What I learned from the Ocean as I swam to Koeye

Each time I swim in the Inside Passage in Heiltsuk territory in the Great Bear Rainforest I learn. The ocean teaches me.

Last year as I swam to Namu I learned that nothing is truly disposable. Sometimes we go to great lengths to hide things we don’t like, that are difficult to deal with or we no longer have use for. We hide our garbage in dumps outside the city. We hide seniors and the disabled in private homes or institutions. We even hide the remains of entire towns in the wilderness.  We have become a culture of “out-of-site out-of-mind”.

This year I swam down Fisher Channel into Fitz Hugh Sound eventually landing at the mouth of the Koeye River (traditionally spelled Kvai and pronounced “Kway”). My swims are often full-days starting early morning and ending well after dinner leaving me with countless hours to think. On this particular two-day swim patience was what came to mind – or was delivered to me by the sea.

IMG_0264On day one my crew and I started at our journey at 7:40 AM in Fisher Channel on the shore of King Island between Burnhard Point and Lagoon Bay. Colette from Pacific Wild, Ray and Donnie (who is my guide in these waters) were in one boat, MJ (my observer) and Kevin (my host at Drifters Cove and alternative pilot) were in a second boat and Pam and Corey in kayaks. It was a beautiful calm morning with little wind and a bit of sunshine. The water was 16C  and the air 14C. Conditions were ideal.

My job for the day was to swim down Fisher Channel to the entrance to the Burke Channel by Humchitt Island; a 12 to 14 kilometre stretch.  Once there, my crew would reassess conditions and determine if I should attempt crossing the intersect where Fisher and the Burke Channels meet.

Channel and strait crossings are challenging in themselves; crossing at the intersect of two channels presents a new set of challenges with water flowing up and down one channel and water spilling in and out of the other. This creates some interesting conditions where timing is crucial. The goal was to have me at the meeting of the channels just prior to slack tide giving me an hour for the 3-4 km swim  across.

By 8:30 the winds had increased to 10-15 knots creating small chop and 1 foot waves on the water. I now had wind and tide in my favor.

By 10:55 we arrived at Kipling. A humpback was swimming ahead of me and headed in my direction.  Colette and Don went to investigate. Luckily the humpback changed course.

By 11:30 the clouds had started to lift and the air had warmed to 20C. It was a beautiful day and I was swimming in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

By noon I was making my final approach to the Burke – a full 2 hours ahead of schedule.  Colette and Don motored ahead to check the conditions. They reported back that the water was running hard. I ask to keep going to Humchitt and suggested we make a decision once there.


We arrived at Humchitt 20 minutes later. I ask Don and Corey if they were comfortable making the crossing. Corey wanted me to touch land before we made the attempt. He didnt want me to loose the distance I had gained should I not make it across. Although I appreciated the sentiment my thought was we either stop here or press forward. We chose to press forward.

The first part of the crossing was fine however as we made our way deeper into the channel conditions changed. The first sign I was officially in the Burke was when I crossed the temperature line – things suddenly got colder.  As I swam on the waves began to pick up. They were coming around the corner from Namu and strait down the channel hitting  me sideways as I tried to swim cross. Namu is Heiltsuk First Nation word meaning “place of high winds,” referring especially to the south east blasts that sweep over the Namu Range and give nearby Whirlwind Bay its name. We were feeling the impact of these winds.

Pam was on one side of me and Corey the other. Each time I took a breath I would see Pam rise up on the top of a wave and then disappear. At the same time I was battling winds, I was swimming across a strong current that was pulling me into Fisher Channel. Wind and tide were now opposing creating what we affectionately call “washing machine water” in the outrigger community.

By 1:30 the wind was strong enough to generate 3 to 4 foot standing waves, and they were coming in from all directions. The air temperature had cooled from 20 to 14C. It was these waters that taught me the importance of patience. It is very easy to get frustrated in conditions like this. It can appear as though you are not moving forward, and that is exactly how it felt. When the waves reach a certain hight and speed they can also create a strong desire to get out, but you don’t want to until you are done. This can add to the frustration.

I kept swimming with Pam and Corey making sure I was first and foremost safe and that I swam in the right direction toward Clam Bay on the other side of the Burke. I never wanted to quite, but I do recall saying “it feels like we are not getting anywhere” and “where exactly are we going?” It took well over an hour of swimming in these intense conditions, wondering how long it would take to reach the shore, and if we would reach the shore. Corey made sure I was taking breaks to feed as the my body was feeling the impact of the water.

I could see the mountains ahead, and the shore line, but it seemed to be slipping away each time I looked up. Kev and MJ went ahead to show me where I was to land but I lost sight of them in the waves. Corey and Pam continued to work with me, keeping me calm, and reminding me  I was making gains.

And then it happened, I could feel the water change. The pull of the current  subsided, and the winds settled. I could see Kev and MJ ahead. I could see where I would land … and that I did.

The landing site was beautiful. It looked like a white sand beach, but as I walked ashore I realized it was thousands up thousands of broken clam shells.

My crew came ashore to join me and we spent time perched on the rocks watching for humpbacks. Within minutes, we saw one go by.

Part 2 coming soon….




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