As the days warm up and COVID restrictions begin to loosen around the province, many people are looking for local paddling routes to help reconnect with nature. Three great options are Thormanby Island, Pitt Lake/Widgeon Creek, and Sechelt Inlet. All three are family-friendly, easy drives from Vancouver and can work as day trips, overnighters, or multi-day trips. All three bring fresh rewards with each new visit. Beaches take on a different character at high or low tide, on a sunny or drizzly day. Bird songs are richest at dawn and dusk and during seasonal migrations. Slow down and really observe using all your senses. For maps and other planning information, go to the BC Marine Trails website.
Of the three routes, our favourite is Thormanby Island. A scenic 45-minute ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale and a 40-minute drive up the Sunshine Coast take you to the launch site at Coopers Green Regional Park. Or launch from Half Moon Bay where rented kayaks are sometimes available. From there it is an easy 7 km paddle (60-90 minutes) to beachfront camping at Buccaneer Bay Marine Park. There are five tent sites and an open pit toilet. Bring your own water. And be sure to check wind and tide forecasts before departure – the usually calm channel between Smuggler’s Cove Marine Park and Thormanby Island can become rough in wind-over-tide conditions.
Buccaneer Bay’s kid-pleasing white sand beach is one of the nicest near Vancouver. Kids are sure to love it. To avoid crowds, try visiting during the shoulder season or mid-week. Keep each trip fresh by varying your itinerary. From the Buccaneer Bay campsite, you can walk 7 km around North Thormanby (easily doable at low tide), tack on a 4 km side paddle to Smugglers Cove, or a 20 km circumnavigation of the North and South Thormanby. An additional paddle gets you to 603-hectare Jedediah Island Marine Park, perhaps the crown jewel of all the marine parks in British Columbia with its orchard, hiking trails and beautiful pocket beach at Home Bay. The trip to Jedediah involves a 9km open water crossing and is only for experienced paddlers.
On one of our first dates, we caught the first ferry from Vancouver, paddled to Buccaneer Bay for lunch, stopped at Farm Bay for a stroll to the beaver pond, had dinner on the ferry home, and made it back to Vancouver in time for bed. Smitten by Thormanby, we have returned to it many times. When our first boy came along, we rented a three-seater Passat G3 kayak and camped overnight. After our second boy, we used Thormanby as a warm-up trip for longer expeditions. A longer article on Thormanby Island can be found here on the BCMT website.
Pitt Lake (Widgeon Creek)
Another family favourite is Pitt Lake, one of the largest tidal lakes in the world, quickly accessible from Vancouver without a ferry. The paddle offers gorgeous scenery, excellent bird viewing, and feels surprisingly wild and remote considering its proximity to a major city.
Paddlers usually launch from Grant Narrows where there is a boat ramp and seasonal canoe and kayak rentals. However in May 2020, the parking lot and launch ramp were closed due to a dispute between the park operator and the park owner over unsafe docks, insurance coverage and other things. Paddlers still interested in reaching the area should investigate alternate launch sites located downriver. These alternate launch sites entail significantly longer paddling distances, during which the paddler is exposed to river currents and rising/falling tides.
If launching from Grant Narrows, allow 5-6 hours round trip for the 60-90 minute paddle to the Widgeon Creek campsite and the 2.9 km hike to Widgeon Falls. Before departing, be sure to check the tides! We forgot on our last trip and at low tide had to wade upriver pulling our canoe behind. The Widgeon Creek campground features 12 sites, a pit toilet and food cache.
For a multi-day trip, try the full 44 km loop around Pitt Lake to campsites at Raven Creek, Osprey Creek, Defrauder Falls and Dark Creek. Or cut the trip short and make a beeline to Osprey Creek’s pretty white sand beach. Beware wind-over-tide conditions through the narrow boat channel north of Grant Narrows as there have been some fatalities over the years. My family has completed this trip in kayaks, but the most fun was a trip in a large canoe with a group of friends. Testing our expired pepper spray to laughter around a campfire will be something the kids remember for years.
Less wild and with smaller beaches than Thormanby, a trip to Sechelt Inlet is nevertheless rewarding due to the variety of pocket beaches and campsites located close together. Paddling conditions are usually calmer than in Howe Sound where strong winds are common. For a loop around central Sechelt Inlet, launch from Lambs Brook on the east side of Sechelt Inlet and make your way around a 21 km loop with camping at Nine Mile Point, Kunechin Point or Halfway. Families with older children can extend the trip further north to Tooznie Narrows which has a wilder feel to it.
Note: Crossing Salmon Inlet can be hazardous in summer afternoons when very strong winds come out of the inlet and whip up waves in Sechelt Inlet. Salmon Inlet is best crossed before noon before summer winds arise.
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 lengthy 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.