Monday, December 31, 2007


As I paddled toward Brown's Point this morning, I saw flashing red lights outside a house in the neighborhood on the hill to the east. A minute later, I heard the scream of a siren and another vehicle, this time a fire engine, pulled up behind the one that was already there. It was a medical emergency of some kind and it was probably pretty serious. I couldn't help thinking that someone's day wasn't starting out as well as mine was.

The last day of the year. Every year seems to go quicker than the ones that came before. Time gets more and more compressed and the weight of gathering age starts to get heavier.

When you're paddling at night, it's hard to guage distance and speed very accurately. Especially when crossing open water. Sometimes I'll set my course on a light that is 2 or 3 miles away and it seems like, even though I paddle strong, the light doesn't get any closer. If there is wind or a swell of any size, the time seems stretched even further. I can go and go, and still not seem to get any closer. And then, all of a sudden, I'm there. The light I have been steering toward is no longer a distant glow, it's right there in front of me. Suddenly.

I leave in 2 weeks. That is an astonishingly short amount of time. My departure date has been like that light far across the water. I have been approaching it all the time, but I didn't seem to be getting any closer until now, all of a sudden, it is looming right in front of me. Two weeks. It will go very quickly.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


In the past few months, when I have described the upcoming trip to those I've come in contact with, there have been those who have been aghast at the notion that I am planning to do the journey alone. There is safety in numbers, goes the saying, and for many folks, that is dogma. In this crowded world, it is considered somewhat odd if you go to the movies alone; to kayak alone, and on a trip like this one, is well past odd as far as many people are concerned. I've tried to explain it, tried to put my reasons into simple words that can be easily understood and, for the most part, have failed.

It's not that I am antisocial. If anything, I can be a bit of a butterfly. It's true that most of my morning paddles are done alone, but then again, there aren't too many people I know who are even out of bed that early, much less in the mood to go kayaking. There have been a few times when I've had company – thanks Gary and John for the companionship and conversation – but for the most part, I've been a one-man show.

I was thumbing through my well-worn copy of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire before bed last night and I came across a passage that says it as well as I could ever hope to do (trust that old curmudgeon to find the right words). As usual, Abbey's subject was the desert, arid and unfailingly hot, but in many other ways a dramatic and magnificent landscape with more than a few similarities to the places I will be seeing very soon.

”Most of my wandering," Abbey writes, "I've done alone. Not so much from choice as from necessity – I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go. I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time."

Well put, Ed.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tu-ber-cu-lucas and the sinus blues

Sick. Like the flu. Actually, not "like" the flu... I think it is the flu. No paddling today, and it's hard to imagine that I'm going to want to get out there tomorrow either. It makes me think about what I will do if I get hit with this type of thing when I'm on the trip. I have a good first aid kit, but it is organized around an accident scenario, not stocked up with cold and flu supplies. For example, if I should lacerate my hand on a rock, impale a foot on a barnacle, break an arm in a fall... well, I've prepared for those types of emergencies and I have something in the boat somewhere to deal with them. A simple cold, on the other hand, is anything but simple in adverse conditions.

I left work early today, came home and crashed on the couch. Watched a couple episodes of Northern Exposure on DVD (a particularly fine Christmas present - thank you Mary), and now I'm thinking about crawling into bed. I'm not going to have these options when I'm out there.

I'm going to take another look at the first aid kit, maybe do a little repacking. But not right now.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Forecast analysis

Marine Forecast issued for West Coast Vancouver Island North.
Issued: 4 PM PST Monday 24 December 2007

Synopsis: A ridge of high pressure over the British Columbia coast this afternoon will move into the British Columbia interior tonight.A frontal system approaching the West Coast Charlottes region this afternoon will cross the north coast tonight and approach the south coast on Tuesday morning.Over northern and central waters gale to storm force southeast winds will develop as the front approaches and will ease to strong to gale force northwesterly in the wake of the front.Over southern waters light to moderate northwest winds will rise to gale to storm force southeasterly as the front approaches tonight and Tuesday morning.

