Gliding through the landscape:

🕔Jun 04, 2009

The motivation for many outdoor seekers during vacation time is to experience a change of pace and place. Some go for endorphins and adrenaline, others for vistas and solitude—and some want both. With free time at a minimum, it makes sense to want to try to maximize the experience—to swing both ways. That’s what first drew me to water as an aspect of outdoor recreation. Water is the ultimate protean element: it can be aggressive or placid, and even within itself can change drastically or subtly, depending on the season, weather, and a variety of other factors.

The waters of the Northwest afford us a panoply of options: from lakes to rivers to the ocean, whether you are seeking the nascent moon’s reflection or the wave that’ll let you spin all day long, chances are you’ll find what you want on the water up here—and without much of a fight. The people are few and the options are plenty, so glance through and start to plan your next trip on the water.

As with any outdoor pursuit, safety and skill level must be the first and foremost consideration—enthusiasm is never a substitute for knowledge and experience. So please be smart, and be prepared!

Stephens Island
Imagine saltwater churning against rocky clefts, seabirds spanning open skies, and secrets of the deep past cloaked in verdant coastal vegetation—that’s North Coast paddling. Set out from Port Edward in your big, beamy double touring kayak and head through Porpoise Channel into Chatham Sound. You’ll get to Kinahan Islands in no time (small, forested, picturesque)—just a warm-up, really, for the next hop over to Rachel Island, which displays a delicately shelled beach at low tide that was captivating in the face of a rising sun and bluebird sky. From there to Stephens is a substantial leg, requiring some end-of-the-day muscles and gusto, but you’re on the water viewing scenic traffic with a (hopefully) cooperative current behind you and no wind in your face. Gain access to the mid-island through Stephens Passage, which carries you to the western side looking (far in the distance) at Haida Gwaii. We made camp on a tiny patch of gravel and enjoyed a refreshing dip in the water. The tide differential on the north coast can be huge, so take care to camp above the high-water mark, and secure your boats. The craggy cliffs we paddled alongside were majestic, the view expansive, and the tidal inlets charming. Keep your eyes open for whales (greys, orcas, humpbacks, or minkes). We caught a helpful current around the top of Stephens, sighted a pack of wolves on the prowl as we headed down the eastern side, and pointed our bows back home. Exhausting, but exhilarating.

Louise Island
Sea canoeing is unknown to many, but what a way to travel! Pair a skirted canoe (“Ahhh, my feet are so…warm!”) with a bit of wind and a sail (“Now, this is the life!”), and you’ve got an ocean-going rig that will make dolphins envious. Cruising canoes are set up to take heavy loads and are quite stable, so pack the Thermarests and perhaps a box or two of wine. Destination? Our very own Haida Gwaii.

Known as the ‘Galapagos of the North’ (due to its isolation and non-glaciation during the Ice Age), the ‘islands of the people’ offer a multitude of world-class gifts for any adventurer, including paddling, fishing, nature and wildlife viewing, not to mention the historical and cultural learning opportunities that abound.

Louise Island, in the South Moresby chain, is the third largest of the 150 that make up the Haida Gwaii archipelago. The location offers spectacular coastal camping set among ancient Haida villages. Skedans (K’uuna ‘llnagaay) was deserted near the end of the smallpox epidemic that decimated 90 percent of the Haida in the 1880s, and exhibits a dignified if not sobering display of old Haida longhouses and totem poles. New Clew is another abandoned Haida living place on Louise Island, with Cumshewa Village close by. Reef Island, adjacent to Louise, is home to a primary nesting site for a globally significant population of ancient murrelets (small auk species). So. birders, pack your binoculars and telephoto lenses. Biology, ecology, history, recreation, meditation—it’s all here.

Babine River
Paddling in the Babine River Corridor Provincial Park (designated Class A in 1999) is a spectacular wilderness adventure located within the traditional territories of the Ned’u’ten and Gitxsan peoples. Food-gathering, spiritual, and commercial activities take place within the park. Riverside trails as well as many cultural sites evoke the deep history of this land.

The Babine is rife with juxtapositions. It’s a cozy river, intimate in scale, yet packed with the requisite boulder gardens, holes, drops, and surf spots to excite the most seasoned paddler. It’s well removed from highways and byways, yet the put-in and take-out are vehicle-accessible, so neither time nor money is a huge factor in getting to and from. This multi-day trip starts off with Class II—there’s ample time during the first day to enjoy the scenery, the wildlife, and to revel in being off the pavement. The pace jumps up quickly though, and consistent rapids soon predominate. Thirty kilometres of Class III and IV will get your heart pumping!

Canyons define the middle section of the Babine, with rapids coming fast and furious. Regardless of your craft—kayak, canoe or raft—the demanding nature of the water will get you in the groove and you’ll be digging deep. After you’ve left behind Slide Drop, Grizzly Drop and, most notably, Sphincter, and entered the Skeena, the big-river wave-trains and monster haystacks provide plenty of fun. The last day is a long haul but provides a nice wind-down to the trip.

Wildlife is omnipresent: grizzlies and black bears are often found fishing if you’re on the water in the fall, and bald eagles come for the smorgasbord too. If you’re keen to fish the Babine be sure to check the Freshwater Fishing Regulations.

