Brooks Peninsula, British Columbia, Canada

Rounding the Brooks
The "Crux Move" of Vancouver Island's Exposed West Coast

By Alex Matthews | Photography by Dave Aharonian

 Brooks Inset 5 

Off the Brooks in low swell - Brooks Peninsula 

Travel to my home waters of Vancouver Island and you’ll encounter some of the best sea kayaking anywhere in the world. Vancouver Island is the largest island of the 6000+ islands located off the west coast of British Columbia, Canada.

“The Island” as it’s known locally, is approximately 300 miles (500 Kilometers) long by 100 miles (160 Kilometers) wide, with enough coastline to offer many different paddling experiences: from sheltered bays, to rushing tidal rips, surf beaches, or one of my personal favorites – the more remote shores of the island’s exposed northern west coast.

Scan a map of Vancouver Island and on its western side up toward the northern tip you’ll notice a large chunk of land extending 10 miles out into the Pacific. This ruggedly beautiful wilderness area is the Brooks Peninsula.

The Brooks is both an inspiring and a daunting kayaking destination. It is relatively remote – there are no roads on the peninsula. There are no settlements or residents. No lighthouse and keepers. For much of its rugged shoreline, sheltered beaches where a kayaker might safely come ashore in big conditions are few and far apart.

And then there’s the infamously “dynamic” weather which always has the potential to go seriously bad. Conditions can change very rapidly and deteriorate frighteningly quickly here – as veteran paddlers like to quip: “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes!”

 Brooks Inset 1 

Swell is the norm on the exposed west
coast of Vancouver Island - Lawn Point
 

The way that the Brooks Peninsula juts out into the ocean exposes it to the brunt of everything that the Pacific can dish out. Big swell coming down from the north slams into the Brooks, and frighteningly powerful winds routinely lash its tip – Cape Cook. This big headland generates weather patterns so localized that it’s fair to say that it really makes its own weather. Powerful winds routinely pummel its cliffs, and accelerate through the gap between Cape Cook and Solander – a small rocky island about a mile off Cape Cook. Not that there’s anywhere to land anyway, but it is forbidden to go ashore on Solander Island as it is an Ecological Reserve, protected as habitat for nesting seabirds like storm petrels, Cassin’s Auklets, and the wonderful tufted puffins.

In winter, violent storms and terrible weather make the Brooks a very inhospitable place, but come summer, experienced paddlers with the patience and time to wait for good weather will enjoy exploring this remarkable peninsula.

Because prevailing wind patterns in good weather come out of the northwest, the preferred direction of travel around the Brooks is north to south. In the best weather conditions there can be little to no wind, but these days are rare. Winds also typically build over the course of a day, so it is important to get on, and off, the water early. We have been up well before dawn in order to cheat the winds, whenever setting off around the Brooks. Even calm mornings will usually give way to increased winds in the afternoon. Beware winds out of the south as these create some of the worst conditions. July typically brings the best weather to the Brooks.

 Brooks Inset 4 

An exceptionally calm day at
Solander Island - Brooks Peninsula
 

I have paddled around the Brooks 3 times, and each occasion has been different. The first time I encountered high winds and big swell. The second time we were blasted by really high winds and big swell. The third time was the greatest surprise of all: there was virtually no swell and virtually no wind – truly a “Brooks Lite” experience. And something of a letdown as I was looking forward to a more exciting day (but be careful what you wish for). This last trip, due to the very benign conditions, we were able to paddle round the far side of Solander Island – something that I would not have attempted on the first 2 outings.

Twice, I’ve paddled from Port Hardy heading up around the top of the Island, and then down and around the Brooks. On the other occasion we put in at Winter Harbour in Quatsino Sound, traveling down to Tofino. Winter Harbour is an excellent launch point for a trip to the Brooks. 1 day’s paddle from the put-in will get you to gorgeous Lawn Point Provincial Park, and the next day will take you to Brooks Bay and the Crabapple Islets. Strategically, this is the best campsite as it’s closest to Cape Cook, and provides some shelter from surf. I’ve also camped at the Cape Cook Lagoon, but this means paddling a little further to reach Cape Cook.

Brooks Inset 2 

Rain and high winds (in this case 30 knots)
are common - Guise Bay, Cape Scott
 

There is a campsite on the end of the Brooks at Nordstrom Creek, Between Cape Cook and Cape Clerke – the southernmost tip of the peninsula. This is a good option for those who do not relish paddling the full distance around the Brooks, although I’m not sure that I would want to be there in stormy weather. On all 3 trips I have opted to paddle the full distance around the Brooks from the north side, to Jacobson Point on the south side of the peninsula. This represents a longer day of paddling as the distance is in the 18-20 nautical mile range.

The South Brooks is far more protected than the northern side, so conditions here are typically better and less dynamic, but storms can still make this area extremely challenging too.

 Brooks Inset 6 

Transport to the town of Gold
River aboard the Uchuck III 
 

Roughly 15 nautical miles south of Jacobson is the Nuu-Chah-Nulth village of Kyuquot, a name aptly meaning “place of many winds”. Kyuquot boasts a small grocery store where paddlers can resupply. There are also 2 payphones on the public dock, so visitors can check in with loved ones back home.

A great option for accessing Kyuquot, is to travel with your kayak and gear aboard the MV Uchuck III. Originally built in Oregon as a Minesweeper in 1942, this venerable wooden vessel has since been refitted to accommodate passengers and up to 100 tons of cargo. She now plies the waters from Gold River to Kyuquot, delivering goods along her route at camps and settlements in the area. Both pickup and drop-off of paddlers and their kayaks can be arranged by visiting http://getwest.ca/.

Rounding the Brooks is not a trip to take lightly. It is committing and therefore must be approached with caution. The area is prone to very high localized winds and very challenging conditions, both of which can develop extremely rapidly. And it is relatively remote. For this reason, the Brooks is often considered the “crux move” on Vancouver Island’s west coast. The key to success is a conservative attitude, a healthy respect for the sea, a good ability to interpret marine forecasts, and the time and patience to wait for an appropriate good weather window.

Header photo:  On the water before dawn for the push around the Brooks - Crabapple Islets, North Brooks 

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