Forecast: Storm warning continued. Wind northwest 10 to 20 knots rising to southerly 30 this evening then to southerly gales 45 to storm force 55 overnight. Winds becoming westerly 25 to gales 35 Tuesday morning then northwesterly 25 to gales 35 Tuesday afternoon. Rain developing near midnight. Seas 7 to 8 metres subsiding to near 5 this evening then building to 5 to 6 overnight. Outlook. Strong to gale force northwesterlies.

I will confess to experiencing a wee bit of trepidation as I read the forecast for some of the areas I am planning on passing through. Any apprehension I have, however, is tempered by my almost total ignorance of the metric system. "7 to 8 metre seas" do sound rather large, but I don't neccesarily translate their hugeness internally, at least not very well. Another failure of American public education, no doubt, but it makes me feel better.

For those of you who may find yourselves in the same predicament, allow me to decode the above report into language that will be more informative:

Synopsis: Clear skies will pass through to the British Columbia interior tonight, pulling truly horrible conditions behind them that will begin bashing coastal areas severely by Tuesday morning. Over northern and central waters, the wind will vary between gusts that would transport Dorothy back to Oz and other blasts that will force you to your knees, so you may as well start praying. Over southern waters, the somewhat reasonable breezes that may have been present for 20 minutes or so will soon be a memory, and any chance of sleeping in your pathetic little nylon tent will require earplugs and a shot of rum before turning in. Wind velocities will range from vicious to horrific throughout the next few days, after which they are just as likely to get worse as they are to get better.

Forecast: Storm warning continued, which is another way of saying you better hope your kayak is lashed to a tree above the surge line or it is likely to become airborne at some point. Wind northwest (pretty breezy) rising to southerly (nasty) this evening then to southerly gales that will shake your fillings loose to storm force winds that will actually penetrate unprotected skin, causing extreme physical and psychological distress. Massive walls of water on the open seas will subside to basically sucky levels before becoming worse again. Outlook. Good luck. You are seriously going to need it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The same, only different

There are times when I wish I could have lived in a different century. Back in the days when charts were drawn by hand on brittle parchment, when the phrase "Here be dragons," lurked near the edges of the paper, when there were still blank spots on the map. I like to think I would have been some intrepid explorer, standing tall like stout Cortez on some wind-blown peak in Darien. Find a river – name it. Alight on some virgin shore – claim it. Those would have been heady days indeed.

I had a little more time today than usual, so my paddle this morning was a trip through the Tacoma Narrows. I started in the starry darkness, but the light of the new day was coming up as I went on. North from Titlow Beach, under the bridges, with a short stop at Salmon Beach. The old neighborhood. After living in that little cabin next to the mermaid for six terrific years, Mary and I moved away about 3 months ago. We left for good reasons… it was time to go, we did the right thing, but I sure miss it. After a few cups of hot chocolate on the bench overlooking our little beach, I got back in the kayak for the return. The wind was rising and the funneling effect of the Narrows made for a gusty, hard slog, but I still enjoyed every minute of it.

I don't know who the first person to paddle around Vancouver Island might have been. As far as I know, it has not been done during the winter, which is part of why I'm going, but that's not the same thing as being the first one to make the trip. Sort of makes me wonder about what it means to explore. Are we late-born, luckless souls doomed to simply go where thousands have gone before? Since we can't be first, is being "next" the best we can aspire to?

It occurs to me that the challenge of exploration, in these days when all of the blank spots are gone from the maps, may not be to do something completely different. Rather, it may be to do something that has been done before, but do it in a different way.

A cursory inspection of Fred Beckey's Cascade Alpine Guide, vol. 1, shows at least 49 different "first ascents" of Mount Rainier. Different routes, different seasons, different something. The people who made those climbs, all of them except Stevens and Van Trump, who made the first recorded trip to the summit in 1870, ultimately arrived at the same place, but they traveled by a different path. Their "firsts" were made with the understanding that it was not necessarily what they did, but the way that they did it that set them apart.

