Sunshine Coast

Paddling the Sunshine Coast

It’s a summer afternoon along the rugged, rocky Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, just two hours northwest of Vancouver, and my friend Jim and I have just cruised into a place called Secret Cove. In truth, it does feel like a secret. As we nimbly paddle our sea kayaks from bay to bay and navigate around little islands and inlets, the closest we come to encountering other people is the occasional far-off sailboat sighting. A bald eagle swoops into the dense green trees to our left; to our right, a gull wrestles with a fish in a tangle of seaweed. As I run my paddle through the silvery blue water, I feel that each swell has a weight to it, the sheen like the back of a whale. The surface gleams like liquid hematite.

Though just a short ferry hop from Vancouver across Howe Sound, the 50-mile stretch of craggy forest and marine parks that makes up the Sunshine Coast feels far away from the city’s action. Much of the coastline, fringing the southern mainland of British Columbia, is accessible only by boat and is protected as provincial parkland. Though it’s possible out here to run through all four seasons in a single day, the resort area is typically drier and sunnier than the rest of coastal British Columbia.

 On the 40-minute ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver, the geographic and mental shift happens quickly, taking passengers from an urban, glass-walled landscape to one dominated by snowcapped mountains and wide-ranging swaths of green. On our trip there in June, Jim and I drove straight from the airport to catch the last ferry of the day at 9 p.m. It was two nights after the summer solstice, and the sky was still bright, the wide, tranquil bay doused with a golden light that eventually cooled to a smoky blue. When we docked, the hull doors of the Queen of Surrey opened slowly with a hiss, like something out of “Battlestar Galactica,” revealing the inky darkness beyond. We got into our rental car and drove the 28 winding miles to Rockwater, a resort tucked away in the tiny seaside town of Halfmoon Bay.

Vancouver Island is perfectly placed to protect the Georgia Strait coastline from the most vigorous Pacific weather conditions, which means you can launch a kayak or canoe anywhere from Gibsons to Pender Harbour and paddle it in relatively safe and calm waters most days of the year.

 It had been raining over the past week, but the morning dawned bright and clear. We headed down to the resort’s private beach, where Halfmoon Sea Kayaks offers rentals and guided tours. A friendly staff member named Gord outfitted us with kayaks, paddles, spray skirts and a map of the area’s marine parks, including Smuggler Cove, a sheltered maze of rocks and sand flats, and Simson, which consists of South Thormanby, an island just offshore. Tons of aquatic creatures thrive off it, including sea cucumbers, purple starfish and phosphorescent plankton visible during moonlight paddles.

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 After an afternoon spent kayaking, there was still plenty of daylight, and we went searching for a place to refuel. Connecting the towns that dot the Lower Sunshine Coast are narrow, meandering roads with nary a traffic light. In the towns themselves, we found easygoing pubs that combine brews with views, like Grasshopper Pub, north of Halfmoon Bay in Madeira Park, and Lighthouse Pub, to the south in Sechelt, the region’s hub.

At Lighthouse, the patio was crowded with patrons enjoying bowls of fresh mussels, pitchers of beer and a streaky sunset over a protected marina lined with sailboats and colorful floatplanes. It was recommended to us as the best spot around for a casual night out, situated as it is right at the tranquil, mountain-surrounded entrance to Porpoise Bay. Lighthouse is the kind of place that lets you relax into the local scene.

Exciting, awesome and at times challenging, the Sunshine Coast guarantees the sea kayaker unlimited explorations of magnificent bays, inlets and off shore islands. Contrary to popular belief, the Sunshine Coast is not an island. However, it is indeed true that the Sunshine Coast is surrounded on many sides by a ton of water. Sechelt Inlet, also known as the Inland Sea, offers miles of protected sea kayaking including two large inlets reaching back into the BC mainland (Narrows and Salmon Inlets). There are four kayaking companies operating out of the inlet this year, offering rentals, excursions and great lessons for beginners.

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On our way back to catch the ferry to Vancouver, we stopped at Gibsons, a town of about 4,000 that is considered the region’s gateway. We strolled along the marina, admiring the sailboats moored along the harbor and the misty mountains in the distance. Gibsons served as the backdrop for “The Beachcombers,” a hugely popular and long-running Canadian television series in the 1970s and ’80s. Beloved by locals, the show is a gem, little known to Americans.

Major Highlights

Howe Sound

The first of the many inlets along the Sunshine Coast is Howe Sound. Dotted with islands and surrounded by the towering coastal mountains, the islands of Howe Sound offers many exciting paddles. Bowen, Keats, Gambier and the Pasleys Islands provide opportunities for day paddles or stay in the many camping spots in the region for a longer exploration. Each of these islands can be accessed from the marina in the village of Gibsons.

Wild Life

Love to see some wild life during your outings? A wide variety of sea birds make their home in the Sound, especially during the winter months. Expect to see Harlequin ducks, Scoters, Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, Mergansers, Loons, Bald Eagles and others in their seasons as well as the occasional rare Marbled Murrelet. The local seal colonies will delight you, whether lazing on their haulouts or poking up out of the water. Add a couple of comical river otters and those pesky little coons and your day is complete. Deer, mink and even the occasional Orca Whale may be encountered in the region.

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The Sechelt Inlet

And this is just the beginning. The Sechelt Inlet is one of the favourite destinations on the coast. This long, narrow inland sea offers seven marine parks for great camping as one moves up towards Narrows Inlet and Tzoonie Narrows Marine Park.

Offshore Islands of Georgia Strait

The offshore islands of Georgia Strait give the more experienced paddler a taste of something different. These more challenging waters will extend your paddling experience by confronting you with more choices. Striking out onto Georgia Strait, the paddler should feel confident about their rescues and braces. That special thrill awaits when you venture far enough from land that a sense of disassociation occurs! Play in the waves on the outside coast, experience the heighten state that occurs as the big ones wash over one’s deck or stay in the lee of the islands, it’s your choice.

The Pasley Islands

The Pasley Island group at the mouth of Howe Sound is a wonderful place to start. Leaving from Gibsons Harbour, out through the gap and across Barfleur Passage and you are in the middle of a lovely archipelago, five islands to explore. Remember to keep back 300 feet when you pass the seal haulout, especially in spring when the pups are young. Relax on the beach or have a refreshing swim before coming back.

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Words Of Caution 

Some words of caution for the paddler in any of these regions. Winds are generated in all the inland waters by the sun and the topography of the area. Generally, there will be thermal winds blowing up the inlets beginning at about 10am and continuing til late afternoon. The state of the tide will also affect the wave height. If you ride the wind and tide going, remember it will be a challenge to return. Bears and other pests should be considered when camping here. Bring enough rope to hang your food away from your camp and take all your garbage home with you to minimize the risks for both you and the animals. For more detailed information about the hazards and about all the many trips available, refer to our book, “Paddling the Sunshine Coast” available in local paddling shops and, of course from Sunshine Kayaking in Gibsons.

For more photos of paddling the Sunshine Coast CLICK HERE

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