Codenamed Raft Dunk, our north island surf/camp/fish adventure was the culmination of months of planning, weeks of sponsor calls, hours of packing and a whole lot of anticipation. The crew, seven in all, came together online. A convoy was assembled, groceries bought and equipment pooled through a combination of Facebook chats, iMessages and Google Docs. The whole lead up was an exercise in virtual trip planning that didn’t see us breathing the same air until our disparate ranks wandered out of the mist in twos and threes. Others, on account of a missed ferry, made their entrance as bobbing headlamps in the middle of the night.
Raft Cove is a crescent of wind-whipped sand bookended by rocky headlands where the meandering Mackjack River meets the sea. A wilderness recreation area offering scant amenities (pit toilets and a couple very necessary bear caches), the provincial park is rich with rugged beauty and, as luck would have it, a river mouth teeming with coho and a bay alive with rolling surf.
Our campsite and home for a week was tucked under towering cedar and fir on the tip of a finger of land poking out into a tidal estuary. There is no cell service and the nearest town, Port Hardy, is some two-and-a-half hours away by logging road. Vancouver, some six hours to the south by car and ferry, feels a world away while Toronto, my adopted home, may as well be on another planet. In camp, everything we need – including a quiver of handmade surf boards, food, beer and a wood-fired hot tub – got in on our backs down a muddy trail teeming with serpentine roots. Fresh water, welling up from a spring and piped to the beach through a hose on the opposite riverbank, had to be paddled back in dry bags perched on the deck of a surfboard.
The setting is staggeringly beautiful. The place feels both vast and insulated. Life revolves around the daily tasks of camp life: prepping food, chopping wood, fishing and pulling wetsuits on and off. The schedule is dictated by the ebb and flow of the tide. Bear tracks wend through piles of storm-tossed kelp. The smell of wood smoke seeps into our sweaters and pores. Food tastes better. The colours are more vibrant. Our collective stoke is high.
One night another crew drifts in in a dinghy, floating themselves, boards and provisions down the river on the out flowing tide. An earlier scouting mission for a canoe alleged to be stashed upstream turned up only dead ends so the next day we got the beta on where to launch a boat, already planning for next time. The place is called Raft Cove, after all.
Along with a chance to reconnect with friends through the bond-building forces of communal strain and shared waves, this trip was also a chance to test out some new gear. I discovered The Original Nomad while browsing Outside Online and immediately wanted one. The Portland-based start-up (which, as far as I can tell, is just one super busy dude) offers a portable hot tub that, thanks to an ingeniously simple stainless steel coil, is heated through good old convection. The coil, when not connected to a propane tank, sits directly in a fire, making it perfect for a remote post surf soak, right? The response from the team, who would literally be shouldering the burden, was a resounding yes. It was the right choice as the awesomeness of having a beachside tub far outweighed the challenges of getting the 40-odd-pounds of nylon and steel shipped to Canuckistan and hiked down to camp. With a driftwood fire heating river water, which dumped into the tub with dry bags bucket brigade style, the effort of packing in the somewhat ungainly components melted away like the knots in our surf and hike-tortured backs. Surfing is the sport of kings, after all, so why not relax like a boss, too? We are already dreaming up other remote adventures to lug the tub into… Stay tuned.
Among the new gear on this trip were a half dozen hand shaped wave sliders with roots extending thousands of nautical kilometres west of Raft Cove. These paipos, and one alaia, were in a sense what brought us all together. The ancient Hawaiian surf shapes are Tim Watson’s labours of love and the trip offered a chance to try them in, what we hoped, would be reliable mid-to-small sized shore break. Raft Cove did not disappoint. A day after arriving, the storm swell pounding the Pacific Northwest dropped from gargantuan to waist high, (which is really overhead when one takes into account the best wave-catching position on a paipo is from a standing position with feet on the sea floor), the crew was amped to don fins and kick into more than a few beach break peelers.
More on Tim and his amazingly fun boards is to come as I start work on a story for Coast Mountain Culture magazine earmarked for summer 2015. It’ll be my first for CMC and I’m keen to see Tim’s remarkable story come to life in print. Keep you posted… and see more from Tim at Radish Empire.
