My girlfriend and I had the life changing experience of going kayaking with orcas via Spirit of the West Adventures on their Johnstone Strait Ultimate trip last July. We were within 10 cars of making the ferry crossing that we had planned to, and as a result we missed the pre-trip orientation meeting, but we notified the folks at Spirit of the West Adventures and we took care of the rest of the details over the phone. I mention this, because their service and and attention to detail were evident from the very beginning of our trip, and it never dropped in the least bit for the rest of our adventure. Actually, that's not entirely true, as they had already established some solid markers for first-rate service via the emails and the telephone call that we made when we were preparing for our trip months in advance. As for the trip itself, it is hard to put into words just how powerful the overall experience was. We were surrounded by spectacular, natural beauty throughout, both flora and fauna. We saw black bears, bald eagles, Dall's porpoise, seals, sea lions (?), and numerous other species, but the highlights were still the orcas by far and away. The water taxi ride up was choppy, but beautiful nonetheless. After arriving at our camp, getting oriented, and getting our gear stowed, we went back down to the beach and went for our first tandem kayak together. The aforementioned choppiness of the water occasioned by the wind made for a shorter outing than we had hoped for, but the conditions were somewhat challenging for our group of paddlers and discretion was definitely the better part of valor. It was still great to be out on the water, loosening up (and warming up) our muscles, and taking in the sights, smells, and sounds. It was overcast and cool, but we embraced it since it is another facet to the beauty of that part of the world. We wanted as much of the whole B.C./Johnstone Strait experience as we could, and we got it. The first night was chilly due to the winds, but we were all comforted and grateful for the well-designed and well-constructed campsite. That still might not have been enough to ensure that all were happy campers due to the blustery conditions, but the three guides on our trip prepared hot water bottles (are you kidding me?) for those who wanted them to warm up their sleeping bags. Many of the ladies were exceedingly pleased by that unexpected creature comfort, but I mostly mention it as an indicator of how thoroughly prepared the S.O.W.A. folks were to cater to the needs and desires of their guests. The next morning was, apparently, a fairly typical Johnstone Strait kind of morning: foggy in the early hours before giving way before the winds and the sun later on. The food throughout the trip was both plentiful and tasty, sometimes exceptionally so. The kitchen staff on Quadra do a great job in getting the foods pre-prepared, and then the guides do the rest. I don't know to what extent it was just simple, quality materials competently prepared and to what extent the taste experiences were heightened by the environment, but in any event the culinary treats were unexpectedly great. Since the weather conditions still weren't particularly great, the guides decided that day two would be the day that we paddled up the coast to do a bit of hiking and to learn more about the area from C.E.T.U.S.'s Robson Bight Wardens from their breathtaking vantage point at Eagle Eye. While also feeding our eyes (and our stomachs after the paddle and hike), this excursion was an important way to feed our brains. We learned a fair bit, made some new connections, lazed in the brilliant sunshine, and then headed back down for the return paddle back to camp. Some chose to relax in the hot tub (are you kidding me again?), some chose to take a shower (ibid?), and others chose to clean up in the bracing 47 degree waters of the strait before dinner. There was plenty of personal time for various indulgences, and then we all turned in. Some ghostly cruise ships pass through the channel at various times, but I only woke up to do a bit of stargazing far from any light pollution that tends to wash out much of the majesty of the night skies elsewhere in the world. It was serenely beautiful, and I had it all to myself, if only for a little while before I went back to bed. We still hadn't seen any of the sort of macro fauna that we had been hoping to see since the water taxi ride up, but there are no guarantees of such things and we were content with all of the rest of nature's splendor: douglas firs, hemlocks, bull kelp, and the myriad of other flora that were new to us as interlopers from afar. The third morning was to be our last full day of kayaking, so we were all hopeful of orca sightings this day before returning to our more prosaic lives elsewhere in the world. Nor did we have long to wait as fate would have it, and we spotted several orcas moving north, visiting Robson Bight across the strait. It was foggy and we were jealous of the folks who were on S.O.W.A.'s mother ship cruise that were so much closer to the orcas, but we were all excited nonetheless. I shudder to think of how many folks take videos of such sights that are periodically punctuated with exclamations of "There it is!", "There's one!", "There's another over there! Do you see it?", etc., because we did exactly that as well. Perhaps we will be forgiven for our enthusiasm if not so much for anything remotely resembling interesting narration. In any event, it was a decidedly promising start to our third day, and we tucked into another great meal with relish at the prospect of more orcas in the hours ahead. Soon we were all geared up and kayaking out into the fog, and within the first 20 minutes we saw our first Dall's porpoises travelling north as well. The