Why kayak the coastline of the Great Bear Rainforest?
- Humpback whales feeding, breaching and surfacing in heart-beat-skipping proximity to your kayak?
- Sunset views from white sand and clam shell beaches that are only shared with the odd coastal wolf?
- Navigating marine charts and running on a schedule dictated only by the weather and tides?
- Immersing yourself in a world of impressive and unique biodiversity, where the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems are so strongly linked?
If any of those queries strike your fancy, read on..
Below you’ll find some detailed information on kayak camping and travel along the north and central coast of British Columbia. The detail has been broken up into sections and includes highlights from each region as well as coordinates related to certain areas. Throughout our trip we gathered data on speed, distance and time, in the hopes that it would provide some interesting insights into our travel patterns. The data is summarized and aggregated at the end of the article and is indeed quite revealing.
Two important things to take note:
- Much of the Central and North Coast is indigenous territory. As such, all paddlers must respect and abide by the wishes of the communities and the land rights that they hold. These are unceded lands and waters that we are lucky enough to enjoy.
- A ‘leave no trace’ camping approach must be taken at all points along the coast. Travelling by water has an inherently light impact on the environment, but nonetheless all kayakers and boaters should be sure to take the utmost care in leaving the areas exactly as it was. Each campsite is its own microcosm of much greater, pristine coastal wildness.
We began in the Khutzeymateen Inlet, just below the BC/Alaska border, and paddled south to Port Hardy in 27 days. We had been on a few previous kayak trips, but were by no means expert kayakers at the beginning. (Though 27 days on the water helped to change that).
We’ve sectioned off the trip into four parts since they each felt like they had their own unique identity:
- North of Prince Rupert
- The Northern Outside Passage
- The Central Connector
- The Central Inside Passage (Bella Bella to Port Hardy)
1.North of Prince Rupert:
Khutzeymateen Inlet to Prince Rupert
Highlights: Chillax Beach, Khutzeymateen Inlet
The Khutzeymateen Inlet isn’t exactly the most accessible area for kayaks. The majority of the inlet is a grizzly bear sanctuary and, as such, doesn’t allow camping. (not that it’s an exceptionally good idea in its own right to camp in an area with a high concentration of grizzlies) Either way, the rocky, treed shoreline of the inlet doesn’t allow for easy boat access. With that said, there is one beach at the beginning of the inlet – just tucked in from Portland Channel – that has sandy access and enough space for a half decent tent site: Chillax Beach. This provided enough of a spot for us to get out of the inlet in reasonable conditions.
Prince Rupert isn’t too far away from the Dixon Entrance (the northern entrance to the Hecate Strait) and is relatively exposed to weather systems coming in from the Pacific Ocean and down from Alaska. Make sure you’re well aware of the forecast when paddling around the northern border as there are a number of spots that are highly exposed to conditions. Kayakers could be susceptible to heavy storms.
- Chillax Beach, Khutzeymateen Inlet
2. The Northern Outside Passage:
Prince Rupert to Klemtu
Highlights: Principe Channel, Campania Island, Camano Sound
One requirement for our trip was to get a serious distance away from human activity. Because of this, the outside passage was the obvious choice for the northern half of the paddle. Along this route we were out of VHF radio contact for a number of days and would only see the odd commercial fishing boat chugging along the evening horizon. This section was also where we experienced the most severe weather conditions. For a few consecutive days we were limited to only an hour or two on the water. Frustrating, and wet.
Principe Channel in particular was a beast. With winds gusting up to 40km/h from the south and our paddles feathered to 60 degrees, our efforts were futile and and forced us to stay ashore. Our backs were burning through Principe Channel more than anywhere else in the trip. It was here where we were most significantly at the mercy of the tides. As tough as the conditions were, it was here where we were rewarded with the truly epic, rugged nature of the coast more than anywhere else. Large pods of orcas we’re powering up and down the channel with seemingly less trouble than we were having.
One would be hard pressed to navigate the outside passage and not stop at Campania Island. To put it bluntly, go to the west side of Campania if you can. Wolf Track Beach (which is very appropriately named) is one of those beautiful white sand beaches mentioned in the intro. Nestled behind the beaches are beautiful granite bluffs and lakes that are incredibly fun to explore. Given the islands lack of proximity to any major community, it is a peaceful destination for boaters who appreciate a good beach side mojito. (minus the mojito) We spent a rest day here and made our best bush sauna to date. (for info on how to do that see: Build a Backcountry Sauna)
A final noteworthy area is Camano Sound. Otherwise known as ‘whale heaven,’ it more than lived up to its name. We navigated a 15km crossing from the southern tip of Campania Island to Princess Royal Island and were quite literally paddling through a symphony of whale spouts.
- Principe Channel, Campania Island, Camano Sound
3.The Central Connector:
Klemtu to Bella Bella/Shearwater
Highlights: Milne Island, Meyers Passage, Dallas Island, Shearwater, Klemtu Big House
We’re calling this the ‘central connector’ because this portion of the trip where our route transitioned from the northern outside to the central inside. We felt that this portion deserved its own section because it included two of the most beautiful camp locations we came across, as well as the indigenous communities of Klemtu and Bella Bella. (And the fishing hub/kayakers sanctuary of Shearwater)
Before we crossed through Meyers Passage and into Finlayson Channel, we enjoyed our last night on the ‘outside’ on Milne Island. Milne was the most established camp location we stayed at on the trip, and it most certainly felt like it. It has a perfect tent space, ideal beach access for the boats, and a cook/chill spot that invited some pretty excellent weather to the party as well. We ended up choosing to wait for the change of tide at 3pm the next day in order to enjoy the most relaxing morning of the trip. Snorkelling, craft making and reading ensued. If you’re travelling around the Bella Bella/Kelmtu area, we would highly recommend checking out the north end of Milne.
