hardest rain of the trip followed us for the next few hours – at one point I was able to race a ‘wall’ of rain as it overtook L. It stopped before reaching me – but it was a short lived victory as soon the whole sky opened again.
Apparently orca rub at this beach, but it looked rough! The orca unfortunately were not around. 0/6 on the rubbing beaches!
We planned to stop for a snack break and check out the waterfall at the aptly named Waterfall Beach, but just 300m shy of the beach nature called and had to be answered! We hopped out of the boats onto a nice gravel bar for relief. Back in the boats we thought we’d make short work of the stretch to Waterfall Beach and take a longer break. Suddenly, a blast shattered the air and a sizeable rockfall tumbled directly in front of us, splashing into the water. Large boulders crashed into Waterfall beach. With our adrenaline racing at the near miss, we paddled hard out into the strait. No warning, no signage. Be wary out there!
I don’t think logging companies monitor the VHF, but let’s just say that hopefully no kids were listening…
The pee break that likely saved our lives. L just before the rockfall.
Still shook up from our experience, we bypassed the dismal sights of Kelsey Bay as fast as possible. The beaches just east of the bay are great quality and we thought about lingering but wanted to rid ourselves of civilization once more. Lightening was striking again and we paddled cautiously along the shore.
The current was finally in our favour and we were whisked past Camp Point. A big rip sucked us past the nice beach and camping options and we decided to continue to the Mount Milner campsite while we had a favourable tide. Nice beaches line the shore from Camp Point to Mount Milner, but we knew to expect cleared upland there.
The landing at Mount Milner easy and typical of most of the beaches along the Johnstone Strait shoreline.
We continued until we reached the nice pebble beach and pulled our boats up. We explored the beach and luckily pulled our boats just high enough to escape being washed away by the wake of the Alaska Ferry as we wandered down the beach. We scoped out the area mentioned by BCMT as cleared upland, but decided to camp on the far end of the beach on the gravel. We pitched the tarp for the last time of the trip and popped a few Advil.
Comfy camping at Mount Milner after a bit of Sawyer Paddle gravel digging.
We sat on our picnic blanket, ate some pasta, and watched the marine traffic slowly cruise by.
Day 22: June 16 – to Eclipse Islet (Blind Channel)
A humpback woke us in the morning as it played in Johnstone Strait and hung out as we broke camp. The beach provided an incredibly easy launch and we crossed the channel for the last time back to West Thurlow Island. Unfortunately we were running low on time and energy so we did not stop to assess the potential campsites along the south shore of the island – there appear to be many beaches of good quality, although we cannot speak for the upland.
Humpback cruising down Johnstone Strait.
Knox Bay also appeared to offer great camping, but we saved time by cutting across. We knew that the current would be against us as we paddled up Mayne Passage and would be reaching its maximum near the time we approached Blind Channel. The maximum current for the day was only around 3kn and we were not to concerned – just disappointed at the extra work!
Just past Needham Point we started to experience some significant current, but were able to inch our way up the coast until we reached the shelter of Butterfly Bay. More current appeared to be moving in the centre of the channel. The shoreline was varied and had some large cliffs, and we found some pictograph panels as we paddled. L stopped to collect a second red sea urchin test and I rested on some boulders along the shore.
An interesting series of pictographs in Mayne Passage.
Our destination for the day – Eclipse Islet is a gorgeous looking sand and gravel islet across from Blind Channel Resort and we were excited to get there. We had pushed hard in Johnstone Strait to set us up for a short easy day with time to explore some of the trails of the resort – we also were spoiling ourselves with a fancy dinner!
We paddled past Blind Channel and then ferried across the channel in some fun current. As soon as we reached the beach we yard-saled all our gear and consumed the entire beach! It was the first true sun we had experienced in days and we took full advantage to dry our somewhat smelly gear. Things dried very fast in the sun and after setting camp and repacking the gear, we threw on our best threads, brushed our teeth, and paddled over to the resort.
A gear explosion on Eclipse Islet.
Paddling to the resort with Eclipse Islet behind. Our grey tent is perched on the left side of the island. There is a cleared site in the stand of trees as well.
COVID had limited the number of visitors to the resort and we were one of only a few parties visiting. We indulged ourselves in a very well stocked store and spent the rest of the afternoon hiking the trails and visiting the large cedar tree on the property. Always great to see these lonely giants!
Great trails around the Blind Channel Resort property.
The Blind Channel Cedar.
We were the only people dining at the restaurant and I must say it was absolutely fantastic! As with lots of places on the coast, Blind Channel was settled by a German family, and this is reflected in the food. Halibut, schnitzel, fresh vegetables, cocktails, and dessert were an amazing treat after 21 nights of pastas.
A great stop at Blind Channel Resort!
We left the resort very satisfied! It was a great night of spoiling ourselves and celebrating our marriage. L hopped in the boat and we paddled back to our small islet. We curled up in our double sleeping bag, pulled out our books and slowly fell into a deep sleep with full bellies!
The trip felt like it was coming to a natural conclusion and we were very excited, and a bit hesitant, to explore the strong rapids around Stuart Island and Bute Inlet before heading home.
Day 23: June 17 – to Stuart Island
The sun was shining brightly by the time we had packed up and were on the water. We expected our last night to be camped in familiar waters and we waved goodbye to last night’s lovely home. The current was minimal and we experienced no turbulence near Shell Point.
Enjoying as much of the morning as we could on a fine beach at one of our last campsites.
