Kayaking the Broken Group Islands, British Columbia - a Bucket List Thing
The Broken Group Islands (BGI) have always been talked about, among my Orcas Island kayak gang, in a utopian dreamy kind of way. Nearly two days of travel from Seattle via car, ferry, car again then boat, off the west side of Vancouver Island in Barkley Sound, the BGI is not somewhere regularly visited by most. But after friends described staying at the Sechart Lodge, an old whaling station and the only non-camping option available, I kept dreaming of the endless protected islands, clear salt water, abundant sea life and beautiful scenery. So, we manned the phones early the first day that reservations were released for August 2018 and committed to check the BGI off the bucket list!
After arriving in Port Alberni, we wake up early for our 7:30 am check-in to the M. V. Frances Barkley, a vintage, 1958, Norwegian built ferry. We load our luggage in huge plastic bins which are mechanically lifted onto the ferry. With much anticipation, we begin our voyage down the Alberni Inlet, on the sun deck, getting a few chilly rays and the best views of the lush greenery and calm waters.
As we round the point, three hours later, we are told that on the port side are the BGI and the Sechart Lodge will be off the starboard side, just outside the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
The Lodge sits right on the water’s edge with a lawn, small beach and plenty of chairs facing west to the BGI – it’s modest but quite lovely. Our group of eleven immediately knows that we have entered a special kind of utopia, as described, for the next six days. Once inside we get our room assignments and Nancy, one of two managers, describes the routine; coffee at 6am, breakfast at 7am, picnic lunches for kayaking, dinner at 6pm, campfire at 8pm and lights and generator out at 10pm!
The entire gang heads out for our shake down paddle. As we enter the Pinkerton Islands, a small group to the north of the Lodge, we are immediately struck by the evergreen canopy; cedar, spruce and hemlock blanketing each rocky island. Not long into the paddle I hear someone yell, “bear!”. A small bushy limber black bear is wandering around the shore turning over rocks and having a snack. What a great start to our adventure – a kayaking first!
We get back to Sechart after six miles of paddling and all gravitate to the adirondack chairs for happy hour before dinner – the view can’t be beat.
The currents aren’t an issue in the BGI, unlike the San Juan Islands. However, wind, fog and ocean swells (on the outer islands) can be. After getting tips from a British Columbia Parks person at dinner, we know the place to be for sea life and spectacular beauty is in the outer islands. Based on the wind forecast later in the week, today, our second day of paddling, is the day to go! It’s too far to paddle out and back so Gordon, the other manager, gives us and our eleven kayaks a lift out to Dicebox Island, historically a First Nation’s lookout.
I can’t believe my eyes! Ochre (purple and orange) sea stars are massively abundant on the outer rock walls and crevasses of Howell Island. As a Salish Sea conservationist and newbie Beach Naturalist, I am astounded given the horrific sea star wasting disease on the rest of the Pacific Coast. But, alas, fortunately, Fred is taking the lead for the entire eleven of us, so I must get back to the group, for now.
We are lucky that the sea swells are nearly non-existent today, so we continue to revel in the outer islands; Howell, Wouwer and Batley. Then we head across the Coaster Channel prior to the afternoon wind picking up, as suggested. After lunch on Benson Island along with a bit more First Nation’s history, we make pretty good time on the return trip and are back in the adirondack chairs by 5pm following 15 miles of paddling.
The dreaded thought of not going back to the outer islands this trip, is abated at breakfast after we decide to get dropped off AND picked up on our third day of paddling. No one in the group even mentions the $60 per person fee each way – obviously we are having way too much fun. We meander around Effingham Island counterclockwise marveling at the sea stars (bat, leather and ochre), colorful spiny sea urchins, enormous kelp (bull, feather boa, rockweed and sugar), mussels (blue and giant california), barnacles (acorn, goose and giant thatched) along with a multitude of anemone, snail and crab species and the biggest sea cucumber I’ve ever seen! The rock faces and arches are especially scenic during our unusually calm waters and wind again today.
