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A 5 Day Overnight Around Vargas Island (AOG Part 3)

This post is the third in a five part series about Sanesh’s experience getting certified as an Assistant Overnight [Kayak] Guide (AOG) through SKILS and the Sea Kayak Guides Alliance of British Columbia.

Part 1 – AOG First Half in Uclulet, BC Part 2 – AOG Trying New Things & Gear Shakedown Part 3 – AOG 5 Day Overnight Around Vargas Island Part 4 – AOG Packing List and Shakedown Continued Part 5 – Lessons Learned, Things to Work On, and Did I Pass….

Paddling from Vancouver, BC to Cordova, AK, is going to be an incredible adventure with 140 days on trip and 104 days on the water – we’ve planned 20% rest days. Something people keep telling me is “you’re going to be a great kayaker by the end of the trip!” I bet I will improve over the trip, but I’d love to go into the trip as strong as possible. As part of that quest for knowledge, I decided to take my Assistant Overnight [Kayak] Guide course with SKILS. This post is about the second part of the AOG: a 5 day trip, where the goal was to circumnavigate Vargas island. This is not that big of a paddle on paper, if you had good conditions, you could probably push an alpine start and circumnavigate it in a day. That’s on paper though. In practice, you’ve got to consider weather, group, and — most importantly — fun! From that lens, 4 nights is the perfect amount of time for the trip, especially considering we had to keep studying for our AOG.

Our route (roughly). Day 1 in Orange, Day 3 in Red, Day 5 in Pink.

So, Day 1. This is always the part that kind of sucks. Lots of faff. I really hate faff. I hate nothing more than loading into a car, driving to a place, unloading a car, moving the car, and then starting the activity. I prefer to start the activity from my door if possible, even if that involves biking with skis on my back. Water sports involve even more gear, and even more faff. I love them, but by god the faff. The part I’m looking forward to for our 140 day trip is the trip to faff ratio will be so great (2 days of faff over 140 days, the start and end). That said, this AOG group were absolute rockstars. We finished packing out boats fast enough that we had time for a coffee break. Unheard of. When we were planning the route we… wait for it… realized that we had to get an early start to match the tides and currents! We needed to be on the water and moving by ~7am to make sure we were riding the currents, rather than fighting them.

Boats on the beach and a pile of stuff to be carried down.

Once on the water, we rocketed along to our first camp site. I was the co-guide for the first half of the day (Matt lead) and then I lead the second half of this day, which was pretty fun but also uneventful due to the planning we put in. We knew where to go and the weather, currents, and sea state were as expected. Matt and Jordan (my co-guide) are both dialed, and with a little team huddle we sorted out our plans and executed pretty easily. It’s surprisingly hard to corral adults in kayaks and keep them within earshot. It’s also easy to get complacent and think because you can see someone they’re safe… just wait until Finn and Rowan run a scenario where you have to sprint over and Hand-of-God a classmate! That sucks.

Finn and Rowan Scheming their next scenario. Photo by Matt Schweizer

We got to our campsite, Miltes Bay, and practiced surf landings. The way this works is basically someone on the beach guiding the people in boats to land in single file, ensuring they ride the back of the wave (as opposed to catching the front like a surfer). This is pretty key with fully loaded touring boats which are like missiles when they are on the wave.

Finn coaching me through surf landing Jesse. Photo by Matt Schweizer

The night of Day 1 was a little more interesting. The weather moved in (as expected) thanks to a low pressure system. We’d done a good job of picking a sheltered spot, but we still had to contend with high winds, rain, and a slightly higher than normal tide. These fun times lasted through the entirety of Day 2. We spent the rest of the day here, cold and wet. Classic West Coast Vancouver Island South (WCVIS – the marine weather zone name) weather. The mood was pretty low. We wanted to be on the water, but the weather was not cooperating. There were some people in the group who tried like heck to get a fire going and just could not. If you’ve seen the TV series Alone, it was just like that, but in real life. People cussing and swearing about wet wood, how its easier where they are from, etc… We tried for what felt like most of the day and had no luck. No surprise. If I took anything away from Day 2, it was that you need to consider morale in your preparations. If you need something to make you happy on dark days, make sure you pack it. For Nathan and I, we probably would just have sat in our tent playing games or reading.

