Montana Headwall » The Crux

Dark tide rising

When setting up camp becomes part of the adventure



I continued the comedy of bear-proofing my food supply as the late midsummer’s sun set. Again and again I whirled the long, orange string with a rock tied to it and heaved it toward a branch. I missed. I got the wrong branch. The rock fell off the string. I could only laugh. I was too tired even to stop trying.

This camp had been brutal to set up. I had landed my kayak when the tide was out and a 100-yard expanse of rocks the size of bowling balls separated the water from the only potential tent site, a tiny patch of sand at the edge of the forest, a spot that might or might not be dry at 2 a.m. when the tide would be high.

Camping spots were increasingly sparse in this northern British Columbia portion of the Inside Passage. Steep, rocky shorelines backed up by impenetrable forests left few accessible options. A new moon and the summer solstice meant the tide would come in high and fall away low. No matter how many times I eyeballed my tide charts and the rise to the sand, the beach seemed too low. Six inches of water is a far cry from dry.

Montana Headwall
  • Nadia White

It seemed silly to set up a camp that would likely flood. If I left the gear in the boat it would stay dry, I reasoned. But loaded, the kayak was too heavy to carry across the barnacle- encrusted and kelp-wrapped rocks. I tried several cockamamie schemes to avoid unloading the boat. Eventually I tied it to a huge piece of waterlogged driftwood that stood at least four feet high and seemed stuck on the rocks.

Time was of the essence and I worked with focus. I built a scant raft of long, slender logs that would protect the kayak and keep it upright when the tide set it back down in the middle of the night, in the middle of the cove. I tied the boat, on its raft, to the big log, leaving enough line so it could rise the full height of the tide.

I unloaded only my essentials for the night and retreated to the spot of sand.

I looked back at my boat, 100 yards away with the tide rising fast. Already, its stern was afloat. I looked at my bare camp and thought, “What have I overlooked? What could go wrong?” A list of potential disasters flooded my mind. A football-field of water would separate me from everything my life depended on. The boat could come untied and float away; it could be smashed by incoming driftwood, swamped by wind. The log it was tied to could float the whole contraption away.

Horrified, I ran toward the incoming tide. Frantically, I untied my knots and unpacked the boat. Racing and retreating from the rising water, I made trip after trip across the barnacled rocks until everything I owned was lined up in a long crease on top of a giant ancient log that was firmly grounded between woods and water, its roots embedded in the sand. The log’s broad back was level and at least six feet above the beach.

For a moment, at the height of my unpacking frenzy, I had been furious with myself, frustrated that I had almost risked my boat, my whole trip, with one bad choice. I had disregarded the order of my deepest fears. Number one was not that the tide would soak all my gear. It was not bears at my campsite. Number one was certainly not the hard work of hauling. Far and away my greatest fear was that the tide would carry my boat away. This happens to people. The tide comes up and kayaks drift away without a whisper. It would not, I declared as I surrendered to this inconvenient camp, happen to me.

I withdrew as the tide crept in, finally shouldering my boat and carrying it, too, to the great log at the edge of the forest. “Just do this, Nike,” I thought as I hoisted my awkward load and willed myself not to stumble on the slick rocks.

Montana Headwall
  • Nadia White

This is the part they never show in the ads. This is the story no helmet-mounted camera quite gets. This is painful, personal, fear and frustration. This is a grind. For the solitary outdoor traveler, these are the challenges and the daily victories that often define adventure.

Now my food was hung high and I stepped back on a stack of driftwood to survey my work. The dark night of the forest fell ahead of me, the dark waters of the tide rose behind me. Suddenly, sharply, a blast of air tore the silence and I jumped in my skin.

Turning toward the sound, I could only sense a movement in the cove. It was a whale, probably a humpback, come to stir up sediment and browse. It grazed the waters almost exactly where my boat would have been had I left it rafted to the other log, that moorage of shortcuts and trouble.

The whale, the water and the sky were a uniform, deep-slate gray. The whale’s breath blended with the humid air, a regular sigh as reassuring as the raspy snore of an old dog sleeping. “Good job,” the whale seemed to say as it surfaced and blew. “Good choices.” I crawled into my tent on the sandy beach.

In the darkest hour, just before high tide, I awoke and flung my sleeping bag onto the ancient log. I climbed the roots like a ladder and nestled into my bag. By headlamp, I saw the tide had risen all around me.

Stars melted through a light mist and reflected on the water. The humpback kept feeding. I settled into the embrace of a long, smooth buckle in the log and listened to the exhalations of the night. Immensely satisfied, I slept.

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