by Curt Remington
A chartered yacht, en route from Alaska to Seattle, struck a rock and sank, leaving seven people stranded in a remote part of British Columbia. Jenny, one of the passengers, and Trent, the yacht’s captain, set out for help in a hand-carved cedar canoe. A catastrophe that they’re not aware of has left almost no boat traffic in the Inside Passage.
Jenny dropped another log on the fire, sat back down on the picnic table’s seat and watched flames engulf the new piece of wood, dancing and flickering as it too caught fire. This camp, at Safety Cove, sat only nine miles south of their previous night’s camp, but it was the last resting-place for miles. Trent had explained that it’s a well-known shelter for mariners waiting to cross Queen Charlotte Sound or recovering from having crossed it. Once past Queen Charlotte Sound, they’d be in the more protected waters between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia coast.
Upon arrival at Safety Cove they had found an empty twenty-foot Boston Whaler, sitting cockeyed on the sand and mud flats, just out of reach of the high tide. Public mooring buoys in the middle of the cove sat empty, as did a shed on a bluff overlooking the cove.
Their campsite, on the south side of the bay, was one Trent had stopped at on a number of earlier trips. It was much brighter than their previous night’s site, since many of the trees had been thinned out. A wooden picnic table and concrete firepit made the site relatively comfortable.
In spite of the pleasant surroundings, Jenny couldn’t stop worrying about the lack of people and boats. What’s going on out there?
Walking back into camp with an armload of firewood, Trent barely noticed her as he dropped the wood and sat next to her on the picnic table bench. He stirred the fire with a piece of wood then dropped it in.
“What’s up?” Jenny asked. His concerned expression wasn’t helping her worries any.
He looked up slowly. “Just stirring the fire.”
“I mean what are you so deep in thought about? You’re worried too, aren’t you?”
“Probably just tired.” Trent feigned a yawn, but his face looked strained.
Jenny laid her head against his chest, closed her eyes and let the bright colors from the fire flicker before her eyes. They both stared into the fire for some time then talked quietly until dusk.
In the middle of the night, Jenny was awakened by Trent crawling out of their double sleeping bag. “What’s up?” Jenny asked, watching as Trent unzipped the tent and crawled halfway out the door, in his underwear.
“Checking the weather.”
“I can hear it’s raining. Why are you doing this in the middle of the night?”
“Actually it’s three am, and I’m more interested in what the wind is doing.”
“How’s it look?” she asked.
“There’s less movement in the trees tonight. I’d rather wait for calmer weather, but we can’t afford much more time. What do you want to do?”
“I’m game whenever you are.”
“Let’s do it then.” Trent crawled over to his bag and started pulling clothes out.
“Do we really have to get up this early?”
“The wind’ll get worse by afternoon. We need all the morning we can get. If you’ve got a solid stomach, eat a good breakfast too. There may not be much time to eat later.”
After a hurried breakfast, they loaded their cedar canoe and walked slowly through the dark camp again, looking carefully for anything they might have missed.
The water on the bay was smooth as glass, as they paddled out toward the mouth. Once out into the passage, there was only a minor chop, less than a foot high. They closely followed the steep, rocky shoreline of Calvert Island, which made navigating in the dark much easier.
Trent had told her it was roughly seven miles to Cape Calvert and the start of the big waters. By the time they reached it, the first light of dawn was starting to glow in the east. As they got closer to the end of Calvert Island, standing three hundred feet high, the size of the waves gradually increased. Soon Jenny spotted the undiminished waves that rolled past the island’s point. Oh my God! He did have reason to be worried. The waves were long, so they weren’t that steep, but they looked roughly eight feet high from trough to top, and they undoubtedly would get bigger as the wind picked up. Most of Jenny’s boating had been on Lake Washington or the Puget Sound. It wasn’t like this.
“Trent, do you have any Dramamine?” she asked, only half kidding. She hadn’t been seasick since she was a kid but had heard anyone can get it if conditions are bad enough.
Entering the big waves, Trent kept the bow aimed nearly straight into them. At the peak of the first wave, the bow was lifted out of the water, until the wave swept farther back and it dropped down, with a splash. Paddling through the next few waves, Trent gradually turned the canoe more to the south, sliding crosswise down the backside of a wave, then paddling hard to climb the next. As they reached the crest, they would turn the canoe into the wave, avoiding getting knocked over sideways by the crest. Along with the waves, a stiff breeze blew out of the west, carrying the damp smell of the sea.
