The Cortes Portraits: Kai Harvey
If Kai Harvey had to describe herself with only one word it would be “scruffy.” As a long-time Cortes Island resident, Kai’s childhood was spent immersed in the salty waters of the Salish Sea. Today, with her tousled locks falling naturally into a perfect beach wave, that passion has transformed into business. Kai is the new owner of Misty Isles Kayaking, a subdivision of Misty Isles Adventures founded in 1997 by Mike and Samantha Moore. Both Misty Isles and Kai turn twenty-two this year, as they embark on a new chapter together. Before the official relaunch, I sat down with Kai to discuss her past and her future on this remote island.
Amanda: I’m so curious to hear about your experience growing up on Cortes Island. What was it like being raised in the small, remote island community?
Kai: When I was growing up, I didn’t know that this was a small, remote community. That’s an important thing to understand. For the most part, I didn’t really know it was different. Now, after seeing more of the world, I can reflect on how different my upbringing truly was.
As a kid on Cortes you don’t really get to choose your friends. You have to be friends with everyone. You learn to connect with all sorts of people, where they are at. There may only be two other kids in each grade, so you have to learn to connect with people outside your age group. From a very young age all the adults in my life also spoke to me like I was an adult. Perhaps the adults were just looking for friends too?
I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up in any other place. If I have kids, I want to raise them here. The community is so supportive. I had a bunch of moms who took care of me as I grew up. And I had such a tight-knit group of friends. We still see each other, still take care of each other, still love each other. We’ve seen each other in every terrible moment and every good moment, mostly because of proximity. The result is a very sweet, very profound type of friendship.
Amanda: That sounds wonderful. Life and distance has pulled me away from my childhood friends. But your friendships have lasted even at a distance. Could you share a bit about the places your life has taken you?
Kai: Well to start, my parent’s company, Gathering Place Trading Co., imports products from South Africa and surrounding regions, which enabled me to travel more than the average person with my family. Travelling in Southern Africa, India, and Southeast Asia gave me a strange dichotomy between the very local and very global.
My solo travels started in Spain. I was going to live there for a couple months, but I couldn’t connect with the place or people I lived with. So, I booked a flight to Barcelona. From there I visited Germany and Switzerland, then I met up with a friend in Italy. Together we train-hopped through the country, living on bread and Nutella (don’t tell my mom!). Afterward, we returned to Spain and stopped in Morocco. We saw the Sahara desert under the full moon. We were robbed. We were scared so we bought cheap tickets to the UK but decided to miss our flight to spend more time in Essaouira, a town on Morocco’s coast. Eventually, we made it to London on Christmas Day. It was my first Christmas away from home and I spent it sleeping on the floor of a pub. From there, I went on alone to Ireland and Portugal. After a quick third visit to Spain, and a second to London, I met up with my family in South Africa. Most recently, I spent my second Christmas away from home in Belize.
Amanda: It’s remarkable that you’ve been to so many incredible places (many on my own “bucket-list”) and yet you would want to return to Cortes and raise a family here.
Kai: Half the beauty of travelling for me is coming home. Each time I’m reminded that the place I live is so incredible. It makes me appreciate where I grew up so much more. My values are so aligned with this place. I think I’ve held an expectation that I’m supposed to move away, but I guess I’m not going to do that.
Amanda: Working with Misty Isles Adventures is a part of your story too, a piece of the Cortes life you love so much. How did you get started with the company and what training was involved?
Kai: I started working for Misty Isles in May 2017. I had no formal training then, but I had lots of experience kayaking and Mike Moore, the owner, knew me really well. During my first season with Misty Isles, we did rescue training and before my second season I earned my Level 1 Guide Certificate. I found the training easy since I already had so much practical experience.
Amanda: Learning to roll a kayak must have been a part of your training. What is that like?
Kai: Actually, it wasn’t! You don’t need to know that for Level 1 or Level 2 Guide Certification. But Mike did show me how to recover from a capsize during my first season. After he showed me, I tried a few times but I had a paddle float on so it wasn’t a real “roll.” Then, when I was in Ucluelet for my certification, we practiced wet-exit rescues. It was my turn to be rescued, but when I went underwater I thought: “maybe I should try to roll?” So I tried and I just did it. I couldn’t believe it. Everyone else was surprised too, it was hilarious.
Amanda: It must be scary and disorienting to be flipped underwater, but you’ve been kayaking so long you were totally at ease! Other than the west coast, you’ve also paddled in Morocco, Cambodia, Belize, and South Africa. Tell me, where is your favourite place to kayak?
Kai: Here, definitely. I had a really cool experience kayaking in Cambodia with my family, making our way up a river dotted with Mangroves and little channels, but Cortes Island is still my favourite. For me, part of the joy of kayaking is about not seeing anyone else. During the winter on Cortes, you can really launch anywhere. In the summer, you have to know the best spots, the places where tourists don’t flock. I just love the Copeland Islands and Curme Islands in Desolation Sound, but I would never go there in the summer.
Amanda: There is something profound about being out on the water. My partner, Charlie Hughes, finds he can connect with nature in a completely different way on the water than on land. Does it resonate with you in a unique way too?
Kai: I think the special thing about kayaking is that you’re not disturbing the environment you are in. Obviously, if you are bashing the bottom, you will disturb things. But if you glide over a reef, you can observe without being obtrusive. That’s really special.
