Five paddle pals and I explored the north end of Vancouver Island for seven days last August. We traveled from Port Hardy to Cape Sutil and back while circumnavigating Nigei Island. This area is becoming a very popular place to paddle, and for good reason. It is easily accessible, the scenery is magnificent, and the paddling is fairly protected from the large swell of the outer coast. One must be prepared for windy and rainy conditions. Fortunately we did not encounter much wind or rain. Hopefully this trip report will help you plan your own excursion.
Excellent preparation for the trip was provided by the book The Wild Coast vol.1 by John Kimantis. We also used NOAA current tables, which only proved useful for timing or passage over the Tatnall reefs. A wealth of information was also obtained by talking to the many people who have been there before. Careful planning led to a relaxed trip plan that was easily accomplished in seven days.
It takes one day to drive to Port Hardy and one day back. The drive is very scenic and the two hour ferry ride from Vancouver was one of the highlights of the whole trip. It is highly advised to make ferry reservations and do not travel on a Canadian holiday! We ended up waiting several hours for a ferry and driving winding roads in the dark. We used the North Coast Trail backpacker’s hostel for accommodations at the beginning and end of the trip, and this is highly recommended.
On our first day we reached the entrance to Goletas Channel at Duval Pt. in about an hour. It was already around noon when high winds typically start blowing down the channel. It is advised to plan most of your paddling in the morning to avoid the winds. However conditions were still sunny and calm so we decided to make the 2 nm crossing to the east end of the Gordon Island chain. These islands are remote, rocky and wild. We were able to find one excellent beach to land on for lunch on Doyle I., but otherwise landings are scarce. After lunch it did get windy, but not unmanageably so. We worked our way west along the Gordons, checked out potential camping sites on Heard, Bell, and Hurst Islands (the campsite on Bell is very nice). We ended up at our planned campsite on Nolan Point on the south tip of Balaklava.
The campsite at Nolan Point is probably the nicest I have seen anywhere. One party I know spent several days here, making day trips in several directions, and that makes a very worthwhile trip. We spent two nights, using our second day to paddle around and explore Balaklava Island. It is worth stopping at the lighthouse and chatting with the lighthouse keepers while enjoying their awesome view to the north.
On our third day we moved camp to Vansittart Island, paddling around the north end of Nigei Island. There are spectacular tide pools on the east side of Nigei, while the north side is low rock cliff and primeval forest overlooking the water. As we rounded the northwest corner of Nigei we could see whale plumes in the distance. As we got closer and started our crossing to Vansitart, a huge flock of birds flew overhead and landed on the water 100 yards away. They knew the whales were about to surface. For about 30 minutes two humpback whales did a pas de deux on the water for our benefit. Then rain and wind picked up and we hurried to our campsite on the southwest side of Vansitart.
On the fourth day we set out for Cape Sutil. The route involved a crossing of Goletas to Jepther Point, (a whale rubbing beach) and travel over the Tatnall Reef, which protects Goletas Channel from the open ocean. We timed the day for fast ebb current to take us west after lunch. There was the possibility of having current against the incoming swell and winds, which would have prevented us from approaching Sutil. However we had a calm moist day with low swell and no wind, so we had no difficulty making it over the reef. To make it interesting and magical there was dense fog for most of the day. We could not see land during our two mile crossing, but a GPS kept us on track. One of the special parts of our trip everyone mentioned afterwards was the sound of humpbacks breathing quite close around us, but we could not see them. We were lost in reverie as we paddled in the void.
Cape Sutil has a large expanse of beautiful white sand beach facing east and protected from surf. It is split into a north and south part by a small rocky headland. The south beach is part of the new North Coast Trail for backpackers. There were outhouses and bear vaults and bears (off in the distance) and nobody there, so we camped on the south beach. We stayed two nights, the first night solitary, the second joined by a host of backpackers arriving for the weekend.
For loneliness (but no ‘amenities’) it would be best to camp on the north beach, which is difficult to reach on foot (but not with boats!). On the fifth day we paddled over to this beach and spent the day napping and exploring our own private expanse of perfect sand wilderness. It was clear why the author of our guidebook thought this was one of the five special places on Vancouver Island.
The last two days of our expedition involved returning the long miles back to Port Hardy. These were two days of 15 nm paddling distance each. They were hot and sunny with no wind or current assist, despite what current predictions said. At best, the predictions apply only to the station itself and not the vicinity in Goletas Channel. However it was non-stop beauty to take our mind off the slog.
We did have a nice current ride back over the Tatnall reefs (as predicted! Here the predictions were accurate). Without wind and swell there were 2 foot tide rips, so it is worthwhile noting that in the best of conditions this area provides a bit of a challenge. Under the normal windy or swell conditions it would be wise to only pass through here at slack or avoid by staying close to shore if there is no surf.
Our last campsite was in a wolf den on the south end of Nigei. We found super soft sphagnum moss covering the ground in the forest at one of the few beach landings. Wolves also thought it was a nice spot, we could tell from the large number of bones lying around.
So, me hearties, Vancouver Island is where it’s at, as far as paddling destinations go! Wonders abound, the wilderness is vast. One must be prepared, so keep working on your paddling skills by putting lots of miles on your boat in local waters.