fog and low clouds, while making for sub-optimal visual conditions, also made it eerily cool as we strained to make out their bulky, distinctive shapes in the distance. There were times when we could not actually see them, but we knew that they weren't far off because we could hear them blow, which added to the sensory stimuli. The fog was always lifting, though, which enabled us to see more of them. More importantly, it portended brighter skies ahead, and since the winds had died down considerably, this was the day that we were going to kayak much further afield and around the bend in the island. And so we did, paddling steadily northward throughout the morning before stopping on a rocky beach for lunch. We gathered driftwood and one of the guides built a small bonfire, which was another welcome change. We weren't cold, but there's just something cheery about a bonfire that warms the spirit as well as the body. After another interesting informational briefing by Rick, one of the guides on this trip and a co-owner of S.O.W.A., we hopped back in the kayaks for what would turn out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The clouds and fog had been blown and burnt off by then and the sun was shining brightly. The more superstitious minded might be inclined to think that there the universe had conspired to make this a perfect outing, but I'm inclined to think that it was just happy coincidence and that we were able to enjoy another aspect of the beauty of this part of B.C. We were about halfway through our paddle back to camp when we spotted our first orcas (from our kayaks) in the distance. It was the A 36 or A 30 pod if memory serves me(?), and they were making their way southward. They were on the western side of the strait, so we paddled across much of the strait to get closer without getting too close. It got better and better, more and more exciting as we got closer and closer, but eventually we had to stop paddling to keep the proscribed distance between us and the orcas. We rafted up, oohed and aahed together, listened to the sounds of their underwater passage via the hydrophone and speaker system that the lead guide had, passed around the binoculars and snacks, and just savored those moments outside of Robson Bight while the orcas moved past. Their behavior was just as expected: a bigger male preceded the rest of the pod further out into the strait and the others followed a few hundred yards behind but closer to the shore. Out of a collective sense of awe, we all fell silent as they got closer and we just soaked up the moments, each temporarily lost in our own private reveries. Eventually, the spell was broken as the orcas moved further away and our group began to stir and speak amongst ourselves in hushed, reverential yet excited tones. The orcas had come within a couple of hundred feet of us, and the sights and sounds would be with us forever. Though they had gone, they left us with the widest of smiles and the most uplifted of spirits. It was one of those truly untainted joyous experiences that one can occasionally experience if one is lucky and puts oneself in the right place at the right time with the right mindset. Paddling back across the strait and back towards camp after that was immeasurably easier. Our spirits lifted in ways that defy ready description (despite my poor attempts to do so here), our muscles didn't feel tired in the least. The trip would still have been fantastic even if we weren't so fortunate to see the orcas given all of the other wonderful experiences, but then seeing them on the last leg of our last full day on West Cracroft Island put the final flourish on our trip. Or so we thought. Little did we know that we would soon see the same pod as they came back up the strait again. This time, however, our group had lost some of its physical cohesion and there were clumps of kayaks spread out over several hundred yards. My girlfriend and I were part of the lead group and the guide directed us to paddle close to the shore to give the big, oncoming bull plenty of room to pass by us in the strait, but the other knots of kayaks stayed put upon the instructions of their guides further out in the strait, since they would not be able to close the gap to our lead group in time. We paddled somewhat more earnestly to ensure that we respected the prescribed distances from the orcas, but it was awesome to watch this bull steadily close the distance on us from afar while never deviating from his path. He was going about his business and was headed right for us, and we were going to have front row seats if he didn't change course. As it turns out, he did not, choosing to pass within about 50 ft. from us. We were right up against the shore as shallow as we could go safely, and he gave us the view of a lifetime at eyeball level. I should add that since these are resident orcas (salmon feeders), being this close to the orcas in our kayaks wasn't scary in the least. Rather, it was just about as great as it can possibly get. There was no trepidation, just gratefulness and sense of being supremely fortunate to be able to share their space at such a close range. It would almost certainly have been better still if our group had better discipline, but the scattered fleet of kayaks probably made this bull dive for just a shade longer to make sure that he was clear of all surface traffic. The others followed several hundred yards behind and further out towards the center of the strait just as before. What sights to behold! The very last leg of our paddling was no less beautiful than it had been at any point in the previous two-plus days, and it wasn't long before we were back at the campsite. This time, however, our hopeful optimism had been replaced by excitement and gratitude, and the campsite