Sea Kayaking & Campfires: Misery Not Neccesary

I’ve heard plenty of stories about cold, wet, miserable trips on the coasts of B.C. and Alaska. I’ve even been known to tell a few myself. Yes, sometimes I find it challenging to keep warm, get dry, and stay cozy when I’m sea kayaking but those moments are exceedingly rare, thanks to the gear revolution and campfires.

 

Coastal Weather: How Wet is Wet?

I know well the temperament testing, character building weather of the Pacific Northwest climate—renowned for raising the gentle giants of the temperate rainforest. For example, there was the trip when we rafted down the Kateen and Khutzeymateen rivers, just before the designation of Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, a.k.a. Khutzeymateen/K’tzim-a-deen Grizzly Sanctuary. We weathered torrents of rain for the better part of 10 days. Often, three of us, with help from the others, worked for hours to get our campfire going and keep it burning long enough to cook our meal. We also needed to line rafts and negotiate log jams on many sections of the rivers as rising waters threatened to burst their banks. Eventually, some our crew teetered on the edge of hypothermia. The entire time, I marveled at the protective wet suit-like qualities of the first pair of fleece tights (women’s fit, no less) I ever owned, an exponential improvement over grey wool Stanfield long johns (men’s only). Only a few of us had fleece on that trip but we were all left with hope for future adventures.

While doing fieldwork on another grizzly bear study, in the Kincolith and Wakeman river valleys, I simply gave up on wearing rain gear. Instead, I kept a set of clothes and rain gear in my pack so that if the helicopter was late for our scheduled pick-up I could change into dry clothes and then hunker down under a tree to wait. I stayed warm as long as I was exerting myself bushwhacking—a momentum building, body hurling art form to maneuver over, through, and under seemingly impenetrable tangles of downed logs and dense vegetation. But as soon as I stopped, my survival depended on getting into dry cloths. By the time we finished our project, we had weathered rain for most of two months. Fortunately, Lothar and I haven’t encountered weather like this on our sea kayaking trips, although our trip from Gingolx (Kincolith) to Bella Bella in 2011 was a particularly rainy one.

 

Coastal Weather: Putting it into Perspective

John Muir gave a fine description of coastal weather in his book Travels in Alaska

About one third of the summer days I spent in the Wrangell region were cloudy with very little or no rain, one third decidedly rainy, and one third clear. According to a record kept here of a hundred and forty-seven days beginning May 17 of that year, there were sixty-five on which rain fell, forty-three cloudy with no rain, and thirty-nine clear. In June rain fell on eighteen days, in July eight days, in August fifteen days, in September twenty days. But on some of these days there was only a few minutes’ rain, light showers scarce enough to count, while as a general thing the rain fell so gently and the temperature was so mild, very few of them could be called stormy or dismal; even the bleakest, most bedraggled of them all usually had a flush of late or early color to cheer them, or some white illumination about the noon hours. I never before saw so much rain fall with so little noise. None of the summer winds make roaring storms, and thunder is seldom heard. I heard none at all. This wet, misty weather seems perfectly healthful.

We read Travels in Alaska on our first long distance sea kayaking trip. Since then we’ve been comparing our precipitation experiences along the coast (in general) with Muir’s experience in Wrangell; I’d say they’re about the same—one-third sunny, one-third mixed, and one-third rain—although the misting rain that we encountered in the Wrangell area doesn’t compare to the authentic rain we’ve encountered elsewhere.

For a year round perspective and guidance for mariners negotiating coastal weather in B.C., Owen Lange writes eloquently in The Veil of Chaos: Living with Weather Along the British Columbia Coast. He takes a complex topic, untangles it, and makes it easy to understand. I recommend both of these books for your sea kayaking book bag.

The good news is that with some planning and experience it should be relatively easy to keep warm, get dry, and stay cozy on extended sea kayaking trips, in a large part due to the gear revolution. If you’re prepared, you can live comfortably.

 

Primal instincts.
There’s nothing like a wood fire for satisfying primal instincts.

Light a Campfire: Some Tips for Getting Comfortable

 

  1. Make wood campfires a priority, if appropriate and as needed for comfort.

No matter what the weather gods throw at us, we’re almost always travelling in comfort. In our boat, we’re snuggled in our cocoon with Gortex jackets or dry suits on and spray decks fastened. Onshore, we count on fires for comfort, physically and psychologically. Fires are great for cooking and a must for baking in the Dutch Oven. Honestly, I can’t imagine doing an extended sea kayaking trip along the coastlines of mid- and north-coasts of B.C. or Southeast Alaska without campfires but then we’re mostly paddling in wilderness areas where campers are almost as rare as grocery stores.

