...from Nanaimo to Sidney
Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
What gives value to travel is fear.
Four of us in a pair of double kayaks are two hours into a very promising 100 kilometre paddle down the Salish Sea Marine Trail from Nanaimo to Sidney. The mid August sun is shining warmly, and the forecast calls for sunny skies and light winds the entire week. Our plan is to camp at seven different Salish Sea marine parks on a Saturday-to-Saturday trip. Julee and I, along with Julee’s brother Lee and his wife Cathy, have packed plenty of food and water. I have mid layers to cover every contingency and an entire stuff sack filled with my personal supply of high energy candy. We’ve had an easy paddle from Saysutshun (Newcastle Island) and expect to finish today’s twenty kilometre trip to Pirates Cove with plenty of time to explore. For our journey to Sidney, there are really only two sections to worry about: the dangerous passages through Dodd Narrows and Porlier Pass.
And already we’re at Dodd Narrows…
“It looks pretty good to me!” I shout back to Lee and Cathy as we poke our kayaks out around a rock headland to survey the channel ahead. “No standing waves or whirlpools. The current’s from behind so we should get through pretty quick. We’ll get pushed side to side but nothing too bad. What do you think? Go through early? Wait for the slack? Or paddle around through False Narrows?”
I’ve been warned about Dodd Narrows. My best friend Henry, a Power Squadron instructor, told me to avoid it completely. Other friends, older than us, paddled the Salish Sea Marine Trail from Jericho Beach in Vancouver to Victoria and had no problems at Dodd Narrows. So, which is it?
The guidebooks say it’s critical to paddle through Dodd Narrows within a short window on either side of slack current (also known as slack water, and a different thing than the tide turning). Currents here can reach nine knots generating standing waves, overfalls and whirlpools hazardous to small boats. We’ve been aiming for the quiet window between 11:30 am and the 12:27 pm slack in order to benefit from a gentle ebb current in the direction we’re travelling. It’s 11:30 now. The nearer we come to the 12:27 slack, the gentler the current. We don’t want to be late for our window though, as the current will reverse and start building speed against us.
A few sailboats and smaller power boats heading south are circling patiently around the entrance to the Narrows. Like us, they’re waiting for the 12:27 slack. An impatient few decide to make a run for it and dart through. We play for time, staying clear of the other boats as we wait beside the channel entrance.
Another boat and then another dart through entrance to the Narrows, heading south.
I check that no boats are following closely behind. All clear. Time for our big decision.
My heart is pounding. I feel like I’m holding hands with Julee at the edge of a cliff, waiting to jump into the sea far below. Once we leap, there will be no turning back.
“I think we should go for it.” I shout to Lee and Cathy. “We’ll go first”.
And then we leap…
Launching ourselves toward the narrows with strong paddle strokes, there’s no room for hesitation; we need to have enough speed over the moving water to gain steerage from our rudder. As expected, eddies in the swirling current push us from side to side, but it is easy to maintain control in the flat water.
I look back to see that a large motor yacht has entered the channel behind us, following us south down the west side of the channel. On the opposite side of the channel, a long line of boats in single file is headed north. Probably thirty of them are headed our way, all of them gunning against the current and aiming to hit the 12:27 slack. We realize too late that midday on a sunny August weekend is probably one of the busiest boat traffic times of the entire summer.
The large yacht in the channel behind us decides to pass. We give way and move further toward the edge of the channel. With the current from behind, the yacht moves slowly across the water’s surface as it eases past. Even so, after overtaking us it produces a sizable wake. We veer sharply toward the centre of the channel and take the waves bow-on to avoid being capsized. Lee and Cathy behind us do the same. The steep waves wash over the bows of our kayaks, splashing us with water.
Just a little splash on a sunny day. No big deal.
And then I remember something. The tidal currents we’ve been trying to avoid at slack water are only half the danger at Dodd Narrows.
Because Dodd Narrows is quite narrow at only fifty-five metres, it is unusually susceptible to wakes from fast moving power boats. The yacht that overtook us was moving very slowly over the surface of the water because it had the current behind it and didn’t need speed in excess of the current to make it through. But the thirty approaching boats heading north on the far side of the channel are all bucking the current. Relative to the opposing current, they’ll all be gunning it to maintain speed-over-water and advance against the current. All of them will be sending steep wakes toward us, bigger than the ones that just hit.
To avoid capsizing, we’ll need to zigzag through the narrow channel: first a zig left to hit each wake head-on, then a zag right to clear the center of the channel. Unfortunately, yachters transiting the channel won’t expect crazy kayakers to zigzag right in front of them. A surprised boat captain overtaking us from the rear might hit us while we zig or come dangerously close with its wake.
When the first northbound boat passes us on the opposite side of the channel, we zig to face its wake bow-first. Waves splash across our bow soaking us again. Then we zag, angling toward the right (west) shore of the channel careful to maintain headway across the moving current and steerage with our rudder.
The next approaching boat is bigger and coming faster. Behind us, a new boat has entered the narrow channel. It appears to be far enough back for us to execute a zigzag before it comes through.
When the wake from the approaching boat hits us bow-on, it packs the biggest punch so far. The steep waves it created might have rolled us if we weren’t ready to face them. Water splashes up to our faces and down inside our spray skirts. Then we zag out of the way before the boat behind us comes near.
For the next few minutes, we continue zigzagging through a series of boat wakes, taking on more water over the top of our “summer-loose” spray skirts and into our cockpits. Then, finally, the channel widens, and we have more room to manoeuvre. Soon, the boats are further away and their wakes hit us with less force.
A short while later we’re through the danger zone, a little wetter and more “experienced”. We land on a white sand beach on Mudge Island, dry ourselves off and have a pleasant lunch in the midday sun before continuing on to Pirates Cove.
First known danger dealt with. Only Porlier Pass and the unknowable to worry about from here to Sidney.
Day 1: Nanaimo to Saysutshun (Newcastle Island)
Yesterday, after rolling our kayaks onto the ferry at Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver, we rolled off at Departure Bay in Nanaimo and made the short walk to our launch site at the Brechin Boat Ramp. A quick paddle from there took us to our lovely campsite on Saysutshun (Newcastle Island). After landing, we set up camp at our reserved campsite and explored the island’s extensive trail network. Good thing we had made a reservation months before, as the entire campground was full on this Saturday night. The island’s historic Saysutshun restaurant provided a dinner of salmon burgers, fries and ice cream with a peaceful view across a grassy meadow to the boats anchored in the bay. After having the last hot showers of the trip, we made sure to fill all our containers with drinking water in preparation for the days ahead.
Day 2: Saysutshun to Pirates Cove (De Courcy Island)
After our exciting zigzag through Dodd Narrows, the rest of our paddle to Pirates Cove proves uneventful. We’ve heard that the campground’s six non-reservable campsites are often full in summer, sometimes with rowdy teenagers. When we land on the marine park’s south facing beach, Julee and Cathy make a beeline to the campground high up in the woods and grab the last campsite. They pass five campsites filled with teenagers on the way. “Uh oh”, we think. Might be a long and noisy night.
Happily, we couldn’t be more wrong. The teenagers are on a group trip run by BC Family French Camp (BCFFC) which our two boys enjoyed for many years. As teens, our boys had been on this very same kayak trip to Pirates Cove and raved about cliff jumping into the ocean and hanging out with camp friends in the summer sun! The teens tonight are all very well behaved and we have a restful sleep after enjoying dinner at our picnic table overlooking a forested ravine.
Day 3: Pirates Cove to Coon Bay (Galiano Island)
We have little difficulty covering the seventeen kilometers to Coon Bay, seeking to time our arrival at dangerous Porlier Pass to hit the 1:25 pm slack. En route, we stop for snacks at Blackberry Point on Valdez Island, where BC Marine Trails built its first outhouse many years ago. The outhouse is slowly rotting away in the woods and other visitors warn us to beware of wasps. The orchard and expansive white sand beach at Blackberry Point are perfect for a lunch break. Boaters clearly continue to camp here, but it is currently not a BC Marine Trails site as the owners are not welcoming kayak campers at this time.
Porlier Pass is wider and more accommodating than Dodd Narrows, with far less boat traffic. Currents here flood north into the Salish Sea at up to ten knots, and ebb south into the Gulf Islands. These currents can generate whirlpools and overfalls from Race Point to the reef extending north from Dionisio Point. Winds blowing in from the Salish Sea often create hazardous wind-over-tide conditions and a standing wave over the reef. But not now. At slack, the current is barely moving, and the sea is surprisingly flat. After the excitement at Dodd Narrows, paddling through Porlier Pass is a non-event.
Coon Bay itself is a delight. Known as Qwulwi’us, or “Place of Serenity” by local First Nations, it’s two white sand beaches form a tombola and lagoon. It has the wildest feel in the Gulf Islands and a vibe similar to our favourite beaches on the west coast of Vancouver Island. There are fifteen non-reservable campsites here. Even in mid August we are the only ones camping here on a Monday night, but the park host tells us the campground was full on the weekend just passed.
A further fifteen campsites have been created around the east side of the island at Sandstone Ledge campground. Landing and unloading kayaks on the sandstone ledge looks difficult and there is a short carry up a small flight of stairs to the campground. Although it is a longer carry from the beach where we leave our kayaks up to the tent sites in the forest campground, we prefer the campground at Coon Bay.
Part of the reason for Coon Bay’s appeal is that it is hard to get to from all directions. There is no road access due to a decades long dispute between landowners who control the right-of-way and authorities who denied development approvals on the landowners’ ten acre lots. Paddlers approaching from the east have to cross the Salish Sea. Anyone approaching from the south faces long exposed paddles. Paddlers approaching from the north or west have to deal with the threatening tidal currents in Porlier Pass. With its lack of crowds, expansive beaches, great sunsets, and west coast vibe, this is my kind of place!
Julee prepares dinner on the beach near our kayaks. With the sun still quite hot, we seek a breezy log to sit against while we eat. I bring white wine and offer it around. The 3-litre box had got soaked in seawater, necessitating repairs with several rounds of duct tape. “Chateau de Duct Tape” we call it, and it goes down well with dinner as we recline with our feet in the sand watching the golden sunset.
Day 4: Coon Bay to Conover Cove (Wallace Island)
For our return trip through Porlier Pass, we have two potential slacks to aim for. The first, at 8:15 am, is followed by a favourable ebb building to 4.7 knots at 11:00 am. The second slack is at 2:12 pm. Either slack will work as our paddle today is only eleven kilometres or about two hours. We opt for the early slack and rise at 6:00 am to a beautiful sunrise, with birdsong echoing through the forest around our tent and gulls calling on the beach. Our launch timing is perfect, and we again paddle through the pass in dead calm with barely a ripple on the water. Hard to believe that Porlier Pass has such a dangerous reputation after two easy transits in a row. The hardest part is tearing myself away from Coon Bay.
On this fourth day of the journey, our group has settled into a comfortable daily routine. Rise early to paddle in the morning calm before the afternoon thermals. Land at a beautiful campsite for lunch. Set up tents. Explore the trails. Relax in the afternoon sun: reading, napping, or in Julee’s case, knitting. Dinner. Sunset. Sleep. Repeat. No one in our group is using cellphones.
Each day I remind myself to “be here now”, focusing on each paddle stroke and what is around me in the moment: the smell of ocean air, the feel of the kayak beneath me pushing through the water, the sound of gulls, the sight of seals sunning themselves lazily on a rock. It is this sense of “flow” and connection to the natural world that draws me back to sea kayaking again and again. Four days out from our busy lives in Vancouver, it feels like we’re in a completely different world.
Today’s destination, Wallace Island, has three camping areas. The one at the north end of the island is most used by kayakers. For us, this campground and the one on the east shore of the island feel a little dark and closed in. Instead, we make our way to Conover Cove on the southwest shore. Although a busy boat anchorage, the cove has a Park-use cabin – the last remnant of a resort on the island – and a large grassy area across which are spread eight numbered tent sites. Each site has its own picnic table and room to spread out.
Further inland, an old cabin is covered with hundreds of driftwood carvings made by passing yachters to commemorate their journeys. There appears to be plenty of room around the field for additional tents if needed, but this summer weekday we are again the only people camping. After we set up our tents, Cathy runs the island trails for exercise. Lee divides his time between reading and napping. Julee walks for a while and then sits down to work on her knitting project, and I nap under a tree in dappled sun.
After her run, Cathy invites me to join her for a swim in the bay. The boat dock is perfect for diving in and the ocean here is much warmer than Coon Bay… perfect for a long swim and a salt-water shampoo with sea soap!
Feeling refreshed after swimming, I climb onto the dock and spend nearly an hour standing in the sunshine in my Speedo chatting with the 78-year-old park hosts relaxing in the cockpit of their comfortable yacht. They’ve seemingly been everywhere: the Amazon, Mexico, RVing North America in a fifth wheel trailer, canal boating in France, yachting the British Columbia coast and on and on. They’ve been knocking off travel dreams from their bucket list year after year, though at a pace that’s slowing now.
I tell them I have a spreadsheet to keep track of my bucket list, sorted into various rows and columns.
“Sounds like a banker alright” one of the park hosts replies.
All of us agree the proper bucket list strategy is to sequence your quests “hardest first, before your health window closes.”
The other host adds: “Don’t overthink it. Just pack a tent and sleeping bag, or get a small boat, and see as much of the world as you can. One day it will be too late.”
She said a good day, Ain’t got no rain
She said a bad day’s when I lie in bed
And think of things that might have been.
from the song ‘Slip Sliding Away’ by Paul Simon
Day 5: Conover Cove to James Bay (Prevost Island)
At breakfast, we gather around a marine chart to form a plan for the days ahead. There are many route options from here depending on the weather, which islands we most want to see, and our group’s time and stamina. For today, we decide to paddle fifteen kilometres from Conover Cove, Wallace Island, to James Bay, Prevost Island with a lunch stop at Walker Hook, Salt Spring Island. After that, we’ll top up with drinking water along the way at Ruckle Park on Salt Spring, then spend our last two nights at Portland and Sidney Islands. Our luck with the weather holds and we again paddle in warm sun with little wind.
The pretty south facing beach at Walker Hook affords a pleasant lunch break. Arriving at James Bay on Prevost Island, we find an attractive orchard campground, but it feels uncomfortably hot in the midday heat. Fortunately, there is another camping area on a high bank east of the orchard where there is shade and three picnic tables, each with gorgeous views over the water. We pitch our tent under some trees, again the only people in the campsite. Cathy and Julee hike the rough trail to the Peile Point Lighthouse on the northern tip of the island, while Lee and I relax with our books in the shade.
A sailboat and a powerboat are anchored in the bay, and both turn out to have inspiring adventurers aboard. The sailor is a lawyer from Seattle on a Beneteau 48 who’s just completed a three-and-a-half-week circumnavigation of Vancouver Island. He’s preparing to join a friend on a fifty foot catamaran sailing from South Africa to the British Virgin Islands, and in another couple of years he hopes to sail around the world.
The power boaters aboard a North Pacific 42 are a mid life couple with their teenage daughter and a dog. They’ve just completed a three month circumnavigation of Vancouver Island and are planning to spend the rest of August cruising before returning to Quesnel, in the Cariboo region of BC. After throwing sticks for their dog, the mother and daughter go in for a swim.
When Julee and Cathy return hot and sweaty from their hike there is a veritable stampede to the water. First Cathy grabs her sea shampoo and heads in for a swim. Then Julee and Lee. Not wanting to be the only stinky one, I again don my Speedo and goggles for a refreshing swim. In my mind, I emerge from the sea a bronzed Adonis. Others might have a different opinion.
Day 6: James Bay to Portland Island via Ruckle Park (Salt Spring Island)
The weather is perfect yet again as we paddle fourteen kilometres to Portland Island. Near the halfway point of our paddle, we stop at Ruckle Park on Salt Spring Island to fill up with water. Julee takes advantage of our stop to scope out her favourites among the seventy-five-plus campsites for a future car camping trip.
At Portland Island there are three campgrounds: Arbutus Point on the north side, Princess Bay at the main boat anchorage on the south side, and Shell Beach on the west side. I’ve been to the island many times and know that Shell Beach will be baking hot on a sunny day with no shade, and maybe some rowdy boaters partying. We head for Arbutus Point instead where there is more shade. Great choice! We set up our tent at the last of the campground’s six mostly ocean view campsites.
