Circumnavigating Vancouver Island by sea kayak.




As we rounded the northern tip of Nootka Island, we were struck with sizable swell, wind, and refracting waves from the steep, rocky shoreline. I dug my kayak blades into the choppy seawater in an attempt to keep up with Holly and Joe (my sibling and brother-in-law), who were each in single kayaks not far from me. It was like a saltwater see-saw: if we were more than a few boat lengths apart, the tops of the waves blocked our views of each other.

Just an hour earlier, we’d paddled easefully by a golden-haired wolf walking the tideline of a protected beach. Now, it took great effort for me to navigate the sea and hold down my breakfast. A sudden wave of nausea hit and the ginger candy meant to soften seasickness nearly induced vomit. But after 35 days of paddling, Holly and Joe were through some of the crux moments of their trip, and they glided with confidence through the rolling seas.

This trip began with a dream that Holly had harboured for years before meeting Joe: to circumnavigate Vancouver Island by sea kayak.

Holly (they/them) and I grew up a stone’s throw from the sands of Saratoga Beach and spent many summers on family sea kayaking trips. While attending University of Victoria, Holly worked at Ocean River Sports where they met seasoned expedition paddler Jordie Allen-Newman. Jordie’s stories of circumnavigating Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii inspired Holly’s dream, but it would be several years before they met the perfect expedition partner, Joe Goldes.

Finding someone who can agree on a Netflix movie is a feat in and of itself, never mind agreeing to a 60-day wilderness immersion trip. To me, it’s nothing short of extraordinary that these two found each other nine years ago in a café in Kunming, China and started talking about paddling.

“There’s something that comes from doing long, slow, human-powered trips, folks who have cultivated a connection with nature that is more about ‘I have lived outside,’ instead of recreating or visiting. I recognized that in Holly,” Joe says.

As a teenager growing up in Minnesota, Joe learned to whitewater canoe on summer-camp paddle trips. At 24, he led a group of six teenagers on a 40-day expedition to the Arctic. “I can’t believe they let a barely-not-teenager take out a bunch of real teenagers in canoes,” he jests. After a brief courtship in China, Joe immigrated to Canada, and soon married Holly.

Holly and Joe spent their honeymoon circumnavigating Nootka Island; the next year, they paddled from Port Hardy to Winter Harbour to test their skills against the challenging waters off Cape Scott. After rounding the cape, Holly told Joe their dream, and (of course) he was on board. They began preparing for their biggest expedition and marriage endeavour to date: paddling around Vancouver Island in sea kayaks. They successfully completed a Paddle Canada Level 3 class (Jordie was their instructor), and began planning all the logistics, food, and safety procedures. Blue Ikea bags of gear, dry bags, and food boxes bound for strategic locations around the Island piled up in their Cumberland living room for months leading up to the launch.

The goal was simple, if challenging: travel counterclockwise around the Island—a trip of roughly 1,200 km of coastline—over a two-month period and arrive home in late July.
On May 29, 2022, a sunny, windless, and uncharacteristically hot evening, supporters gathered at Saratoga Beach to spread rhododendron flowers in the water and wave goodbye to the duo as they paddled away on glassy waters. Holly dedicated the paddle to our late mother, Frances Keen, and chose Mom’s birthday as the launch date.

“My life began at this place, one life ended here, maybe another life will begin here. Life’s journey: circular,” Holly reflects. Holly and Joe anticipated that this might be their last trip before trying to start a family of their own.

CVC Vol33 4 Paddling Gallery 1

Eighteen days later, Holly was no longer feeling the grand metaphor of the journey. They were seasick, exhausted, and frigid in the June downpours. It had rained for weeks on end, complete with lightning storms and challenging wind waves.

Their body wasn’t accustomed to paddling for eight hours a day yet, and their motivation to continue lagged. “I asked Joe if he could sing. His songs carried us through,” Holly remembers.

At Jepther Point, northwest of Port Hardy, both Holly and Joe noted a marked shift in their perspectives. It was their first sight of the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean to their right.

No land mass obscured their view. “I lost my grandpa when I was four years old, I never knew him that well. But I felt his presence with us at that moment and I knew he was watching out for us,” Joe shares. It gave him comfort.

After this point, Holly recovered from the cold, gained confidence, and began to trust their paddling muscles. The two settled into expedition rhythms: Alarm sounds at 5:00 a.m. Set off by 7:00 a.m. Paddle parallel to the shoreline, about two to three miles offshore, for around eight hours. Get off the water by early afternoon when the northwesterly winds pick up. Set up the tent and take a nap. Listen to the VHF weather report. Open a Ziploc bag containing a pre-portioned dehydrated meal and dump into a camp pot. Eat. Rest. Set the alarm for 5:00 a.m. and tuck into a sleeping bag by 8:00 p.m. And on and on.

On Day 30, they had a welcome reprieve from the daily ritual when they met me in Kyuquot, where I worked as a nurse in the Kyuquot/Checleset First Nation Health Centre. News travels fast in small coastal communities and I had already heard of their arrival before we met for fries, pie, and ice cream at the local restaurant. I joined them for four days of paddling southeastward. As we parted at Maquinna Point at the southern tip of Nootka Island, I was in awe of their trust in each other—and had gained a profound respect for west coast sea kayaking.

In the Broken Group Islands between Bamfield and Ucluelet, on Day 43, Joe’s motivation waned. “As crazy as it sounds, you can get used to absolutely mind-blowing, stunning ocean vistas and sunsets and sunrises. You have seals playing and following you, unbelievable daily experiences. But you lose sight of the moment,” Joe remarks.

He found himself wondering: “Why are we doing this?” Now it was Holly’s turn to encourage Joe with words of affirmation and support to pull him back into the moment.

Once they’d finished paddling the west coast, Holly and Joe felt triumphant and relieved: the most uncertain and rigorous parts of the trip were complete. They caught up with Jordie over eggs Benedict in Sooke. He could barely follow their ceaseless blabbering and nonsensical storytelling; after eight days since their last social contact, they were giddy to have an audience other than each other.

North of Victoria, ruthless headwinds off Nanaimo impeded their expected “cool-down paddle home.” Nevertheless, on July 28, 2022, they arrived on schedule at Saratoga Beach, where friends, family, and their beloved dog were waiting.

What’s next for Holly and Joe? In June 2023, they’ll begin their biggest marriage endeavour yet: welcoming a baby into the paddling family.