Between a rock and a hard place
Sea kayaking the whirlpools of ancient myth
By Sue Madsen
Epic adventures often seem a bit mythical, particularly in the telling. Still, what could be more epic than cruising by (or through) a timeless ocean-going nightmare?
Homer’s Odyssey describes the gut- churning dread of the sea-monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Legend has it these two monsters were the proverbial rock and a hard place, with six-headed Scylla scarfing down unwary sailors, while a bowshot away Scylla sucked entire ships down to their destruction. Then there is the epic Scandinavian saga of the Kraken – a huge, multi-armed sea monster that would wrap its tentacles around ships (and kayaks) and drag them down to the depths!
Consider that these “monsters” were not only primal and terrifying, but also based on real phenomena. The Scylla and Charybdis actually did regularly “eat” ships and mariners, but in the form of a jutting rocky reef and the resulting tidal races and whirlpools now clearly marked on Sicilian charts as the “Garofalo.” The Kraken still swallows the occasional kayaker, but is better known now as the “Moskstraumen;” inspiration for the modern usage of the word maelstrom, where tidal currents surge and spin through the rocky inlets off Norway. Rare as they are, two of these epic, sea-monster-inspiring adventures exist in our own backyard.
As a sea kayaker I personally revel in my own hard-won mediocrity, but even I can’t avoid a touch of hubris when announcing that I’m off to Deception Pass to play in the waves. Just south of Anacortes, Washington, Deception Pass is the narrow strait of water that separates Whidbey Island from
Large tides cause almost 900 million gallons of seawater to back up on one side of the pass before surging through the narrow opening. Ben Ure Island in the center splits the flow, with most of the tide’s energy routed through the main southern channel, and the remainder flowing through Canoe Pass. During particularly large ebb and flood tides the current may run as high as 8 knots (9.2 miles per hour) with attendant standing waves, whirlpools and boils.
Thousands of visitors view the spectacle each year from the 180-foot-high bridge overlooking the pass, but it is a much more up close and personal experience from the cockpit of a kayak. My own tidal kayak “odyssey” kicked off with a carefully timed trip east through Deception Pass during the quiet 20-minute interlude at slack tide when the currents shift. By the time my companions and I cruised back west through Canoe Pass, the current was already starting to build. Clad in dry suits and helmets, we snaked up through bull kelp along the north side of the pass, then peeled out gleefully to shoot down the center, dodging whirlpools and bracing to stay upright. As the current built, we ventured out from the calm eddy behind the island to try surfing the standing waves.
Now and then someone would capsize and blow the roll, tumbling upside down while being rapidly swept past Lottie Bay. Hours of rescue practice paid off though, as one of two companions would immediately break away to help the paddler right their boat and clamber back in.
Paddling Deception Pass is not for beginners. However, if you have the necessary safety gear, stay within your limits and are comfortable navigating currents and waves, it can be a great way to build skills and confidence. It’s always best to start out with those who know the area well. Local kayak clubs like WAKE (Whatcom Association of Kayak Enthusiasts) or Hole-in the-Wall out of Anacortes occasionally offer classes or outings. Anacortes Kayak Tours also offers guided trips in the general area.
Further to the north, Skookumchuck (Sechelt Rapids) is an altogether bigger beast. A true tidal race, Skookumchuck is the world’s largest tidal marine rapids, funneling around 200 billion gallons of water a day into and out of the Sechelt inlet on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast. That’s over 220 times bigger than the massive Deception Pass flows.
Skookumchuck Narrows is located in a provincial park about a two-hour drive and ferry ride north of Vancouver. A grand destination for any traveler, these waters should be plied only by the most experienced (and slightly crazy) paddlers.
Naturally, a beast of this proportion deserves a look, even for those having no plan to jump in and ride it. We arrived in Egmont just at slack tide. A strange line of turbulence stretched across the channel, and it wasn’t until after idly watching it creep southeast for about 10 minutes that I realized I was watching a tidal bore, the leading edge of the incoming waves that signaled the turn in the tide.
After dropping our gear at the nearby Backeddy Resort, we set off on the 3.5-mile (5.6 km) trek down to the narrows. The rapids announce their presence with a dull roar, and you can hear them long before you see them. A quick stop at the first overlook revealed a newly installed bench. It was sobering to note that it was built to honor two RCMP swift-water rescue team members who drowned while practicing rescue techniques in the rapids a year before. This is not a place for amateurs.
That first overlook is the perfect place to watch gigantic whirlpools on an ebb tide. However, we were there to watch the boaters, so we traveled on another half a mile or so. At that point a rock rib juts out into the channel, forcing the incoming tide up into a series of gigantic standing waves. This is where the fun begins.
We plunked down on the rocks in the summer sun, and watched in awe as a group of experts surfed the chaos. The main wave action takes place within about 100 feet of the rock. These guys and gals were good, but once in awhile they slipped up and went on tour through the implode zone, riding the churning wave train a half mile or more. As the day wore on the foam pile built and the action got wilder. It was a truly epic afternoon, but watching was plenty of excitement for me. Although I’d brought my boat along, not once did I wish I had ventured out into the water.
We visited Skookumchuck on one of the fastest current days of the season, with a predicted maximum current of over 17 knots (19.5 mph / 31.4 kmh). These extreme high tides attract play boaters – whitewater kayakers who surf, spin and perform various acrobatic moves on standing waves.
Sea kayakers at Skookumchuck target a more moderate 9- to 10-knot current range. These flows are still beyond the performance range of most standard sea kayaks, and many of the boats are modified with grab lines fore and aft of the cockpit, which provide an element of safety in extreme conditions, or center pillars that keep the hull from being crushed in large waves.
If you are interested in taking your kayak skills to the next level, venture north on a scouting trip to Skookumchuck. Learn to roll by taking a class from a local club or one of the kayaking schools listed below. Learn to deal with big waves by kayak surfing at Hobuck Beach near Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula. Find your own rock and hard place to challenge yourself. x