Kayaking on Vancouver Island
|Photo by George Fischer|
The boat’s prow creases turquoise water lapped by gentle wavelets. Ivory sand stretches beneath, ripple patterns clearly visible 6 feet below. Graceful sea birds soar effortlessly in the breeze overhead. Brilliantly colored sea creatures dot rocky outcrops underwater. A soft sand beach beckons, curling around a tiny cove in the wind-sheltered lee of a boulder-strewn headland.
Sounds like a tropical sea, yes? Far from it--literally.
This is what it’s like kayaking through Vancouver Island’s Barkley Sound, a remarkable marine preserve along the island’s West Coast which draws avid sea kayakers from around the world. With hundreds of islets, innumerable passages between them, and a vast paddling territory largely protected from the swells and storms of the open Pacific, the sound’s Broken Islands Group is widely considered one of the premier paddling venues on earth, a paradise for boat-borne wilderness wanderers.
And so it is. In fact, if there is anything to be said against Barkley Sound, it’s that its conspicuous fame diverts attention from the many other kayaking locales around the island. With 3,440 kilometers (2,136 miles) of coastline, and innumerable bays, sounds, inlets and coves therein, one could paddle every day for years and not exhaust the possibilities. Add in the kayaking opportunities in the neighboring Gulf Islands and Discovery Islands, and the entire Vancouver Island region is a prime destination for paddlers of every description.
The Broken Islands are preeminent not only because they are so geographically remarkable. Easily reached from Ucluelet, they are relatively accessible for travelers. And as a section of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, access is subject to permit control; thus, it’s possible to spend a week in the Broken Islands, rarely or never see another paddler, and have peaceful, private beachfront campsites all to yourself.
Imagine—a broad curve of white sand, waves lapping at your toes, evening breeze whisking the cedars, vermilion sunset painting the sky until 11 pm on a summer night.
The Broken Islands are best traveled by wilderness kayaking experts (or, at least, parties guided by experts)—the entire North Pacific, after all, is at the front door of Barkley Sound, and it’s a sometimes tempestuous neighbor. Storms rise suddenly; tidal rips can carry unwary paddlers far out of their way; open waters exposed to the ocean hold massive swells and dangerous breaks.
But less experienced kayakers can sample the saltwater paddling experience in the waters around Tofino with one of several outfitters in the area. Here, a short paddle to Meares Island is entirely shielded from the ocean, and non-expert paddlers face few hazards more challenging than stiff tidal currents. The reward is the chance to taste the salt air up close, listen to the symphony of gulls and eagles wheeling overhead, watch for harbor seals, park your kayak at Meares and stroll the famous Big Trees Trail.
On the Island’s east side, excellent paddling can be found in Saanich Inlet, especially Deep Cove and across the inlet at Mill Bay, with Malahat Mountain overhead to the west; north a few kilometers in Cowichan Bay; and in Nanaimo, where a popular quick paddle takes visitors across to Newcastle Island Marine Park. Pack a picnic lunch, take hiking shoes, and you’re set for an invigorating, two-sport daylong excursion that transports you to a quiet sanctuary just minutes from the city.
The Gulf Islands offer fabulous kayaking as well, particularly in Ganges and Fulford harbours on Salt Spring Island; and Bedwell Harbour on Pender Island.
Much farther north, the Johnstone Strait area around Port McNeill is famous for kayak excursions in which paddlers carefully wander the waters that North Island orca pods frequent. Lucky visitors will experience the lifetime thrill of paddling amid killer whales in the wild, often just yards away, a wildlife encounter possible very few other places. And, on rare occasions, paddlers who journey near Robson Bight can treasure the unique sight of orcas scratching their tough hides on the tideline rocks here. Several outfitters offer guided overnight or multi-night excursions from Telegraph Cove. Seeing orcas under any circumstance is remarkable—they are among the most impressive and graceful creatures in the sea—but doing so from a quiet, inconspicuous, non-motorized venue such as a kayak adds immeasurably to the experience. Numerous outfitters in the area offer rentals and tours.
