The islands at the mouth of Clayoquot Sound are certainly more well known than some of the other areas we visited, and in the summer have a consistent traffic of whale watching boats and float planes humming overhead. They are still, however, strikingly unaltered and beautiful with their impossibly long stretches of windswept sand, giant sitka spruce, wolves, whales and bears. The few First Nations villages in the area are the only year-round settlement. The residents of those villages chat back and forth over the VHF radio – there being no phone service available. We frequently heard people chatting – how fishing was going and that someone was having a birthday party, please save them some cake.
We found anchorage at Blunden Island, just west of the larger Vargas Island. Shortly after anchoring there we were approached by a small boat which attempted to raft up beside us while bobbing in a rolling swell. It was two representatives of the nearby Ahousat First Nation inquiring what we were up to and asking that we pay a small fee for a permit to anchor in their traditional territory. We respectfully did so, and they handed us a piece of paper showing a map of traditional territory and describing the Ahousat chiefs’ efforts to protect the environment for the “benefit of all living beings since the beginning of time and into the unforeseeable future.”
The west side of Vargas faces the open pacific and is primarily a huge sandy beach of windswept dunes and enormous trees. From our anchorage on Blunden, we could take our inflatable dinghy across from Blunden to the beaches on Vargas. This required a rather exciting and usually wet surf landing of the dinghy. If we timed it just right, we could zoom in, quickly tilt up the motor and leap out into the shallows to drag the little boat ashore before the next wave came crashing down on us. Of course the 12ft dinghy was always packed full of surfboards, gear and five people, which made it even more exciting. Sometimes we were required to dodge surfacing whales feeding between the islands.
We enjoyed several beach fire cook-ups on the small sheltered beach at Blunden island where we were anchored. I experimented with cooking bread on the fire, using our cast iron pot. Fresh mussles, fresh fish, and vegetables wrapped in tin foil with butter and wine and cooked on the fire sure went down well with some slightly smoky fire-baked bread. Those were some of our tastiest cruising meals of the whole summer. I don’t think any food in a restaurant has ever tasted so good. During one of these meals we were visited in the bay by a humpback whale having his own dinner. We could just see the shape of his back in the darkness as he rose to breathe, and then dove to feed again. In the morning when we pulled up the anchor to leave that bay, it was completely coated in tiny krill. The whale must have eaten as well as we did.
During a brief moment of reception somewhere down the line, we had received a message that the Pacific Rim Surfrider Foundation needed help finishing a marine debris clean-up project on part of Vargas Island, and inquiring if we were interested in helping. After our experience with beach cleaning on the Brooks Peninsula we were keen to help in whatever way we could. Heading closer to Tofino, around the south side of Vargas, we were able to speak to the Surfrider Pacific Rim Chair, Michelle Hall who let us know the location, and that a whale watching boat would be delivering to us more supersacks to load with debris.
The area of this clean up consisted of a series of smaller coves and rocky promontories. This area, as well as several other places near Tofino and Ucluelet, had been the landing site for a number of shipping containers lost off a Hanjin (a now bankrupt South Korean shipping company) ship during a storm. The containers are lined with polystyrene foam, so as they were smashed apart on the rocks of the islands here they littered the coast with orange foam pieces. In addition to this debris, there was also a large amount of debris carried to the BC coast by the Japanese tsunami several years ago. The tsunami swell lifted styrofoam, plastic bottles and other bits and pieces into the bush well above the high tide line. To collect all this we had to bushwack through prickles and salal, pulling it out from under small roots and coverings of moss. We managed to complete the job over the course of two days there. When we arrived in Tofino we were greeted by Surfrider with so much appreciation we felt like celebrities. We even ended up in the Westerly newspaper. Though all we did was lug some blocks of styrofoam and fishing floats down the beaches. The folks truly deserving of applause are those dedicated volunteers figuring out how to orchestrate mass marine debris collection in the area – how to get it all off these remote islands, and then to Vancouver to be recycled. Moving the debris away and dealing with it is a massive effort and requires a huge financial investment. The use of a helicopter to pick up the super sacks is about $1000 and hour. Michelle herself volunteers an enormous amount of time to this effort.
The conclusion of our beach clean up on Vargas Island also brought a firm end to our relative isolation, as we were now in the bustling eco-tourism and surfing town of Tofino. No longer just the domain of loggers and fishermen, it is now the domain of whale watching, surfboard rentals and vacationing prime ministers. I do still love it there though. I taught a children’s art program in Tofino one summer, and Harry and I lived in the nearby town of Ucluelet for a while. That’s actually where we met. After stopping off at Cox Bay and at Florencia Bay for a surf (it felt pretty novel to arrive by sailboat and anchor out the back), we spent several days visiting friends and hanging out in Ucluelet. Then a final few days of quiet in the Broken Group Islands of Barkley Sound and we were making our way south down the last stretch of coast before we reached the city of Victoria. It was bitter-sweet finally arriving back in the city, our summer of adventure coming to an end with the noise and bustle. It was certainly a summer we wont soon forget.