BC Marine Trails: 25 years later

My new year’s resolution is to spend more time on my sea kayak. It possesses almost miraculous properties: it is a four-metre, plastic rejuvination machine. After a day on the water, ideally paddling as far as I can, sometimes until the coast is out of sight, I feel ready for anything.
- George Monbiot, The Guardian, Jan. 2, 2020

 At some time in their lives, many people develop an itch to escape civilization and journey into the wild. Such people have been exploring British Columbia’s coast since time immemorial. Twenty-five years ago, my then-girlfriend Julee and I felt ‘the itch’ and decided to scratch it by paddling two months and 600-km from Bella Bella to Tofino. But a far-sighted grad student named Peter McGee had a bigger vision. He realized the world risked losing this experience if nothing was done to protect the coast. McGee sprang into action, creating the BC Marine Trail Association. To develop support for the organization, McGee also paddled 1,100 kilometres from Alaska to Vancouver and helped prepare two books for paddlers. This article is about the evolution of the BC Marine Trail as both an association and a paddling route, highlighting its accomplishments over the years, the changing context within which it operates, and challenges that still must be faced to fulfill McGee’s vision of permanent protection. It is also the story of how BCMTs journey, McGee’s and ours have crossed paths over the years.

I caught up with McGee recently at the Stable House Bistro, one of three restaurants he owns (Fiora and Fiora Famiglia are the other two) near the Stanley Theatre on Granville Street in Vancouver. “Peter likes to sit here,” says bearded chef Mike as he guides me to a table. When Peter arrives, he is dressed in grey fleece and radiates the same boyish enthusiasm as when I first met him 25 years ago. Always someone with big dreams, he is also clearly a man of action - a serial entrepreneur with three restaurants and multiple other businesses on the go, a wife Lauren and a three-year-old child at home. McGee’s cellphone buzzes several times before we sit down. But the Marine Trail remains near to his heart and McGee puts the phone aside and greets me enthusiastically.

IMG 4225

The co-author and Peter McGee.

McGee’s inspiration for the marine trail, he tells me, came from three places. He was first drawn to kayaking by his high school geology teacher and outdoor club leader Bob Turner who remains quite a character judging from YouTube videos about his travels on the Sea To Sky Marine Trail in Howe Sound.

McGee’s second inspiration came from working at the Ecomarine kayak store on Vancouver’s Granville Island. McGee worked with the store’s original owner, John Dowd, whose book, Sea Kayaking: A Manual For Long Distance Touring became a bible of sorts for sea kayaking adventurers around the world. At Ecomarine, McGee also worked with the store’s new owner, Chris Ladner, to help a stream of kayakers from all over the world load supplies into their kayaks on the dock in front of the store. Many of these kayakers stopped in at Ecomarine to purchase a few last-minute items, then pushed off from the dock, bound for Alaska.

McGee later entered a Masters program at Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Environmental Management where he found his third inspiration. While working on his thesis, McGee looked at water trails in Maine and Washington State and thought a similar linear trail might work in British Columbia.

McGee brings out his original thesis to the restaurant and spreads it out in front of me on the table. Flipping through its pages, he shows me the survey he developed for paddlers, kayak retailers and tour guides to assess support for a marine trail.

“Most people want to go to the west coast, but where they actually go is the Gulf Islands and Howe Sound which are a lot easier to get to,” he says. “And most people want unimproved wilderness campsites where they can feel close to nature, not overdeveloped sites with tent pads and fire rings.”

81% of the people he surveyed supported the idea of a marine trail.

“I’ll be 50 in eight months,” he says. “I’ve been working on a marine trail for half my life.”

What is a marine trail?

A marine trail is a network of launch, day-use and overnight-camping sites that facilitate continuous safe travel from beginning to end. A single gap anywhere in the trail makes the whole trail potentially unsafe.

Marine trails should guide paddlers toward high-value sites that offer scenic beauty, accessible beaches, and a durable surface on a beach or upland area suitable for ‘leave no trace’ camping. The trail should also guide paddlers away from sites that are ecologically sensitive, or of cultural or archaeological significance to First Nations. Campsites should be available roughly every eight nautical miles (15 km), representing a typical day’s paddle for a party of moderate skill and endurance. The maximum safe distance between sites is 12 nautical miles (22 km). A safety-stop allowing paddlers to quickly get off the water should be located no more than 4 nautical miles (7-km) from another safety stop or marine trail site. Significant tidal rapids or exposed crossings require special consideration in finalizing the marine trail design.

