It’s been said that there are three types of sea kayakers: coasters who like hugging the shoreline, crossers who like exposed jumps to offshore islands and circumnavigators who like to make it all the way around.
My family wanted a route that combined all three elements in a May warm-up paddle before a July trip around the Bowron Lakes. Thormanby Island was an easy pick. We could hug the coast to Buccaneer Bay, complete a crossing to Jedediah Island, and circumnavigate North and South Thormanby Islands all in the same trip. The kids were sure to love the spectacular white sand beach at Buccaneer Bay. We’d have a trial run for all our gear, improve our paddling skills, and finish the trip with smiles on our faces and ice cream on the way home!
I knew my wife Julee would be up for the challenge. Already an experienced kayaker before we started dating, twenty years ago she had joined me for an “epic” paddling adventure from Bella Bella to Tofino. The trip had been 420-km as the crow flies, but over 500-km with all the zig zags to find gorgeous campsites and drinking water along the way. We had started the trip as boyfriend-girlfriend, wanting to see if we had what it took to become husband and wife. We did, and I have been counting my blessings ever since.
I knew that I too would be up for the challenge. As the strongest in the family, I planned to paddle from the rear seat of our red double kayak with my youngest son Ryden, aged 9, in front. Together we would carry our heaviest gear and most of our drinking water. My oldest son, Peter, 19, should have no problems keeping up in our red Feathercraft skin-over-frame single kayak. My biggest worry was Julee and my middle son Jamen, age 11. They would have the lightest load and be in the fastest double kayak – a speedy yellow Passat G3 rented from MEC. But they’d never done an extended paddle together. Would they have the upper body strength and endurance to handle it? Only one way to find out!
Day 1 – Buccaneer Bay Marine Park (Grassy Point)
We leave Vancouver early in the morning. A scenic 45-minute ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale and a 40-minute drive up the Sunshine Coast take us to our launch site at Coopers Green. Everyone pitches in carrying the kayaks and all of our gear from the minivan down to the gravel beach. It takes nearly two hours to assemble the Feathercraft, store our mountain of stuff sacks inside the kayaks, have lunch, apply sunscreen, adjust everyone’s footrests, then pull out the stuff sacks again to look for someone’s missing sunglasses. I feel myself getting more and more impatient as the time drags on but decide to take a deep breath and chill. Family trips just take longer, I tell myself. There’s no point spoiling the mood for everyone by getting grumpy.
When Ryden and I finally slip into our double kayak, fasten our spray skirts and push off, the hurried feeling washes away. I enter a gentler headspace where there is no rush. Just the May sun shining above, the sound of seagulls all around, and a calm sea ahead. I pick the line I want to take, reach forward with the paddle blade, dig in and pull back, making small whirlpools in the water. I love being on the water again: the feel of the kayak wrapped snugly around me, the paddle in my hands, the rise and fall of the kayak as each small wave passes beneath, the gentle roll from side to side as I lean. Ahhhh. Water Rat nailed it when he said in The Wind In The Willows, “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
“Hey boys”, I say to the others. “See the blue paddling shirt I’m wearing? It’s the same one I wore 20 years ago when your mom and I did our two-month trip down the coast. It still fits!”
“It must have stretched a lot”, Peter replies, to laughter from the others as he eyes my middle-aged spread.
The weather today is cooperating with our plan. The wind is light and the sun is warm enough for short sleeves. We cross Welcome Passage quickly to avoid boat traffic, then slow down again when we reach South Thormanby. A seal pops its head above the water beside us, inspects us briefly, then slides back down into the sea. A lazy paddle north along the island’s steep rocky shoreline takes us past arbutus trees and a few houses tucked away in quiet coves. We reach the northern tip of the island and pause to watch a flock of Oystercatchers forage across some rocks, making squeaky “wheep wheep wheep” calls as we approach. We’re making good time so we raft together the kayaks and give the boys a chance to relax with their feet up.
“Hey boys, did you hear about the floating feet?”
“What floating feet?”
“Floating human feet, in running shoes. The first one washed up on Jedediah Island in 2007. Since then, 14 more have washed up along the coast one at a time. Police think most of them are from people who drowned. After a while, the foot breaks free, and the shoe floats up to the top of the water. So keep an eye out for shoes floating by. We don’t want to bump into one while we’re paddling”
Human feet on the B.C. coast have recently been getting a lot of attention from archaeologists. Working on an island near Hakai Pass, they recently discovered human footprints radiocarbon dated to 14,000 years ago. The footprint-makers must have gotten to the island by boat – maybe a kayak made from seal skins over a bone frame, a design thought to have been around at least four or five thousand years. Something similar might have been used by the first people to come from Siberia across the Bering Strait to the Americas. It is fascinating to think that thousands of years ago, someone might have been paddling a kayak similar to Peter’s, looking at seals and oystercatchers just like we are today.
As we round the north end of the island, Buccaneer Bay opens up to the south. Whoever named it must have had a fascination with pirates as our marine chart indicates a nearby “pirate rock” and “spyglass hill”. We arrive at the Grassy Point campsite, scramble out of our kayaks and then everyone pitches in again carrying our gear across a tidal mudflat up to the campsite. The entire paddle from Coopers Green takes only 70 minutes.
Although measuring only 1 hectare above the high tide line, Buccaneer Bay Marine Park is much larger at low tide when a broad white sand beach stretches out to the south and west. The park is popular with kayakers and other recreational boaters partly for the warm-ish water for swimming when the tide comes in over a hot sand beach. Ten or twelve tents can be pitched at five campsites with fire pits. The Park is home to a large number of bird species and visiting sea lions that occasionally haul out on the beach. There is one pit toilet adjacent to the camping area. Bring your own drinking water as no potable water is available. Be sure to test your water before the trip. My wife has never let me live down the time I tried to “poison” her with water from a new 10 litre black waterbag. I had washed out the waterbag several times before the trip, but even so the water was so chemical tasting that we had to beg for water donations from other boaters.
Julee and I have walked all the way around North Thormanby Island at low tide, but no one wants to today. Instead, Julee and I pitch the tents. As expected, the boys love it here, and have fun running around the beach, building sand castles, whittling, then building a campfire and poking at it with sticks. Dinner is hot dogs, with Julee’s deluxe smores for dessert, made with chocolate covered cookies instead of graham crackers.
After dinner, we listen to the weather forecast on our handheld VHF radio and make plans for the second day of our trip. From Buccaneer Bay there are three main paddling options: a 4-km coastal trip to Smugglers Cove, a 17-km crossing to Jedediah, or a 20-km circumnavigation of North and South Thormanby. We decide to leave our final decision until the morning when we’ll have an updated marine weather forecast.
Day 2 – Simson Marine Park
On the second day of our trip, the morning forecast calls for winds in the 20 knot range – too strong for paddling with kids – so we decide to walk down the west side of the island, past a picturesque sandstone cliff, to the lake at Simson Marine Park. Along the way, we meet a group out for a 6-day kayak guide course from Evolution Guide School and watch them as they launch.
461 hectare Simson Marine Park was established in 1986 through a generous donation by the family of Calvert Simson. The park coastline is rocky and indented with small bays, including Farm Bay to the south and Pebble Beach further north. The island is boat access only. The main campsite used by kayakers at Farm Bay is an undeveloped site with a well protected pebble cove and a grassy upland area with room for a number of tents. Farm Bay is connected to a lake of about five hectares by a short trail. The lake was created by a beaver dam across the outlet draining an old farm and adjacent orchard. The lake and orchard attract numerous bird species throughout the year. The island is often tinder-dry and no fires are permitted.
The houses lining Buccaneer Bay are on private property with no public access to Simson Marine Park, so we have to get to the park another way. From a previous trip, I know of a trail from a chain tire swing on the west side of the island that connects to an old logging road heading south into the park. Unconcerned with my hiking plans, the boys would rather stay at the tire swing. An hour later we pull them away, cut inland on the trail, south on the logging road and eventually reach the lake at the south end of the park. Strolling around the orchard, we spot concrete foundations where a house used to be, and wonder what it must have been like living here decades ago. After a quick walk to throw stones into the water at Farm Bay, we make our way back to Grassy Point the way we came.
Day 3 – Smuggler Cove
Our agenda for day three of the trip is a lazy paddle to Smuggler Cove. After breakfast, we paddle north past Vaucroft Beach and its holiday cottages with boats moored in front. It is a short hop from there to the entrance to Smuggler Cove, marked with a park sign that is hidden until you are quite close. As we paddle through the cove entrance, a river otter crosses the narrow passage just in front of us, then scampers up a crack in the steep rocky bank. Deeper in the cove a couple of sailboats rest at anchor with stern lines running to the shore. The cove is very well protected from all directions and there is almost no wind. We paddle to the small campsite at the south end of the cove, haul our kayaks up the rocky shore, and walk on the trail to a nearby beaver pond. The short hiking trail in the park is well used by locals and by boaters anchoring in the cove. After looking around the dark camping area, we’re happy to get back into our kayaks and paddle back to our campsite at Grassy Point where the beach and campsite are much prettier.
Part 2: Paddling Along the BC Marine Trails: Sunshine Coast, Thormanby & Jedediah Islands, coming soon!