Surf Traversing Vancouver Island: A Look Back

At the close of my most intense pad­dling day, a wolf paid me a vis­it. I had been in the water for over eight hours, trav­el­ing from Tachu Point to beyond Bajo Point to wrap up anoth­er leg of my 350-mile surf tra­verse down the west coast of Van­cou­ver Island. The sun was begin­ning to dip into the Pacif­ic as I entered the pro­tec­tion of Bajo Reef at the cor­ner of Noot­ka Island. I con­tin­ued pad­dling close to shore, under the watch­ful eyes of sea otter moth­ers cradling pups in the kelp beds. I squint­ed into the fad­ing light for a seam in the trees or a cut in the shore, a sign of a stream. I need­ed water.

Image by Herb Belrose

Near a hefty, rock-bot­tomed creek, I struck camp by bur­row­ing in the beach grass and arrang­ing drift logs so I could escape the wind. I set up my bivy sack and slipped my sleep­ing bag inside it before sit­ting down in the grav­el to make and eat din­ner. When I was done, I leaned back against the drift logs to watch the stars come out. It was a beau­ti­ful night and I was exhausted.By and by, a wolf appeared out of the dark­ness. It wan­dered up to my camp, appar­ent­ly also intent on enjoy­ing some sit­ting. It chose a place fac­ing me on a drift log five yards away. I had nev­er met a wolf before. He or she seemed con­tent; there was no implor­ing or men­ace in its pres­ence. The unex­pect­ed vis­i­tor and I sat togeth­er in silence for a cou­ple of min­utes as I did my best to pre­tend that I was com­fort­able. Images of rabid, vio­lent wolves kept ris­ing in my mind — images that had noth­ing to do with reality.

Image by Herb Belrose

Impa­tient for the wolf to move so that I could go to bed, I decid­ed to take action. Still seat­ed, I casu­al­ly told it to go. Noth­ing. Then I waved my arm and hit it with the beam of my head­lamp. The wolf just tilt­ed its head and stared, its two eyes glow­ing in the light. Final­ly, I stood up, leaned toward it and barked it away. The wolf wan­dered back into the dark­ness as noise­less­ly as it had come but with an offend­ed-look­ing gait as if to com­mu­ni­cate that I had act­ed like some kind of a jerk. I crawled into my bag and slept.

Look­ing back, there was some­thing unset­tling about the wolf encounter. I don’t mind that I sent it off; some­times you just have to sleep. What both­ers me is that my prej­u­dice against the wolf kept me from being present. I would like to have matched the wolf’s calm­ness. I would like to have matched the wolf’s fear­less­ness. Oppor­tu­ni­ties like that are what wilder­ness trips are all about and I look for­ward to anoth­er encounter in the future.

It might seem para­dox­i­cal, but for me, spend­ing so many days alone in the wilder­ness has every­thing to do with con­nec­tion.  This ocean pad­dling pur­suit has afford­ed me an oppor­tu­ni­ty to share in a human expe­ri­ence that has been around for many thou­sands of years. Pad­dling a surf­board or walk­ing with your hands is only a mat­ter of style. The con­nec­tion is human-pow­ered trav­el, mov­ing in the world at human speed, devel­op­ing a rela­tion­ship of human scale with the earth, and oper­at­ing in con­cert with the pow­ers of weath­er, and ele­men­tal forces like the ocean. The con­nec­tion lies in the unadorned encoun­ters with big wild ani­mals. And in liv­ing out­side, know­ing our home.

Image by Herb Belrose

An aspect of surf­ing that I appre­ci­ate is that no record is kept. Unlike a moun­tain, the ocean rejects flags, foot­prints, and almost any oth­er traces of human-pow­ered achieve­ment. This fea­ture of surf­ing enhances the pres­ence inher­ent to the act; it con­tributes to all the mus­ing and day­dream­ing that are a part of my pas­sion for it.

Pad­dling the west coast of Van­cou­ver Island was only the frame­work for my trip. The heart of the pur­suit exists beyond the phys­i­cal­i­ty of it. The struc­ture serves to bring in a dra­ma. It installs the ten­sion of hav­ing to move for­ward and a require­ment of good judg­ment, com­pe­tence and endurance to sus­tain the endeav­or. The devel­op­ment of these qual­i­ties is sat­is­fy­ing. Sit­ting at my desk here in Port­land, OR, I’m not think­ing how epic the pad­dle was. I’m think­ing about how grate­ful I am to have spent the bet­ter part of anoth­er sea­son in the coastal wilder­ness of the Pacif­ic Northwest.

A Look Back: Eli’s live video updates from the field. 

Update 1: Gear and Preparation

Update 2: Haul­ing Gear

Update 3: What it Means

Update 4: The Last Day