Marine trails have to adapt to changing circumstances. Triquet Island near Hakai Pass, once a delightful paddler campsite, is now off limits due to archaeological work on ancient settlements. Apodaca Park on Bowen Island has never been a marine trail campsite, but a project is underway to add tent pads and an outhouse in order to potentially allow camping later this year.

Parallel journeys down the BC Marine Trail

Twenty-five years ago, when Julee and I felt ‘the itch’ to explore BC’s wild coast, we had already completed several paddling trips together and I had read Dowd’s book. But there was little information on potential paddling routes. For advice, we went to Chris Ladner at Ecomarine. We told him that we had a two-month time window (one-month vacation and one-month unpaid leave of absence) and a desire to accumulate wild beaches more than paddling miles. Ladner helped us immensely by pulling nautical charts from a dusty grey cabinet at the back of his store and pointing with his finger to the most inviting spots there, there and there. Following Ladner’s advice, we picked a route from Bella Bella to Tofino, rather than as many people did, from Washington (or from the Ecomarine dock) to Alaska.

Rolling onto ferry at Port Hardy

Rolling onto the ferry from Port Hardy to Bella Bella.

McGee also felt ‘the itch’, but he developed a bolder plan.  He would expand on a trip taken two years earlier and paddle from Alaska to Vancouver with CBC Reporter Greg Rasmussen and two other buddies, along  the way filming The Living Coast - a documentary for The Discovery Channel.  Rasmussen would write a book about their trip (Kayaking in Paradise: Journeys From Alaska Through The Inside Passage) and McGee would  compile a guide book for paddlers, Kayak Routes of the Pacific Northwest Coast.

The 'Kelp Highway'

When Julee I took our first paddle strokes south from Bella Bella, there was not yet a marine trail by that name nor a prescribed set of campsites along its route. We aimed for the sites suggested by Ladner. Everything else would be hit or miss. We knew our route would take us through areas that remained in a wild or semi-wild state where dispersed camping was permitted. We knew the Coastal Navigation Act protected public access up to the high tide line. And we knew that most of our intended route had been paddled for millennia by First Nations. Like them, we’d just have to figure it out as we went along.

The first humans to figure-it-out and to move across the Bering Land Bridge from Asia to North America arrived at least 15,000 years ago according to a January 2020 article in The Smithsonian Magazine. These early settlers made their way along a ‘Kelp Highway’ following a rim of productive coastline where food sources were both abundant and familiar. Artifacts left behind by these first people are mostly now in areas covered by rising seas. But the peculiar physics of glaciation has left a few islands with sea levels today roughly the same as 15,000 years ago. At Triquet Island, archaeologists working with the Hakai Institute have excavated a site containing obsidian cutting tools, fishhooks and fire-starting implements dating from 14,100 years ago.

On nearby Calvert Island, archaeologists found footprints belonging to two adults and a child in a layer of clay-rich soil dated to 13,000 years ago.

At Quadra Island, archaeologists have unearthed spear points, flake knives, and egg-size stones used as hammers dating from 12,800 years ago.

Alongside this archaeological evidence, evolutionary geneticists have found DNA evidence suggesting humans were on both sides of the Bering Land Bridge some 20,000 years ago, 5,000 years earlier than once thought. We don’t know what watercraft these early settlers used, but we do know that humans have been constructing seagoing dugout canoes, umiaks, kayaks and other watercraft to traverse the coasts of present-day Asia, Alaska and British Columbia for countless millennia.

What drove these ancient people? Did they feel the same ‘itch’ McGee and other modern paddlers feel today? Was there something deep within these early humans – an innate yearning to explore – that recognized a small boat and an open coast ahead as means to fulfilment? According to Eske Willerslev (the Prince Philip Chair of Ecology and Evolution at Cambridge University and director of the Center For GeoGenetics), “It’s obviously driven by something other than just resources. And I think the most obvious thing is curiosity.” Or perhaps a complex interplay between curiosity and resources was at work. At the top of the social hierarchy, those with access to the most resources probably stayed put. No one who had more than they needed likely went very far. Further down the hierarchy, those experiencing scarcity would have sought to improve their lot by exploring farther away. Successful explorers would have been favoured in the gene pool, possibly increasing the next generation’s propensity for curiosity and exploration.

