A day of learning on the strait with my elders

I have always considered myself a rather privileged person in that I am surrounded by good people. Last week Saturday was no exception. I spent the day with 42 of Victoria Canoe and Kayak Club’s voyageur devotees as part of Paddled for Kids. Its an annual event – this one their 37th – that has them paddling around the Saanich Peninsula to Victoria  in voyageur canoes.

Why a 70 kilometre paddle to train for a 70 kilometre swim

I started my day at 4:30 am; I had to be at the club house by 5:45 and on the bus to the boat launch by 6:00. The B.C. Lions Club had arranged for their bus to transport half of the paddlers to the start point and would later transport the other half of the paddlers to a crew switch spot. It was still dark and very early, but I was keen to get started. This incredible group of people had agreed to allow me to iron the entire 70+ kilometres to help me train for my Juan de Fuca double crossing attempt this summer.

As a training program I would be using the paddle to help with a number of things, the first being a 10-12 hour endurance fitness test; which is how long the paddle would take. I would be working on  my physical ability to move for that long as well as my mental ability to stay focused. Voyageur canoeing is not a mentally passive sport. Paddlers switch from one side of the canoe to the other simultaneously when called to do so. All paddlers must switch at the same time and at the same speed or they may find themselves in some very cold water. Mental focus is essential.

Paddling the Peninsula would also give me the opportunity train my stomach. My food plan for the day consisted of the same things I will eat throughout the swim this summer. I planned to eat small bits of food every 30 minutes that I had neatly packed in the pockets of my lifejacket and water system. I had also made sure to wear as little clothing as possible. I wanted to get as close to hypothermia as I could and sustain that level of cold for a very long time. The day’s forecast was between 6 and 7C, cloudy with a chance of rain. I wore a light long sleeve t-shirt, pair of stretchy mid-calf pants, flip-flops and a lifejacket.

The Peninsula is surrounded by the Haro and Juan de Fuca straits. Familiarity with the water way was to be one the greatest benefits of the paddle. I live a block from Juan de Fuca and try to view my upcoming swim route at least once a day as a way of shortening the route in my mind – the more I see it the shorter it becomes. A 10 to 12 hour paddle would give me a lot of time to look across to the other side and work on lessening the gap between here and there. It would also give me a lot of time on top of the strait’s waves getting familiar with the water’s rhythm..

The Paddle

Our bus left a bit after 6:00 and we are at the boat launch in Saanich’s Brentwood Bay within 30 minutes. Some of the paddlers had brought the canoes to the launch the night before. As soon as we arrived all hands were on boats carrying them down to the water. There were 3 canoes headed out, each with 6 to 8 paddlers. The majority of the paddlers were over 60, some 70+ and a few 80+. I was truly blessed to be part of this group of incredible people.

For the first few hours of the paddle the waters were fairly still. This aways has me feeling better in a canoe as I am really quite nervous about tipping. It’s kind of funny when you think about my swim background – but if one is going to enter the cold cold water there is some mental preparation that needs to take place – and my mental preparation on that day was about staying on top of the water for 12 hours – not jump in it!.

The paddlers shared lots of stories of canoe adventures past from across Canada and an upcoming trip to Haida Gwaii. With each story came more information on how to be a good paddler, not just for day trips, but also longer voyages. It was clear from the stories that I was amongst an extremely elite group that had years of paddling experience. Their knowledge and comfort in the boat was unbelievable. I quite enjoyed hearing their accounts – even the ones about tipping!

We made our way around the tip of the Peninsula just past the BC Ferries terminal and pulled up to the dock for a crew change. I quickly jumped out of the boat, ran down the dock into a bush, had a quick “break” and then headed back to the boat for the next shift. This crew was stacked with some of the elder statesmen of the sport. On this leg the conversation changed from trips of the past to information about the water way. A few  of the gentlemen in the boat were also sailors. They knew of all of the islands and land marks around as well as how the currents would flow and where to best situate the boat. It can’t say that they had memorized the information, it was more from observation. They were reading the water by simply watching. Their experience gave us a distinct advantage as we simply didn’t have to work hard.