The simple fact of the matter is that I don't get to pick when I live, only how I live. This is my time, and it's probably just as well. As much as I might wish to have been alive during those golden years of global exploration, I would have been just as likely to be a coal miner, a street sweeper or a galley slave as a great explorer. Besides that, even with all the wonders of that time, there's one word that always makes me very happy that I am alive now, rather than back then.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Mind and body

I'm about halfway across Commencement Bay. It's raining hard and there's a wind of 10-15 knots steady out of the southwest. It's cold, although it gets warmer as I paddle. Trouble is, it hurts to paddle. My neck is sore, and I think I strained something in my left shoulder because I can feel a sharp pain with every rotation. It's 5:00am and I don't want to be here.

I consider myself to be a morning person but getting up before 4:00am is as much a late night as it is an early morning. It takes me a good 20 minutes to talk myself out from under the covers sometimes, lying silently in the bed as my task-oriented brain berates my warm and lazy body.

"Don't be that guy," it says loudly. "That guy who says he's going to do something and then doesn't do it. Don't be that guy."

Body makes no response.

"You are that guy!" the brain fires back. "I can't believe it. You are the guy who talks all big and then disappears. Tough guy. Jeez, I'm so ashamed to be attached to you. Don't be that guy."

Body shifts, obviously in some discomfort. Brain continues, until it finally gets its way.

That's how I got here, and it's how I figure many of my days may seem in the next few months. My body is still not convinced this is where it wants to be on this blustery morning, but it is trying.

"The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." Indeed.

Friday, December 7, 2007


Picture this: A dark sand and gravel beach. Chunks of driftwood and assorted jetsam line the high tide mark. It's hard to determine exactly where the shore ends and the water begins. What little light there is comes from a few streetlights out on the main drag; not much filters down to the water's edge. Across the bay, the beacon at Brown's Point flicks on and off again, right on schedule. A light rain is softly falling. It's 4:30am and I am just getting started.

I don't remember the last time I paddled in daylight. A month ago? Maybe more. The thing is, there just isn't that much daylight to be had around here this time of year. So I go when I can, which is early in the morning. Real early.

It's a 2-mile paddle across Commencement Bay to the light at Brown's Point. Maybe a little more. Round-trip takes about an hour, perhaps longer if I drink my hot chocolate slowly at the point. There's a little house down on the water near the lighthouse that I like to look at as I sip from the thermos. It's older, not too big, not a trophy home like some of the others further inside the bay. It's got a good vibe though and I like to think I might have something like it one day. At some point, I cap the thermos and head back.

I think of it more as a morning meditation than any kind of workout. It's not a long distance, but it's long enough to get the big muscle groups fired up, long enough to feel like I've done something. I've never planned to paddle by night on any big trips I've done before; if I've been out after dark it's because I did something wrong. The VI Circle is going to be different though, especially during the first few weeks. I'll be in more protected water, for starters, and if timing my day with the current means being on the water before the sun is in the sky, then so be it. The shortest periods of daylight will be at the beginning of the trip. If I want to maximize early progress, and I most definitely do, then I should probably plan on paddling in the dark.

So I come out here every morning, or almost every morning anyway, to get myself used to the idea that I will be doing a fair bit of this before I'm done. Some days are calm and fast, others are choppy and interesting, sometimes real interesting. Added to the conditions is the frequent freighter traffic that typically runs at right angles to my course. I have a light mounted on the back deck of my kayak but I am not really under any illusions that I can be seen from the bridges of any of these behemoths. Sometimes the simple 2-mile crossing feels more like a kayaking version of a Frogger game, but it does keep me paying attention.

It's a ritual, a meditation, one that I am hoping will ease the transition from city living to a wilderness expedition. At least, that's what I'm thinking now.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Relative meteorology

Storm warning ended.
Winds west 20 to 25 knots easing to 10 to 20 this evening Then veering to northeast overnight. Rain tapering to showers this evening. Seas 7 metres subsiding to 5 to 7 this afternoon then To 3 to 5 overnight. Outlook. Moderate northeast winds.

It's been very windy the past few days here in western Washington. Lots of rain and gusts of 5o knots and more.