Early exploration along the Kelp Highway could also have been driven by something much simpler: paddling makes us happy. Modern psychologists and geneticists point to a multitude of reasons why paddling has always been intrinsically gratifying. Paddling represents a “positive quest” that is physical rather than sedentary, two keys to happiness according to psychologists. While paddling, kayakers become totally immersed in the activity in a way that fully absorbs the conscious mind, a mental state psychologists call “flow” that is a third key to happiness. Humans have been shown to be happier when surrounded with blue and green colours similar to the water and trees where hunter-gatherer societies first evolved. And geneticists believe that humans are neurologically programmed to have one foot planted in the order and security of home life, while the other foot wanders beyond the horizon attempting to convert unexplored terrain into habitable productive territory. The fundamental tension between being rooted and footloose is programmed into our very genes. A “wanderlust gene” (DRD4-7R) found in around 20 percent of the modern population has been linked to novelty-seeking, risk-taking and extraversion. Millions of years of evolution, it seems, have neurologically programmed both early and modern humans to get out there in nature, explore and discover.

Rounding Cape Scott

Rounding Cape Scott.

CREATION OF BC MARINE TRAILS AS AN ORGANIZATION

BC Marine Trails has followed a complex path: birth, a slow death, and finally, resurrection. The original BC Marine Trail Association (BCMTA) was the brainchild of McGee, who was far-sighted in recognizing the need to protect well-spaced landing sites along the entire length of the coast while it was still possible. He started forming the association in 1993 while working on his Masters’ thesis and in 1995 began spreading the word to the general public through The Coastal Watch - Official Newsletter of the BC Marine Trail Association. McGee worked with the Ministry of Forests to inventory potential trail sites along the coast. One of the first successes of the BCMTA was at Blackberry Point on Valdez Island where the organization established its first trail campsite, equipped with a composting toilet.

Despite its promising start and enormous support from paddlers and sponsors, a confluence of factors led to the organization’s slow demise. Lack of funding, cutbacks within government, a low level of public awareness, the departure of McGee, weak links with local paddling clubs, and the focus of the organization on a single but enormous trail over 1,100 kilometres long, all played their part. The BCMTA simply did not have the capacity to take on a project that large and after a long decline, the organization ‘Petered out’ (pun intended).

Fortunately, the “idea” of a BC Marine Trail did not die. It was kept alive by Ray Pillman at the Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C. (ORC) and by its champion within government, Charlie Cornfield, District Recreation Officer in Campbell River for Recreational Sites and Trails B.C. (RSTBC). Cornfield was given a mandate to continue working on a marine trail. He succeeded in inventorying beaches along the entire coast but did not have sufficient funding to categorize their suitability for kayakers, nor the power to legally protect them in parks (although temporary protection under Section 56 of the Forest Act was sometimes possible to prevent nearby logging). According to Cornfield, the province could establish sites and reserves, but only an active user community working in tandem with First Nations and local communities could truly protect these sites and preserve public access to them.

In 2007, paddlers noticed long-used wilderness campsites being threatened from various directions. Local paddling clubs took a renewed interest in a marine trail, bringing with them a sense of attachment to local paddling trails and a passion about maintaining public access to trail sites. A flurry of online activity at Westcoastpaddler.com culminated in a historic meeting on Dec. 15, 2007 at the ORC offices in Vancouver. Representatives from several paddling clubs gathered with Pillman, Cornfield, Dan Millsip and Mick Allen of Westcoastpaddler.com, author John Kimantas, and Peter McGee and Chris Ladner of the defunct BCMTA. Within the next year, a new association was formed under the leadership of Stephanie Meinke and christened the B.C. Marine Trails Network Association – a name which was later shortened to BC Marine Trails (BCMT).

Tofino

Successful journey’s end at Tofino.

MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF THE BCMT

After its reincarnation in 2007, BCMT has maintained its original focus on securing access to water trail sites for public recreation along the entire 27,000-km coastline of British Columbia. The organization’s major accomplishments to date include:

  • Membership – BCMT has grown to 12 paddling clubs and over 600 paid up members and nearly 10,000 followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
  • Volunteers - BCMT volunteers have collectively invested tens of thousands of hours to assess, inventory and upgrade landing sites along the coast.
  • Stewardship – BCMT has conducted many plastics and invasive species clean-ups along the coast, including at least one major plastics clean-up of a west coast beach each year. A recent video captures the BCMT’s stewardship program.
  • Marine Trail Map - BCMT has catalogued 3,500+ potential landing sites and put these into a multi-layered geo-tagged map available online at the BCMT website.
  • Infrastructure – BCMT has built up the organization with new mapping, IT and accounting software, a new Volunteer program, a First Nations Engagement program, Safety Mandate, and 2020-2023 Strategic Plan. By the end of 2020, work is expected to be completed on a new Environmental Care Program and Code of Conduct for paddlers funded with a grant from Mountain Equipment Co-Op.
  • New and Upgraded Trail Sites – Over a dozen new trail sites have been created, and a few popular sites have been upgraded with improved landing areas, composting toilets, tent pads and removal of dangerous trees.
  • New Marine Trails – Together with partners, BCMT has opened four new marine trails and re-energized work on McGee’s original vision of an Inside Passage Marine Trail connecting Washington State to Alaska.

