PR2JR Paddling The Juan De Fuca Trail

Endless caves, pillars and arches formed in the cliffs along the coast provide an ever changing and beautiful view along the shore.

Port Renfrew to Jordan River.

Take a drive west of Victoria and in little over an hour, habitation gives way to a wild and rugged landscape of pine, hemlock and cedar forest extending to rocky cliffs, isolated bays and sandy beaches strewn with driftwood. At the far end of the road lies the village of Port Renfrew sheltering from the ravages of the exposed west coast in the relatively protected bay of Port San Juan.

This small outpost would be the starting point for our journey back toward Jordan River. However we would not be taking a smooth tarmac road. Instead, we would be following the craggy weather beaten coastline that runs parallel with the Juan De Fuca Trail.

The Route

Port Renfrew Hotel and launch site.
Packing 200 litres of equipment onto a 12' paddle board.
Ukee gets a ride.

It's an early start leaving Victoria at 6am to get to Port Renfrew and be on the water for 8:30am to catch a flood tide that would be working with us for most of the day. Leaving early also avoids the strong summer onshore winds that tend to develop mid afternoon along this coastline.

Synonymous with the area, a sea mist drapes in layered blankets over the verdant ridges enclosing the bay making for a damp start to the day. The air is still and it almost feels like late autumn as ripples start to radiate from drizzled raindrops on the becalmed glass surface of the water. With the damp comes a wholesome earthy smell of loam mixed with pine. A raven breaks the silence with it's crawing voice signalling the edge of civilisation and the start of wilderness. It feels good to be setting out under such conditions.

We paddle out of the small bay and Marina at Port Renfrew Hotel and follow the south shore of Port San Juan past Woods Nose and Hammond Rocks. Cutting in between the shore and a few rocky islets. The sheltered water gives the opportunity to explore a few of the caves before heading out the bay to San Juan Point and the exposed southern coast.

As we round the headland we pass Botanical Beach. Exposed sandstone shelves steam as a filtered sun warms the rock.

An abundance of tide pools nestle within the sandstone rock shelfs of Botanical Beach. Rich in intertidal life; congregations of seastars, chitons, anemones, barnacles, snails, mussels are amongst the many varied sea life that inhabit the pools.

Goose neck barnacles and mussels.

Gooseneck barnacles are able to survive within the surf zone by attaching to the rocks by stalks allowing them to bend with the waves.

Bull Kelp

A little further out a marine forest of bull kelp provides harbour for seals and hunting ground for otter. It also acts as an impromptu anchor when pausing for photos.

Photo stop
Surfgrass (Photo: Gina Lemieux)

We are fortunate with the weather, the wind stays down, the sea swell is minimal and even the rain clears up. A thin sheet of cloud obscures the sun keeping the temperature down and preventing us from overheating as we follow the flood tide east toward the next bay, the next cave, the next beach.

The low sea swell allows us to stay close to shore and it's hard not to venture into every inlet along the way. We still have about 20km still to cover before camp but some outstanding bays are irresistible and need to be explored.

(Photos: Gina Lemieux & Lysanne Lavigne)

One such mini-fjord illustrates the abundance of wildlife; a nest of seabirds watch two baby seals play in a secluded bay filled with jellyfish while an otter weaves its way amongst the rocks looking for shellfish.

We occasionally pass hikers walking the trail, hauling large backpacks of camping gear up over ridges, through the forest and along log strewn beaches and are thankful for our own chosen mode of transport which seems much easier than what they have to endure.

As we cross Sombrio Bay we hear a "phussh" just 20m ahead and catch a plume of water rising into the air. Watching more intently we see again the back of a grey whale breach the water and another spout as he takes a breath. We move off a little to the side and stay still on our boards as the whale swims past unperturbed by our presence. Grey whales are common to this coastline but rarely do you get to experience their majesty so close and share their environment.

Rest stop and a chance to hike up a creek (without a paddle) to a nearby waterfall.
Loss Creek

Loss Creek follows a major cleft in the coast, the Leech Fault before the San Juan ridge. A suspension bridge over 100 feet long and 100ft above the inlet allows hikers to cross the fault.

One final kilometre and we arrive at Chin beach, our chosen camp for the night. Todd and Ukee have hiked in from a trailhead off the main road and meet us as we arrive.