It's the wind that will be my number one concern over the course of the trip. The weather forecast above came from the Environment Canada site for the northwestern portion of Vancouver Island. It's today's forecast and it's good news. Really.

Winds easing to 10-20 knots? Seas of 10-15 feet? Most paddlers will put the boats back in the garage and think of something else to do when they hear forecasts like this one. It just sounds like work. I have a feeling that, although this might not describe the perfect paddling day for most kayakers in most situations, it will be as much as I can hope for on a lot of this upcoming expedition.

Any time you paddle for extended periods in conditions that are demanding and inclement, it is inevitable that your definition of a "good" paddling day will change. Where you once thought that some breezes and rain meant the end of a kayaking day, you will eventually sally forth into a 20-knot wind with ice pellets slicing horizontally from the horizon directly into your eyes. At the end of a long kayak trip, it is not unusual to paddle confidently in conditions that would have kept you on shore at the journey's beginning. A good day is one where you've gained some distance, regardless of the conditions. Some days are better than others.

I've started the regular morning paddle again. Time to get my head into shape, into the rhythm and the tempo of paddling in the dark. Time to train my thinking as well as my muscles. The morning paddles are as much a meditation for me as anything else. More on that later.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


I did a trip last month around the San Juan Islands. I took 4 days and circled the islands, camping at a few spots along the way, mostly as an exercise to see what I'd be taking with me to Vancouver Island. To determine what gear would make the cut and what would not.

The kayak I'll be using is the venerable Dagger Sitka. This composite boat is almost 10 years old but it has been lightly used, until now. I paddled a different Sitka on my Newfoundland trip and was very pleased with the way it handled the conditions. Its integral rudder worked flawlessly and, with a 22" beam, it had great speed, even in rough conditions. I looked at a couple other candidates for this expedition, but kept coming back to this one. They don't make it any more, but they should.

Paddles come from Werner. Best blades anywhere. I'll be using a bent shaft Kalliste 220. PFD, drysuit, paddling gear comes mostly from Kokatat, one of the most dependable companies in the paddle sports industry.

The tent is a Mountain Hardware Muir Trail. I'll be wearing outerwear and technical clothing from Smartwool, Mountain Hardware and Arc'teryx. Drybags are from Ortlieb, and shoes are from Teva.

Most of the gear I'll be using belongs to me. I owned it already, before this expedition became a reality. I have it because it's what I use, it's what I trust. On the big trips, it's the details that count. Having a knowledge of what I am taking with me, and a familiarity with what works: this is a valuable detail for me.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Journalism 101

For a very short period in the early 1980's, I was a journalism major. I don't know how much of the curriculum I recall, but I do remember something about facts, and why they were important. Who, What, When, Where and Why: those were the big five.

So I'm going to take it slow, and take the time to go through the basic facts of the trip. By way of a proper introduction, if you will…

My name is Ken Campbell. I have been a sea kayak guide and instructor for nearly 20 years. I have expedition experience that runs the cycle from 3-day guided tours of the San Juan Islands to a 3-month, 1750-mile, circumnavigation of Newfoundland.

I have written several books about sea kayaking and numerous magazine pieces on a variety of subjects, from snowshoeing to canoeing to alpine ascents. At some point along the way, I chose kayaking as my central form of wilderness travel and it has taught me a lot. I have slowly learned, over the course of a very long time on the water, that it is the adventure that matters, the story. For me, the kayak is the best means for me to experience the natural world and to get to where I want to go.

I was co-founder of Azimuth Expeditions in 2003, and it remains the focus of my interactions with nature, adventure and the people who love them both. I hope to use Azimuth as a vehicle to assist in protecting the environment while encouraging the spirit of discovery.

The VI Circle expedition is an attempt at a solo sea kayak circumnavigation of Vancouver Island in winter, something that has not been done before. (Of course, there is always the possibility that it was done centuries ago, by a member of any number of tribes or bands of First Nations along the Vancouver Island coast, but there is no record of it ever having been done. )

Total distance will be between 700 and 800 miles and the expedition is expected to take between 7 and 9 weeks. The planned date of departure is January 14, 2008 and the goal is to complete the journey by March 21, 2008, within the winter months. I am currently planning on beginning the trip at Gooseberry Point, on the Lummi reservation, north of Bellingham. From there it's a straight shot to the northern Gulf Islands and then into the journey around the island, counter-clockwise.