We were treated to another new bit of kit in the form of the wood-fuelled cook stove by BioLite which, along with heating food and drink, will charge a USB equipped device like an iPhone. Well built, easy to use (save for the gathering of combustible fuel) and high on cool factor, we were keen to test this newish device out in the real rugged world. Phil, our camp’s resident gear head, took on the honour of putting it through its paces and I’ll post a full video review of his shortly… The long and short of it, though, is the BioLite is pretty handy provided there are plenty of sticks to burn (our driftwood fuel source required a chainsaw and hatchet to break down into kindling-sized bits) and, with the grill attachment, makes for a very effective open flame cooking surface. For boiling water, however, the MSR Jetboil is worlds faster so, depending on your needs, I’d weigh the logistics of packing multiple stoves over relying on just the BioLite for all your food and hot drink needs. As for using it to top up electonics, thanks to some built-in smartness, it will only shunt juice to your plugged-in peripheral if it’s got extra after powering the unit’s internal fan. The downside is, at least in our trials, is that it takes quite a while to put any significant bump into an iPhone battery. But, not a bad perk and certainly a cool, energy efficient way to squeeze every joule out of a fuel source. It’s worth mentioning that the stove is very well insulated. It’s outer cowl was cool to the touch while inside, the fan-driven heat vortex reduced our cedar sticks to a fine ash. It’s very clean burning. It’s bulky in the pack though, especially with the oddly shaped grill and large kettle, which may relegate the BioLite to car camping trips only. Or, just do it like us and distribute your load over a whole team of Sherpas.
All in all, we were pretty amped about the BioLite and it is, despite a few not insignificant drawbacks, extremely cool. So stoked in fact that I wrote a little blurb for BioLite’s website and email followers. Check it out at the link.
We also made some good friends in the folks at Rumpl blankets and Helinox, makers of the best packable chairs, and a table, I’ve ever had the pleasure of slumping into after a hard day of recreating. If you’ve ever bunked down with your significant other and struggled with zipping two sleeping bags together… A couple Rumpl blankets might just be the answer . Hope to do more adventures with both of those companies in the near future but for now, check the Instagram feed for more pictures of that gear in action.
We were also blessed with a barn-load of knitwear from Granted Clothing. When Sterling, who has been handsomely modelling the rugged knits for some time now, whipped out no less then four sweaters for the crew, the technical layers and down were rapidly shed in favour of good old fashioned wool. While these aren’t the most pack-friendly of outer layer choices, like the hot tub, it didn’t matter once we were lounging in style around the fire, sweaters unzipped, sweating despite the chill of night, and looking good to boot.
Among Raft Cove’s special features is an estuary at the mouth of the Mackjack offering visitors the opportunity to spot river otters and water foul, according to the Provincial Government website. While we didn’t see either of those attractions, we did manage to hook a couple beautiful coho salmon which happened to be starting their run inland through that same estuary. Heavily influenced by the tide, the river narrows to a fast flowing channel on the outgoing low, giving even green casters like us good odds at a bite. Sterling’s first session on the fly rod landed a feisty doe (his first salmon landed on a fly ever) and Phil, a couple days later, bagged a buck on a casting reel. Good eats both. Both caught, cleaned and cooked within a couple dozen metres of the river’s ever expanding and contracting edge.
After months of anticipation and planning, a week on the beach passed far too quickly. A lot went into the trip and, in return, we each earned a lot from the experience. Not the least of which being good memories with good friends and the sense of accomplishment one gets from surviving and thriving in a beautiful, natural environment. How lucky we are to have places like Raft Cove, just far enough off the beaten track that crowds aren’t a worry, where you can surf with only a handful of friends. Where a river teeming with delicious fish offers up grade A food that would fetch top dollar at restaurants around the world… All for the price of effort and luck.
A week on a wind and rain lashed spit isn’t everyone’s idea of a vacation and that’s probably for the best. For me, it was just what I needed. As s I sit here at home in Toronto, looking at the pictures and remembering the smells and sounds of the Pacific coast: Paddling out through root beer coloured water thick with kelp, a bear’s prints in the sand, eagles, salmon and trees older than the Constitution… I’m content knowing that the shared experience of that wild landscape will keep drawing me back. Even with another major trip (India Visa pending) in the works, I can’t wait for the next time I’m able to slip into my wetsuit and feel the familiar, cold Pacific spray on my face.
Thanks, team. ‘Till next time.