Spatsizi / Stikine
In Tahltan territory, the scale of the wilderness is vast—Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park and the Stikine River Provincial Park together encompass 9,100 square kilometres. The Spatsizi/Stikine combo runs 92 kilometres from the put-in to the confluence with the Stikine, then 152 to the take-out at Highway 37; it takes approximately eight days to paddle these 244 scenic kilometres. Getting there requires some planning and muscle—the trip starts off with a five-kilometre portage from the abandoned railway grade (people have at times used canoe carts), in contrast to the take-out, which is right on the highway to Dease Lake.

The headwaters of the Spatsizi (‘land of the red goat’—so-called due to the goats’ propensity to roll in red, iron-oxide-rich soil) also forms the genesis of the Skeena, Nass and Stikine rivers. The views steal the show at the start of the trip as you glide through a mosaic of forest, wetland, and subalpine meadows flanking high-elevation mountains. (Denkladia Mountain, a sharp peak to the west, is said to resemble a man and a goat from afar. Legend has it that when a man climbed the rock to kill a goat and was unsuccessful, his curses resulted in both man and goat being turned to stone.) Keep your camera handy; initially the paddling is easy and the vistas stunning.

As the topography changes, the river widens and becomes gentler. Moose, grizzly and black bears, wolves, mountain goats, caribou and even stone sheep may be seen. As the days pass, multiple tributaries contribute to increased flow which, after joining the Stikine, means the paddling at times takes one’s full attention. The mountains recede as you finesse (or muscle, as the case may be) your way through S-bends with significant wave-trains and two notable whitewater stretches: Jewel Rapids and Beggarlay Canyon.

Most of the Stikine, however, is a cruise; wildlife on the lower sections continues to be varied and present, from wolves to grizzlies; moose swimming across the river to caribou hanging out around the tents (as one paddler reported).

At one point in the deep past, the westward flow of the Stikine was blocked by coastal glaciers, resulting in the formation of a glacial lake that existed for thousands of years. As the glaciers receded, there occurred a cataclysmic drainage characterized by immense water flows, resulting in what is known as ‘scabland.’ Sediments from this deep glacial lake line the Stikine for several days downstream of Jewel Rapids and continuously slide and erode, contributing silt, which makes that swishy sound on your hull. You may see goats on the banks that have made the journey down from the mountains to lick at the mineral salts in the sediment.

Nanika Kidprice and Nanika River
If you are interested in paddling a loop rather than back and forth, and possess the requisite skills to navigate some Class II and III whitewater in a canoe, paddling the lakes in Nanika Kidprice Provincial Park, followed by the rapids and bends on Nanika River to Morice Lake (south of Houston) makes a great trip. (Both Morice Lake and Nanika Kidprice have recently been dedicated as provincial parks, so some sprucing up of facilities has occurred.)

Canoeing in the Nanika chain ranges from the quaint sights and shelter of Lamprey Lake to the big views and winds of Stepp. Once you finish the monster portage (about two kilometres) from Stepp to Kidprice, a short paddle and a shorter walk down the lower Nanika River to the 18-metre-high Nanika Falls is easy—hike in with your camera and get misted taking some spectacular shots.

If you’ve got the mojo and the skills, portaging your canoes and gear to below the falls and running out the Nanika River to Morice Lake is a hoot. The first section of the river involves Class III bedrock-featured, pool-drop whitewater. The middle section mellows to fast flow around corners, with waves, boulders, gravel-bar riffles, and run-of-the-mill features where you still have to pay attention and engage in some precise manoeuvring. The last section is meandering—when my husband and I paddled it, there was so much wood piled on the sides of the river that the water level was above the forest floor—we were on a moving, elevated platform of water. At some point, the river found passage through the wood and simply disappeared into the forest. We pulled the canoe over a dry logjam and down the riverbed until we found water in the river channel again. Where the Nanika terminates at Morice Lake, it’s a quick paddle to the provincial park, where your shuttle vehicle awaits. The river is very infrequently paddled, so if you have the know-how it is a unique experience.

It’s a well-guarded secret that the Blackwater presents some of BC’s best open-boating. The river drops over 900 metres during its 280-km course to its confluence with the Fraser River, and consists of four separate sections. Many people choose to do the last two legs as a weekend trip—which starts out chill and then warms up as the hours progress. It’s a lake-fed, low-volume river that is relatively clear and warm. The fishing is incredible; the whitewater is exciting but not crazy (II or II+ predominate, with a few III thrown in for good measure). A four-foot slot in the section above the Forest Recreation campsite is a good photo op, and the canyons in the last section down to the Fraser provide for some thrills and spills. This beauty wends its way through a mix of grassland and light forest, and due to forestry and mineral exploration and development, is easily accessible along most of its sections (hence the variety of legs which one can paddle). The Southern Carrier First Nations Grease Trail to the coast runs alongside the north side of the river, which Alexander Mackenzie made use of in 1793 in his quest to reach the Pacific Ocean overland. (He achieved his goal, of course, thanks to First Nations guides.)