Senior editor Norie Quintos edits Traveler's annual Tours of a Lifetime issue, which selects the 50 best guided tours of the year. So what did she do on her family vacation? She took two tours out West. This week she blogs about sea kayaking in British Columbia; next week, rafting on Idaho’s Salmon River. And the following week, she'll share tips on planning a great family trip.
It took three flights and an hour-long boat ride from northern Vancouver Island to get to Hurst Island, in the heart of one of British Columbia’s newest provincial parks, God’s Pocket. There, a charming seven-room lodge at the water’s edge served as our base for exploring the area by kayak.
I’ve kayaked before, but no way was I going to do it in unfamiliar (not to mention sea mammal-laden) waters, and with two kids in tow. This was a job for an expert outfitter and the one I called on was Sea Kayak Adventures, which has been guiding trips to this area since 1993. The Couer-d’Alene-based company also runs trips to Baja in winter.
The kids weren’t so keen on encountering Shamu up close, but I was fixated on seeing orcas. So it came as a bit of a shock that during the entire five-day trip, we saw not a one. Not. A. One. Apparently, wild orcas, unlike their unfortunate caged brethren at SeaWorld, don’t perform on a schedule, which is why all whale-watching tour operators in the region, including ours, never guarantee sightings.
But we did spot something else in the water. And that something else turned out to be just as awesome and thrilling. Huge humpback whales, hunted to near extinction and a rare sight in this former whaling area, have made a dramatic comeback in the last decade.
We spotted several humpbacks, including a mother and calf that entered the cove at the entrance to the lodge. However, the encounter that made chills run down my spine was kayaking on Browning Passage and hearing behind us the forceful exhalation of air through the blowhole of one of these otherwise silent creatures—like Darth Vader, but friendlier. Is there anyone who can listen to the breath of that gentle giant (which might have gone the way of the dodo) and not become an instant environmentalist?
Other wildlife sightings also lessened the sting of the orcas’ absence. Bald eagles were as common as robins back East. In the water we encountered various porpoises, dolphins, and seals. Marine invertebrates were also wild and wonderful, especially when interpreted by one of our expert guides. Sea cucumbers, which squirt when held (pictured, left); voracious sea stars, which push their stomachs out of their mouths to eat; tiny dinoflagellates that glow fluorescent when you churn the water.
Human legs get restless when they’ve been in a kayak all day. The cure was hiking through mossy, forested Hurst Island. Here and there we’d spot a massive old-growth cedar tree that early 20th-century loggers had left behind. Our guide was Lewis, the irrepressible chocolate Lab owned by lodge co-owners Bill Weeks and Annie Ceschi; Lewis led us to a kitchen midden, a great mound of discarded shells left by the First Nations people who once lived here.
Another day, the dog took us to Harlequin Bay, on the northeast side of the island. For Sasquatch believers, this is Ground Zero. Over the years, there have been numerous sightings of Sasquatch (i.e. Bigfoot) in the area, and Native American residents of neighboring Balaklava Island are said to avoid the northeastern part of Hurst Island. And even lodge co-owner Annie Ceschi has had enough unexplainable experiences that she can no longer discount its existence. “Let’s put it this way: I’m open,” she says.
And that is what is so great about travel. It opens your mind (perhaps even blows it) to ideas you would never, ever, have considered before. Sasquatch lives? Having kayaked these waters, walked these forests, heard the stories, the kids and I, well, let’s just say we’re open to it too.
Photos: Top, by Nancy Harrison; below left, by Norie Quintos