The inspiration for this trip came from watching P&H paddler Bryan Smith’s fabulous DVD Pacific Horizons during which he introduced the world to the remarkable Okisollo tidal rapid and standing wave. Ever since watching that DVD I have wanted to get a bunch of friends together and go check it out for myself.
Like Bryan’s crew we also planned to stay at the Discovery Islands Lodge. This remarkable place lies well off the grid on the eastern side of Quadra Island, one of the many Discovery Islands that choke the passage between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland. The islands and reefs constrict the tidal currents and at times produce some of the most fearsome tidal rapids in the world. We deliberately chose a period when the tidal exchanges would not be at their greatest – to do so would have been foolish since none of us had been there before. Instead we took the advice of the owners of Discovery Islands Lodge, Lannie and Ralph Keller and their expert boater son Albert who recommended currents not exceeding 9 knots to maximize the opportunity for wave time in sea kayaks (current speeds can reach 13knots on the biggest tides and at this speed the Okisollo wave would quickly become unrideable in a sea kayak).
The crew consisted of P&H paddlers Matt Nelson and myself and four friends; Bryant Burkhardt, Chris Kelly, Brad Gould and Nick Scoville. Four of us had P&H Aries which we knew perform outstandingly in ocean surf and figured would be the perfect craft for the Okisollo wave. Four of us made the long drive from California picking up Nick and Matt on the way north. Despite the long journey the crew was highly motivated to get stuck into the rapids and so we caught the 6.30am ferry from Campbell River to Quadra Island and were unpacked and on the water in time to catch the flood tide at Surge Narrows.
Discovery Islands Lodge is perfectly situated just a few minutes paddle from Surge Narrows which has to be one of the best saltwater locations for practicing whitewater skills in sea kayaks. Whilst the whirlpools might look intimidating at first they are not the boat-eaters you find elsewhere in this region and even if you take a swim the consequences are fairly insignificant at all but the fastest current speeds. But the volume of water, the constantly changing nature and sheer number of features make this a really fun place to paddle a sea kayak if you have a solid roll and whitewater experience. The water is crystal clear, the scenery is classic BC and you will be joined by seals and sealions in the rapids. You might even be lucky enough to see dolphins and orca in the vicinity. Eagles soar overhead and kingfishers follow you along the shore.
Four hours of play and we were ready to relax back at the lodge and plan our first trip to the Okisollo rapids the next day. The wave that draws both sea kayakers and whitewater boaters to the Okisollo Channel is found on the Upper (more southerly) rapid, approximately six miles from the lodge. Fortunately Albert had indicated the location of the wave precisely on our chart because when you arrive there at the last of the ebb it is not immediately obvious where you need to be. But as soon as the tide turns – there is very little ‘slack’ time here, the wave starts to form. It is a beautiful thing, created as the pressure of the flood tide builds up against a permanently submerged rock shelf. The wave starts as a small depression followed by a few ripples. Within half an hour the depression is deep enough to drop into and the wave steepens as the current accelerates. Within forty five minutes of the start of the flood the wave was surf-able and it remained surf-able until we had no energy left to ride it, over four hours later.
The front wave remained green the whole time, allowing effortless surfing if all you wanted to do was sit in the pit. But Matt Nelson showed us all how to dance with the wave, a flowing, weaving waltz that seemed effortless when he performed it but required huge effort on my part to prevent the 8.4 knot (@Hole-in-the-Wall) current from whipping my bow around and dumping me into the lap of the second wave.
You see, at this current speed it is not surfing the front wave that presents the challenge – it’s what’s going on behind you that keeps you focused! As you carve the face of the smoothest, best-behaved wave you will ever ride, behind you is its unruly cousin, a four foot brute that can’t decide if its a wave or a foam pile and resists any attempt to be ridden, throwing you right, out into the fastest water or left into the craziest of eddy-lines, with whirlpools that would suck your stern down, spin you around and spit you out with disgust.
We left the Okisollo wave with enough time to ride the last of the flood back south, past the entrance to Hole-in-the-Wall, another tidal rapid that needed investigating. By the time we reached Surge Narrows the flood was all but done and we glided home feeling like we had paddled many more than twelve miles.