NEW MARINE TRAILS

British Columbia’s first water trail was established in 1961 at Bowron Lakes Provincial Park. A 116-km circle route within the park links nine lakes and two rivers along a series of connecting portages. Our family, others we know, and Peter McGee have each independently used this route as a warm-up for bolder expeditions on the open coast. The trip takes about a week to complete and has been described by Outside Magazine as one of the top 10 canoe trips in the world.

In recent years, BCMT has helped extend the water trail concept into coastal marine environment with four new maritime trails.

  • Gulf Islands Marine Trail - Established in 2011 to connect Nanaimo to Victoria.
  • Cape Scott Marine Trail - Still underway but mostly complete, connecting Port Hardy to Coal Harbour around the north end of Vancouver Island. 
  • Sea to Sky Marine Trail - Established in 2015 to connect Horseshoe Bay to Gibsons via six new campsites, three existing provincial parks and a regional park. Many volunteers from BCMT and from the Sea Kayak Association of BC (SKABC) have worked on this project, surveying sites and preparing landings and camping areas. Both organizations are working together to help create the new marine trail campsite at Apodaca Park on Bowen Island.
  • Salish Sea Marine Trail - Established in 2017 to connect Vancouver to Victoria as part of Trans Canada Trail’s Great Trail. The full 275-km trail can take two weeks to paddle or can be broken down into shorter legs as described on the BCMT website. The trail was officially opened with a flotilla.

Sea to sky map Sea to sky map

Sea To Sky Marine Trail and Salish Sea Marine Trail.

New trails are an exciting development for paddlers! 25 years ago, Julee and I thought we had to head days into the wilderness to enjoy an extended kayak-camping trip, but now we can do it practically from our doorstep. One potential launch site for Vancouver paddlers is at the Jericho Sailing Center where there is a small BCMT sign. Yet most Jericho paddlers remain unaware they can launch from the beach and paddle the Sea to Sky Marine Trail to Gibsons, paddle the Salish Sea Marine Trail to Victoria, or paddle all the way to Ketchican or Glacier Bay Alaska.

WHAT’S CHANGED OVER 25 YEARS?

Over the past 25 years, the marine trail concept has become better established and information about paddling routes has improved. The social and environmental context within which marine trails operate has also changed with more attention given to First Nations issues, marine protected areas, plastics and climate change. To adapt to these changes, BCMT has had to evolve as an organization.

Growth of the Marine Trail Concept Internationally

The marine trail concept has become well-established internationally. There are now marine trails in Canada, the United States and New Zealand and river-based or lake-based water trails in many other countries around the world.

  • Maine Island Trail – Established in 1988, America’s first marine trail connects over 200 islands from New Hampshire to Canada. The 375-mile trail is administered by the Washington Water Trail Association using a mix of volunteers and professional staff, a fleet of patrol boats, and even a cellphone app for paddlers. It is the largest water trail association in America and a model for other water trails across the country. Focussed from the beginning on protection and stewardship rather than promotion, its abiding principle has been to convert every user to a steward, the careless to careful, and the uninformed to enlightened.
  • Cascadia Marine Trail - Stretching from southernmost Puget Sound near Olympia Washington 140-miles to the Canadian border, the trail has grown to 66 campsites and 160 day-use sites accessed through over 100 launch sites. Stewards from the Washington Water Trail Association care for the sites along with park staff and other volunteers. Established in 1990, the WWTA also supports six river-based water trails.
  • Florida Marine Trails – Florida has over 4000 miles of paddling trails, coordinated by The Florida Office of Greenways and Trails.
  • Te Ara Moana Kayak Trail – Established in 2013, this 51-km New Zealand trail connects five regional parks on Auckland’s south coast on routes traditionally paddled by the Maori.


Growth of Reliable Information About Paddling Marine Trails

In recent years there has been an explosion of information about paddling British Columbia’s marine trails, in many cases using new technologies. The word-of-mouth suggestions and paper maps that Julee and I used to plan our trip can now be supplemented with guidebooks, trail maps and DVDs.

On the BCMT website, previewing paddling routes has never been easier! With the click of a few buttons, today’s paddlers can launch a geotagged map of the entire coast, zooming into and out of hundreds of marine trail sites seamlessly scaled to satellite imagery. In the future, BCMT’s map information might appear in a cell phone app, like MITA’s does today.