After the first fifteen minutes, Jenny wondered how she could tolerate a whole day of the roller coaster motion, climbing up and riding down these waves. She glanced back and saw Trent paddling with a determined look on his face, showing no sign of apprehension. He smiled at her, in a forced manner. Jenny turned back around and paddled an efficient steady pace, remembering she had to keep it up for many hours.
Half an hour later, Jenny began to feel dizzy. She breathed deeply and tried to ignore it. A few minutes after that, she started sweating profusely. She pulled off her wool sweater but felt little relief. Soon the back of her throat began to tingle. Although she wanted to think otherwise, the signs were clear. Seasickness was setting in. She turned around again and saw the same determined look on Trent’s face.
Fresh air was supposed to help, but air doesn’t get much fresher than what she was already breathing. Looking out at the distant horizon was also supposed to help, but she couldn’t see it most of the time. What she could see were walls of water in constant motion, listing and rolling, rolling and rising, sinking and splashing, crashing and churning. She closed her eyes, but then her head reeled with dizziness. Fifteen minutes later, the inevitable nausea started to settle in.
Jenny turned around to face Trent. “I’m not feeling well.”
“You do look pale. Honey, I’m sorry. I just don’t have anything that would help. You want to head back?”
“I know we can’t. We’ve got to do this sometime. I’ll just have to tough it out.”
Jenny continued paddling, but quit thinking about the canoe, the ocean and the waves. She tried to imagine herself walking peacefully up the inlet trail with Trent, toward the mountains. It calmed her for a moment, then the trail started heaving and rocking. As nonchalantly as possible, Jenny leaned over the side and vomited, painfully aware of the stomach acid passing through her nostrils. She leaned over and vomited again, then she leaned over once more and blew hard through her nose, pushing out the remnants there.
“Jenny, take a break,” Trent yelled. “I can handle it myself awhile.”
She nodded, not wanting to face him, then set her paddle down and slumped down into the bottom of the canoe. Jenny sat there for fifteen minutes, then realized resting wasn’t making her feel any better, and sitting on the bottom of the canoe was probably making her feel worse. She also realized Trent wasn’t likely to make it across the Sound by himself, so she climbed back into her seat, picked up her paddle and resumed the tedious stroke, stroke, stroke.
The hours dragged on, and Jenny pushed herself to keep paddling, knowing that even with two of them, it would be hard to make it across to Vancouver Island. As Trent had predicted, the wind picked up as the day wore on. Much of their energy was expended, just bucking the wind and waves. Whitecaps had also formed, adding spray to the rain and stinging their eyes. Along with paddling, Trent would pause to bail with his pot, after each half dozen waves.
By late afternoon, Jenny’s arms ached more than she had known possible, and she began to wonder if her attempts at paddling were really doing much good. Waves of nausea still flooded over her, and now her arms felt like lead weights. Open sores on her hands stung each time salty spray reached them, and the rain kept coming down.
As the daylight started to dim, it became apparent they’d never make it to Vancouver Island. The wind and waves had pushed them off course to the east, so the steep, rocky mainland shore was close enough to hear the breakers pounding into the rocks. When Jenny looked over at the force of those waves, smashing and sending up plumes of spray, it scared her enough to paddle harder than she thought possible.
“Jenny,” Trent shouted. “There’s an inlet along here somewhere, in about a mile, if I remember right. It’s going to be tough to get into, but it’s our best chance.”
He means our only chance. She turned and nodded, feeling too weak to shout.
Half an hour later, the inlet came into sight, and it was a frightening sight. As the waves rolled into the shallower water of the inlet, they slowed down and piled up into tall, steep breakers that curled over, then smashed down hard. She realized that was a better alternative than approaching the steep, rock shoreline to the left of the inlet, where being smashed against the rocks would be inevitable. On the right side of the inlet was a large island that rose more gently from the water but still had a rocky, boulder-strewn shore that the waves pounded against.
Soon, they were even with the inlet, facing the rollers which the canoe climbed up and over.
