We were just exiting Oscar Channel after travelling ten kilometres through one of the most mind-blowing wildlife zones I've ever seen. For most of the channel, we were accompanied by dozens of frisky sea lions, who arced in and out of the water beside our kayaks, following us in a mad frenzy like they'd never seen humans before. Pups, adolescents and adults played around us like frenzied fans around a K-Pop band strolling through the streets of Seoul. The tide was running against us in the channel, so we hugged the eddies along the steep shoreline where we were treated to rock walls clustered in a rainbow of sea stars, anemones and urchins displayed in water as crystal clear as the air.

 

We'd originally taken on this kayak journey in our present reality with the intention and ethic of isolating completely from humanity, remaining completely self-supported and avoiding interactions with communities. We avoided people along the West Coast of British Columbia from Squamish to Prince Rupert (a journey of 1,000 kilometres), but our intention was not to avoid the wildlife as well. However, in the previous week of paddling leading up to this section, we'd only had one significant large mammal sighting—a humpback whale feeding in the waters off Hakai.  Perhaps it was the stormy conditions that kept them out of sight- tumultuous seas that tested the tightness of my Seals Shocker spraydeck, the waterproofness of my Sealline Deck bag, the performance of my Werner Ikelos paddle and personal security of my Mustang Hudson Drysuit, Kokatat Guide PFD and Northwater Sea Link towline. Whatever it was, the big critters eluded us, and we were a bit miffed and surprised at the lack of their presence leading to this moment—so this amazing sea lion interaction had us giddy.

photoPhoto supplied by Frank Wolf

As the end of the channel came into view, I looked around, and my heart sank. Nothing in the landscape made sense in relation to the chart. I was aghast and confused. For this section of our route, we had just a small-scale chart that provided only general detail. I lazily took a loose bearing off the map in the morning to take us to Finlayson channel . . . but was somehow magnetically drawn up Oscar. I never looked at the compass or map again (and never consulted the GPS) until we exited, as I got so distracted by our sea lion entourage. At least, that's my excuse—I blamed it on the sea lions, like blaming a dog for a clandestine fart.

I called out: "Uhhh, Dave?!  We, ah . . . we've gone the wrong way."

Dave, a dry Brit who is ever so casual, took the news in stride. "How off track are we?"

"Looks like we went northeast instead of north, I took us down the wrong channel . . . we can head up and get back to Finlayson via Jackson Channel. Looks like it'll be about a 20-kilometre detour. At least we don't have to double back." I grinned sheepishly.

In all my years of journeying and navigating, I'd never messed up so badly. It was like I'd come under a spell.

I stammered on, "Dave, I swear I'm a good navigator, I don't know what came over me. I've never messed up like this."

He smiled broadly, "I'm glad I'm the first to witness it then."

photoPhoto supplied by Frank Wolf

The error dissolved suddenly as our eyes were simultaneously drawn to a seven-foot black fin slicing the waters of Mathieson Channel. The lone bull Orca came toward us, eventually diving out of sight 100 metres short of our kayaks.  A couple of kilometres later as we turned up Jackson Channel, we spotted a Minke Whale feeding in the shallows around an island. It seemed as if my wrong turn had sent us on an unplanned sea safari, which continued as we paddled onward to our intended campsite at Sarah Island. Exiting Jackson Channel back into Finlayson, we spotted three distant spouts headed south on the far side as three whales—likely humpbacks—cruised along. When we began paddling north in the other direction, we saw explosions of water. As we headed toward the giant splashes, we saw it was a pair of humpbacks frolicking. Specifically, a mother and its calf. The calf repeatedly breached, doing full aerial leaps with thunderous cannonball re-entries as the mother circled and flicked her monstrous tail. The pair eventually disappeared into the ether of the ocean and we carried on.

The day ground onward as we approached our site, having turned a 35-kilometre day into a 55-kilometre day due to my navigational error. I was still kicking myself over my mistake (despite the wonderful interactions) but my mental self-flagellation would soon be squelched forever.

Approaching the bay, a loud exhalation and spout of water directed our attention to yet another humpback, this time circling the island in front of the beach we were aiming for.  We landed and the humpback continued to entertain, rising and falling its way around the bay in front of us.

In the slowly waning light, we set up camp behind the beach in one of the most spectacular old-growth valleys I've ever experienced. It had a lively creek running through it and everything was damp, lush and green. A 300-foot high rock wall tangled with vines flanked one side of a grove that was brimming with old growth sitka spruce giants, foot-thick moss, and a carpet of lily of the valley.  I picked a flat spot back in the woods to set up my MSR Hubba NX tent, my ever-so-comfy Thermarest Neo Air mattress and my cozy Quester down sleeping bag. My body was weary from a 12-hour day and I was eager to fire up a meal on my MSR Reactor stove and then bed down for the night.

photoPhoto supplied by Frank Wolf

Something caught my eye and I turned halfway through my set-up. A large male wolf ghosted in, eerily quiet, only 15 feet from me. It didn't look at me, but seemed intent on Dave, who was setting his tent up about 20 metres closer to the shore. I hissed, "Wolf . . . WOLF!!" to Dave and he turned toward me but saw nothing as the soundless animal drifted into the creek and evaporated.

"There was a wolf Dave . . . it was right here!"

I went to get my camera and Dave stuck around, peering into the Avatar forest for movement. When I came back, Dave said, "I just saw a black wolf . . . but only for a second, then it vanished." We both stood quietly, hoping to catch another glimpse of these masters of disguise. After a few minutes, we gave up and returned to our set-up duties.

As I resumed, I caught another glimpse of movement and saw both the larger grey/brown male and the smaller black female disappearing and reappearing in the green and brown hues of the forest. I managed to get some brief footage, then followed the female as she worked her way back in the woods and disappeared into a hovel beneath a huge fallen old growth root ball. Observing from a distance, I heard the distinct yips of pups. It was their den and the parents had come out to see who was visiting their valley. I let them be and went back to my tent duties once more.

photoPhoto supplied by Frank Wolf

As I put the final touches on my tent, I heard a 'crack' from the steep slope beside the towering rock wall behind me. Swinging around I caught the movement of the male skirting our camp and moving upslope. It was the first sound I'd heard the stealth-master make, the first sign he was flesh and bone and not merely a specter of my imagination.  I stalked up a little way and he froze, instantly becoming part of the slope. But I could see him, and he knew it. As I filmed, he stayed frozen. He gave me a couple of good long looks before resigning that he'd been busted, then casually sauntered on up the slope.

That evening we were serenaded to sleep by the lullaby of the humpback's blowhole exhalations as it continued to feed in front of our camp and by the haunting howl of our serene wolf neighbours from back in their den. Sometimes a wrong turn can evolve into something that is so absolutely right.

Listen to Frank Wolf’s interview with CBC.