Note: Don’t miss the end of this post for some thoughts and resources to support decisions about whether (and how) or not to build campfires; sometimes, campfires are prohibited and other times they just doesn’t make sense.

 

  1. Pack a camp stove.

O.k., you don’t always need to carry a camp stove but I would. We rarely pull the stove out on a sea kayaking trip but I’d say, on average, we use the stove one day per month or we were wishing we could because we left it at home. Stoves are most handy during spring tides (the highest and lowest tides of the cycle), when it’s raining, and the only campsites you can find are waterlogged.

 

  1. Pack Coghlan’s Fire Paste.
Fire Paste
Lothar’s not a brand kinda guy but it was easy for me to solicit his endorsement of Coghlan’s Fire Paste. Note the big hair, one of the perks of paddling for three months!

Lothar’s the fire paste manager so I’ll try to convey his wisdom, as best as possible:

  • If you’re only cooking on a campfire and you are frugal, one tube of fire paste can last you a month. I recommend starting with one tube for up to two weeks and then you can calibrate your use from there.
  • Since I was a Girl Guide, I’ve used many types of fire starter, starting with rolled up newspaper that was tied with kitchen twine and then dipped in paraffin wax. I’m convinced, fire paste is the best and easiest to carry fire starter going.

You might find Coghlan’s Fire Paste at a local store that sells outdoor recreation gear. Mountain Equipment Co-op, in Canada, and REI, in the U.S.A., carry it.

 

  1. Pack a firebox.

Pack a small, sturdy waterproof case to store fire paste and a lighter. Designate it as your fire box and keep it that way. Find a handy place to store it, somewhere you can get at it as soon as you arrive at camp. Hint: if you always store it in the same place, you’ll always know where to find it.

 

  1. Pack a dry tinder bag.

Buy a small dry bag or better yet use an old one who is still at least hint of waterproof to store a few handfuls of dry kindling, a stash to give you a head start on hyper-wet days. I find that the feathery branches of dead hemlock work great, providing a range of twig sizes to work with. I collect branches that are very fine to finger sized. When I’m whitewater rafting I carry a lot more just because rafts have more space.

 

  1. Pack a “wind generator”.

A good motto: all must-have-gear should have at least two uses. We have a kitchen box with a big lid that works great to fan the fire. In the worst case scenario, you might have one person running around trying to find the driest wet tinder they can find while the other person works full-time fanning the fire. Go back to Tip 5, if you are camping solo.

 

Sometimes the wood is just really sad, like it was at during a high, high tide at skunk cabbage camp a few kilometres from Juneau.
This is one of few fires, over ten months of sea kayaking, that I can recall that was particularly miserable. We scraped this sad pile of wood together during a high, high tide at skunk cabbage camp, a few kilometres from Juneau, only to watch it get swamped in the wake of a cruise ship. O.K., I admit it, I went to bed grumpy and wet.

Order of Operations

There are many ways to start a fire but this is how we do it on the most challenging of rainy days:

  1. Set your kitchen tarp up first. This way you can store the rest of your gear under shelter and then you can get onto the business of making a campfire.
  2. If it’s raining hard, and depending on the wind, it often works to start your fire just under the edge of the tarp to keep it from getting drenched. If you have at least a hint of wind and you started the fire near the downwind corner, you should be able to manage it so that you don’t get smoked out.
  3. Gather a good stack of kindling, focusing on fine pieces to start with; again, I often start with dead hemlock branches.
  4. Squirt 2 cm of fire paste (more if you’re learning, less if you’re good at it) onto a rock. Light the paste with your lighter.
  5. Take a small handful of your driest, finest kindling and put it on top of the fire paste piece-by-piece or in a loose pile. Continue to add small pieces and gently push the pile down slowly so that fuel is continuously in contact with the flame. As you’re starting out, sometimes it helps to get up close and gently blow on the fire.
  6. Slowly start adding incrementally bigger pieces. Make sure there’s lots of air space. As the fire gets burning but it’s not yet self maintaining, you can start fanning it with the kitchen box lid or something similar—searching for the sweet spot between too vigorous and not vigorous enough. Under the worst conditions, we’ve been stuck at this stage for at least an hour (probably longer), a rare occurrence. The bonus: at this stage you’re really warm with all that hard work.
  7. As soon as the fire is burning well you can start pushing it outward and adding wood to the outside edge of the fire. This is to work it out from under the tarp so that you don’t end up with spark holes in it.

