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A Holiday to Remember

by Dan Lewis

In 1979, I embarked on a winter getaway I will never forget. Jim Berta and Merrily Corder, who were my kayaking mentors, planned to cycle to California to visit his family for Christmas. Then Jim got the idea of making it a paddling trip. Problem was, he wasn't free to go until mid-October.

I leapt at the opportunity to join such an epic undertaking. Being young and naive at the time, I failed to understand the implications that late fall weather would have on our expedition: gale-force southeast headwinds slowing us almost to a stand still, massive storm swells trashing us each morning as we left the beach and then pounding us back to shore each evening.

Our small group of friends gathered on October 24 at Jericho Beach in Vancouver and paddled off in moderate southeast winds and driving rain. Sleeping at Tsawwassen overnight, we crossed Georgia Strait the second morning, arriving in Victoria the third day. Next came the crossing of Juan de Fuca Strait. I was too new to the sport to really understand tidal currents, so the rapids at Race Rocks took me by surprise. I remember thinking that the waves were very steep and pointy on top.

As we crossed the Strait, a cold southeast wind conspired with the strong ebb current to drag us out to sea. We could clearly see that we were losing ground. I was finding it unusually hard to keep up. Jim tried everything from encouragement to insults to keep me going. When at last we arrived at the Customs dock, we discovered that I was sitting in six inches of water! My kayak had taken on water through a pinhole leak in one end. Without bulkheads, this resulted in 200 pounds of water distributed the length of the boat! Things got worse in early November as we rounded Cape Flattery at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula. We were being hammered by incredibly strong southeast winds, and could barely move forward. We decided to bail out at the first beach south of the Cape. It was taking literally minutes to claw our way past each rock. When I took a momentary break, I was blown back, losing five or ten minutes worth of paddling instantly! I realised that I had to find something to occupy my mind, which was whining things like "I can't do this" and "We're all gonna die!". The Juan de Fuca ordeal had taught me that the body can do far more than the mind would think possible - I just had to occupy it with other thoughts. As I punched my right arm forward, I thought "Mind says, arms have power". Punching the left arm forward, I chanted "Mind says, push on!" This mantra allowed me to carry on until we reached the beach, whereupon I was unceremoniously dumped onto the sand by the large surf!

Expedition life became a wearying routine. Wake up in the dark, put on the wetsuits, take down the tarp. Eat porridge, surf launch at first light. Paddle twenty miles south, land at sunset, set up the tarp, cook supper, dry wetsuit by the fire, hit the hay by eight o'clock. Although I can't say it was fun, I can say it was the trip of a lifetime!

Our trip ended just north of Taholah, Washington. We had pulled in for lunch on a beach. Unfortunately you can never judge the size of surf from offshore. Turned out this beach had a dumping shorebreak and we were trapped there. I actually made it off the beach on our third day there, with an assist from Jim and Ed. I paddled furiously up huge walls of water, so thin I could see through them, praying they would not break and pitch pole me backwards towards the beach. Reaching each crest, my boat would teeter over the top, and begin the terrifying descent towards the oncoming trough. I would use this opportunity to pick up some speed, in order to make it over the next juggernaut.

I actually managed to make it out, whereupon I spent the next eight or so hours (I didn't have a watch) waiting a half-mile offshore for the others to join me. I wasn't likely to make it out a second time, and did not want to head in just as they made it out, so I waited all day. Finally at sunset, I saw Jim raise a signal flag. As I headed in, a monster wave caught me unawares and collapsed on top of me. Before I knew it, I was swimming twenty feet away from my kayak, with assorted bits of gear scattered about. I quickly grabbed what I could, and eventually washed ashore.

The next morning we discovered that the old skid road behind the beach connected to an old spur road, that connected to a mainline logging road. Within minutes we were in downtown Taholah, where Merrily and Lawella had frantically waited four days for us to paddle the twenty mile distance from our last rendezvous with the support vehicle. The next day we called off the trip and drove to California in 24 hours, just in time for a huge Thanksgiving feast with Jim's Mom!

Lesson learned: if you want a relaxing winter getaway, don't go looking for it on the west coast of Washington state!