While sighting orcas and camping in the wilderness are worthy but extravagant goals for kayaking, more subtle sights and pleasures abound for anyone who paddles almost any distance around Vancouver Island. One may, July through September, marvel at ocean phosphorescence, the glowing light produced by microscopic sea creatures when their waters are disturbed—such as with each stroke of a kayak paddle. Tiny jellyfish and impressive, massive lion’s manes sail the subsurface waters like flotillas and Japanese lanterns. Sea lion rookeries announce their presence from hundreds of yards with the unmistakable cacophony of dozens of males barking. Kelp floats bob in the waves; anemones, seastars and nudibranchs glimmer orange, green and blue on rocks and reefs; the water itself shifts and shimmers in dozens of different colors depending on the light, the depth, the location and the sea floor.
Experienced wilderness paddlers have far more than Barkley Sound to choose from. The next sound north, Clayoquot, features fewer islands, but greater length and breadth; some of its deeper inlets stretch inland many kilometers toward the snowcapped mountains along Vancouver Island’s spine. At the end of these inlets, roaring rivers host salmon runs that draw bears to their rapids to fish each year in late summer and fall. Farther on up the coast toward the Island’s northerly point, several other sounds afford wilderness paddling where seclusion is guaranteed. Though hard to reach (a lift by float plane is the best option) these remote locales are untrammeled marine paradises for expert paddlers.
Most of us aren’t expert paddlers. Thus the beauty of paddling, whether it’s the first time or the 100th, in and around Vancouver Island—it’s for absolutely everyone, and it’s absolutely wonderful.
For more information about Island kayaking, including outfitters and more visit HelloBC.com.
Travelers are wont to consider Port Hardy the “end of the road” way up at the north end of Vancouver Island. That’s understandable: This scenic harbour city is at the far north end of the Island, it is the terminus of the Island Highway (Highway 19), and it is the departure point for BC Ferries’ famous Discovery Coast route to Bella Coola and Inside Passage route to Prince Rupert. But it’s not really the end of the road. In fact, Port Hardy is the gateway for several of our Island’s most interesting, little-known attractions.
The first of these is not only a community icon, it was the start of something that has spread across North America—the Shoe Tree. Begun as a whimsical novelty years ago by local residents, this collection of old sneakers, work boots, gumboots, high-heels, dress shoes and more now completely covers the face of an old cedar about 20 kilometers west of town along the road to Cape Scott. So many shoes have been added over the years that the lower parts of this unique folk art are now several layers deep in shoes. No one knows exactly how the idea spread, but shoe trees are now found in Oregon, Texas and across North America.
One theory about the origin of Port Hardy’s Shoe Tree is that weary hikers who had braved the wilds of Cape Scott Provincial Park pulled off the road to discard hiking boots that the park’s notorious trails had demolished. That may be legend or fact, but Cape Scott is indeed a famous wilderness fastness for experienced trekkers, with old-growth woods, spectacular headlands and sandy beaches beckoning—and muddy trails, arduous climbs and treacherous weather guaranteeing a challenge worthy of any wilderness expert.
Luckily, anyone can get a taste of the park’s wonders simply by driving to a trailhead 20 kilometers west of Holberg, and hiking the well-maintained 3km trail to San Josef Bay, a blissfully peaceful large cove whose mile-long crescent of golden sand is among the most beautiful in North America. It’s an easy 35-minute walk through cedar and spruce woods, and the reward—the sun-warmed beach—is a perfect spot for a picnic, sitting back against drift logs on the sand.
Other area activities include spectacular diving; whale-, bear- and bird-watching tours (black bears are a common sight on the road leading into town, especially in May and June); fishing charters for salmon, halibut, lingcod and rockfish; kayaking in local coves and inlets; skiing in the winter at powder-drenched Mount Cain; even surfing at nearby beaches such as Raft Cove.
Port Hardy itself is a compact collection of lodgings, cafes and galleries devoted to serving travelers boarding or disembarking the Inside Passage ferry routes. An artists’ collective in the downtown exhibits the work of more than 100 local artisans, and First Nations murals adorn downtown buildings with depictions of Orca, Raven, Thunderbird and other Native icons. The Port Hardy Museum offers totems, artwork and other expressions of local culture. Local restaurants specialize in the salmon, crab and other seafoods so plentiful in local waters. Eagles soar overhead, porpoises, orcas, seals and sea lions cruise the bay and nearby waters, and the town observes a serene lifestyle in which the only exigency is meeting the ferry schedule. And that’s just for onward travelers—visitors who stay can set schedules aside and enjoy the unhurried rhythms of nature at its best.