The group shelter we huddled under for Day 2. Photo by Matt Schweizer

On Day 3 the weather cleared and pushed on to our next camp site, Ahous Bay. We spent the day again in relatively protected waters, so this was fun, but uneventful. We ran more on water scenarios which was a lot of fun thanks to Finn and Rowan. I really loved how committed they were to giving us opportunities to practice. To build our intuition. To build our reflexes. A lot of the time, when you are dealing with really smart and knowledgeable people, they try to download their information into your brain by lecturing and showing. Finn and Rowan took a different tack, on the fly they constructed scenarios for you to try, so you could learn the knowledge they had in an experiential way. I’m not sure if Finn and Rowan realize what pedagogical genius’ they are, but they’re amongst the best teachers I’ve ever had anywhere.

A nicely protected campsite in the trees. We were tightly packed, so courtesy was key.

We practiced our surf landing again. When we got on land, we reviewed our camp protocols. They were a little more strict. At this campsite, we were in wolf territory. Like, wolf prints in the sand near where you setup your hammock. Awesome. Apparently wolves like to steal things, so it’s imperative that you keep your stuff in your shelter. I used a spare hank of static line to hang my clothes to dry, and then restrung it under my tarp to keep my stuff off the ground and out of the wolves paws.

Sanesh Kayak Surfing… not like a professional. Photo by Matt Schweizer

On day 3, we actually got back out on the water to go surfing! If you’ve never surfed a kayak, do it, it’s great fun. I’m really at a loss for words here. The waves we were surfing were small, only 3 feet or so. Not big. But oh boy, for a beginner like me, they were more than big enough. Really a great opportunity to get comfortable with some of the advanced strokes. I also love “getting rocked,” “yard sale-ing,” or however you want to describe it, but in a safe way. Crashing on a mountain bike is scary and always sucks. Crashing on skis is a little better, depending on the conditions. Crashing a kayak (or surfboard) in *small* surf? Looooove it. That said, a few people in the group did manage to injure themselves doing this, in ways that hurt the rest of their trip. Not ideal. I found I developed a lot of comfort edging the boat and turning in the swell. Good skills for bigger sea states Nathan and I will see on our way to Alaska.

Finn surfing like a pro. Maybe I’ll be this good one day. Photo Matt Schweizer

We spent a lot of time on land on Day 3, since our written exam was on Day 4, we were given time to study. I… well I didn’t bring my books to study from and… well I was at the AOG to learn, but not out of a book. I can do that at home. I was there to learn from Finn, Rowan, and nature. I had a bunch of weather questions for them, naturally. I do not recommend my approach, however. Bring something to study from.

Rowan is a gear geek, like me. We spent a bunch of time chatting about gear. It was cool how down to earth Rowan is about it. To paraphrase his words – the best kayak is the kayak you have. Rowan also had lots of insight on the finesse of managing a group, topics like morale, comfort in bad weather, etc… Key takeaways from Rowan:

  1. That the only gear that really matters is safety gear, everything else is just for fun (I love hearing this from a gear geek, so often gear FOMO is a barrier to entry).

  2. You need to get to know the people on your trip to make sure they have the best experience, even when things turn shitty. It’s important to do that early, and he gave me some strategies to do that.

Finn is a nature geek. He spent a lot of time teaching us about best practices around animals, animal behaviour, and the like. That was super interesting… it opened my eyes to a lot of the risks that Nathan and I have to face on our trip, but also a lot of the ways we can manage them that I’d never thought of. Key takeaways from Finn:

  1. Don’t setup camp between an animal and their food source

  2. Bears eat sedge grass. Avoid sedge grass.

  3. There is a large body of knowledge around animal behaviour that’s available to non-biologists like myself, which can make for safer animals and safer people.

Studying for the exams. It was windy but sunny!