I always suggest people “wear their kayak” which is to say, you want the kayak to feel as if it’s a part of your body. You should tighten your foot pegs so that your legs are bent, that way the kayak becomes sort of a mermaid tail. In this position, when you tip your hips back and forth, the whole boat tips too. You have so much control as you glide over the water that way, which makes it so serene.
As far as profound experiences go, I really love paddling in the summer bioluminescence. No matter who you are, it’s magical. You can see the stars above you, these “stars” below you, and nothing else. It’s amazing taking people out who have never seen it before. It’s incredible for them, and it’s incredible for me to provide them the space to see it.
Amanda: Is that what inspired you to take over Misty Isles’ kayaking section of the business this year, that feeling of connecting people with nature?
Kai: Yeah, one of many things. So much business today is not sustainable. In fact, I think those two words are often a contradiction. Capitalism and Democracy can’t really coexist with true sustainability, or with leaving the earth better for future generations. Obviously, there is still a carbon footprint with a kayaking business, but this is a really low-impact business compared to most.
I also decided to take over this part of Misty Isles because I get to bring people out on the water who usually don’t have the opportunity. I get to offer people the chance to connect with nature. It might be their first time on Cortes Island and they might be scared of kayaking. But I’m there to assure them, teach them, and give them the opportunity to paddle for a few hours. That is really special for me, because I can instil them with a passion for saving the earth.
When I’m guiding, I always talk about climate change. I also include the Indigenous history of this place. It is essential. Yes, it’s called Manson’s Landing, but the Manson family were not the first people here. A lot of what I’m studying at Quest University is Indigenous culture. It’s very important for me to offer a sincere acknowledgment of the Coast Salish Peoples. And not just a surface acknowledgement that you hear at the beginning of a speech or ceremony. I want to offer more. What does it mean to actually know what “unceded” is? I think that weaving in these stories about who was here...who is here is just so important.
I usually don’t talk about white people at all. People often ask how Cortes Island got its name and then I have to explain that this terrible dictator in Mexico basically killed hundreds of thousands of people, when he only had four hundred men, because the Aztecs believed in taking live prisoners (they didn’t believe in killing people on the battlefield). So we are basically praising someone, who killed people, and who has no association with the area. I thought about renaming the business Cortes Kayaks, but I didn’t want his name on my business. No way. I get that it would be hard to rename the island, but I would love to see it renamed by the Indigenous Peoples here. Because the truth is, this island is their ancestral land, so it’s not my place to name it.
Amanda: Thank you so much for sharing that with me. As you know, I’ve been uncovering my own blind spots around Indigenous Peoples and Canada over the past few years. I too would love to see a shift for this island, in many ways. What did you decide to rename the business to?
Kai: I’m calling it Misty Isles Kayaking. After a lot of consideration, it was important to me to keep the original name. That way people recognize it as is the same company that has been with this Island for a long time. It was a bit tricky though, since I had to get a consent letter from Mike Moore who is currently in Antarctica.
Amanda: I’m sure there will be some changes to the business, as you pour your heart and perspective into it. Can you tell me what’s on the horizon for Misty Isles Kayaking?
Kai: Of course! I hope to have the kayaks moved to a more central location in Manson’s Landing. I also hope to have a presence at the Friday Market in Manson’s Hall and the Saturday Market at the Gorge, for July and August. I will be adding more trips, kids programs, and private lessons, too. I’m also hoping to get more locals out on the water. A big focus for me is accessibility. Making money isn’t always the goal, although it is necessary because I have to pay the bills. But I’ve seen a lot of kids who, despite living on an island, don’t get the chance to experience what it’s like being on an island! And so I really want children, and adults, to get out on the water, without cost being a hinderance. For now, I’m doing a visual update to our promotional materials and creating a new website.
Amanda: I’ll keep an eye-out for your refresh! When I heard you were taking over the kayaking segment of Misty Isles Adventures, I was so pleased that it would stay within the “Cortes family.”
Kai: I hope to work with Misty Isles for a long time...for an unforeseen amount of time. After I graduate, I plan to come back to Cortes. Thankfully, the seasonal nature of this business allows me to finish my degree at the same time.
Amanda: I have one last burning question I just have to ask. I’ve heard that you plan to circumnavigate Vancouver Island solo by kayak in 2020?
Kai: Depending on how this season goes for Misty Isles Kayaking, I would love to. That’s been a dream of mine for a long time. And I really want to do it alone. I think it’s hard to do things alone. I am really inspired by women who do drastic and intense things solo. You have to trust yourself. You also learn so much about yourself. It would be such an adventure to be alone in the wilderness, in a kayak, on the west coast...maybe I’d go insane. While I would of course take precautions, I may not be able to do it alone. My friends and family have voiced a lot of concern. I guess with a partner, it would still be the adventure of a lifetime.
Kai: Exactly! Often the outdoors don’t feel like the place for women. It’s considered a masculine space. So much of what I want to do in my life is a reclamation of that space. It’s not a masculine space, it’s a space for everyone, every body, whoever you are, and however you identify. It really pissed me off how inaccessible the outdoors can be. You have to buy the right gear, expensive gear. That’s why I want to try and remove that barrier for myself, and for others. Being outside is so special. It can’t be a masculine dominated place, or a masculine dominated industry. That’s not realistic, and that type of thinking only propagates the heteronormative patriarchy...which sucks.
This interview has been edited for content and length.