Sunday, September 3, 2007

Exhausted. It's starting to rain out so it feels good to settle into the snug tent and write. So much happened today. None of it involves whales, alas. A few seals but no whales.

Morning - Grande Ile to Ile a Firmin

Since the weather report called for worsening conditions for the next three days, it seemed prudent to head back to Ile du Havre where I believed that I could easily reach my starting point in all but the worst conditions. [I now think otherwise. The group campsite on the east side would be better.] Accordingly, I headed south along Grande Ile with the morning ebb, stopping to have a look at Le Zoo. (Cool but Le Chateau was way moreso.)

This zoo looks like it's filled with people, or at least one egghead.

Then following the ebb across to Ile Quarry - the mouth of the channel was quite intense, big standing waves and quick current, waves washing over the bow and making that whitewater frothing sound that always stirs the adrenaline.

Around the south tip of Ile Quarry, headed up the east side and then crossed to Niapiskau. Stopped for a break on the east side and contemplated the planned crossing to Ile a Firmin, which I'd skipped by when first coming out. So I wanted to have a look this time.

The ebb was nearly over, but even so I went flying across. At one point I checked the GPS - about 7 mph, far above my usual loping 3.5 to 4. I noticed at the mouth of Chenal Niapiskau that the sea was glittering, something was happening out there. And then, just before I reached the island, the first gusts hit me. Cold cold wind, broadside. I had to fight to get through the whitecaps and over to the island. This was an amazingly sudden change, from calm one minute to 20 kt winds the next. Had it happened earlier in the one-mile crossing I'd have had my hands full.

Seeing that the wind was opposing the now-incoming tide, which kicked up tremendous chaos, I settled in to explore the island and wait for the wind to die down or the tide to ebb again. At worst, I could camp here the night.

All but the north side of Ile a Firmin was rimmed with monoliths in vast array. These don't have any official names, they aren't visited by ferries. This island seems largely overlooked, and yet the rock formations were splendid.

These lichens make the delightful orange topping on the monoliths.

An evil gull who continually swooped at my head and screamed blood-curdling cries. This was a very effective tactic. I moved on.


Waiting waiting waiting for something to change, wind or tide. This side of the island was protected and fairly calm, but on the other three sides it was whitecaps and wind and intense current. I had all day. But I had it in my head that Havre au Sauvage (Savage Harbor) where I'd camped the first night was where I needed to be. After all, the wind was predicted to become worse over the next 2 days. If I couldn't get there today, it'd just be that much harder later. So I watched for my opportunity.

The Afternoon - Ile a Firmin to Ile du Havre

I waited for hours, watching Chenal du Fantome popping with 3-foot breaking waves. In circumstances in which friends were with me and I was fresh and unencumbered by camping gear, this would be a place to play, very much like Woods Hole. But given the situation, and with water barely above freezing, I chose to sit and wait for a break in the conditions. Eventually though I got tired of waiting. I thought that if I could stay in the widest part of the channel, I could make it across to Ile du Havre and take the ebb around the outside to the campsite. This channel was in the island's windshadow and so was much calmer than the other side I'd just crossed.

At the outset it went pretty well. Then about mid-channel the wind and waves picked up. Both were following (that is, coming from behind), so at least I had that working for me. But it was scary being out there far from land, tossed around in 3' seas and nothing for it but to keep going. Once I made the mistake of looking behind me at the angry line of breaking waves and dark water that was Chenal du Fantome, where I would be carried by the current if I stopped paddling. I kept checking the buoy at the channel mouth on my right, lining it up with an island behind it to determine if my relative position had changed. It appeared that I was moving at a good clip, but it couldn't be fast enough for me.

I made it into a cove on Ile du Havre and considered my options. Find a place to camp here? It was very exposed to the wind. And hey, there was no yellow-doored outhouse. Head out on the ebb around the outer point - where conditions might be strong - and get to the campsite?

I remembered the pleasant coves just around the farthest point. If I could get around the point, the rest should be easy. I was to find out otherwise.

Late Afternoon - Around Ile du Havre

It had gotten quite cold. I landed and donned the tuilik to prepare for the worst and to be as warm as possible. As I paddled out the cove, a seal popped up to say hello and wasn't it a splendid day out here?

Outside the cove I was back in 2-3' seas with surf crashing on the rocks for about a mile to the farthest point, Pointe de Chasse. I knew the wind and waves were pushing me toward shore, so at worst I'd have a rough landing if I capsized and left the boat. I wouldn't float out to sea. I worked my way toward the point, where the surf and waves were stronger.

This was more intense than I'd expected, but I had visions of the gentle coves of several days ago, if I could just get there. Pushing through the rollers, I rounded the point.

Alas, there were no gentle coves. The surf and big seas went on and on for another mile. I had to stay out of the surf zone without getting too far from shore where the ebb might pull me out to sea. At one point the breaking waves reached five feet, higher than my head. Mercifully they did not break on me as I paddled over them.

The conditions were nothing bigger than I'd experienced before, but the combination of icy water, being alone, having paddled a long way already, and most of all the relentlessness of the heavy seas - all this together made it the most challenging seakayaking I've ever done. I didn't fear for my life - I was watching for places where I could make a landing if need be, and coming out of the boat might mean a rough swim and maybe loss of the boat but it was certainly survivable. It would make for a long day though.

Well, after much exhausting paddling, I made it to the campsite cove. I hardly recognized it with all the surf where before it had been dead calm. Another seal popped up to welcome me home. I see now why they call it Havre au Sauvage, a name I thought was funny when I first camped here.

Now I'm settled in here for the next two days. I walked around the far side of the island and am convinced it is an easier return. So tomorrow I can take it easy, maybe wait until the rain stops, have two cups of tea in the morning instead of one, take a gentle paddle tour of the immediate environs, and rest.

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