We set up camp on the beach and prepare dinner before settling down to watch the waves crash upon the shore. More hikers arrive and set up their own camp. My own tent is below some large driftwood logs and discussion revolves around the stability of driftwood and in what direction they would roll if dislodged.

The tide continues to rise and we joke as to who's tent will be swept away first and set rocks to mark our predictions of high water mark. At first Gina's suggestion by placing some dried seaweed on top of my tent does not fill me with confidence. As dusk falls the larger wave sets are starting to lick the prediction stones and there is still another 2 hours before high tide! Not having the same confidence as Canute, I make the decision to move my tent higher up the beach amongst the driftwood. 2 mins after moving a large set comes through and one wave washes over the former footprint of my tent.

High tide approaching and tent nestled amongst the driftwood.

It's a nervous 2 hours as I lie in the tent listening to the crash of surf on the shore but not being able to see how close the waves are coming, but tiredness takes over and I fall asleep.

My luck holds out and the largest wave through the night only passed under the corner of my tent. I'm dry and I'm not crushed by shifting driftwood, eaten by bear or dragged into the depths by some monstrous kraken. The rest of the team relieved at not having to launch a rescue party for a bright orange tent floating on the tide through the shipping lanes and toward the Washington Coast make busy with preparing breakfast.

The tide is now fairly low and the rock shelfs and tide pools are exposed. The south coast fog has set in and we can hear the breakers just offshore. The swell is much larger than yesterday. An exploratory reconnaissance of the shoreline reveals that we will have to launch then punch out through the surf. One of the consequences of travelling this section of coast is that you must be prepared for adverse changes in conditions.

(Photos: Gina Lemieux).

We time the wave sets as we pack up and decide on the best spot to launch. The water has risen enough that it has flooded a small inlet that will enable us to get into the kayak and onto the boards before venturing out into the surf. The larger waves come through in sets of 5 followed by a few smaller sets and it is those that we want to launch in. I head out first in the kayak timing the surf before paddling full power to punch through the breakers and get into the large rolling swell beyond the surf zone. I turn and look back to shore to see the rest paddling out as a group. Safe beyond the surf we turn east and start following the coast toward Jordan River.

The opportunity to take photos is much reduced as large swell for the section prevents us from going close to shore. However, we must remain close enough to see the land through the fog. The wave height at times is large enough that we temporarily loose sight of each other between troughs. At one point two large swells come in. We take advantage of the first letting it push us onward by surfing down the slope, but seeing the second start to break decide that we should really be further out and away from the danger zone. A quick 45 degree turn out from shore and we are back in safer water.

The swell rescinds after about half an hour and we are able to resume our voyage closer to shore and once again start exploring the caves and beaches.

With a tail wind and flood current pushing us onward we make good progress and almost at Jordan River by noon. But first one more stop - Mystic Beach.

Mystic Beach is the eastern end of the Juan de Fuca Trail and the starting point for many hikers. Accessible by a 45min walk through the forest from highway 14 it is a popular destination for day use as well as those camping overnight before setting out on the 47km hike to Port Renfrew. On a sunny holiday weekend (the fog had cleared and the sun was out as we arrived), the beach, though not quite crowded, was busy.

A short surf landing, broach, low brace followed by high brace leaning onto the wave brought me onto shore, if not elegantly at least without rolling. The paddle boards had an easier time being somewhat better equipped for surf landings.

Mystic Beach
Mystic Beach complete with rope swing in the background.

One more surf launch and one more headland to go (San Simon Point) and we would be arriving at Jordan River.

I swear from my perspective that wave looked at least 10ft. (photo: Gina Lemieux).

It's a short paddle past China Beach and round San Simon Point before we see our goal at Jordan River. The surf is low but Lysanne still manages to catch a wave and rides it into the river mouth. I cruise in behind followed shortly after by Brian and Gina.

A successful and fulfilling voyage on one of Canada's greatest coastlines.

The team from top to bottom: Brian Raymer, Gina Lemieux, Lysanne Lavigne and myself behind the camera.

Trip planning and inspiration from Brian Raymer of South Island SUP and Gina Lemieux of Success from Within Coaching.

Thanks also to Lysanne Lavigne for the company and warning me of that breaking swell and to Todd and Ukee for transport and support logistics.

Created By
Douglas Bain


Images and graphics by: Bluegiraffephoto.com Additional photos by: Gina Lemieux Lysanne Lavigne

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