The paddle along the shoreline past Sidney was beautiful. The sun was out and I was beginning to feel warm. It was good to hear of the history of the some of the houses we passed and who lived in them. I loved paddling between Island View Beach and James Island. Our stern, Ken, chose a fabulous line that pushed us ahead of the other boats. As we paddled into Cordova Bay we could see just how close some of the houses where to the edge of the bluff; any further erosion and they may slide down into the water. Our shift for this leg of the journey was over 3 hours. After a quick pit stop and a crew change we were on our way again.

The next part of the paddle would take us through Cordova Bay up to 10 Mile Point and past Cadboro Bay. The weather had taken a bit of a turn but it was still warm enough that I could carry on without shivering. The crew was strong and again we found ourselves in the lead. It was raining and the sun was behind the clouds. If there was any point where I was going to get hypothermia, it would have been here. The rain passed quickly and we paddled consistently. Luckily the only part of me that was truly truly cold was my right foot which was out of it’s flip-flop and exposed to the cold bottom of the canoe.

There are some serious currents that run between Ten Mile and the Chatham Islands. I know the water well from outrigger racing. One year the wind was strong enough that most of the boats spun on the water for over an hour as though they were stuck in a hamster wheel. The crew messaged Search and Rescue who had been following us for the day. The initial thought was that we would be in some 4 foot + waves; a bit more then some of us (me) might be able to handle in the boat.  I was worried about my ability to focus after being not water so long and that I might tip the boat. Word came back that they were only 1 foot – phew….

We made our way through Baynes Channel pointing the  boat towards the uplands. We were going to switch crews again at Cattle Point. We passed a neat little bird sanctuary along the way (Jemmy Jones Island) that sits at the entrance to Cadboro Bay. Ellie had a really neat story about her and a group of students who were stranded there over night. Some of the students slept between rocks to product themselves from the wind.

There are so may little neat things in the water way that one never has the opportunity to see unless they are on a boat. And learning about them is only possible when you are amongst the best of the best – those who have paddled the water way over and over again.

As we made our way to Cattle Point my big decision was if I should have a quick “pit stop” before the last leg. I didn’t want to exit the boat as the boat ramp was pretty slippy, and I didn’t need to go, but I knew that if I different the last 3 hours of paddling might get uncomfy – so off I went.

Once the new crew and I were back in the boat we headed out to give the other 2 boats room to exchange paddlers. The sun was back out from under the clouds and I was enjoying it’s warmth. I could see that it was raining outside of Victoria. Luckily it was moving away from us rather than to toward us. Our next big land marks: Trial Island and then Clover Point.

Ken was back in the stern. He was working his magic reading the water again. As we headed toward trial island he and Ron, who was at the front of the boat, chatted about our course. They opted to paddle towards the island instead of directly through the channel – there was quite a bit of activity in the centre. The plan worked! We made it through with ease and found a nice resting spot as others battled the current in the channel.

Clover Point was next on the list. I was quite excited as it looked like we would be able to make it around the point – last year we had to pull out and portage the the harbour’s entrance. Ken picked another brilliant path making it possible for us to surf some waves on the way in. It was so great. I could tell Ron in the front was having a really good time and I was thrilled as I had never surfed in a canoe, and at no time was I afraid we would tip.

One final stop at the boat launch at the entrance to the harbour and then all that was left was the harbour and gorge. We were picking up 2 paddlers. I offered to give up my seat as I had achieved my goal, and I know that for some coming on the final leg can be a very important moment in the paddle. One of our paddlers however had hurt his hip and need to get out, and someone from one of the other boats was getting out. I stayed.

It was a nice paddle through the harbour and up the gorge. The water was perfectly flat. When we hit Tillicum narrows we could see the water was moving through the narrow at a good pace. Ken chose to have us on the left side knowing we would get pushed to the right. He wanted to avoid hitting the wall. We paddle HARD and made our way to the other side. The second boat came through in the middle and ended up getting pushed into the wall. The paddle their way out of it though. It was quite the site to see. Boat three made it through fine.

A few more strokes and we were on shore.

A huge shout out and thank you to all of the paddlers that were on the water that day. They are truly an inspiring group of people and I hope to be able to paddle with them more in the future.










Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *