Are you looking to add variety to your kayak touring plans? Reach a distant destination within a narrow vacation window? Try expanding your sea kayaking horizons with a water taxi or a roll-on roll-off trip aboard BC Ferries. Here is our five-step plan for how to do it along with five great ideas for future trips.
For years, I longed to be out on the wild beaches of the Brooks Peninsula on the west coast of Vancouver Island but was constrained by a vacation window of only one week. Twice I tried to make it there by launching from the Fair Harbour Marina and Campground but failed. Strong northwest winds made it impossible to complete the 94-kilometer round trip safely in time to return to work on Monday. On the third try, Julee and I booked a ride with Voyageur Water Taxi. Leo Jack picked us up at Fair Harbour and let us choose between a dry drop-off in the Bunsby Islands or a wet drop-off on the Brooks Peninsula, weather permitting. We opted for the latter and enjoyed a leisurely one-way return paddle to Fair Harbour.
Water taxi to Brooks Peninsula.
Water taxis can be used to transform arduous two-way trips into relaxed one-way journeys. They expand the circle of destinations a paddler can reach within any given vacation window and can sometimes be used to give paddlers a boost from following winds. In the Broughton Archipelago, the paddle from Telegraph Cove to Paddlers Inn usually takes two or three days by kayak, but a water taxi will do the trip in only two hours (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abhXdd8kxBU). Paddling from Tofino to Hot Springs Cove can be a tough upwind slog when summer northwest winds are blowing. A water taxi cuts the round trip in half and the direction of travel can be selected to take advantage of favourable winds. We’ve met paddlers enjoying a one-way return paddle to Bella Bella after a water taxi drop-off on remote Goose Island. We even hitched a free water taxi ride atop a friend’s zodiac.
Leo Jack from Voyageur Water Taxi.
Free water taxi atop a friend’s zodiac.
There are countless enticing options! A quick search on Google or Google Maps shows water taxis operating in many regions of the British Columbia coast, including:
Voyageur Water Taxi https://www.voyagerwatertaxi.com/
Lady Rose Marine Services https://ladyrosemarine.com/welcome
Cape Scott Water Taxi https://www.capescottwatertaxi.ca/
Paddlers Inn Water Taxi https://paddlersinn.ca/planning-your-trip/
Lund Water Taxi https://www.lundwatertaxi.com/schedule
Bamfield Water Taxi - GPO Charters http://gpocharters.com/watertaxi.html
Tofino Water Taxi https://tofinowatertaxi.com/
Gulf Islands Water Taxi https://www.gulfislandswatertaxi.com/
Discovery Launch Water Taxi http://www.discoverylaunch.com/index.php?id=993
Way West Water Taxi https://www.waywest.ca/
Silver King Water Taxi https://www.
Siiqaa Water Taxi https://www.siiqaawatertaxi.
Roll-on Roll-Off Travel With BC Ferries
Another way to expand your paddling horizons is with a roll-on roll-off trip aboard BC Ferries using these five easy steps.
- Source a cart
- Choose a launch site within walking distance of a ferry terminal
- Map out a roll-on roll-off route
- Book your ferry
Source a Cart
Kayak carts can be readily purchased, rented, or cheaply improvised. The Wheel-eez cart pictured below can be purchased at many outdoor stores. Heavy-duty carts can also be purchased or rented but are less widely available. For our expedition from Bella Bella to Tofino, Julee’s father made us an improvised cart out of spare 2X4’s and wheels from a discarded children’s bicycle. The advantage of this cheap option was that we could happily leave it behind after disembarking the ferry rather than paddle with it strapped to our kayak for two months. Beware steep ferry ramps at low tide though - our double kayak with over 300lbs of gear and water picked up speed going downhill and nearly ran us over!
Cart launch at Locarno Beach Vancouver.
Heavy duty cart at Locarno Beach Vancouver.
Disposable cart made from spare 2X4’s and a discarded kid’s bike.
Beware steep ferry ramps!
Choose a Launch Site
After lining up a suitable cart, check out the BC Marine Trails map for launch sites near your preferred ferry terminal. The Nanaimo terminal, for example, has a nearby launch site at Brechin Boat Ramp. Duke Point has a nearby launch site at Jack Point. Schwartz Bay has a nearby launch site at Barnacle Road Launch.
Have some idea of how long a walk from the ferry terminal you can manage while pulling a fully loaded single or double kayak on top of a cart. On Pender Island, for example, it is a long walk from the Otter Bay ferry terminal to the launch site at Hyashi Cove. On Saturna Island, the walk from the Lyall Harbour terminal to the kayak launch site at an adjacent dock is much shorter.
Our longest pulls have been on the 116-kilometer Bowron Lakes circuit with two children and two double kayaks. The circuit includes nine portages along mostly well-groomed gravel trails adding up to 11 kilometers in total. The first day is the only killer: a 2.8-kilometer uphill portage to the first lake, and then another 2-kilometer portage to the second lake. In comparison, nearly every walk from a BC Ferries terminal to the nearest launch site seems short to us!
2.8-kilometer portage with cart and double kayak at Bowron Lakes].
Portage with carts at Bowron Lakes.
