Access: See Getting to Tofino
Distance: 114 km
Time: 2-3 days
Tide Table: Tofino
Red Tide Administrative Unit: Area 24
Warning: Open Ocean
Marine Chart: 3673 & 3674
This extremely popular route begins much the same as the previous Meares Island circumnavigation. From Maurus Channel however, veer west into Calmus Passage under the stern gaze of the Catface Range. After some 4½ km of protected paddling you'll break into the relatively open waters between Flores and Vargas Island. Granted, a wide array of small islands, rocks and reefs break up the breakers somewhat as they roll in off the Pacific but, on a stormy day, that protection is spurious at best. The most direct route across the gap is still 5½ km ending at Gibson Marine Park on the southeastern tip of Flores Island. Hugging the coast of Vancouver Island, though longer, provides access to many beaches for camping, exploring or just stretching the cramps out of legs and shoulders.
Though very likely crowded, Whitesand Cove at Gibson Marine Park is well worth a visit. The park, 17 km from Tofino, is comprised of two sandy crescents that make great camping and a somewhat coolish hot springs located at the southern end of Matilda Inlet and accessible by trail from Whitesand Cove. The clear, odourless spring water gurgles out at 25°C into a cement pool measuring 6 x 2.4 metres and 1.2 metres deep.
In addition, the Ahousaht Wild Side Heritage Trail cuts across Whitesand Cove, stretching from the community of Marktosis to Cow Bay 11 km away and beyond, for the truly energetic, to the peak of Mount Flores.
The interpretive trail was established by Ahousaht women to build pride and develop employment locally. Guides are available to share native history and culture with the many visitors who pass through each year. Guided tours can be prearranged by calling 1-888-670-9586. Ancient forests, middens, culturally modified trees and a dozen secluded beaches are just some of the highlights of the tour.
The paddling route along the lee side of Flores Island is generally protected and as such is the waterway of choice for local fishermen, forest workers, tour boats and water taxis. Being protected from the breakers of the open Pacific, the foreshore of Millar Channel [16 km] and Shelter Inlet [8 km] are steep and fjord-like with suitable places to pitch a tent less common than on the weather ravaged windward side of Flores Island.
As the name suggests Obstruction Island creates a venturi effect, magnifying tidal currents throughout the 2.4 km length of Hayden Passage. Plan to reach the narrow waterway at slack or, better yet, on an ebbing tide and let the man in the moon do the driving.
After rounding the north west corner of Flores Island at Starling Point expect wind and wave to pick up. Depending on the conditions, scoot across Sydney Inlet to enjoy the refuge provided by Openit Peninsula. Though camping is prohibited anywhere in the park, pull out at the tiny sandy cove just 2½ km further on, just prior to Sharp Point at the very tip of Maquinna Provincial Park. Those dying for a soak will be heartened to know that Ramsay Hot Spring, as the geothermal vent is called, is just a few steps away. Otherwise continue paddling for another couple kilometres into Hot Springs Cove , landing at the busy government wharf. Camping can be found, for a fee, on adjacent private property. Drinking water, available from a hand pump just above the dock, is foul-tasting though potable in a pinch. Avoid it altogether by topping up well-before reaching the cove.
From the wharf the hot spring is a pleasant 1½ km jog along a split cedar boardwalk. Many mariners have replaced boards with name plates from their ships making for interesting reading along the way. The hot spring is one of the province's finest, clear, slightly sulphurous, gurgling out of a crack in the rocks at 51° C, far too hot for immediate use. Thankfully the water tumbles over a short cliff, cascading down through a succession of soaking pools, each one slightly cooler than the one above it. Soaking in the bottom pool is a delight. Hot water pours in from above while chilling saltwater slops in from the ever-active sea. The whole scene occurs in a cleft in the rocks facing the setting sun and, if that were not enough, the whole cleft is usually lit by candlelight as the sky darkens to a deep purple. Clothing is optional but footwear is not. The rocks are jagged enough but usually some dope has just dropped a wine glass, scattering glass about in the pools. Do watch where you sit. If you must drink, use plastic.
When you've had enough soaks to make your fingers look like those movie theatre hot dogs then it may be time to make a decision on how to return from whence you came. Only advanced kayakers should consider taking the open ocean route around Flores and Vargas Islands. The weather along the West Coast can change literally minute by minute. Gentle Pacific rollers can become furious breakers whipped to a frenzy by gale-force winds in an instant. Fog can quickly roll in, obscuring all landmarks and the myriad of treacherous reefs and rocks that line the route. On the other hand, if your paddling skills are up to it the rewards of this route are many. Uncountable sandy beaches, a rugged, wind-torn landscape, seclusion and a sense of being on the very edge of the world can all be expected. The choice is yours but err on the side of caution.
Landing in the surf can be especially problematic. In many cases there may be rocks off either end of a beach that can serve as a breakwater. Scoot in behind them to make your landing. Alternatively, surf the waves in as hard and as fast as you can manage then scramble out and up the beach before the next wave fills your cockpit with sand and seaweed. Be sure to decide upon your plan of action well before reaching the line of breakers. Once committed there is no way out. Never allow your kayak to go broadside to the breakers or indeed you will flip.
The many clusters of offshore rocks and small islets are ideal for harvesting mussels, keeping in mind the usual caveats about red tide. Bottom feeders can be taken just about anywhere but for a challenge try trolling for salmon through the rocky shoals. The La Croix Group, well off the tip of Vargas Island, is a particularly good place to hook dinner.
Dependable freshwater can be found at Cow Bay on the south west coast of Flores Island. On a fine day enjoy poking around the many islets clustered around Bartlett Island in the gap between Flores and Vargas. The collection of fine camping beaches at the northwest corner of Vargas Island are a popular destination for guided kayaking tour groups and can be crowded during the summer.
Orcas prowl the coast with residents feasting on fish and transients filling up on fellow sea mammals like seals and sea lions. During spring and fall keep an eye open for migrating Gray whales while paddling. At any time while relaxing on the beach, resident Grays may pop into your particular cove to sluice up a snack from the crustacean-rich foreshore. Ahous Bay on Vargas Island in particular is popular with these baleen whales. Around the corner at Medallion Beach expect to find a proliferation of sand dollars from which the beach was named. On the final approach to Tofino stay together and stay alert for boat and sea plane traffic. You may find the sights and sounds of civilization, even Tofino's, surprisingly jarring after an extended wilderness excursion.
Click for a wider perspective on Clayoquot Sound.