Johnstone Strait. British Columbia
Johnstone Strait. British Columbia. “Visitors come to Johnstone Strait to be among the orcas,” Graham Vaughan began, “but they’re also looking for a wilderness adventure. You can get this experience on Johnstone Strait. The remoteness and serenity of the place, not to mention the abundance of wildlife—salmon, sea lions, seals, bald eagles, dolphins, and minke whales—make it a truly amazing place. What makes it even better is that it’s fairly easily accessible.”
Johnstone Strait stretches approximately seventy miles along the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. The channel—in places less than two miles wide—separates Vancouver from a number of smaller islands and the mainland. Large sections of the strait are set aside as the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve to provide a sanctuary for killer whales. The strait’s narrow dimensions help explain the presence of approximately 230 orcas—members of British Columbia’s Northern Resident population. “All the islands in the narrow strait serve to constrict water flow,” Graham explained. “When the tide rises and falls, there’s a massive water movement. This brings up nutrients for smaller creatures to feed on, which in turn engages the entire food chain, all the way up to the orcas.” Johnstone Strait.
Johnstone Strait. Male orcas can reach a length of twenty-seven feet and a weight of eight tons. They spend their entire life with the group (or pod) into which they were born; when an orca is born, the entire pod works together to raise it. Despite their fearsome nickname—“killer whales”—orcas have not been known to show aggression toward humans but do feed aggressively on salmon and seals. “Most of the orcas we see in the strait are resident animals and feed primarily on any of the five salmon species on the coast . . . though they prefer Chinook for their fatty meat,” Graham explained.
Graham described a typical day at Spirit of the West’s Johnstone Strait camp. “Guests sleep in tents mounted on platforms. Everyone opens up their fly to a view of Johnstone Strait. After a hearty breakfast, we’ll head out for a two- or three-hour paddle before lunch. We can’t guarantee that you’ll come upon pods of whales, as nature is nature and the whales are following the fish. But over the course of a four-day trip, we generally do. The experience of being among the whales is different for everyone. Some people are silent, as though they can’t believe it’s happening. Others are screaming. I’ve seen people cry or get so excited that I have to tell them to calm down so they don’t capsize their kayak. We usually have a hydrophone in the water, so you can also listen to what’s happening.” Johnstone Strait.
Johnstone Strait. The site of Spirit of the West’s camp, incidentally, is the spot where musicians would once assemble in the late 1960s with wind and string instruments to play as a means of communicating with the whales. “After the morning paddle, we’ll find a nice beach for lunch. One of my favorite spots is next to the Robson reserve. Another beach is below the killer whale research station. You can hike up the bluff and look out over the strait. After lunch, we’ll paddle back toward camp. We have a wood-fired saltwater hot tub fifteen feet up from the water. Sometimes you can see whales swimming by. We take pride in our food at camp, and we try to step it up, even though we’re in a remote location. One of the standout meals is our maple-glazed wild sockeye salmon, with fingerling potatoes, beet-carrot green salad, and freshly baked baguettes. We might top it off with a dessert of chocolate fondue. After dinner, there’s a campfire, and we’ll sometimes do an interpretive presentation on the wildlife of the region, First Nations history, or west coast forest ecosystems. In June and July, it’s light until 11 P.M., so we’re able to cram lots of activities in a day.”
Johnstone Strait. Even if no orcas are present, most paddlers who visit Johnstone Strait will leave with a heightened appreciation of the beauty of unspoiled coastal British Columbia. “On our six-day expedition trip, we bob and weave between the archipelago of islands—sometimes foggy, sometimes sunny—you can easily forget that there’s a world outside,” Graham added. “Both the six-day expedition and the four-day basecamp trips are very forgiving for inexperienced kayakers. Even if the wind picks up in the afternoon to ten to fifteen knots or more, you can always find shelter in the islands and pick an easier route back to camp.”
Regulars at Johnstone Strait have had the chance to witness an array of interesting orca behaviors, including the animals coming up in the shallows to “beach rub” against the pebbled bottom. (It’s unclear whether this is done to remove parasites or for the sheer tactile pleasure.) One of the most memorable orca spectacles that Graham has witnessed came in the summer of 2012. “We were near the shore and came upon a resting line of twenty-three orcas,” he recalled. “When the whales are in a resting line, half of their brains are turned off, and they’re sleeping. the animals on either end are awake and guiding the group along. The whales were all abreast, moving slowly. We watched them for half an hour. I think everyone in our group connected with the moment, with where they were and what was happening. That’s one of those experiences where, many years after the trip, you picture yourself back in the moment.”
Graham Vaughan is a Level 3 sea kayak guide and guide trainer with the Sea Kayak Guides Alliance of BC and guides year-round with Spirit of the West Adventures based on Quadra Island. He is an outdoor enthusiast and lives for his time spent in the natural world. A Wilderness Leadership Program and Outdoor Recreation Management Graduate from Capilano University, Graham has a passion for educating and inspiring others. Abroad, he has guided kayaking in Patagonia and the Bahamas, done aid work in Paraguay, and guided white-water rafting and canoe trips in New Zealand and British Columbia since 2006. When he is not kayaking, Graham fills his days mountain biking and skiing around his home on Quadra Island.
If you go to Johnstone Strait:
Getting to Johnstone Strait: The Spirit of the West kayak camp is reached by boat via Campbell River, which is served by Air Canada from Seattle and Vancouver.
Best Time to Visit Johnstone Strait: Orcas are generally present from late June through late September. Your odds of killer whale encounters increase later in the season.
Guides/Outfitters: Spirit of the West Adventures has guided kayakers on the Johnstone Strait from a permanent camp based on the strait since 1996.
Level of Difficulty of Johnstone Strait: Paddling on this trip is beginner friendly.
Accommodations: Campbell River Tourism lists a range of lodging options for on your way to and from the Johnstone Strait.
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