Cortes's Wild North Captivates

Cortes Island makes a fine summer destination, especially for paddlers. Most visitors hang around the southern half of Cortes, which is the prettiest, driest, most populated part. The new-age resort of Hollyhock is located there, as are the protected waters of Gorge Harbour and Cortes Bay, the lively community of Mansons Landing, and the parklands and trails beside Hague and Gunflint lakes. This is where you'll find beach-lined Smelt Bay Park, home to May's not-to-be-missed Oyster Festival.

But there's another aspect to Cortes--its northern half--and the only way it can really be seen is from the water. Early one morning we drive to Coulter Bay, the end of the public-road system, not far from the ferry terminal at Whaletown. Here, while an oyster farmer transfers his produce, packed in net bags, from a float to a pickup, we load and launch our kayaks and paddle north, up the west side of the island. It's calm as we cross the wide mouth of Carrington Bay, where we glimpse three harbour porpoises.

Two hours later, we're safely inside the nearly hidden entrance to narrow, 5.5-kilometre-long Von Donop Inlet. Named after a Royal Navy midshipman stationed at Esquimalt in the 1860s, Von Donop almost bisects northern Cortes, which is mountainous and uninhabited. Most of the inlet is protected as part of 1,277-hectare Ha'thayim Marine Park, a popular place for boaters in summer. About two kilometres in, we find a rustic campsite with an old picnic table and set up our tent on a soft bed of leaf litter beneath massive, ancient red cedars.

Exploring our temporary home, we come across a deer carcass, picked clean by rodents, and are reminded that Cortes is still a hunting ground for a few wolves and cougars. A faint trail leads to a nearby torrent, about 200 metres long, that drains a large saltwater lagoon. Cortes has several of these geographic novelties, where strong currents foster extravagant marine life. A carpet of green and pink sea anemones, purple sea stars, and red and yellow bat stars lines this channel. Red rock crabs and big spider crabs crawl over dense, colourful mats of seaweed.

By dusk, the tide has risen. Now the entrance to the lagoon is deep enough, and the current weak enough, that we can nose our boats into its cascade. This liquid bottleneck is, in effect, a set of reversing rapids, and as it approaches equilibrium, it's fun to paddle against the dying outflow, burst through into the lagoon, then shoot back out, all the while dodging rocks. On the lagoon side, masses of small fish are schooled, waiting for the incoming tide to deliver the day's supply of ocean nutrients. In the failing light a kingfisher hovers and dives, while a bald eagle perches on a rock and casts a stern eye on our antics.

That night, the weather changes; in the morning we're greeted by overcast skies and light drizzle, not unpleasant conditions to paddle in if you have adequate clothing. After breakfast we set out to explore Von Donop. Plenty of timber has been cut there over the decades, starting with the hand loggers of the 1880s. From the 1920s to the 1950s, a group of families operated a logging camp in the inlet, living in float homes. There were enough children to establish a school. Settlers also homesteaded land beside the lagoon, raising rabbits for fur and meat. Now, however, with one exception, the shorelines have returned to their natural state.

We pass other picnic tables on our rounds but don't see a better campsite than the one we're in. At the head of the inlet, a well-used trail, clearly marked, leads through groves of alder to Squirrel Cove, on the far side of Cortes. It's only one kilometre long, level enough for portaging, and makes a pleasant walk and break from paddling. Squirrel Cove, with little bays and islands and its own saltwater lagoon, is also an excellent destination for kayakers.

That evening, back at camp, the drizzle turns into a steady, relentless downpour, but we keep dry enough under our giant cedars and a large tarp. Camping in the rain is confining; you want to avoid getting your clothing and gear too wet because you don't know when you'll be able to dry them out again. As the sky darkens at the entrance to the inlet, we wonder if we'll get out next morning.

At 5 a.m. it's still raining. We break camp, dismantling the tent and packing our bags under the tarp to remain fairly dry. The inlet is calm, but once outside we're faced with rough water. At Carrington Bay, where we see a porpoise again, we dare not cross the open mouth and, instead, paddle deep into the bay and behind Jane Islet to take advantage of calmer water. The final stretch, into Coulter Bay, is a grind, with headwinds and steepening waves, but we've handled worse. Thoughts of a hot meal and dry clothes finally impel us back to the launch site, and next thing we know we're draining large cups of coffee at a store named Whaletown Widgets while waiting for the ferry home.