Looking to scratch your paddling itch? A quick YouTube search reveals videos not only about BCMT, but also other paddling locations around the world. Many are shot in 4k using GoPro cameras and overhead drones with production values that rival professionally shot documentaries. Paddlers today can go to a tablet or smart TV and watch BCMT’s latest video, paddle across Bass Strait, or escape to the Lofoton Islands in Norway!

Engagement With Coastal First Nations

It is telling that the first three issues of Coastal Watch did not contain a single mention of First Nations. In comparison, this year’s BCMT budget calls for 45% of total spending to be on First Nations Engagement. BCMT now recognizes that little progress can be made on marine trails without First Nations support.

According to Paul Grey: "One of the principal values of the BCMT is to promote public access to public places. We also recognize in most cases the traditional lands of coastal First Nations are unceded and that recreational use is taking place without agreements. As coastal use increases, as pressures arise on popular paddling and boating areas, as some coastal sites are lost to other purposes, we must think carefully about the coastal recreational user and their ability to access pristine areas. A main BCMT strategy in coming years will be to understand the complexity of this situation and work toward recreational use that reflects the interests of the Coastal Aboriginal Peoples."

BCMT is now working toward sustained engagement with First Nations. To help guide its efforts, BCMT has created a First Nations Working Group and it’s Chair, an experienced former provincial negotiator, has written a “Guidebook for Engaging with First Nations”. Face to face meetings between the BCMT and many coastal First Nations leaders have now taken place. Over time, BCMT hopes to work with First Nations to help design and manage sites and trails, to establish protocols for visiting traditional lands, and to develop other tools necessary to proceed in a more respectful and collaborative manner.

Marine Protected Areas (“MPAs”)

Where water trails once existed in a narrow recreational context, many are now looked at by government in the wider context of Marine Protected Areas. Under a joint initiative of the United Nations and the International Union For Conservation of Nature, many nations have committed to set aside 10% of their coastal marine environment in MPAs. National commitments are tracked in the World Database on Protected Areas, viewable online at https://www.protectedplanet.net/. Since 2000, there has been over a ten-fold increase in the planet’s MPAs which now cover 7.9% of the world’s oceans.

Canada has committed to establish a network of MPAs making up 10% of its coastal area by 2020. Over 8,254 MPA’s have been created so far, covering 11% of Canada’s terrestrial area (lakes, rivers, wetlands) and 3% of its marine area. On the coast of British Columbia, conservation planning is guided by the Canada-British Columbia Marine Protected Areas Strategy. British Columbia has committed to provide sustainable management of the natural values in its coastal marine environments, to conserve biodiversity and to provide access to outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities within marine parks and protected areas.

BCMT’s interests are well aligned with MPA strategy. BCMT seeks to work toward a future in which governments: embrace the marine trail concept; incorporate conceptual and geospatial input from BCMT into MPA process and design; and preserve recreational use and public access to marine trail sites in perpetuity where feasible, working in cooperation with First Nations, coastal communities and other stakeholders. BCMT seeks to assist government by: guiding paddlers toward high value sites and away from sensitive sites; communicating key sustainability messages to the paddling public through our Environmental Care Program, Code of Conduct, Respect for First Nations, Stewardship and other initiatives; and helping First Nations and coastal communities better capture economic benefits of marine trails.

Emerging Challenges

New challenges to BCMT’s vision have arisen over the years, some with workable solutions and others where solutions have yet to be identified. Population growth is in the former group. B.C.’s population is projected to increase from 3.7 million in 1995 to 5.8 million by 2030, an increase of over two million people! More and more people are using the coast, and more yet will be using it in the future. Protection of marine trail sites while we still can is thus more critical today than ever. The BCMT has been formed with this as its primary focus and is doing everything it can toward this goal.

With more people around, there appears to be no shortage of young kayakers being introduced to the sport. Many parent friends of ours have introduced their children to kayaking through school-based outdoor programs or through kayak lessons, guided trips, outdoor lodges or summer camps. Mounting an expedition on one’s own, however, requires training and equipment that is not easy for the young paddler to attain. With the average detached house now topping $1 million in Vancouver, and with few apartments having secure kayak storage, the cost of owning and storing a kayak has become a serious roadblock keeping many millennials from progressing with the sport. Fortunately, owning and storing your own kayak is no longer the only option. Kayaks can be rented or stored at many locations convenient to popular paddling destinations. Or paddlers can try a kayak-share program similar to what Car2Go, Evo and Zipcar offer for cars. A small annual fee gives Club Locarno members access to a full fleet of single and double kayaks at Jericho Beach in Vancouver. The club covers all maintenance and storage costs and members can book multi-day trip rentals for a nominal sum per day. Only time will tell if similar kayak-share services gain traction elsewhere.

