By Alex Rawlings-He was dubbed by many as crazy. The feat was labelled impossible. And some thought he might not return alive.
But he is not crazy, the trip was not impossible, and he is alive. We can now refer to 29-year-old Eli Andersen as the first person to circumnavigate Graham Island on a surfboard.
"It hasn't all really sunk in deep yet," said Mr. Andersen this weekend, just after completing the circumnavigation, "but it feels good."
The Oregon resident's journey began July 23 at the beach by the Kaay Centre and came to a close around 8 pm Saturday (Sept. 4) as the weary paddler completed his circuit of Graham Island by returning to the very place he left.
After a harrowing 40-plus kilometre paddle through the Narrows on his last leg of the voyage, (a 10 hour trip), Mr. Andersen returned, unharmed, completing the trip in less than 50 days.
"I just paddled in, and had a quiet moment to myself," he said. "I wasn't sure what to expect, but no one was there, and I pulled my board to the canoe covering, changed my clothes, and then went to Sue and Jags."
His journey began with a three-day paddle into northwest winds from the Kaay Centre to the Pesuta shipwreck near Tlell, where he reevaluated his course.
"Because of the northwesters I had to make the decision to paddle from Massett to Tlell, or I would have been there for a month," he said. After completing the paddle from Massett to Tlell he then hitched a ride with a new-found friend and went back to Massett where he began the north and west legs of his journey.
"Rose Spit was just beautiful, I found this perfect egg-shaped agate there, it was translucent and amber and it glowed, but I lost it the next morning 'cause I had it strapped to me and I got sacked by a big wave and then it fell," he said." At least I didn't have it for a few days and then lose it."
Early August brought sunny weather and northwest winds, which Mr. Andersen battled while passing Dixon Entrance and further west to Langara.
After pulling himself across Naden Harbour, constantly fighting the tides and winds to prevent him from being pulled in too far, Mr. Andersen spent a couple of days around Langara and was then socked in with fog at Cape Knox.
"The fog just walked in, I thought it was a fairly mild evening, and I decided to camp, and ended up getting stuck for a couple of days because I couldn't see," he said. And thus began his west leg of the journey.
"At that point my intention was not to get concerned with speed or distance, but what I started to realize at Cape Knox was that it was not about my time schedule, it was about leaving when it was appropriate to do so," he said.
The north end of the island was the last time he would see boats and people until he reached Port Louis some time later.
"I saw some people out by the lodges, they were usually pretty amazed to see me out there, saying things like 'I have seen kayakers, but never someone on a surfboard, can we take your picture?' and things like that" said Mr. Andersen, "but that was the last of it, I didn't see a single boat until I got to Port Louis, it was great, I was pleased."
His journey down the west coast of Graham Island was a long one, with Mr. Andersen spending one day paddling and sometimes three days waiting out bad weather, but that didn't concern him much.
"I had all the rock fish I could eat, it was fabulous. I caught a ling cod that was about 12 pounds, I have never seen anything like that on the Oregon coast, but apparently it's not that big," he said.
The west coast gave Mr. Andersen his first bear encounters, and he was even lucky enough to see some of the islands' elusive elk.
"I had my first bear encounter around Peril Bay, it just scooted off. I also got to see two elk, boy those are some shy creatures out there," he said.
"I was at Marchand Point when I got woken up to a bear licking my sleeping bag," he added. "The first sensation was a rush of heat, like bear breath, then I felt it on my foot. I looked down and we made eye contact, it was clear to me that the bear had to go. It was not okay for us to be hanging out, so I got up and put my hands on my hips and looked at it like a disappointed parent, and being calm and quiet I let him know that he had to leave, and he did."
From Port Louis, where he had a dry place to sleep, and human contact, Mr. Andersen proceeded further down the coast to Seal Inlet where he spent three nights waiting out a storm.
"It was a nice paddle to Seal Inlet, I spent three days and nights through screaming rain and wind, it was gale force out there with four metre seas, but I had the best camping spot," he said. "It was a wonderful cave that had an overhang that kept me dry and warm, and it had the best water supply I had found so far, I could even fish from shore, it was good stuff."
When the storm lifted he paddled across Rennell Sound, a five hour trek, before landing at Kano Inlet where he waited for another three days as a storm blew through.
"I was really aware of the concern that people there must have had for me, it is always worse, the worry, for people waiting. I just wanted people to know I wasn't paddling in that stuff, I wasn't doing anything stupid," he said.
When the storm lifted, Mr. Andersen proceeded to paddle for 23 miles into Buck Channel, where he spent an evening at a cabin nestled into Chaatl Island before waking and jumping at the opportunity to take advantage of the calmer seas and complete his journey the following day with another 23 mile paddle.
"When I got to Bearskin Bay I sat, for about 45 minutes just being pleased, and excited, and exhausted, and you know, somewhat sad that it was over. I enjoy the physical exercise, I like to lie down in my sleeping bag at night after I have made camp," Mr. Andersen said. "I like to congratulate myself on a long paddle, or finding the ideal camp site, or had made good decisions. I pat myself on the back and say 'good job Eli, you did it', I enjoy that feeling."
After his period of reflection, Mr. Andersen completed his journey.
"Haida Gwaii is a special place, I know that. This has all been for the best," he said. "I didn't think I would be so fortunate with being taken in by the community, and with any kind of these adventures, the most beautiful experience is meeting the people. Meeting the people here was the richer part of it."
Mr. Andersen will be taking a few days to relax and reflect before he decides where and when he paddle again.
"There are a couple of places I would like to paddle next," he said with a grin. "My love and fascination with the northwest coast has deepened, and I might just stay the winter, but I am being flexible and just seeing where things go, I am settling for the moment."