Day 4 was fun. Well… ish. We spent the morning doing our written exam. I… exams don’t really bother me. I’ve written a few in my 20 year stint in school. I didn’t do perfect, I got an 84%. I finished pretty quickly, so I went for a very long beach walk. We were going to do on water scenarios, but unfortunately the Sea State was not cooperating and we couldn’t get out due to big swell. We did some scenarios on land, and then our oral exams (orienteering and weather interpretation) in the evening. I wouldn’t say any of the exams were easy, but they were fair and straight forward. If you studied the online content and were engaged with the lessons, discussions, and scenarios throughout the course you were well setup for success. They are clearly not trying to fail you. Again, the theory is just theory… my real takeaway from the AOG was integrating theory into decision making in nature on a kayak.

The energy was pretty mixed on Day 4. Some people were totally relaxed, others were stressed out all day. I was definitely relaxed, although a little bummed that I wouldn’t be going on the water (sea state + other group needs). That said, on my beach walk I had the beautiful opportunity to see a wolf! It was actually my first wolf, so it was pretty special for me. Magnificent animals. I’m so stoked I had my monocular to see her from a distance. I’m really looking forward to this part of the trip with Nathan. I love just being in nature. It’s even better on a kayak, because you can be so far from infrastructure and civilization.

There’s a wolf in this photo. She’s very far away, and I don’t have a telephoto lense!

Day 5. The last one. Super fun, but also super sad. After 9 days in close quarters with these people, living pretty much the dream, it’s hard to reconcile the fact that it’s ending. The sea state was pretty wild, we had up to 4m swell. That means that the would rise and fall 4m. That’s quite something… the biggest swell I’ve paddled in for sure. I was quite stoked I did not get sea sick. Which brings me to a note about layering. On Day 3, I wore too many layers under my drysuit (base layer + sweater). I was warm. But warmth and humidity makes me more prone motion sickness. Day 5, I wore just my base layers in the dry suit. While this was a little cold after hanging out in the water for extended periods during our scenarios and roll practices, I was way happier while paddling. No motion sickness despite the big seas. Orienteering in big seas is also quite something. It’s hard to read a chart on the water. Again, this is where planning is critical. By knowing what headings we needed to take and what our key reference markers were on the chart, we were able to move safely and quickly through some rocky terrain in rough seas. And make sure to not accidentally get caught in surf that would smash us against big rock faces. One of the things we did on Day 5 was a timed self rescue. It was a struggle for me to do it in under 2 minutes, one of the requirements for the course. I managed to snap my deck *hardlines* (not bungees) twice. Brutal.

So, the second part of the AOG. What did I learn?

  1. It reinforced planning and documentation. I did not have enough Rite in Rain notebooks for my liking and my spare battery died. For our trip to Alaska I’ll need more notebooks and a more robust camera setup for sure. We benefitted greatly from having our tides and currents written down before hand, and were able to use those to maximize speed.

  2. Weather and Sea State is key. Weather is a constant battle, but Sea State adds a whole new mix in. Sometimes the weather sucks, and the sea is alright. Other times the sea sucks, and the weather is great. Both happened on our trip. It’s imperative to leave time for this, and make progress when it’s safe, even if it’s not perfect.

  3. Nathan and I are going to have to find some recreation to do on rainy days. Any portable board game recommendations? I’m thinking some camping chess is necessary.

  4. I am pumped to kayak surf more. That is so fun.

I really enjoyed the overnight trip of the AOG. It was super fun to get out and camp and experience the beautiful West Coast Vancouver Island South. As previously mentioned, this was an excellent opportunity to cement theory and build intuition. I cannot recommend enough taking this course, even if you are just looking to take on bigger adventures as a recreational kayaker. It’s a hard experience to put to words. So much learning and fun, and just enough suffering to really bond with the people I was with. It’s definitely a memory that I’ll keep, and makes me both stoked and feel more prepared to take on bigger kayak adventures.

Thanks a bunch for reading! Happy to answer any questions you may have – ask down below in the comments. We’ll be following up with two more posts about the AOG, one on gear and one on lessons learned and whether or not I passed!

– Sanesh Iyer


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