Swimming Holes on Vancouver Island
Nine months of the year, water is simply a cool expression of Vancouver Island’s Pacific maritime climate. In July, August and September it transforms into one of our favorite outdoor activity venues, and here’s a sport you can truly get immersed in. Swimming holes are a key part of the Island lifestyle in summer, and we’ve got some dandies.
Sooke Potholes Provincial Park, for instance, is named for a geologic feature that offers spectacular swimming. The large basins carved in bedrock by the Sooke River hold deep, clear pools of water. When the river drops from spring runoff to summer clarity, and the sun warms the south-facing valley, this is a superb spot for a plunge—especially if you’ve invested the sweat equity to ride here from Victoria on your bike. It’s about 48 kilometers from downtown on the Galloping Goose recreation trail, a delightful cycle through suburbs, past Garry oak prairie and Sooke farmlands, then into the mountain foothills. Ride that on a hot day and the green waters of the potholes are irresistibly inviting.
Similar swimming holes await visitors farther north at Englishman River Falls Provincial Park, near Qualicum, where a huge pool lies just below the last cataract; and at Elk Falls Provincial Park, just outside Campbell River. Both parks offer camping, picnicking, hiking and spectacular waterfalls.
There are also hundreds of lakes on the Island with good swimming beaches, ranging from neighborhood locales known mostly to locals, to huge bodies of water such as Buttle Lake in Strathcona Provincial Park west of Campbell River. Cowichan Lake, up-valley from Duncan, offers warm beaches that reflect the indigenous meaning of the word “Cowichan”—warm land. Schoen Lake Park, north of Campbell River just off the road to Port Hardy, is famed for its crystal clear water clasped in a small mountain basin.
Despite their much smaller size, the Gulf Islands also have swimming lakes—Salt Spring most notably. Both Cusheon Lake and St. Mary Lake offer swimming in warm water at sandy beaches, as well as much-beloved lakeside resorts that cater to summertime visitors who swim, boat, sunbathe and relax.
Many consider saltwater swimming the biggest summer treat. Numerous coves and bays on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands are warm enough for refreshing swims by July. Most famous are Tribune Bay on Hornby Island and Gabriola Sands on Gabriola. Both provincial parks have curving strands of white sand facing shallow bays; the best swimming usually comes in the afternoon, when incoming tides pass over sun-warmed sand.
Hardier swimmers are also happy to find a rock ledge along innumerable coves and bays where one can plunge in the crisp emerald waters of the Salish Sea. Seastars and anemones shimmer purple, orange and green in the clear water; gulls cry overhead; the salt water burnishes your skin like a spa treatment. It’s bracing, but when you haul back out on the sun-bathed rock you’re dry and warm in minutes. Ready to dive back in, in fact—one of the very best ways to appreciate a place defined by its waters.
For more information, visit HelloBC.com.
Beaches in the Vancouver Island Region
We recently asked our Facebook Fans, what their FAVORITE beach in the Vancouver Island Region is.
Here are their Top Ten...
- Parksville Beach - Parksville
- Long Beach - Tofino
- Rathtrevor Beach - Parksville
- Chesterman Beach - Tofino
- Kaye Bay - Comox Valley
- Miracle Beach - Black Creek
- Royston Beaches - Comox Valley
- Pachena Bay - Bamfield
- Transfer Beach - Ladysmith
- Tribune Bay - Hornby Island
For more information about beaches in the Vancouver Island Region visit HelloBC.com/vi.
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Favourite islandMOMENTS from Our Readers
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"We just returned from a week on Vancouver Island and it was amazing! We spent 3 days in Victoria exploring all the usual tourist things, Butchart Gardens, castles, parks, ferry rides, British Science Museum. Ate at some of THE best places, Then went north to Campbell River, stayed at Dolphin's Resort and absolutely loved it! While there we ferried over to Quadra Island. What is the story of the big chess sets there? Saw 2 of them! Then we went a little south and spent some time in Qualicum Beach area, Cathedral Grove, Little Qualicum Falls.
Our whole trip was amazing! I wanted to visit for over 30 years and soooo glad I finally got the opportunity!
I will be writing reviews on Tripadvisror also about all the wonderful places we saw, stayed and ate at!"
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