Greater public attention has recently been focused on climate change and the accumulation of plastics throughout the marine ecosystem. These are global problems that BCMT on its own cannot solve. While thinking globally, the BCMT takes action locally, for example by arranging regular plastic clean-ups on west coast beaches and other Stewardship initiatives. New volunteers are always welcome and are invited to register on the BCMT website.

BCMT – THE NEXT 25 YEARS

BC Marine Trails was formed for an attempted “moonshot,” creating  an 1,100-km paddling trail from Washington State to Alaska. Moving forward, BCMT will make new attempts at shorter trails like the potential Cape Scott Marine Trail, Sechelt Loop Marine Trail and Discovery Islands Marine Trail. There will also be a sustained effort at creating a potential Inside Passage Marine Trail (“IPMT”) working cooperatively with First Nations and government MPA initiatives.  The IPMT concept is built around McGee’s original visionfor the trail. It would be an iconic, highly visible trail, much larger than British Columbia’s West Coast Trail, and similar in scope to the Pacific Crest Trail, or Appalachian Trail for hikers. The IPMT would recognize and celebrate the special role of coastal First Nations. And it would be a government legacy project for the benefit of future generations. To procced, BCMT will likely require funding from government to support First Nations engagement, archaeological studies, site assessments and community/stakeholder consultations, and also to cover general and administrative costs to see the project through to completion.

Cape Scott Map Cape Scott Map Cape Scott Map

Potential Cape Scott Marine Trail, Potential Sechelt Loop Marine Trail, Potential Inside Passage Marine Trail.

WHAT HASN’T CHANGED

The idea of self-propelled travel in a canoe or kayak continues to leap from generation to generation, inspiring paddlers as it has for millennia. Our journey along the marine trail was the trip-of-a-lifetime. After completing the trip, we married, had two sons, and of course, introduced them to sea kayaking. Our boys are now experienced kayakers in their own right and might one day feel ‘the itch’ to do an extended journey of their own. McGee and his wife Lauren are also beginning to consider future adventures sailing and paddling water trails as their three-year old gets older.

Quite simply, the marine trails of British Columbia are some of the world’s greatest outdoor adventures. As wilderness thru-paddles, they cannot be topped. They offer meaningful time in the wilderness, beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife, stunning wild beaches to camp on, and reasonable transportation alternatives at both ends…all with no portages, few bugs, and plenty of room in a kayak for a folding chair and wine!

For those who care about the coast or who have ever felt ‘the itch’ to paddle in the wild, get involved. Volunteer. Donate. Write letters. And get your kids involved too. Only an active user community working in tandem with First Nations and local communities can truly protect marine trail sites and preserve public access to them for future generations.

Kids Paddling

Our sons paddling on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

CROSSED PATHS

When Julee and I set out from Bella Bella to Tofino, Julee’s father thought we were “foolhardy,” especially my plan to sail with a outrigger made from two bumper-floats attached to our hand-held spare paddle. He seemed little comforted by my promise to bring Julee back “with all her fingers and toes”. My employer, a bank, told me I ‘wasn’t a team player’ and that they couldn’t guarantee me a job when I returned. I told them they couldn’t guarantee me a job even if I didn’t go. I’d take my chances. There was no foreseeable “better” time, and I wasn’t going to miss out on the trip-of-a-lifetime. When all was ready, Julee and I caught a ferry from Port Hardy to Bella Bella and set out.

We completed our journey in Tofino and afterwards returned to Ecomarine to thank Chris Ladner for his help guiding us towards a suitable route. Ladner put us in touch with McGee who asked if we’d help with a public slide show as a fundraiser for the organization. The photo of Julee that leads off this article is the same one used on our posters to advertise the fundraiser.

McGee kicked off the evening slide show with a presentation about his 1,100-km paddle from Alaska to Vancouver with CBC reporter Greg Rasmussen and two other buddies. McGee’s energetic presentation featured buff male paddlers battling wind, rain, enormous seas and exhaustion to make their way down the Inside Passage.

Julee cooking cinnamon buns

Julee cooking cinnamon buns.

