First Crossings – Standup Pioneering

Way back in 2008 during a summer trip to Tofino, Ed and I dropped our standup boards into beautiful Clayquot Sound from the harbor surrounding Tofino on Vancouver Island, BC.  A haven for kayaking, whale-watching and fishing, there is plenty of water activity on and around the sound. That summer as we paddled out toward Meares Island immersed in awe at the majestic old growth forest and cold, clear waters we became aware of curious onlookers from the numerous kayak groups. Finally one guide spoke to us, “What do you call that board you’re on?”

Apparently we were the first standup paddlers they had seen in the sound. Boating and paddling in the waters of Clayquot Sound is one of the most rewarding ways to experience this environment. We thought it pretty cool that we were the first to experience it from the SUP perspective.

As with any first ascent, or first crossing, one needs to be acutely aware of the local environment. In the case of Clayquot Sound the tides and current pack so much power that it could have been a dangerous undertaking to meander around the various islands and inlets. Of course we had flotation devices and leashes, but more importantly we embarked on the first crossing with a full awareness of when slack tide and low tides would occur. We studied, spoke to locals and planned our SUP time carefully.

The currents in the sound are fierce. We watched a few unsuspecting kayakers magically move backwards despite a strong forward paddle stroke. If you’re inexperienced with ocean currents, it’s best to get a few pointers from folks at the local kayak shop or harbor. We were intently watching a bald eagle fishing nearby when a large swirl of conflicting currents loomed ahead. The swirl was easily 60 feet across and rose several inches above the water’s surface.  We got on our knees and really had to work to stay upright and move through the obstacle to calmer waters.  Noting the time, we realized that slack tide was ending and the consistent schedule of the lowering tide was about to begin. This was not a time to wander off our course or toward the channel that opened out to sea.

In the photo to the left you can see how close the village of Tofino is to the open ocean (lower left). Another interesting local feature to be aware of is the seaplanes regularly landing in the sound. They land in an area shown (center of picture at left) that is close to our put in and take out point at the harbor.  Coincidentally, there is a relatively shallow bank that stretched about 200 yards across in the same area. Just when your path is taking you across the shallow bank and its squirrely currents, you are in the path of the approaching seaplanes. It’s easy to be safe – as long as you stay aware of the surroundings both natural and man-made.

Taking the time to learn some history and stories of your “first crossing” area can make the experience even more enjoyable. We had taken some hikes through the Pacific Rim Park area and saw totem’s along the trail and in the museumat  the Kwistis Visitor Centre and Wickaninnish Restaurant (a great place for lunch)

The Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation is a Nuu-chah-nulth Nation with territory along the west coast of Vancouver Island in Clayoquot Sound and much of the Pacific Rim National Park. There are communities both at their Opitsat Reserve noth of Tofino in Clayoquot Sound and at Esowista inside Pacific Rim Park. The warm, south-facing beach on Meares Island makes an ideal village site. Opitsaht has been inhabited by the Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht First Nations for thousands of years. Today, Opitsaht is one of two main villages of the Tla-o-qui-aht people. The village is only accessible by water. Children from Opitsaht travel on a school boat to attend elementary school in Tofino or high school in Ucluelet.

It was close to sunset when we rounded the nearby island and Opitsaht came into view. A group of men were unloading the day’s catch on the dock as they curiously  watched us paddle by. We acknowledged each other with a nod and exchanged smiles, then they went back to work. The traditions of their culture are as connected to the sea as the traditions of standup paddling. It was a great first crossing and one we hope you can experience some day.

If you have completed a first crossing of a lake, bay, river section or sound, share your story with us.  A few hours in a new place can be lots more enjoyable when some “local knowledge” is shared.  E-mail us or COMMENT with a link to your blog or website.