I can think of several good reasons, big-picture reasons, for this expedition: in order, to my way of thinking, they are adventure, discovery and understanding.
The adventure of the task caught my imagination from the beginning. I have paddled some of the areas I'll be going to this winter, but never during the cold season. The dark season. The wet season. Is it different? How? Will it be hard to light a fire? Will the beach landings be safe? What will the wildlife situation be? Bears, raccoons and killer whales? Will the storms really be that bad? I wanted to find out.

Discovery is the notion that maybe it hasn't been done before. After looking into the question as thoroughly as I could, I didn't find any claim from anyone about going around the island in the winter. To be sure, it has been circled by kayakers many times before, but almost always in the summer, when the conditions are more conducive to travel by water. I could be the first, and this is an idea that continues to motivate me.

What motivates me the most, however, is the idea that, by immersing myself in an expedition like this one, I may come to an understanding of the places I go and how the environment shapes who I am and the experiences I have. Whether on matters of kayaking, or on the history of the places I will pass through over the course of this journey, I hope that I can get a better knowledge of the island, its various regions, climes and cultures. I am curious to see the practicality of travel by kayak during the winter. Was it something that could have been done by a paddler from a time long gone? How will my perspective guide my experience? There is really only one way to find out.

That's it. Those are the facts. But facts are not immutable. They evolve and grow over time. I am less two months away from the start of the expedition, and my realities are changing constantly.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


I'm thankful for my family. I'm thankful for getting the day off, for turkey with gravy and for the Packer's game that is just an hour or two away. (Go Pack Go!) I'm thankful for clear water and dark beer, a driftwood fire on a cold night and steaming, black coffee in the morning. I'm thankful that I get to be here for another year, to live this life I've chosen, alongside the people that help make me who I am.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 16, 2007


When I was getting ready to paddle around Newfoundland, I made it a point to paddle every day. For a few months in early 2000, I would get out of bed at 4:30 or so and go paddle Commencement Bay, here in Tacoma. I put in at Sundial Park, for those of you who might know where that is, and I'd paddle across the bay to Brown's Point and back. It wasn't far, no more than 4 miles on most days, but the key was that I did it every day. Regardless of the weather, no matter how I was feeling… I still went out. It wasn't for the minimal challenges associated with the paddle that I went… the idea was that, if I had psychologically prepared myself to paddle every day, it would be easier for me to get out of the sleeping bag once the trip had begun.

And it worked, I guess. I made it around Newfoundland anyway. But I haven't been doing the same regimen this time. I guess I know what I have coming up and I'll deal with it as it happens. There's a different feel to the Vancouver Island expedition.

I went out today though, across Commencement Bay. It was good to be back on the old training lap again, to watch as the Brown's Point light steadily got closer with each paddle stroke. It was good to pause near the point and drink hot chocolate out of the small thermos before starting back to town. It was good to watch the city wake up on a wintery day.

I may revive the training tradition in the next week or two.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Changes in the weather

Here in Tacoma today, the sun is shining and there isn't a cloud in the sky. It's cold outside but it's calm, hardly a breath of wind. I haven't been on the water today but I would expect it to be flat and fast.

Yesterday was very different. Winds gusting to 50 knots, rain, just ugly weather. I would not have wanted to be out on the water yesterday. But that's the difference a day makes.

It's going to be like that on this upcoming VI trip. Each day will bring different weather and conditions and my challenge will be to adapt what I do to the changing environment I am in. I am expecting inclement weather and I know that most of the paddling days will be tough ones, but there will still be those other days. Days when the water reflects the mountains and the trees along the verdant shoreline. When the wind seems to have been defeated, if only for a while. When everything comes together to make it a perfect day in a wild adventure.

It's those perfect days that make it all worthwhile.