I snuggled deeper into the warmth of my sleeping bag and listened to the waves slapping on the sandy shore and the squeals of distant gulls. A new day was dawning and soon I would have to struggle within the confines of our little pup tent into the clothes I’d shoved into a corner, probably now cold and damp from the night air. I didn’t relish the idea.
As I lay there, my mind drifted back to yesterday morning. It was the first of five days that we would spend exploring the Broken Group of Islands on Vancouver Island’s west coast in the summer of 1995. There were ten of us: two guides and six other paying guests, mostly novice kayakers like ourselves.
“Weather and sea conditions will ultimately determine our route,” Richard informed us during the brief paddling introduction at Toquart Bay. “We will paddle about four hours each day, leaving plenty of time for hikes in the woods, fishing, or just relaxing on the beach. Most of the water is protected but, if the wind gets up, the ocean conditions can be more challenging.” But the sky was blue and the water calm when we pushed off from shore in our kayaks. It was impossible to imagine that any danger could lie ahead.
The sound of laughter and the smell of bacon frying brought my attention back to the present. Dave unzipped the door to the tent and poked his head in through the opening. “Rise and shine! We nearly got soaked by the incoming tide last night. It came up as high as the corner of our tent.” Sure enough, when I grabbed my clothes to put them on, I noticed my shirt was wet where it had been jammed against the tent wall.
Dave had said nothing about any change in the weather, so as I emerged from our tent I was surprised to see that a swirling, grey fog blanket had rolled in overnight. Not only could I not see the distant islands that would be our destination today, but even the tops of the tall trees around the beach where we were camped almost disappeared in the mist.
“We’ll stay here until the fog lifts, won’t we?” I asked Richard during breakfast. “We can’t possibly venture out in this thick fog. How will we know where we are or that we are even heading in the right direction?”
“Trust me! We’ll get to the next island with the aid of my map and compass.” Richard’s reply was confident, but his assurance came with a warning: “You’ll have to keep up the cadence, guys. We don’t want to lose anyone out there.”
My heart sank. The confidence I felt yesterday, under pristine weather conditions, was gone. I didn’t want to leave our campsite, but what choice did I have? I couldn’t stay behind all alone. The only way to survive this ordeal would be to make Richard’s instruction my morning’s incantation: “Keep up the cadence.”
After breakfast, we carried the kayaks down to the water’s edge, loaded them with our gear, and donned our spray aprons. One by one we pushed off from the beach. I was the last to leave. I eased myself down into the cockpit, snapped my spray apron over the lip of the cockpit, and lowered the rudder. As I paddled my kayak through the breaking surf, a wave washed over the bow and cold water gushed into the cockpit, showering my bare legs and bringing up goose bumps. “How is the water getting in?” I wondered. “Is my spray apron not on right? Could there be a hole in it?”
Upon closer inspection, I saw that there was indeed a hole big enough to let in water with each surging wave. The faster I paddled, the worse it became. Waves seemed to be coming at me from all directions. “How much water will it take to fill up my cockpit?” I wondered. “I’m sure my kayak will sink before we reach our destination.”
I had to do something, but what? The spray apron seemed to sag in the area of the hole so that any water that gathered there would get in. If I could manage to raise the spray apron or tighten it somehow by shortening my shoulder straps, maybe the water would drain off.
So preoccupied was I with my problem, that I didn’t realize I was now alone and shrouded by dense fog. “Where is everyone? ‘Hello!’” The fog muffled my call. All I could hear were the agitated waves slapping against my kayak and the sloshing of the water inside the cockpit. “Hello!” I shouted again.
I paddled a few strokes, but stopped. “What if I’m paddling in the wrong direction?” I wondered. “I should stay where I am. It won’t take long before someone misses me and comes looking. Will I drift towards the shore or the open ocean? What happens if I get into the path of a freighter? What if I’m out here for days without food or fresh water? How long will it take before I am so thirsty that I start drinking sea water?” I thought about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and tried to remember how it ended. My heart was pounding and my throat was beginning to feel dry.
“Hey, Judy, you’d better stick with us. We don’t want to lose you out here.” I turned. There was Richard and nine others looking back at me. What a welcome sight!
With one deep stroke of my paddle I spun my kayak around. I know relief flooded my face as I smiled and said. “Me neither! Let’s pick up the cadence.”
January 16, 2006.