We land on a nice sandy beach on Gilbert Island for lunch which suddenly gets crowded when a commercial trip shows up after which a Tseshaht Beach Keeper gives an impromptu talk on the history of the First Nations in the BGI – lots of annihilation over territory it seems.
Upon arriving at our pick-up point on Dempster Island, we find that it’s only a beach at low tide – it’s high tide now. Beaches in the BGI are limited so Gordon, a former bush pilot, successfully loads half of the kayaks from the large driftwood logs on the shore. The rest of us are still in our kayaks in the water. He tells me to paddle over to his boat and proceeds to pull my kayak up on his ramp and then tells me to “get out of my kayak” – on the lowered ramp! Wow. A round of applause erupts after everyone is safely aboard. Happy hour is happy while reliving our escapade and eleven miles of superb paddling.
Fog hangs in the air nearly all the way down to the glassy water as we set out early for day four. The only sound I hear is my paddle blade slicing the water while crossing the small channel between Sechart Lodge and Nettle Island. Just when I think the sea life portion of our trip is over, low tide delivers the goods – and more bear sightings! The white (crushed shells) tropical looking beach of the Treble Islands is an inviting lunch stop but it’s nearly gone with the rising tide as we depart. At the same time, dense afternoon fog quickly moves in accompanied by wind, so we hightail it back to the Lodge after ten miles of paddling.
While they call August “Fogust” with good reason, it’s still one of the best times to come paddle in the BGI. The area gets 9.8 feet of rain per year, but only 18.5 inches June-September. And, the average high in Ucluelet in August is 66 degrees, the highest of any month. It’s really been perfect paddling weather; not too hot, no rain and calm winds. The smell of the salt air is wonderful and so is the feeling of smooth sea salt air drenched skin.
Once again, on day five, the gang votes for a drop off on Dodd Island - we are getting spoiled. After paddling to Willis Island, we savor the lake like bays, sea life, moon snails and seals on the inside of Turtle Island, including Joe’s Bay. “Salal Joe”, a loner type, was granted permission to live in the area after the Park was created in 1971. We are reminded of many turbulent crossings in the San Juan Islands, as we encounter some confused water on the outside of Gibralter Island after lunch. Our group, of varying kayak skills, sticks together and does great! But, we opt for the inside route home between Prideaux and Nettle Islands. After another eleven miles of paddling, we are back in the adirondack chairs.
Prior to our 4 pm departure, day six, on the M. V. Frances Barkley we split into two groups for a short paddle. Five of us turn left out of the Lodge, then take another left down the peaceful Julia Passage complete with a few houseboats since it’s outside the Park. The most scenic lunch beach yet is just outside the passage exit. On the paddle back to the Lodge, it’s feels like the colorful and abundant sea stars, bears (4) and eagles (3) are all giving us a fond farewell.
After our paddle, I wasn’t expecting the large millennial type crowd at the Day Lodge – quite the scene. 62 people are waiting to depart on the M. V. Frances Barkley. With only eight campgrounds and one Lodge in the BGI, it feels remote while on the water but not here today.
So begins our transition back to civilization after six days and over 60 miles of paddling in this magical place. It really has been an escape from reality without the stress of any currents and with the wonders of nature and sea life. (The only thing missing has been the whales.) And, of course, a great trip starts with a good invite list and we nailed that. It’s amazing that such a big group stuck together all week. We’ll be back!
If you go:
1. Secret Beach in Toquart Bay is another access point to Sechart Lodge via water taxi or paddling (half day) if weather permits. One can camp or stay in nearby Ucluelet.
2. We originally planned to stay at the Lodge an entire week, but five days works well giving us six days of paddling.
3. The greater Tofino area is a wonderful place to explore before or after paddling in the BGI.
a. Although expensive, we like to stay at Pacific Sands Beach Resort right on Cox Bay with ocean views and the sound of the crashing waves.
c. The old growth (aka 1,500 years) tree walk on Meares Island is well worth the short boat ride.
d. Sandwiches at Zoe’s Bakery and Cafe, in Ucluelet, are the best!