Discovery Islands

Paddling the Discovery Islands

While the exposed, west coast of Vancouver Island can be foggy and damp, the island’s mountainous spine shelters the labyrinthine waterways that meander between the island’s east coast and the fjord-riven mainland. Our group of six sea kayakers spent a sun-drenched week paddling about the small islands that punctuate this tidewater maze of inlets, straits, and channels.

The Discovery Islands group, located near Campbell River, B.C., is fast becoming a mecca for sea kayakers. Boasting both sheltered waters and exciting tidal rapids, the Discovery Islands offer gorgeous scenery and excellent paddling opportunities for the beginner to advanced kayaker.

There are more than 12,000 acres of park in the Discovery Islands area and many first-rate places to disembark, such as Heriot Bay on Quadra Island and Whaletown on Cortes Island. Kayakers can choose to go on a day’s paddle or an extended camping trip. Close by the Discovery Islands, the stunning beauty of Desolation Sound and inlets of the Mainland coast awaits.

The wildlife of the Discovery Islands area never fails to amaze visitors. Kayakers may spot bald eagles, whales, sea lions, seals, and dolphins from their boats, and some fortunate paddlers report catching salmon or cod for dinner.

Our relaxed pace matched the gentle abundance of the environment. The most common interruption to our rhythmic paddle stroke was the sudden silver flash of a jumping salmon, as fleeting a surprise as the shooting star. Regal Bald eagles were delightfully common, but witnessing one catch a fish in its talons was an incredible treat. In the smaller passages we drifted on mirror-calm water, surrounded by inquisitive seals, slowly circling. Their canine heads would silently surface or submerge in a curious dance. Quietly, we listened to their husky breathing. A stealthy approach to dozing seabirds resulted in a fluid dive or an indignant scuttling retreat, depending on species.

The rugged coast begged continual examination. Dense trees rooted on improbably steep cliffy shores. At water’s edge, these rocky bluffs were draped with vibrant green seaweed. Just above the crashing waves stood barnacle crusted granite, and higher up the rocks were carpeted with delicate, dried moss. Sheltering bays hosted lush tidepools where starfish lounged in colors varying from tangerine to lilac and mauve. Scavenging crabs scuttled about the languid kelp sculptures, while hermits drove discarded shells like miniature Winnebagos. Clams hid in sandy patches, their presence betrayed only by periodic, meter-high, spurting arcs of water. These tidepools were surprisingly noisy — the crabs clicked, the clam-spurts squished, and the barnacles fizzed effervescent — all to the waves’ gentle percussion.

For me, the most memorable night was spent on the decaying docks of Church House, an abandoned Indian village named after the most prominent structure in the town. Blackberry thickets had overtaken most of the buildings, but a few roofs had yet to cave in. Here we met twenty adolescents in the care of a lonely adult. The man was running what turned out to be a summer camp for troubled youths from the mainland. A fascinating conversation revealed that he had grown up in this village (before its abandonment), moved to another reservation and then to Powell River, and was now trying to teach the kids the values of tradition and hard work. Each morning they bathed in the creek, carefully returning their personal cleansing rock to its place on the sandy bottom after use. Afternoons were spent clearing brambles from trails and tending the remaining houses. Although I can’t say that all of the youngsters were enthusiastic (one referred to the stunning location as “Jail”), the enthusiasm of the councilor (and his fond stories of ancient traditions) left an indelible memory of both the plight and promise of Native American culture.

Sea kayaking is playing a significant role in B.C.’s adventure tourism market, with some segments of the kayak industry growing at about 15% per year. To fulfill the growing interest, several businesses have opened on the Discovery Islands over the past decade, some of them just this year.

A number of other Quadra and Cortes island businesses offer kayaking trips and lessons. They include Heriot Bay Inn, April Point Lodge, T’ai Li Lodge, and Quadra Island Canoe and Kayak Rentals. Geophilia Adventures, based out of Granite Bay on Quadra, offers kayak leadership courses. One of Geophilia’s owners, Liam Edwards, is president of the Sea Kayak Guides Alliance of B.C.

There is no doubt that the Discovery Islands group is quickly becoming a very popular kayaking destination on the B.C. coast. More and more people are getting their paddles wet exploring the coves and passages of this beautiful archipelago.

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