The next day was to be the biggest tide and Matt, Nick, Bryant and myself gladly accepted the offer of a boat ride with Albert back to the Okisollo wave whilst Chris and Brad went exploring. That meant that Albert joined us on the water and he immediately showed us why he has a reputation as one of the most humble and talented boaters in the region. The walls of the lodge are decorated with pictures of Albert charging the Okisollo wave at its biggest and meanest in a whitewater boat. He transfers those skills easily to a sea kayak and showed us how he could balance his 16foot boat at the very crest of the wave, leaving both ends out of the water, using ever so subtle shifts of his hips to edge and steer his kayak side to side using the whole wave. It was clear this man knew the wave – he has been surfing it since he was a teenager and was absolutely in his element.
Bryant sacrificed wave-time to get some photos and video with some excellent results, showing once again that he is not just a talented boater but a great photographer as well. We are grateful to him for his efforts. you can see more of Bryant’s photos here.
Nick traded his 18ft boat for an Aries 155 and loved it. It really is a remarkable boat and in my mind the best surfing sea kayak that has ever existed. It seemed to fit the Okisollo wave perfectly, allowing precise control on the wave face, resisting perling even when the wave was at its steepest and threatening to collapse. But for me perhaps the most notable attribute of the Aries, (and its plastic cousin the Delphin) is how stable and forgiving it is in turbulent water. Even the whirlpools of Okisollo, the vortexes of which were big enough to drop a basketball into, were no trouble for the Aires and the boat was fast enough to punch through the eddy fence with little effort.
We decided to stay at Surge Narrows for our fourth day on the water and exploit the many features we had seen on our first visit. We were joined by local paddlers Jonathan and Brent as well as Albert, who once again showed us that there is no shortage of skillful paddlers on Vancouver Island. Surge proved to be equally as challenging as Okisollo in that it is more technical and constantly changing and more than once we were thoroughly rejected when we tried to surf the main wave.
For our last day we decided we had to pay one last visit to Okisollo but we would combine that with a 20 mile circumnavigation of Maurelle Island, which would include negotiating the Hole-in-the-Wall rapids. We rode the last of the ebb up through Surge Narrows to Okisollo. The current was down to a more mellow 7.9 knots so we rode the wave for a while and then reluctantly left before max flood to run through Hole-in-the-Wall. When we had mentioned our plan to Ralph he had been concerned. The whirlpools that form at the entrance to and inside Hole-in-the-Wall have a bad reputation for taking down large boats. But we were reasonably confident that it would be okay since the current speed was well below max. That said we were cautious and I am glad we were. Matt led us through the entrance avoiding some shoals that were producing interesting over-falls and swirls. But no sign of a whirlpool as we ran ‘river left’ close to a tasty-looking eddy-line that would have been fun to play with had we not been on a mission. It wasn’t until we were passed it that I glanced over my right shoulder and saw the meanest looking whirlpool I have ever seen. It wasn’t the sucking type – at least not at this current speed – but it was HUGE – maybe two hundred yards across and slowly spinning with real menace – like a river to nowhere. There was a very noticeable depression in the middle, perhaps two feet deep and I had absolutely no desire to mess with it.
In retrospect it would have been really cool to have eddied out and checked the whirlpool out with a view from the cliffs above that make Hole-in-the-Wall such a dramatic feature. But we were safely though and now the excitement was over it was time to grind out some miles. Another suprising characteristic of the Aries is its performance on flat water. For a fifteen-and-a-half foot boat it cruises nicely and Matt and I were easily able to keep up with the guys who had chosen longer boats for this day.
On the back side of Maurelle Island we were reminded of just how vast and diverse this region is with mountains with permanent ice-fields overlooking deep fjords, lined with lush forest, shading waters deep and pure, bejewelled with living color. Surely this is paradise? Of course paradise is only fun if you have friends to share it with. Thanks to Brad, Nick, Chris, Bryant and Matt for a really great time. And thanks to Lannie, Ralph and Albert for creating such a special place and for your wisdom.