was positively atwitter with energy. The warmth of the afternoon sun helped too, and the overall feeling was one of bonhomie and that all was as right as it could possibly be in the world. It may sound hokey or trite, but it was none of those things. Rather, it was real, grounded, elated, and fantastic. The same post-kayaking pre-dinner options were available, although this time some of us were no longer content to merely splash ourselves in the strait to perform some of our post-kayaking ablutions. Some of us were so fired up about our experiences that day that we flung ourselves off of the rocks (20 ft. or so) into the strait. It was still bracing at 47 degrees fahrenheit, but it was exhilarating, too. Who knows if we would have done so under other, more primitive conditions, but the knowledge that the warmth of the hot tub and/or the hot shower that awaited afterwards removed whatever reservations some of might have otherwise have had. It is amazing what a surreal shared experience like seeing the orcas can do for camp spirit. Our polite, respectful, friendly group suddenly became as like old friends as can be, just by virtue of those bonding experiences. We enjoyed games, conversation, reading, and dinner lit by the sunset before it faded to orange, aquamarine, purple and black punctuated by brilliant stars, followed by a campfire with more of the same. We were tired and ready for bed before too long, but even so many of the ladies took advantage of the hot water bottle option to make their journeys to dreamland even more comfortable. There was an optional kayak the next (last) morning after breakfast for the early risers, and I took advantage of it while my girlfriend decided to not attempt to gild the lily after the previous day's highs. More fog shrouded our early morning paddle, as this time we headed south along the coast. While dipping our paddles into the waters quietly and navigating the rocky and kelp lined passages, we were treated to the sound of something big rustling about in the underbrush about 20 ft. up from where we were in the water. We stopped paddling and peered into the fog and were rewarded by the sight of a black bear going about its morning forage. Just when we thought it couldn't get any better with the previous day's (days'--both true) adventures, it did just that. It wasn't even remotely interested in us and didn't even appear to be aware of us as it worked its way up the slope, deeper into the forest and deeper into the fog. It was soon gone, but what a treat. We paddled some more, were shown a nudibranch by Rick, and then had to return to camp. Not even that was uneventful, as a I spotted a seal about five ft. from my kakak as we navigated our way back through the kelp. It popped up, looked at me and then submerged, only to pop up right behind my kayak only to watch me and the others some more. It was indulging its curiosity, nothing more, but it was amazing to look into its eyes and face from such close range. When we got back to camp, the late risers had their chance to go for a quick paddle as well, but since my girlfriend really wanted me to enjoy more of these experiences, she insisted that I go back out again. I protested that she should go, but she was having none of it, so I was only too happy to go back out again, this last time into to the rapidly lifting fog and sunshine. We did the same leg, but this time it was only four of us in three kayaks. Steven (also knowledgeable, patient, entertaining, and cool) guided this last little leg. We looked for the bear in the area that I told them that we had seen it earlier, but it was long gone from that area. We paddled onward for a while and just when we were about to turn around, we came across what I can only surmise was the same bear down by the shore. It was now digging for crabs and tossing impressively sized boulders around as if they were nearly weightless. We didn't want to push it, so we paddled to within about twenty-five feet or so to watch it go about its day and we were able to watch it for about fifteen minutes. It took notice of us but didn't appear to be bothered by us, so we just sat there silently taking in the sights. As if that wasn't amazing enough, a bald eagle flew right between us and the bear about ten feet about the water. Any one of those experiences would have been incredible, but such is the richness and beauty of B.C. that such sightings aren't that rare. That which was extraordinary for me and us was just another day in the B.C. wilderness. There are no guarantees, but opportunities abound for those who are inclined to have their minds blown by nature's wonders. Those fifteen minutes watching the bear and being visited by the eagle were borrowed time, because we were supposed to be heading back right when we stopped, but we couldn't tear ourselves away for those fifteen minutes. In the end, we picked up our paddles before the bear finished its search and repast, and then we headed back. What an amazing trip from start to finish! We hope to go on another adventure with S.O.W.A. at some point. Perhaps the same trip again in a few years or perhaps one of their other kayaking adventures. Either way, we shall look forward to those possibilities eagerly, just as we will treasure the memories of our adventure last July. Breanne was the third guide on our trip, but she was certainly not the least. She, too, was an integral part of making our trip so spectacular and fulfilling. The three guides and all of the behind-the-scenes folks at S.O.W.A. on Quadra island made for a fantastic team. We are all huge fans of everything that they did and cannot thank them enough for making one of our dreams such an unbelievably vivid and magical-seeming reality.
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