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Coastal Caretaking in the Broughton Archipelago

I peered into the dense thicket of trees, getting my first look at the forest floor as I searched for suitable island campsites. Squinting against the bright sun shining through the tops of the trees, I felt the soft plush of leaf-covered ground under my kayaking boots as I stepped off the cobbled beach and into the forest. I heard a cough and then a chuffing noise above me, and stopped in alarm. I recognized that sound! A medium-sized black bear was staring down at me, some 50 yards away. It, too, had frozen in place as we gazed at each other.

It was the 10th day of a 12-day kayaking trip through the Broughton Archipelago, a delightful array of islands just east of Telegraph Cove on Vancouver Island. This was my first visit to these islands, but a long-awaited one. The Broughton Archipelago is touted as a world-class kayaking destination in international kayaking magazines, and after paddling through much of the area, I had to agree. Not only were the islands verdant and unspoiled, they were nestled together to offer protection from even the gale-force winds that blow in more exposed areas and along Johnstone Strait. The wildlife was abundant, and the location offered a high likelihood of spotting the orca who frequently hunt along Blackfish Sound, Blackney Passage, and Johnstone Strait.

It was one of the most peaceful and relaxing kayaking trips I ever experienced. I was thoroughly enjoying the calm waters, the abundance of accessible yet uncrowded campsites, and the more relaxed vibe of protected seas and calmer weather—all conditions that I rarely experienced on my usual coastal kayaking expeditions around western Vancouver Island and coastal Alaskan waters. Moreover, on this trip I was conducting my first surveys as a Coastal Caretaker for the BC Marine Trails organization, a volunteer effort I was thoroughly enjoying, and hoping would offer me a chance to give back to this incredible environment that brought me so much joy.

The BC Marine Trails (BCMT) is a non-profit organization dedicated to working with First Nations and other stakeholders to build, protect, and promote a public network of marine trails along the British Columbia coastline, while minimizing impact on the environment. I came across their website while researching campsites for our trip, and as I read more about the organization, I did not hesitate to join up.

Without question, the BC Marine Trails map is incredibly useful for trip planning. Numerous campsites all across the coastal BC area are documented with facts and photos, offering not only convenience, but increased safety in the event of a need for an emergency landing. Most importantly, the map is constructed with input from First Nations and environmental agencies, so kayakers can avoid disrespecting protected waters and First Nations lands, avoid disturbing wildlife and nesting grounds, and avoid trespassing on private property as they paddle along the BC coast. 

After reviewing the BC Marine Trails website, I saw the web page inviting kayakers to consider combining adventure with contributing valuable data, by reporting on campsites. This sounded fun! I participated in a similar coastal kayaking volunteer effort with the Sitka Conservation Society in 2013, paddling through several of the Prince of Wales Islands in southeast Alaska while cleaning and restoring sites, reporting on culturally modified trees, and removing invasive species. In recent years, I have been writing trip reports of my kayaking expeditions on my blog, (, for the purpose of providing logistical information and campsite locations for fellow kayakers. My goal is to help paddlers have safe journeys, and to reduce our human impact on the wilderness by directing kayakers toward more established campsites. I downloaded and reviewed the forms for the two types of BCMT site reports: one simple form for existing sites, and a longer form for sites not yet established. As a kayaker used to scouting campsites from the water in remote locations, I found the forms straightforward and well designed for providing useful information to boaters.

On further exploration of the website, I saw the invitation to become a Coastal Caretaker. This role seemed very appealing too, with the stated vision of “preserving and protecting our marine coastline as a natural recreation paradise for all to appreciate now and in the future.” I learned that Coastal Caretakers are individuals or groups who give VOICE to this vision by

1) visiting a site on the BC Marine Trail network,

2) observing the condition of the site, from scouting for natural hazards or signs of negative human impact, to appreciating local wildlife and plants, and assessing the condition of site constructions such as outhouses, tent platforms, or picnic tables,

3) interacting with other site visitors to share information about efforts to protect the wilderness, and the Marine Code of Conduct, which provides guiding leave-no-trace principles more specifically formulated for this coastal environment,

4) caretaking, by removing debris and dismantling fire rings or driftwood structures, and

5) exchanging data through the site condition reports.

These are activities I tend to do anyway as I visit the coast, and with hopes that my data will be useful, I quickly signed up as a volunteer Coastal Caretaker as well. After studying the material on the website and taking a short training, I felt ready to get to work!

To report on site conditions, I had the options of simply downloading the forms to take with me on the trip and sending them in later by email or website upload, or downloading a handy app for a smartphone, the ArcGIS 123 Survey App. I used this app before for a citizen science project on coastal redwood trees and found it very sophisticated and easy to use. However, as my then ancient smartphone had a weak battery, I elected not to bring it on the trip but to use the paper forms and my journal notes instead. This required a little extra time, and a means for determining GPS coordinates to accompany my photos, but was nevertheless quite straightforward. Now that I have an upgraded smartphone, I’ll use the Survey123 app on future expeditions. The app allows caretakers to complete a report in minutes while on-site, even without cellular reception. Easy-peasy!

Thus, I found myself face to face with that black bear on the hill, during my quest to survey a campsite on west Swanson Island during a short lunch break. The bear swung off to the right, disappearing in the dense thicket of trees, leaving me with only a few poor photos. I resumed taking notes and photos of potential tent sites, only to hear my paddling companions yell “Bear!” from the beach. (They later all confessed to having a moment of fear when they saw the bear emerge from the woods instead of me!) I went back onto the beach to discover the bear had gone around the bluff to avoid me, only to find more pesky humans on the beach, poor thing! We stayed quiet and kept our distance, and the bear traversed the shoreline, quickly disappearing from view into the brush on the far side of the beach. I felt remorseful for disturbing his quiet afternoon, albeit unintentionally.

I thoroughly enjoyed paddling in the Broughtons, and I found the island campsites to be incredibly beautiful, serene, and amazingly well maintained. In some locations, there were several brand-new cedar tent platforms and composting toilets, and all sites were quite clean with little trash or ill treatment. Even the less-visited areas such as Cypress Harbour and Greenway Sound offered beautiful vistas and accessible, well-maintained campsites. We took what little trash we found, and I completed my site reports when I returned home, combining photos with data and coordinates, and submitting the forms online. The BC Marine Trails organization was very grateful for our input, however modest.

The Broughton Archipelago is indeed a world-class kayaking destination, and I was happy to become a first-time Coastal Caretaker in these beautiful islands. I encourage any kayaker who plans to visit Vancouver Island to sign up for membership in the BC Marine Trails organization, review the Marine Code of Conduct, take the short training, and become a new Coastal Caretaker! It is far more cost effective for BCMT to gather information from low-impact kayak campers than from motorboat visits. In addition to paddling in one of the world’s premier kayaking destinations, you will be protecting these precious wilderness areas and aiding a very worthy organization.

See you on the water!

Cris Lewis

Cris is a retired scientist who loves nothing better than escaping into the wilderness. You can read about her adventures on her website,, where she offers useful logistical information for paddlers and backpackers.