Strait across

🕔Jul 21, 2008

Sometime in mid-September, several kayakers will take their paddles in hand and attempt to cross the treacherous waters of Hecate Strait, from Haida Gwaii to Prince Rupert.
The dangerous journey is a fundraising effort for Mount Moresby Adventure Camp. Executive Director Jonathan Ebbs says the idea was conceived to promote the outdoor programs offered at the camp: “We’re creating a challenge event that brings attention to adventure.”
In double kayaks paddling at about four to six knots (nautical miles per hour), it’s estimated the trip will take approximately 20 hours, probably spread out over two or three days, with the most exposed portion of the trip taking about half of that time. “The idea is perceived as maybe being a bit crazy,” says Ebbs, “but we’ll be balancing out the craziness with boat support.” Volunteers on the Coast Guard Auxiliary boat will be close by, as well as supporters in sailboats and other craft, in case one of the paddling crew collapses and can’t go on.
Mount Moresby Adventure Camp (MMAC) is run by a non-profit society whose operations revolve around a site located just a kayak’s length from Mosquito Lake at the base of Mt. Moresby. Although the organization’s current incarnation has been developing since 2004, the original effort to build the two longhouse-style buildings that make up the camp was led by a group of Sandspit residents in the late 1990s to provide a place for the youth of Haida Gwaii to comfortably experience the outdoors.
Although “adventure camps” aren’t usually perceived as places for academic learning, the children and teenagers who attend the different camps at Mount Moresby are exposed to a mix of learning opportunities. As well as gaining knowledge of kayaking, canoeing, and hiking, the kids are also taught about the forest environment and the interactions among plants, animals, and humans. “All of this adventure is a vehicle toward an understanding of the ecology,” says Ebbs. “My mission is to see local youth connected to everything about the place.”
Besides the summer camps, MMAC also works with schools to provide stewardship-related programs for students in grades four, eight and twelve. These camps provide opportunities for students to become more place-centred in their education, connecting to the wilderness and each other. Modules have included elements of traditional First Nations relationships to the forest, such as Haida weavers, as well as participation from the Ministry of Forests.
Students are also involved in projects that have concrete, significant impacts on their environment. For example, grade 12 students worked on boardwalk trails, while those in grade eight helped construct a fence around an area of forest to keep out black-tailed deer (an introduced species) so that indigenous plants and animals could be measured. “Next year will mark the year that every student grade 4 and up will have come through the camp,” says Ebbs, meaning that successive groups will be able build on their previous lessons and experiences.
Despite the fact that MMAC is not operated as a money-making outfit, the reality is that 12-day kayak expeditions and week-long adventure camps are not cheap to run. The other side of the coin is that socio-economic factors often mean the $1000 price tag is too much for many families to afford. “Sixty percent of the camp’s [funding] is subsidized,” says Ebbs. “I do like families to pay something, to have to save up.” With this in mind, the Hecate Strait paddle fundraiser will help to establish bursaries to further subsidize camp for local and regional kids.
Members of MMAC’s staff, spearheaded by Ebbs, will make the attempt to kayak across the Hecate from west to east in the first or second week of September 2008, starting from the north-eastern side of Rose Spit and heading due east until they reach Prince Rupert – about 70 nautical miles (140 km) later. The plan is to collect pledges in a variety of ways—either in lump sums or on a per-kilometre basis, just in case the expedition only makes it part of the way across.

Element of peril
The Haida have traveled across Hecate Strait under self-propulsion for thousands of years, but more recently paddling directly across what is a treacherous and unpredictable body of water has rarely been successful. In his book Boat Camping Haida Gwaii, author Neil Frazer lists “shallow water, strong tides and rapidly changeable weather” as reasons to avoid paddling the Hecate and subjecting oneself to “a lottery with bad odds.”
Frazer does make note of Masset kayaker Chris Williamson, who made one victorious crossing of Hecate Strait, but who was also stymied by bad weather on the one other attempt he made. More notoriously, Grant Hadwin, the logger-turned-activist who chopped down the Golden Spruce in 1997, disappeared and is presumed to have drowned while attempting a kayak crossing en route to a court date on Haida Gwaii.
Ebbs admits there is an element of peril in his plan, but adventures like this in general, and those inherent in the activities at MMAC, do involve a certain amount of risk. He points out that being accompanied by support vessels will mitigate the danger: “We’re promoting adventure and challenges,” he says, “at the same time as having a safety net.” In addition to waiting until later in the summer when the paddlers have had more time to train, the trip will also be carefully planned in terms of timing with the wind and tides.
Ebbs and the others plan to cross the Hecate in one shot, marathon-style, with no sleep. “We’ll be bucking the current at some point along the way,” says Ebbs. “Maybe it would be better to have that at the beginning when we’re fresh, and then a little help later on when we’re tired.”
Another possibility that Ebbs is exploring is to have a team from Prince Rupert make the trip at the same time, but traveling east to west instead. “They could collect pledges for a cause of their own,” suggests Ebbs. “It would hopefully cause a bit of a stir in Prince Rupert.” At some point the two groups would pass one another, with the possibility of some fun and unique interaction in the middle of the strait.
Whether the crossing is ultimately successful doesn’t necessarily hinge only on whether the Mount Moresby Adventure Camp team makes it all the way to Rupert under its own steam. “[Haida Gwaii] culture isn’t generally adventure-centric,” says Ebbs. He sees the Hecate kayak event as an opportunity to generate excitement and turn the island community on to what his group is doing at the camps.
In that light, Ebbs says the Hecate paddle probably won’t become an annual event, but plans to look for a new fundraising exploit each year to keep that enthusiasm going. “I feel we’re making headway,” says Ebbs of efforts to persuade everyone on Haida Gwaii of the value of outdoor adventure. With any luck, that feeling will persist when Ebbs and his Mount Moresby Adventure Camp team sets out from Rose Spit in September.