Life in the slow lane

Pad­dle with a pur­pose on Van­cou­ver’s Sun­shine Coast

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - BRIAN JOHN­STON

I RE­ALISE I’ve fi­nally left the stresses of daily life be­hind when I start talk­ing to the seals. They lounge on the rocks off the coast north of Van­cou­ver, smil­ing in their whiskery way, fat­bel­lied and con­tent. I grin back and say hello and com­ment on the washed-blue sum­mer weather. They stare with rheumy eyes fringed by pop diva eye­lashes, and only cough dis­creetly when I pad­dle too close, wor­ried for their pups who loll on their backs, wav­ing.

I’m in a sunny mood here on Canada’s Sun­shine Coast, put­ter­ing about on the cold, blue wa­ters with other kayak­ers whose red or yel­low boats are jaunty against the dark fir-lined for­est of the shore­line. Pur­ple starfish gleam. Geese honk and mal­lards land with a plop and swoosh.

At lunchtime we pull up our kayaks on a stony shore and devour prawns and rasp­ber­ries fat with sum­mer juices, hauled here from Granville Is­land Public Mar­ket in the city. A king­fisher hov­ers in sparks of elec­tric blue, and drag­on­flies flit on iri­des­cent wings.

The Sun­shine Coast is draped in an­cient tem­per­ate rain­for­est with Sitka pines as tall as sky­scrapers and 1000-year-old cedar trees. It’s home to wolves, black and griz­zly bears, and the cream­coloured Ker­mode bear, an im­por­tant spir­i­tual totem for First Na­tions peo­ple. Kayak­ing here pro­vides a panorama of snow-capped peaks; the light is soft, and the sun doesn’t slump be­hind Van­cou­ver Is­land un­til 11pm in sum­mer.

If I had the en­ergy, I could kayak for­ever, phos­pho­res­cent plank­ton wink­ing at the ends of my pad­dle. I could, of course, just have floated around Van­cou­ver’s har­bour. But the shel­tered Sun­shine Coast is pro­tected from rain as well as waves. The Pa­cific wet bursts against the west coast of Van­cou­ver Is­land, which is known for its storm-watch­ing sea­son, and leaves its east side in sun­light. The Sun­shine Coast has Canada’s long­est frost-free sea­son (eight months).

Drive out of Van­cou­ver in the rain and magic hap­pens. Some­where on the 40-minute ferry ride from Horse­shoe Bay, we heave out of the grey damp and the world is sud­denly blue and eye­scrunch­ing. Sun­light winks off the ferry’s wake. Pas­sen­gers strip off their anoraks and stand on deck, turn­ing their faces to the light like un­furl­ing flow­ers. You can do the Sun­shine Coast on a day trip, just about, although you’d be much bet­ter off spend­ing a night or two.

The snaking High­way 101 will get you there via car fer­ries at Horse­shoe Bay (only 20 min­utes from Van­cou­ver) and Earls Cove. Along the high­way there are only two towns of note, Gib­sons and Sechelt, with their fish­ing har­bours, salmon hatch­eries and wind­blown cafes.

Even­tu­ally the road gives up at the lum­ber town of Pow­ell River, from which you can ei­ther back­track or get an­other ferry across to Van­cou­ver Is­land. But re­sist just driv­ing the high­way, which in places is a clut­ter of un­ap­peal­ing sub­ur­ban tat, such as bowl­ing al­leys, bill­boards and petrol sta­tions. Aban­don the car and hike into the for­est. The 180km Sun­shine Coast Trail flirts with Dou­glas fir for­est and alpine mead­ows, and you might spot ra­coons and coy­otes. Pere­grine fal­cons float above.

Surely the best way to ap­pre­ci­ate this beau­ti­ful land­scape is to get out on the wa­ter. A dozen com­pa­nies along the high­way will rent you a kayak or, if you’re a be­gin­ner, send you out with an in­struc­tor for a pad­dle. Sechelt is a good place to start, since its long in­let and nu­mer­ous fin­ger-like off­shoots pro­vide hours of pro­tected pad­dling.

A lit­tle fur­ther north, you can pad­dle from Half­moon Bay out to North Thor­manby Is­land, where Buc­ca­neer Bay Pro­vin­cial Park has overnight camp­ing fa­cil­i­ties

Just north of Lund, Des­o­la­tion Sound (rather mis­lead­ingly named by ex­plorer Ge­orge Van­cou­ver in 1792, pre­sum­ably on an off-day) is a glacier­carved fjord pat­terned with forested is­lands. Lo­cals pad­dle out here on week-long trips, camp­ing overnight in the for­est with their food strung up in trees away from bears. You’re not likely to see one of those, but you’ve a chance of see­ing or­cas carv­ing through the wa­ters in the ul­ti­mate kayak en­counter.

Kayak­ing can be de­mand­ing and you’ll need to be ex­pe­ri­enced. The ti­dal flows through a nar­row in­let in Skookum­chuk Nar­rows Pro­vin­cial Park are so pow­er­ful you can hear the sea roar, and whirlpools might swallow a ship. In­cred­i­bly, kayak­ers hur­tle through, pad­dles madly twirling, hearts no doubt bang­ing out of their chests.

I’m en­joy­ing life in the slow lane. Kayak­ing is a tran­quil and in­ti­mate way to ap­pre­ci­ate the coast. I can smell the pines and the oily-fishy reek of seals. Cor­morants shift and flap in tow­er­ing cedars. The wa­ter­birds have fan­tas­ti­cal names, such as buf­fle­heads, har­lequins, gold­eneyes. I nose along the coast­line; streams trickle in ev­ery gully, ferns glis­ten with rain­drops, mosses are damp sponges. So what if I start talk­ing to the seals? It’s hard to re­sist. My pad­dle dips, send­ing droplets sun-flash­ing across the wa­ter. The seals don’t bother an­swer­ing, but that’s all right. I can see them smil­ing through their whiskers — like me, just happy to be here. • hel­lobc.com

Brian John­ston was a guest of Tourism Bri­tish Columbia.

Kayak­ing on the Sun­shine Coast, left; busy har­bour at Gib­sons, be­low

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