Map Out A Roll-on Roll-off Route
Once you’ve picked a suitable launch site, use the BC Marine Trails map to explore potential circle routes returning to your launch site and also one-way routes from one ferry terminal to another. Look out for channels with strong tidal currents which should only be traversed at slack tide. Try to find a route with an assortment of beaches, campsites and picnic areas so you can extend or shorten your day’s paddle depending on weather conditions.
Book Your Ferry
Go to the BC Ferries website and look up ferry schedules and reservations. Kayakers are usually treated as walk-on passengers, like cyclists.
After you’ve planned and booked your trip, simply roll-on the ferry with your kayak and gear, roll-off at your destination, walk your kayak to the nearby launch site, strap your cart on top of the rear hatch, grab your paddles and go! Boarding the ferry usually means following the cyclists, paying what they do, and parking your kayak where they park on the outside edge of the ferry’s lower deck. Helpful BC Ferries staff will point the way.
Five Roll-on Roll-off Trip Ideas
1. Portland Island / Princess Margaret Marine Park
For a simple trip from Vancouver to test your roll-on roll-off system, try Portland Island. Roll-on at the Tsawwassen terminal and roll-off at Schwartz Bay. Walk your kayak through a gate on the east side of the terminal, continue east along a short stretch of road, then head down a few short steps to the sandy beach and dock at the Barnacle Road launch site. From there, it’s a quick 4-kilometer paddle to Portland Island / Princess Margaret Marine Park where there are three separate camping areas, a dock and many trails to walk on. (https://gulfislandsnationalpark.com/gulf-island-parks/portland-island/). A 15-kilometer paddle around the island and back to Schwartz Bay makes for a lovely trip and a cheap weekend getaway from Vancouver!
Schwartz Bay ferry terminal to Portland Island.
Beach on west side of Portland Island.
Campsite on Portland Island.
2. Newcastle Island Marine Park
Another easy trip from Vancouver is to roll-on at Horseshoe Bay, roll-off in Nanaimo, then launch at Brechin Boat Ramp for a paddle around Newcastle Island (https://bcparks.ca/explore/parkpgs/newcastle/). The Newcastle campsite can be busy so reservations are recommended. Be sure to store all food in the provided food caches as the racoons on the island are very bold!
3. Beaumont Marine Park
Beaumont Marine park on South Pender Island offers several nice beaches, numerous campsites, and a hike to a fabulous viewpoint atop Mount Norman. (https://gulfislandsnationalpark.com/gulf-island-parks/beaumont-marine-park-south-pender-island/). A short paddle to nearby Poet’s Cove lets you enjoy the excellent restaurant with an outdoor deck and sea view.
Lovely campsite at Beaumont Marine Park.
Overnight campers at Beaumont Marine Park.
Reach Beaumont Marine Park via either a 13-kilometer paddle from Hyashi Cove, or an 8-kilometer paddle from Lyall Harbour through the Pender Canal which separates North Pender from South Pender Island. As noted previously, the distance from ferry terminal to launch site is much shorter at Lyall Harbour versus Otter Bay. Few campsites in the Gulf Islands have potable drinking water so plan to bring your own.
Paddling routes from ferry terminals on Pender Island and Saturna Island
For a longer paddle, try the 23-kilometer loop from Lyall Harbour around South Pender Island, or the 21-kilometer one-way route from Lyall Harbour through the Pender Canal to Hyashi Cove
The 11-kilometer trip from Lyall Harbour to Cabbage Island requires more planning. You’ll have to time your journey to hit slack water at Boat Passage. You’ll also have to prepare for the exposed paddle between Boat Passage and Cabbage Island where strong winds blowing down Georgia Straight can create dangerous paddling conditions.
4. Gulf Islands Circle Route
For an 85-kilometer circle route beginning and ending in Tsawwassen, roll-on at the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, roll-off at the Duke Point, walk your kayak to the launch site at Jack Point, then paddle south down the Salish Sea Marine Trail / Gulf Islands Marine Trail. Be mindful of the strong tidal currents at Dodd Narrows and Porlier Pass. Return to your parked car by catching a ferry from Schwartz Bay to Tsawwassen. For more information about the paddling portion of the route, check out these links.
Gulf Islands circle route.
5. Port Hardy to Bella Bella Circle Route
We’ve had the extreme good fortune to roll-on a ferry in Port Hardy, roll-off in Bella Bella, and paddle one-way from Bella Bella to Tofino. The route is magical, wild, adventurous – everything many kayakers dream of. It was our trip of a lifetime! We have written elsewhere about our journey, including a spectacularly bad decision to set out on a one-hour paddle that nearly killed us both. We have also written about the spectacularly good beach at Burnett Bay.
A popular shorter version of our trip that begins and ends at the ferry terminal in Port Hardy involves much simpler logistics and can be completed within a two-week vacation window. Simply roll-on in Port Hardy, roll-off in Bella Bella, and paddle one-way back to your parked car. Many paddlers rank the wild beaches on the west side of Calvert Island and at Burnett Bay as the favourite places they have EVER visited. If you’re considering this trip, check with BC Ferries about schedules, drop-off locations and where to stay your first night. Also ask whether they are making a 10-kayak trailer available for loading at the Port Hardy terminal and how and where this trailer will be used for unloading.
Port Hardy to Bella Bella Circle Route.
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 Psychology and MBA degrees from UBC and had a 30-year career as a corporate banker before joining the BCMTA 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.