Hecate success:

🕔Sep 22, 2008

Hecate Strait is well known among boaters for its treacherous conditions. Although Haida canoes once made the crossing to the mainland on a regular basis, modern kayakers have mostly steered clear of these capricious waters. Winds can whip up huge rolling waves in no time, and strong currents around Rose Spit are an issue even for large vessels.
After months of training and planning, and days of constantly checking the weather for favourable predictions, four paddlers in two double kayaks set out September 5 from Haida Gwaii in a bid to cross the strait in their small boats. The attempt was organized as a way to raise bursary funds for Haida Gwaii’s Mount Moresby Adventure Camp (MMAC), an organization that gives children and teenagers the opportunity to experience outdoor adventures like hiking and kayaking, as well as educating them in ecology and stewardship.
As September rolled around, MMAC’s executive director Jonathan Ebbs and his three companions—paddlers Luke Borserio, Jonny Dunsmore, and Joanne Hager—kept a close eye on marine weather predictions, looking for the weather window that would allow them to make the crossing with the most safety.
The moment to leave came quite suddenly. On September 4, Ebbs saw that conditions looked favourable for a pre-dawn start the next day. Preparations moved into high gear and, after a frantic few hours tying up loose ends at home and collecting all their equipment, the four paddlers lay down to rest on the east side of Rose Spit just after 1 a.m. on Friday, September 5, with only two hours to sleep before their planned 3 a.m. start time.
Surreal start
Predictably, three in the morning came all too quickly. In the pitch blackness, with an estimated wind of 15 knots, and crashing waves they could hear but not see, the foursome launched their two kayaks. Although Borserio and Dunsmore’s departure from the beach went fairly smoothly, Hager and Ebbs had a touch more excitement as they encountered a large set of breakers.
“I looked over and the kayak was straight up and down, going over this wave, and Jo was standing up in the back,” says Dunsmore, a senior staff member at MMAC and a dedicated and experienced paddler.
“I was fully soaked three seconds into the paddle,” adds Ebbs. But with that electrifying incident concluded, the crossing of the Hecate was underway.
Using deck compasses to follow a bearing of 60˚, the adventurers struck out for Stephens Island, about 50 kilometres away. Paddling alone in the dark, with only the lights from a few crab boats in the distance, was a surreal experience. “Those first few hours, from 3:30 until first light, will always haunt me,” says Ebbs. All were drowsy from the lack of sleep, and all experienced the strange state of consciousness with which any tired highway motorist will be familiar.
In addition, the darkness meant it was difficult to orient themselves spatially; Ebbs describes losing the sense of his centre of gravity. Hager, also a senior staff member at MMAC and a lead guide for Gabriola Cycle and Kayak, with years of experience on the water, suffered her first bout of seasickness, brought on by a combination of factors: the darkness, having to stare at the compass to navigate, and a weirdly rolling triple swell pattern. The two teams took turns leading as they followed the compass bearing across the strait. “The other boat looked like a glowing dragonfly in the dark,” says Ebbs, conjuring an image of two kayak paddles flashing in sync by the light of headlamps. Phosphorescence was also present in the water, adding to the otherworldliness.
Although the MMAC paddlers set off alone from Rose Spit, they were being monitored and supported by a web of marine organizations. Masset Marine Rescue organized a training exercise out on the Hecate to coincide with the paddle crossing, and Prince Rupert’s Coast Guard Auxiliary brought out PowerAde and cookies during an exercise of their own. The RCMP Marine section also came out on the water to check on the paddlers, and the Prince Rupert Coast Guard was in regularly scheduled radio contact with the group.
“If we were a few minutes late calling them, they’d be calling us,” says Ebbs. “I felt like that safety net and the support was really there.”
Not only did the visitors make Borserio, Dunsmore, Hager, and Ebbs feel safer, the visit from the RCMP boat was especially welcomed for a couple other reasons. One was purely practical: the vessel’s head (on-board washroom) meant the paddlers could hop out of their kayaks for a few minutes to use the bathroom in relative comfort. The other reason was related to one of the visiting boat’s passengers: Blake Ward, an officer with the Prince Rupert RCMP and the main instigator behind the creation of Mount Moresby Adventure Camp, met current camp director Jonathan Ebbs for the first time right there in the middle of Chatham Sound.
Other memorable moments came while paddling in the fog that first day, when the group could hear humpback whales sounding nearby in the mist. “We caught a glimpse of a huge body out in the fog,” says Borserio, who as a grade 12 student attended MMAC, and for whom paddling the Hecate has been a long-held ambition. “I thought, ‘Wow, they’re big! And we’re way out here…”
After fourteen hours of paddling on Friday, Borserio, Dunsmore, Hager, and Ebbs made landfall on Melville Island, one of the islands separating Hecate Strait from Chatham Sound, the next open stretch of water before Prince Rupert. Although they’d originally planned to head for Stephens Island, strong currents pushed their tiny flotilla north, so they camped there instead. The next day, six-and-a-half hours of paddling and a trip total of 102 kilometres later, the tired but happy group came ashore in Prince Rupert early Saturday evening, their goal accomplished.
Despite the Hecate’s bad reputation, the Mount Moresby paddlers were fortunate to have an enjoyable trip, one that Ebbs maintains any experienced paddlers could achieve with the right conditions. “If people are aware of weather windows and are not trying to beat a [weather] system,” he says, “anybody could do it.” Adds Dunsmore: “There was a lot of good laughter. Doing something like this in a small group, you can’t help but come together.”
Pledge sheets for the paddle have been up in a variety of locations all over the islands, so as of press time the official tally hadn’t been completed. But Ebbs figures their efforts raised approximately five thousand dollars for the camp’s bursary fund. “One hundred percent of the money will be going to the kids,” says Ebbs. The fee for 10 days at Mount Moresby is already 60 percent subsidized, so the donated funds will go to help families who can’t afford even the reduced price.
“We’d certainly welcome any after-the-fact pledges, as well,” added Ebbs.
Ebbs is pleased with the fundraiser. This past August’s summer camp hosted 30 local kids; “We were bursting at the seams,” he says—and hopes that next year they’ll be able to hold two summer camps to accommodate all those who want to attend. Next year Ebbs also hopes to continue the tradition of some kind of annual fundraising journey to raise both money and more awareness of the value of adventure. Rather than another kayaking trip, he’s pondering some kind of hike along the epicly scenic west coast of Haida Gwaii.
Whatever the next trip turns out to be, the spirit of adventure is vibrantly present in the Islands, as demonstrated in the successful crossing of Hecate Strait by the Mount Moresby Adventure Camp paddlers.