West of the west coast: Kayaking with sea otters

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West of mainland British Columbia and west, even, of Vancouver Island and to the west, a chain of small islands rises from the sea. Outside this marine constellation of ocean stacks and islets reaching into the sky in lush rainforest, a powerful swell and 40 knots gusts of wind set the maritime buoy, three miles further out, to sing in time with the waves. West of here there is little but open sea, up to the shores of Japan.

It is an intimidating place to navigate in a small sea kayak, to say the least.

This is Nuchatlitz Provincial Park. Like many of the wild spots on BC’s west coast, getting here is no easy task. The approach includes an hour-plus ferry ride from Vancouver, a drive up the east coast of Vancouver Island to the Campbell River and a hard left into the island’s mountainous neck. Outside the already remote town of Gold River, the sidewalk provides space for a 66-kilometer roller coaster on a forest road that ends at the small settlement of Tahsis. From there, it is another hour on a water taxi to reach the Nuchatlitz Islands.

The simple fact that this place is far away and the associated web of logistics for access makes it almost nothing to explore Nuchatlitz on a guided tour. It is especially worth having one out here for paddlers who are not quite ready to navigate in tides, lack of fresh water and charts filled with so many small islands that they are mostly named in numbers. Spirit of the West Adventures, a local tour company on Vancouver Island with a comprehensive list of sustainability commitments (guides are known to paddle out into the open ocean to dump compost from gourmet meals or kayak five miles to rebuild drinking water for guests) is a good possibility of a sea kayak trip to these remote stretches.

Nuchatlitz, in addition to its beauty, is a place of contradictions. It is remote, but construction sites for anglers’ cabins dot a few insulated inlets. It takes a lot of fossil fuel to get here, and yet the best way to explore is man-made. It is wild, home to legions of bald eagles and coastal bears and wolves that swim the canals between islands. But a mountain scaled in a huge clearcut stands in full view of most of the area, reminding savvy travelers of the Fairy Creek blockade that warms just south of here on Vancouver Island as activists try to protect old trees and direct a sharp focus on BC’s old growth logging practice.

Nuchatlitz is also home to a conservation success story – but even that is not black and white here. Sea otters that had been decimated by hunters in the hunt for their furs for local extinction along the entire west coast of North America disappeared from these waters in 20th century; the last was seen north of here in Checleset Bay in 1929. From 1969, otters caught from Alaska were flown south and reintroduced. Now Nuchatlitz is a thriving sanctuary for sea otters; it’s a normal situation to see dozens of them on a sea kayak expedition out here, and maybe even a raft of fifty at a time floating in the swell.

However, their meteoric growth frustrates some local First Nations communities that were not heard as part of the reintroduction. As sea otters explode and the Canadian government still bans hunting them, coastal communities have seen the number of shellfish they have trusted for generations plummet.

In many ways, these islets are an encapsulation of our modern era, existing on the increasingly Gossamer line between wilderness and human influence. It is our role to travel responsibly in them – make a sea kayak trip a good bet – and places like them to protect against further thinning of that line.

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