Campfires need three ingredients: fuel, oxygen, and heat. That’s why fire paste and dry kindling are invaluable in wet weather. You just need enough to get you over the hump. And then you’ll soon be cozy.

 

Things NOT to do when building a campfire:

  • Don’t build a beach campfire over standing water or a seepage area or creek that is barely subsurface.

This might seem obvious but sometimes avoiding this problem is not. If you find that your campfire is being more demanding of your attention than suits the conditions, it might be because the fire is gathering water from below. If you hear hissing sounds, this might be your problem.

  • Don’t build a campfire too low on the beach, on a rising tide.

If you are not the ultra-conservative type, you might just have to learn this one from experience. I think most novices (and occasionally veterans) have found themselves rushing around trying to save their campfire from the creeping front of the mighty Pacific Ocean.

 

Not to worry: in coastal B.C. and Southeast Alaska, Gloriously sunny days are common. The longer you paddle the more likely you'll have experienced one-third rain, one-third sunshine, and one-third mixed (by my rough estimation).
Not to worry: in coastal B.C. and Southeast Alaska, Gloriously sunny days are common. Based on my rough estimation, the longer you paddle the more likely you’ll have experienced one-third rain, one-third sunshine, and one-third mixed.

Think About Whether or Not to Build a Campfire

I live in northwest BC and have mainly paddled the mid-coast and north-coast of BC and Southeast Alaska. Campfires almost always make sense in much of these areas, at least to me they do. Plan ahead and put some thought into whether or not fires are a safe and appropriate option.

Some rationale for not making campfires:

  • Campfires are not permitted. Check with local authorities (e.g., park officials) ahead of time.
  • Some areas are closed seasonally because of fire hazard. Check with fire authorities ahead of time.
  • Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense; ethically, considering the values of people using an area; or logistically. For example, campfires might not be appropriate at heavily used campsites with little or no loose wood.
  • Sometimes or in some places, campfires just can’t be managed safely. Remember, if you’re miles from nowhere you probably won’t be able to get fire hazard reports. Just as Smokey the Bear says, “only you can prevent wildfires.”

 

Leave No Trace

Respect the environment and other people who want to enjoy their outdoor adventures too. See the Leave No Trace principles of outdoor ethics for minimizing your impacts on wildlands.

6 Responses

  1. Aaron
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    Great tips! I’d add that drying wood is often needed, building a secondary log cabin around the fire to dry for the next day. I often select one piece of clear red cedar and get it nice and dry and then carry it to the next camp for knife shavings to srart the next one. A twist on the old carry the coals.

  2. Deb Wellwood
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    Great additions Aaron. As needed, we dry wood in the evening so that we have some good stuff to start with in the morning. Dry cedar is a wonderful fire starter. Hemlock is less so but we use it because extra handy on the coast (without cutting wood) and it doesn’t require much to get the fine stuff dry enough to do the trick. Generally, we don’t travel with dry wood but that’s because we’re on extended trips with 120+ carries (up and then down the beach each day)…but if we did, I would probably have no miserable campsites to tell stories about…I think readers keen to forfeit such stories will appreciate your advice. Thanks a lot!

  3. Linda Robertson
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    Great advice, as we psyche ourselves up for our long awaited trip out of Rupert just as the low pressure is settling in. Thanks!

  4. Deb Wellwood
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    Hi Linda, Just hearing that you are waiting to launch makes me smile. I’m on the couch with a broken ankle, biding my time. I’d love to hear where you get to. Have a glorious trip out there.

  5. Linda Robertson
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    It was glorious! Magical paddle out to Lucy Island, and exploring Tsimshian peninsula and Digby…I’m sure it’s because we carried our ‘firebox’ and dried hemlock twigs with us that we enjoyed 6 days without a sprinkle.

  6. Deb Wellwood
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    Hi Linda, I’m delighted to hear you had great weather. I can picture it. Lucy Islands are truly a magical. We went there after our whitewater rafting trip down the Kateen-Kutzeymateen. When we arrived in the Khutzeymateen estuary (drenched & hint of hypothermic) the skies opened up; the sun came out; and we sailed our way to bright white clam shell beaches for a major feed of red snapper. Keep in touch, I have a long list of sea kayaking posts on my to do list. Happy adventuring out there!

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