On our afternoon walk around the island, we discover that Shell Beach is hosting a reserved wedding party with 100 guests. Princess Bay is much quieter with only three tents in the expansive meadow. We prefer Arbutus Point, where there is more shade, a sandy beach stretching north from the point, and amazing sunsets. Here, we also have the company of other paddlers! A group from the Pacific International Kayaking Association (PIKA) club joins us for dinner. We swap paddling stories over more of our Chateau de Duct Tape. Afterwards, our group of four settles in on the beach to watch the sunset. Julee, Lee and Cathy remain perky, but I need an early night.
Day 7: Portland Island to Sidney Spit (Sidney Island)
Our day at Sidney Spit proves to be the hardest of the trip: for paddling, companionship, and mid layers.
Although the paddle from Portland Island to Sidney Spit is only twelve kilometres, a southerly wind blowing up Haro Strait arrives earlier than forecast and forces us to fight the last six kilometres against a weak current, whitecaps, and winds that accelerate to nearly twenty knots near the Sidney Spit lighthouse. The hard paddle totally drains me, and I have an embarrassing meltdown when we land. I lash out at Julee’s choice of water container to ferry from the kayak to our campsite. She insists on the blue one and I want the clear plastic one. Of course, this isn’t really about the water container. My meltdown is due to underlying health issues that have been slowly draining me for days. I break out my first line medical intervention and spend several hours collapsed in the sand beside the kayaks.
The lagoon beside the twenty-five site campground at Sidney Spit is sensitive bird habitat and off limits to boaters and hikers. Fortunately, there is a large network of trails for Cathy, Julee and Lee to explore while I recover. By the time the group returns, I’m feeling better and I apologize to the group.
In addition to the day’s physical and social challenges, today’s cooler weather completely throws off my mid layer rotation. For the entire trip so far, I’ve been using only my warm weather fleece mid layer, and only in the early morning and late evening. But tonight a stiff wind, warning of approaching autumn, blows through our campsite. To keep warm, I put on my warmest base layer and switch to my puffy jacket, used as an outer layer. But I’m still cold. So I triple stack my base layer, mid layer and puffy jacket. This keeps me warm for a while, but as the sun goes down, it becomes even colder and threatens to rain. So I go into our tent and change into a quadruple stack with a base layer, a fleece mid layer, a puffy jacket now used as another mid layer, and a paddling jacket on top as an outer layer. I come out of the tent looking like the Michelin Man.
The whole time I’m fiddling with my stylish, high tech layers, Lee reads a book quietly while sitting at a picnic table in a “classic” fleece. “It’s got character”, he says.
Day 8: Sidney Spit to Sidney (Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal)
On the morning of our last day, I’m feeling much better. It’s a good thing as it will be a bit of a chore rolling our kayaks and gear from the Barnacle Road launch site in Sidney, through the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal, and onto the ferry to Tsawwassen. With no particular timeline for our return to Vancouver, we start the day by paddling half way out the sandspit. After landing our kayaks, we stroll in the sun along the lengthy beach, around the picturesque lighthouse and back to our kayaks. It is a marvelous send off at the end of a marvelous trip.
We have long been intrigued by the possibility of paddling the entire Salish Sea Marine Trail, beginning at Jericho Beach near our home in Vancouver and ending in Sidney. Unfortunately, Lee and Cathy only have a week. So we opt to paddle only the second half of the trail, something we can complete Saturday-to-Saturday with an extra flex day at the end.
To plan our journey, we made extensive use of the trip planning tools within the excellent Interactive Map on the BC Marine Trails website. We found it easy to get the site information we needed and plot a route from Saysutshun (Newcastle Island) to Pirates Cove (Decourcy Island), Dionisio Point (Galiano Island), Conover Cove (Wallace Island), James Bay (Prevost Island), Arbutus Point (Portland Island) and Sidney Spit (Sidney Island). The BC Marine Trails map also has a handy ruler tool that calculates distances between points. In double kayaks we average three nautical miles per hour, or five kilometres per hour, making it easy to calculate departure times in order to hit slack water at Dodd Narrows and Porlier Pass.
