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How NOT to Do It

by Dan Lewis

Disclaimer: Please do not try any of the stupid activities described herein. These actions were committed when the author was young, foolish, and just plain broke. If you ever get this desperate, call toll-free and I'll lend you enough money for a chart and food!

Once I was stuck in Nanaimo right after New Year's, without enough money to buy gas to drive back to my home in Victoria. I decided to paddle to Saltspring Island to visit some friends, hang out for a couple of days, then head back to Victoria.

My friend Ian lent me his kayak and a compass, and gave me some stale pita breads, old peanut butter and an Army ration dinner. But when it came to borrowing a chart, he stipulated: if it got damaged I would have to replace it. Since it wasn't waterproof, and I was already broke, I decided not to risk incurring more debt.

My first obstacle was the infamous Dodd Narrows. Starting much later than intended, I arrived near maximum flood, but my river paddling skills allowed me to squeak through unscathed.

Not far beyond the the Narrows I set up camp for the night. The next day I awoke in a dense fog bank. I had no idea what time it was, because I hadn't brought a watch. I considered a kayak trip as a chance to eschew the mechanized time of post-industrial society, and return to a simpler, more visceral sense of time.

My sense of time failed completely in the fog, and I got side-tracked into a major birdwatching hike on the island. But I had an ominous feeling that I had better get underway soon, if it wasn't already too late-who could tell?

I hugged the shore of the island as I headed south. At the southern tip of the island, it was time to cut loose, commence a crossing. Having done my best to memorize the chart before leaving, I knew that I was basically in a bowling alley, with all the islands running in the same general direction. Although it would be theoretically possible to get lost by paddling in a huge spiral and never seeing shore, it was extremely unlikely. Theoretically.

An eagle flew over and landed on a branch. An omen, perhaps? I looked up at the eagle with renewed hope. Perhaps a song would help. I sang my plea to the big bird perched above me. 'Please show me the way, o eagle', that sort of thing. Nothing. The bird refused to budge. There was that unknown quantity of how much daylight remained, so I decided to get going.

I pointed the compass off into the the for on a line parallel to the lay of the islands, and took a bearing on-nothing! An estimate. I knew that somewhere out there lay a reef, with a light on it-Danger Reef. To the left, Valdes Island, then Galiano Island. To the right, Chemainus and the Crofton mill, then Saltspring, opposite the cliffs of Galiano's west coast.

I looked back wistfully at the eagle, with one last pleading gaze, then paddled off, into the fog. I started to feel like I was going in circles. Trust the compass, I reminded myself, but doubts crept in. Maybe if I'd taken a bearing a bit more to the left, towards Valdes, instead of Crofton... After a few course corrections, back and forth, I realized I had to pick a course and stick with it. Otherwise, there was no hope of back-tracking.

Then out of nowhere a reef appeared with a light beacon standing on it. Danger Reef! Despite the name, I paddled over to it. It felt much better having solid land nearby, even if it did appear to submerge at high tide. There was always the light itself-I could climb up on it. So I decided to stay put until something better appeared. As I gazed off at the fog, pondering the options, the lights of a huge ghost ship appeared. I looked again. It was real-a cargo ship heading into the mill. I hadn't thought of that hazard. My desire to stay put intensified.

The sound of flapping wings, coming from the same direction as I had, warned me of the eagle's arrival. It landed on the light, right above me. I felt immense relief. At least some company! After a while the bird flew off, at a right angle to the direction we'd come from. As I watched it disappear into the fog, I noticed the glimmer of trees and rock-it appeared to be a small island. What the heck, it looked better than a light on a reef! So I quickly took a fix with my compass and paddled off, following the eagle. From that tiny island I could make out another, bigger island. I quickly crossed. Phew! The main chain of islands again. I turned right, and headed south.

I was thinking I had just crossed Porlier Pass, putting me on the shore of Galiano Island. A wisp of smoke alerted me to the presence of a tumbledown shack. I parked my kayak at the dock and brought my compass so as not to appear like a total idiot, lost without a chart or compass. I asked the old man living there for a bearing to Walker Hook, on Saltspring. Turned out I was actually on Valdes Island. He pointed to the lights of Walker Hook, twinkling in the twilight.

Off I went, hoping to complete this final crossing before nightfall. But when I arrived in darkness, things were not as they ought to be. This was definitely not Walker Hook! I landed and approached a house. A woman answered the door. She looked genuinely frightened by my appearance, with wetsuit, spraydeck, and PFD. I must have looked like some kind of paramilitary freak. The door closed. I stood there, wondering what to do to. The door opened again, her husband this time. "Where is Walker Hook?", I sputtered.

"It's just a mile down the road, this is the northern tip of Saltspring," he replied. "You've got to head that way, down island," he said, closing the door.

Half an hour later I was soundly cursing that man and his rotten directions. "You could have told me it was five miles!" I yelled into the darkness. "Thanks a lot! Just down the road, eh? You try paddling it in the cold and the dark, then tell me how far you think it is. Feels like five miles to me. And that's five miles I don't want to paddle right now!" And so on, grumbling, ranting and cursing out loud to no-one but myself. So pre-occupied was I with my ordeal, I didn't notice a house on the cliff above. Suddenly sliding doors were thrust open and flashlights probed the night, searching for the source of this bizarre stream of expletives.

I picked up the pace, moved past the house, and resumed grumbling.

I had to find my friends' beach near Walker Hook. The bright orange coffee-can lid fifteen feet up an alder trunk was a brilliant landmark in daylight. Unfortunately, there were a lot of alders growing along this stretch of coast. I scanned each trunk with my flashlight with fading hope until at last, to my relief, I saw the orange marker.

I landed, staggered up and knocked on the door. It opened to reveal the warm glow of lights on friendly familiar faces, the smell of home cooking wafting out into the starlight.

"Welcome," said Pat. "We had a hunch you might drop by so we cooked extra!"