We continued around Erasmus Island, making good time and heading for Arran Rapids. We had left ourselves plenty of time to reach the triple rapids, but still felt a little nervous and paddled with purpose. We bypassed Shoal Bay again and checked out the campsite and north shoreline of Channe Island before crossing Nodales Channel back to Sonora Island.
The tide was ebbing with a ~7kn max and we soon felt the effects as we approached Denham Island along the Sonora shoreline. We were still about two hours before a slack switching to a mild 9.5 kn flood. We continued along the shore using back eddies but eventually were forced into the current. We were across from Horn Point and wanted to avoid the whirlpools that can form over a shoal along the Sonora shore in this area on a strong ebb. We ferried our way across the channel and could see and hear the whirlpools as we sat on the bluffs in Horn Bay.
Sitting on the bluffs at Horn Bay. This would make a fine campsite with an easy landing in the bay. A good place to hang out and wait for currents.
We spent 30 min at Horn Bay eating chips and salsa from Blind Channel and wondering if we would be able to cut between Dent Island and the mainland. Full of anticipation, we got in the boats and paddled towards the north shore of Dent Island. A small channel allowed us passage, and although it was still ebbing decently against us in a rush of whitewater, we battled hard and were able to bypass Dent Rapids and shave a few kilometers on our way to Arran.
In no rush now, we slowed down and enjoyed the few quaint homes that remain along the mainland shore and into Vancouver Bay. A stark contrast to the dystopia that lingers in Big Bay and on the west side of Stuart Island. Views of Sonora Resort were blocked by the Gillard Islands.
L looking down the famed Arran Rapids. The peaks of Bute dominate the skyline.
Barely a ripple disturbed the water as we paddled through the famed Arran Rapids – some of the strongest on the coast. We spent more than 20 minutes leisurely crossing to Stuart and enjoying the clear waters and mountain views of Bute. Finally the current switched in our favour and we felt the first pulls towards Bute.
(Later this summer as I paddled past Arran on a full flood, thousands of Pacific Hake were dying as a result of being swept to the surface from the power of the currents. Thousands of gulls and seabirds were having a feeding frenzy. Make sure you transit the rapids at the appropriate time!)
L and I pulled into Basset Bay on the east side of Stuart, only to find a group of more than 10 campers! They had transited Arran Rapids in the morning in ocean canoes and were out for another week. I would run into them in a few days near East Redonda Island. We exchanged information and made polite chit chat, but we were keen to spend the last night of our trip alone. We paddled off to try some rock bluff camping – not something I recommend in the area, but we were almost out of food, so the boats were easy to unload and handle.
Rock bluff camping near Stuart – I recommend Basset Bay for ease. Always protect the mother rock if you choose to have fire on bedrock!
We lit a small fire for our last night and watched the sun set over Bute – one of my favourite places on the coast. Unfortunately we would have to leave the sand and pebble beaches of Bute for another time and we would turn south for home tomorrow. We ate our final rations of chocolate and crawled into our TarpTent for the last time ever – it was being retired after this trip after serving us well over countless adventures.
Day 24: June 18 – to Surge Narrows
The rest of the route lay in familiar waters, having led trips around the Calm Channel area on numerous occasions.
We packed up and launched our boats for the last time. Wind was forecast to be strong in JS and GS and we felt the effects as it funnelled down Cordero Channel and around Mount Muehle on Stuart Island.
Looking up Bute Inlet from Calm Channel. Estero Peak on the left skyline.
We paddled to the south end of Stuart Island and then elected to make a big crossing to somewhere on the Maurelle shoreline past Hole-in-the-Wall. The NW wind gave us a strong boost as it built through Yuculta. We skipped the First Nations site at Hole-in-the-Wall and the old village site of Mushkin. L has never had the chance to paddle the Church House shoreline, but hopefully we will visit the midden there in spring 2022 when we attempt Estero Peak at the mouth of Bute Inlet.
The wind kept us moving at a fast pace, and we flew past the Rendezvous Islands and snuck into Whiterock Passage where we stopped to visit one of our favourite old trees. The Read Island Cedar is truly beautiful up close and the community recently hosted a cleanup of the beach and area surrounding the tree.
The bay with islets in the northwest part of the passage is always a great stop – views of Dowler are great and the bluffs offer a great place for a snack.
As we paddled down Whiterock we decided to skip the pictographs that line the west shore as we had visited many times. We headed for the narrows at the south end of the passage while we recorded our trip song from memory. Paddling past the familiar homes and shorelines of Read Island and Surge Narrows, we were happy to be returning to the place where the next chapter of our journey together had started just 24 days before.
Although this trip traverses some areas of heavy resource extraction and industry, it is a magnificent paddle and I highly recommend it as a world class kayaking itinerary:
In the shoulder season of a COVID year we often felt quite remote and despite the logging, wilderness still reigns supreme here. Regardless of season or pandemic, you will likely meet more bears than kayakers in the Thurlow Islands area. The yacht traffic diminishes north of Sonora, and most boaters in the area tend to transit the same route with the same anchorages – these can be avoided for solitude. The marine and intertidal life was phenomenal and the currents and winds of the northern straits provided more than a few playful days in the boats. This entire area (as with most of the BC coast) is rich with cultural history and magnificent rock art sites – with the pictographs in the Broughton and Kingcome area some of the most detailed and fascinating we have seen in our travels.
Another fantastically successful sea kayaking trip on the BC coast!