To simplify our vehicle logistics, we opted for a “roll-on, roll-off” trip. We began our journey by rolling our kayaks on to BC Ferries at Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver, rolling off at Departure Bay in Nanaimo, and making the short walk to the Brechin Boat Ramp for our launch. We ended the trip with a landing at the Barnacle Road launch site in Sidney, a short walk through the cyclist entrance to the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal, and a return ferry to Tsawwassen. One of our sons drove us to and from the ferry terminals. Initially we wanted to start the trip with a ferry from Tsawwassen to Duke Point, but the kayak launch site nearest Duke Point is a long haul and dries out except at high tide.
It is possible to extend a Gulf Islands paddling trip with overnight stays at Beaumont Marine Park (South Pender Island) – currently closed to camp; Cabbage Island Marine Park, and Narvaez Bay Marine Park (Saturna Island). All of these sites are within the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Note: camping is not currently permitted at Beaumont Marine Park due to archaeological work in progress.
Although many people navigate using a dedicated GPS device or an app like Navionics on a cellphone, we still paddle “old school” with nautical charts in a waterproof case strapped to the deck of the kayak in front of us.
Managing Activity Levels:
One of our biggest planning challenges was accommodating different activity levels within our group. At the high end of the range, super fit Cathy goes for a lengthy run every day as she trains for multiple marathons. At the low end of the range, Jerry struggles with multiple serious health issues. He hasn’t done a multi-day kayak trip in years, and must continually recalibrate what he can handle, day by day, based on a complicated health situation. Although 100 kilometres might seem long, spread across eight days it averages out to only twelve and a half kilometres per day or about two and a half hours of paddling. Good for Jerry, as it gives him plenty of time for off ramps whenever he needs them. To make the trip work for Cathy, we decided to stay only at marine parks with extensive trail networks. That way, Cathy could spend hours exploring the trails and Jerry could rest. In the event of a health flare up, we would cut the trip short and head for the ferry at Mayne Island, which has a kayak landing right beside it.
Many older kayakers may find themselves in a situation like ours where the ambitions of youth clash with the realities of diminished capacity. And therein lies a choice: strive to live at the outer limits of your capacity knowing you might crash, or self limit into a smaller world. Jerry has opted for the former.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Camping Fees and Reservations:
Clicking any campground icon on the BC Marine Trails Interactive Map opens a window describing the details of the camp situation such as landing conditions. Camping fee and reservation details can be found at the respective websites for each of the marine parks below. Saysutshun (Newcastle Island) and Sidney Spit are both serviced by frequent day ferries and camping reservations well in advance are recommended, particularly for summer weekends.
- Saysutshun (Newcastle Island Marine) Provincial Park
- Pirates Cove Marine Provincial Park (De Courcy Island)
- Dionisio Point Provincial Park (Galiano Island)
- Wallace Island Marine Provincial Park
- Prevost Island – Gulf Islands National Park
- Ruckle Provincial Park (Salt Spring Island)
- Portland Island – Gulf Islands National Park
- Sidney Spit (Sidney Island) – Gulf Islands National Park
As shown in the maps, each of the marine parks we visited has an extensive trail network well worth exploring. They serve a double purpose, providing opportunities for any high energy paddlers in your group.
We filled up our water containers at the beginning of the trip at Saysutshun (Newcastle Island) and later topped up at Ruckle Park (Salt Spring Island). Potable well water was also available at Pirates Cove (De Courcy Island) and Dionisio Point (Galiano Island) where the park host says it is tested twice a day.
Kayak carts for a “roll-on, roll-off” paddling journey can be easily purchased, rented, or cheaply improvised by anyone handy with tools. We used the Wheel-eez cart pictured below which has a 170 pound capacity and can be purchased at many outdoor stores. Lee used a cart with a 300 pound capacity. He found that with its wider wheels, it was very good for pulling loaded kayaks up sandy beaches instead of carrying. Both carts suffered from wheel squeaks, but we had learned this lesson on a past trip around the Bowron Lakes and cleared up the problem with a targeted application of Vaseline.