Many in the audience were surprised to see Julee and I take the stage next: a middle-aged banker returned to a desk-job and his pretty blonde girlfriend, then working as a systems analyst for an environmental consulting company. The contrast with the earlier presentation was obvious and something we played up in our presentation for comic effect. Our trip wasn’t so much about braving rough seas as avoiding them, while sitting beside the campfire on expansive wild beaches, sipping wine and eating freshly cooked cinnamon buns. Julee was terrified of public speaking and worked hard to steel herself for the presentation. To laughter from the assembled crowd, we shared these details from our trip:

Distance: ~403 nautical miles, 56 days, 25 campsites, 75 wild sandy beaches, only 6 days with some sailing (the rarified conditions for sailing a keel-less kayak were met only briefly before wind speeds increased to dangerous levels), 8 Capes “bagged” (Calvert, Caution, Sutil, Scott, Russell, Palmerston, Perkins and Cook). Average paddling speed - 3 knots. Average paddling day - 15 nautical miles. Maximum in two days 51 nautical miles (from Burnett Bay on the mainland around Cape Scott at the north end of Vancouver Island, nearly 100-km).

Wildlife: Grey whales - 10; Humpback whales – 0; Stellar Sea Lions - too many, too close and angry at us for encroaching on territory they considered theirs while rounding Cape Scott; Sea Otters >300; Orcas - 15 swimming and 1 eyeing us carefully on our beach as it spy-hopped with its baby only a few meters offshore; really BIG salmon hooked 5, landed 0.

Food: Fresh - 9 dinners of fish, 2 of limpets in a tomato sauce and 1 of crab dipped in butter. Favourite home-dried dinner - Kerala Prawns in a coconut curry cream sauce over rice. Favourite desserts: apple pie and cinnamon buns cooked fresh by Julee in the fabric oven that went over our camp stove. Least favourite meal - repast at Winter Harbour (after a month in the wild, we gorged on cookies, licorice, store-bought cinnamon buns, chocolate bars, potato chips and pop).

Number of: Blackened toenails - Jerry 9, Julee 0; times seasick - Jerry 0, Julee 1; times peed in wetsuit – Jerry 2, Julee 0; articles of clothing eaten by mice – Jerry 1, Julee 0; times turned back  due to unsafe paddling conditions – 1; times should have turned back but didn’t - 2.

Glorious sunsets beside a glowing campfire: dry 22, with wine or liqueur 14.

Enlightenment: glimpsed 5, grasped 0.

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Back at his Stable House Bistro, McGee has been respectful of our time together, but as a busy entrepreneur with three restaurants and several other businesses to run, eventually the buzzing on his phone cannot be ignored. Our conversation starts to wind down, but not Peter’s enthusiasm. We compare notes on outdoor adventures and aging knees, but conversation returns again and again to the Marine Trail.

“I think it might be time to put together another fundraiser for the Marine Trail”, he says. “This time at the Stanley Theatre. It seats about 600 people and you can rent it cheap on Sunday or Monday night. I know a few potential sponsors who might kick in some money. If we can get a speaker or two and round up friends, we could fill the theatre. It’d be great!”

“I’m proud of the Marine Trail and what it has become,” he says. “I’ve been involved for half my life and I’m not going to stop now.”

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Jerry and Julee Kaye have been exploring the coast of British Columbia by kayak and sailboat for over 35 years. They live in Vancouver. Jerry has Science and MBA degrees from UBC and had a lengthy career as a corporate banker before joining the BCMT Board. Julee is an SFU graduate with a PhD in Zoology from Oxford University. Their teenaged children are now experienced kayak adventurers in their own right. For more about their trip, go to the BCMT website and look for Kayaking Wisdom From the Wild and Quotations To Inspire Your Next Kayak Journey.

HEROES OF THE MARINE TRAIL

BCMT’s progress from idea to thriving organization would not have happened without the dogged efforts of hundreds of volunteers, sponsors, partners and other supporters along the way. Among these, a few individuals stand out as Heroes of the Marine Trail deserving of the public’s whole-hearted thanks (with apologies to others also worthy of recognition):

  • Peter McGee - who’s idea this was and who got the ball rolling.
  • Chris Ladner - for keeping it rolling with little support and being a supporter and inspiration to so many at Ecomarine.
  • Charlie Cornfield and Ray Pillman - for being the marine trail’s strongest champions within government and the ORC, respectively, and for their steadfast refusal to let the idea die.
  • John Kimantas - for his work over decades writing guidebooks and maps, being a passionate advocate for the marine trail, facilitating Board discussions and for his continuing work on BCMT’s Strategy, Environmental Care Program, and Code of Conduct.
  • Nick Heath, Mick Allen, Steve Best, Dan Milsip (and others) - for doggedly collecting and recording data for 3200+ potential trail sites and turning it into an online map available on the BCMT’s website, and for carving the Sea To Sky Marine Trail out of Howe Sound’s rubble, overgrown bush and inhospitable terrain.
  • Stephanie Meinke - for rebirthing the BCMTA in 2007 and serving as President until 2016.
  • Paul Grey - for taking the baton from Stephanie and as BCMTA’s next President, working tirelessly to recruit fresh blood, improve the organization’s strategic focus, financial structure, professionalism, and infrastructure. Paul remains on most of the committees, helping guide the organization. He works approximately 3/4 time for the organization as a volunteer.

