Get up close and personal with the waves

You can spot orcas, eagles and seals out and about in a Canadian kayak, finds Susie Henderson.

British Columbia boasts an astonishing 25,725km (15,985 miles) of coastline. When you consider there are nearly 28,000, mostly uninhabited, marine islands in the province (not to mention 100 river systems and a staggering 350,000 lakes), exploring by kayak seems the sensible option.

Add to these impressive figures British Columbia’s mind-blowing scenery (towering fjords, truly pristine wilderness, clear waters and numerous marine parks) plus abundant wildlife with orca whales, bears, sea lions and eagles and you’re probably ready to grab a paddle.

kayakfront200See orcas, eagles and kingfishers.
Susie Henderson

The first section of the new BC Marine Trails Network opened this summer. This officially links existing kayaking routes and campsites, with gaps filled on an ongoing basis. While the Gulf Islands and West Coast Vancouver Island North sections are complete, plans are for the network to form a loop around Vancouver Island, and extend further north to the Alaskan border.

I’m a city girl who enjoys her creature comforts, so Galiano Island, less than an hour’s ferry ride from Vancouver, seemed perfect for a kayaking experience. Named after 18th-century Spanish explorer Dionisio Galiano, who mapped much of the area, the 27km- (17-mile-) long, skinny island, with a population of around 1,200, feels distinctly rural, despite its proximity to the city.

Phew, there’s still a pub, grocery stores, eateries, a well-stocked bookshop, numerous artists’ studios and even a spa at the Galiano Inn. The inn also runs a free shuttle between the ferry terminal at Sturdies Bay and Montague Harbour marina, where my kayak tour begins.

Kayakforward200Paddling technique is important.
Susie Henderson

I joined a three-hour afternoon paddle to explore the calm waters around the harbour, ideal for beginners or twice-a-decade kayakers like me. For more experienced, there are more challenging currents in Active Pass and Porlier Pass at either end of the island.

Alisoun Payne, my guide (whose CV includes crewing and performing on a theatre tall ship in the Adriatic), calmed our nerves. We stepped into spray skirts and adjusted our foot pedals, which steer the rudder, a handy addition to sea kayaks. Alisoun discussed the basic strokes, and we tentatively lowered ourselves into the boats.

Our group included a honeymooning couple from Vancouver Island, two university pals from Toronto and a Canadian biologist. “When my teenage nieces visited from Germany last year,” she told me, “I took them kayaking near Vancouver and they said it was the best thing they’d done.”

kayakharbour200Travel without disturbing the wildlife.
Susie Henderson

We weaved through simple sailing boats and jazzy gin palaces, then hugged the shore, peering down to spot oysters, sweeping aside chunky strands of bull kelp and craning up at the peeling crimson bark of native arbutus trees. Their berries are so sugary, over indulgent robins become tipsy. We gazed at Canada geese, herons, kingfishers and turkey vultures. A curious seal bobbed nearby, a sea otter darted past. We passed a midden, layer upon layer of seashells cast aside by the Coast Salish people who lived on the island 3,000 years ago.

kayakharbourX200You don't need to be super fit to try kayaking.
Susie Henderson

A couple of days later, I headed out on a sunset paddle, with Ben Miltner as my guide. Ben, who’s been running these tours for over 25 years, suggested I might alter my technique.

“Imagine the sea is a large cake covered in chocolate frosting. Your mum says you can have as much frosting as you like, but no cake crumbs,” he explained.

Ben pointed out spectacular glacial rock carvings and told me about resident orcas named J pod, who pass the island most days. We watched a bald eagle chasing an osprey and paddled back on a millpond-smooth surface as the sun set to our left.

Kayaking seems the ideal way to enjoy BC’s scenery and wildlife while causing minimal impact. Next for me is a multi-day trip…but can I cope without luxuries?

Kayakgirl200Look out for curious seals.
Galiano Kayaks

Best kayaking for:
Softies: Try the clear, sheltered waters of the Broken Group Islands off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Experts: Head for the remote Great Bear Rainforest on BC’s central coast. First Nations guides will take you to Princess Royal Island in search of the rare white Kermode, or spirit, bear.

Whale watching: Spy orcas in the Broughton Archipelago Marine Provincial Park on the northeast of Vancouver Island.

City lovers: Paddle beneath skyscrapers in Vancouver’s False Creek, stopping off at Granville Island Market for lunch.

Getting there: There's a variety of airlines with direct routes to Vancouver including British Airways and Air Canada.  BC Ferries runs frequent services from Vancouver and Vancouver Island to Galiano.

Kayak tours: A three-hour afternoon or sunset group paddle with Galiano Kayaks & Gulf Island Kayaking costs C$55. Multi-day camping expeditions and late-night bioluminescence trips are also available. Hire a kayak for a self-guided tour from $32 for two hours. Make sure you schedule a stop at the bakery boat for cinnamon buns.

Where to stay: Oceanfront rooms at the Galiano Inn  start at C$179. There’s also a lovely forested campground at Montague Harbour (no showers).

Quirky fact: Galiano’s oldest kayak (from the 1970s) features in an upcoming French film shot on the island – Soufflé au Chocolat.

Useful tourist information:

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