“Jenny, why don’t you rest a few minutes. I’ll watch for a let-up in the waves, then turn the canoe around and we’ll paddle hard for the inlet.”
Jenny knew the waves never really let-up, but some series of waves were smaller than others. That was the best they could hope for. Turning around, she saw Trent was alternately paddling, to keep them in place, and bailing with the pot he kept under his seat. Trent set the pot down and started swinging the canoe around with powerful sweep strokes. Jenny dug her paddle in, using draw strokes to help turn more quickly.
“Let’s go,” he yelled, and they paddled forcefully forward.
Jenny could see another large wave right behind them, which carried them considerably before sliding underneath them. It was followed by another big wave. Jenny paddled hard, riding the front of the wave. She hadn’t realized a canoe could go so fast. A hundred feet ahead, she could see waves curling over and breaking.
“Let this one go,” Trent shouted.
Jenny held her paddle up and felt the stern of the canoe rise steeply behind her, until she had to grab the gunwales to keep from sliding out of her seat. She glanced back and watched the crest reach the middle of the canoe, washing great quantities of water over the side. Trent swore, threw down his paddle, and bailed frantically for only seconds.
“This is it. Let’s go,” he shouted, picking his paddle back up and driving the canoe forward. Jenny paddled as hard as she could, temporarily forgetting all her pain. They gained momentum, but the first smaller wave passed under them. She could feel the canoe surge forward as Trent stroked.
With the canoe tipped down, Jenny’s feet were covered with six inches of water. Another of the smaller waves passed under them, lifting the stern high and washing more water into the canoe. The small waves seemed to come in a series of three, so the next one was their last chance to ride it past the breaking point.
Again, she paddled as hard as she could, gaining more momentum as they rode the front of the wave. The wave was so steep and slow now, that it had no intention of sliding under them. They rode the front of the wave like a surfer, with Trent ruddering to keep them straight.
Glancing back, she saw a wall of water towering over them. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and braced for the impact. As the water hit, she was knocked out of her seat and onto the floor, covered and driven down by a mass of frothy water. One hand stayed tightly clenched around the paddle, while the other searched through the churning water for the seat. She knew she had to stay with the canoe. Seconds later her head came to the surface, and she wiped the saltwater out of her eyes. The canoe bobbed up, thanks to the buoyancy in the cedar and the gear lashed to the crossbars.
“Keep paddling,” Trent yelled, to be heard over the roaring breakers.
“Are you okay?” would’ve been nice. Jenny climbed back into her underwater seat, sitting waist deep in the water, and stroked, momentarily wondering why they were paddling a sunken canoe. Then, she glanced back and saw a larger wall of water building up behind them. Wedging her legs against the sides of the canoe, she pulled her paddle through the water again and again. The immense wave broke behind them, carrying them forward in a torrent of foam. She kept paddling, knowing that wave would be followed by another and another.
“Nice job,” Trent yelled. “We made it through the breakers in one piece.”
Their situation wasn’t great, but Jenny realized they could’ve been caught in the midst of the breakers and pounded to pieces. Now, on top of being sick and exhausted, she was also cold and wet. Although she felt miserable, she was thankful to be alive.
When they reached the rocky shore, Jenny sat on a boulder with her head down, listening to Trent moving slowly and steadily back and forth with loads of gear. By the time he had the gear hauled inland, Jenny realized her seasickness had diminished some.
“I suppose it’s too wet and windy for a fire?” Jenny asked, feeling deeply chilled from the cold water.
“Unfortunately, I think you’re right.”
They soon had the tent set up and the sleeping bags thrown inside. Trent also grabbed the smoked venison and a canteen, then followed Jenny into the tent. Jenny quickly stripped all her wet clothes off and climbed into the sleeping bags, moving against Trent and shivering. He didn’t feel much warmer than she did, and the sleeping bags felt damp.
She stared at the damp ceiling of the tent, knowing that in the next few days, they would have to face the waves again. Maybe the seas would diminish. The shelter of Hope Island was within a half-day’s paddle. The town of Port Hardy, and help, wasn’t far beyond that, but first they had to make it through the breakers. Jenny rolled over and tucked the sleeping bag around her shoulders. Exhaustion soon outweighed her anxieties, and she fell fast asleep.