WHERE TO GO FOR INFORMATION ABOUT PADDLING

The closure of Ecomarine in September 2019 came as a shock to many paddlers. As ground-zero for sea kayaking in British Columbia and an ongoing inspiration to many, it will be sorely missed. Information about paddling remains available on the BCMTA website, at kayak retailers and outdoor stores, on YouTube and from many other sources, including our nominees for:

  • Best guidebooks - BC Coast Explorer & Marine Trail Guide, Volume 1-3 by John Kimantas who has also created a series of detailed marine trail maps.
  • Best inspirational DVDs - award-winning This Is The Sea 1 through 5. These DVDs follow Justine Curgenven as she circumnavigates the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii), New Zealand’s South Island, or paddles across Bass Straight from Australia to Tasmania. Curgenven now lives on Vancouver Island, has become a kayaking celebrity of sorts and has delivered exiting presentations about her trips at numerous public forums.
  • Best historic account: The Sea Runners by Ivan Doig. A fictionalized account of an actual historical incident from 1853 in which four Scandinavian workers indentured to a Russian fur company escape in a stolen canoe and paddle in winter from Alaska to freedom in Astoria, Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River.
  • Best ‘how-not-to’ information: Although there are many good ‘how-to’ information sources, the best ‘how-not-to’ books are: Deep Trouble: True Stories and Their Lessons from Sea Kayaker Magazine and its follow-up More Deep Trouble. Serious kayakers would be well advised to consider not only the joys of paddling, but also how things go wrong, before undertaking a major expedition.

Connected article: Former BCMT President Stephanie Meinke reflects on the journey of BC Marine Trails under her leadership and on into the future.

Note from Peter McGee

Having a coffee with Jerry 25 years later, talking about the old days, new adventures and the progress of the BCMT is both surreal and humbling. I am happy for the considerable life of the project and so grateful to those such as Stephanie, John, Nick and now Paul who have picked up the torch at various points along the way and made the organization what it is today. 

Looking through the old editions of The Coastal Watch also reminds me of all the early adopters. People like Dave Getchell (Maine Island Trail Association - MITA) who provided limitless inspiration and tirelessly promoted water trails across North America. Chris Ladner (Ecomarine) and Grant Thompson (Tofino Expeditions) who provided unconditional support and, perhaps just as important, employment for me and free office space for the project. Charlie Cornfield (MOF) and Ray Pillman (ORC) deserve to be mentioned yet again for the legitimacy they brought to those early days. Rob Sanders from Greystone Books, John Dowd and all the editors and contributors for both editions of Kayak Routes of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Daryl Jensen for his work on The Coastal Watch, Charles Justice for his work on the northern sections, the first board members, the Charter Members such as Feathercraft, Nimbus, Current Designs and so many others, MEC and all the supporters of the annual BC Marine Trail marathon, John Nelson, Jamie Little, Bryan Bean, Ron and Sandi Ulmi and all who volunteered at kayak swaps, outhouse fundraisers and cleanups and, of course, those brave individuals who wrote their name on a very unpolished, photocopied membership form and had the courage to mail it along with a cheque and gave us that first push into the unknown.

Jerry coined the first attempt at the trail a “moonshot” and maybe it was but it has always been about the journey as well. 25 years into the project I’m extremely proud to have a part in the early history of the BCMT and incredibly thankful to all those who continue to work as stewards of our coast. As parents, I think Jerry and I share the dream of being able to show our kids all the special places along the way and it’s wonderful to know that a band of dedicated, caring people are looking after them. And while we reminisce about the beginning of the BCMT and its lofty ambitions, I’m not even sure there was ever a plan to actually reach the moon. The preservation of our wild coast will always require many voices so hopefully this is a story with no end and a very special thanks goes to Jerry for faithfully recording the adventure as it unfolds.

Vision

The BC Marine Trails New Vision: The entire B.C. coastline linked through marine routes and land sites for safe and sustainable water-based public recreation.

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