Each summer we go on a kayak camping trip with our friends Beau and Kelsey. Last year we did Sucia Island, this year we took up the challenge of tackling the currents of Stuart Island and the surrounding area. Our trip around the island Friday night has to have been the most amazing kayak of our lives. As Kelsey put it, someday our grandkids will be saying, "No, grandma and grandpa, not the orca story again..."
Because, well, through no particular effort of our own, we found ourselves kayaking with a pod of orcas. We had paddled clockwise around the island, riding the current from our landing in Reid Harbor to our camp at Prevost Harbor, and as we came around Turn Point we noticed a half dozen whale watching boats. This was my cue to get my old well-loved compact SLR out from under the deck. The camera is more than five years old with many miles on it and a worn out autofocus, but that makes it the camera I'm willing to take kayaking. If I lose it to the sea I won't cry too hard, but if I get shots with it they are shots I would never get otherwise.
As we began to scan the horizon for distant dorsal fins with faint hopes of seeing something, we heard a sound. A whoosh of water. We turned and looked. We didn't see anything but ripples in the waves. Then we heard it again, and this time we saw it. It was between our kayaks. A whale. Beau saw it go under their boat. With adrenaline pumping we figured that was all we'd see. "Was that an orca?" "Yes, that was an orca!" "Oh my gosh!" "Is this real life?" were all phrases that were exclaimed. But that wasn't even close to the full show. This was a pod and they kept coming. More puffs of water from their blowholes and dorsal fins kept coming up, occasionally we'd see a head with the characteristic white spot come a little more out of the water.
Everything we've heard and read about kayaking with whales is to let the whales go between you and the shore, so we paddled hard to get away from the point. There was a tide rip and we couldn't go far, but the whales were hugging the shore, so we figured we were okay. Then we had one surface ten feet off our starboard bow. I got a shot of that fin. It was massive. It moved our boats, at least that was the story as we heard it. A rumor had spread around the island from the people watching from shore. The legend of the orange and yellow kayaks out with the whales.
A bit of an opinion here, the whale boats continued to follow the whales, which surprised me. I expected they'd camp out and not roar their engines near the pod, but they did. It was loud above the water and with the way sound carries underwater I'm not a biologist but I cannot imagine it is good for the whales.
That was certainly the height of the excitement, but the rest of the trip was an adventure as well. We made french toast and eggs for breakfast the next day, and the guides from the REI Adventures group we were sharing the campground with came over to offer us leftovers of their breakfast as well. So good. We went out for a day paddle around the nearby islands and did some current fighting, with curious seals popping out of the water to take some looks at us. After coming back, eating a late lunch, and a nap in the hammock, we hiked up to the lighthouse for dinner and some sunset watching. Porpoises were playing in the spot the orcas had come through the day before.
The last day was certainly the most frustrating part of the trip. The currents in the area are apparently very unpredictable and our charts weren't much use. We fought the unpredicted current around Johns Island and crossed, still fighting the current, to Spieden Island. We assumed at slack tide Green Point wouldn't have such crazy tide rips. It did. We fought the waves like crazy. Darin and I tried to escape the rip by paddling out farther but that didn't work. It was like kayaking on a treadmill. Beau and Kelsey fought through it, but went out of sight. We started to freak out that they had capsized and kept paddling and looking. Eventually we saw they'd made it out of the rip on the other side.
Then we started really worrying about our situation. The swells seemed to grow and started breaking over our heads. We had been fighting the rip for probably ten minutes by then and hadn't gotten anywhere so we decided it was time to just cross. To do that we had to turn the boat in swells and crashing waves that could easily capsize us. The rudder isn't much use when the waves don't keep it in the water, but we waited for a 30 second "calmer" spot and made the turn, paddling probably the hardest we'd ever paddled to turn the boat as fast as we could. We made it before a wave came and crashed over the bow, drenching me. We kept paddling, I got several mouthfuls of seawater as the bow dove into the sea. Eventually the adrenaline-backed paddling got us out. We caught a favorable current and rendezvoused with Beau and Kelsey and rode the current back to Roche Harbor.
In hindsight the tide rip was a lot of fun. At the time I was freaking out. Type 2 fun.