The second amazing camp location is Dallas Island. Someone has clearly spent some extended time here because there were the makings of a structure. The site wasn’t super clear from the water for a while, but as you get closer to the north-west end of the island it becomes obvious that the sandy access is home. With shallow waters and small islets all around, on a still night Dallas island is an incredibly peaceful place.
Klemtu and Bella Bella are two indigenous communities in relatively close proximity to one another. The Kitasoo people reside in Klemtu and the Heiltsuk people in Bella Bella. When paddling through these areas it is so important to respect their land, culture and wishes.
As we were passing through Klemtu, the community was putting on a performance in their beautiful Big House. We spoke with Chief George who was incredibly gracious with his time and shared some incredible history of the beginnings of the Big House. It is the White Bear that has been, and continues to be, a symbol of resilience and hope for the band. Spirit Bear Lodge is run out of Klemtu, and though we didn’t stay there, the owner was kind enough to provide us with some much needed fuel by the way of some tasty treats. (at this point we’d been on an uninterrupted, two week schedule of rehydrated beans and rice, Kathmandu curry, and cajun chicken — each of which will potentially never be consumed again)
In terms of a kayakers dream, Shearwater is your salvation. Beer, bed, laundry, food, coffee and friendly folk. Shearwater and Bella Bella are very close and are linked by a regularly running water taxi. We had mailed 10 days of food and charts to ourselves to pick up at the Bella Bella post office which worked out perfectly. Incredibly helpful folks all around.
- Milne Island, Meyers Passage, Klemtu, Dallas Island, Bella Bella, Shearwater
4.Southern Inside Passage:
Bella Bella/Shearwater to Port Hardy (including Cape Caution)
Highlights: Edmund Point, Penrose Island cabin, Duncanby Landing, Table Island
A few paddling days south of Bella Bella down Fischer Channel and into Fitz Hugh Sound you will find Burke Channel. Burke Channel is a large waterway that leads inland towards Bella Coola. At its intersection with Fitz Hugh Sound lies one of our favourite camp locations. Just south of Edmunds Point (and still north of Namu) is a small group of islets. One of these islets provides an incredibly scenic view of the sound. There was incredible humpback feeding and breaching activity ongoing throughout the evening here. Tucked away from the crushed shell beach we were whale watching from is a perfect, sheltered tent spot.
Penrose Island cabin was an exciting prospect for a group of tired and soggy kayakers coming up on four weeks on the water. There is a picturesque bay here, where you will find many leisure boats moored, seeking shelter from the weather. The cabin itself was dark and gloomy, and yet included a roof which was really our only requirement. The next day we paddled into Duncanby Landing (a small fishing resort in Rivers Inlet) to eat all the food that was possible. That much needed energy enabled us to power out of the inlet, around sketchy seas at Kelp Head Point, and across Smith Sound to Table Island. This area is one of the most exposed areas of the entire coast, and given the relatively calm seas we had, we elected to paddle as far as possible in the clear weather window that we had.
To us, Table Island seemed like a place out of Jurassic Park. As the island came into view we saw enormous wind battered trees, staggering rock formations and beautiful kelp forests. There is no doubt this island gets hammered by storms coming off the Pacific Ocean. (hence the large, durable, resilient nature of everything on the island) Our decision to paddle to Table Island was two fold:
- The previous days weather allowed us to get there and we wanted to paddle in ideal conditions for as long as possible.
- Given that we were able to get there with relative ease, it provided a perfect attack point to wake up early the next day and paddle across Cape Caution.
Cape Caution is the notoriously exposed, violent and unforgiving stretch of the BC coast. We had heard a lot about 9 metre swells, mixing weather conditions and exposed reefs. Leaving at 5am from Table Island allowed us to cross the cape before the wind picked up, and set us on a course that was far enough offshore so as to avoid the complexity of the offshore reefs and crashing waves.
Be sure to plan well for Cape Caution and only cross in the best weather possible. Table Island will likely not always be as accessible as it was for us, so be diligently aware of the current conditions and forecast as you near this stretch of coastline. Significant Pacific Ocean swells running over shallow reefs is the perfect recipe for boomers, or large waves crashing over the exposed sea bottom. (otherwise known as the absolute last place a kayaker would want to find themselves) You can often see the whitewater and even hear the ‘booming’ from a distance, so be extra cautious and aware of your surroundings along the cape.
- Edmund Point, Penrose Island, Duncanby Landing, Table Island
Below is an aggregate of all of the paddling info that we gathered from the trip. We hoped that a month on the water would reveal some interesting insight into how fast, far and efficiently we were paddling. Given the relatively small data-set, some of the outliers have a significant effect on the overall trend. (ex. An 11km, 2 hour morning paddle into Bella Bella) That said, graphing the data does seem to reveal some expectations for anyone looking to paddle anywhere along the central or north coast.
Fig 1. In our eyes, this is a great sign to see. By the end of the trip we had improved our speed by more than 1km/h.
Fig 2. Our distance per day stayed relatively similar throughout the whole trip, increasing slightly as we undoubtedly got stronger, improved our technique, and better prepared ourself for each day.
Fig 3. Aligned with the data of the two charts above, we slightly decreased our total time on the water over the duration of the trip. The trend certainly shows that we were paddling a little bit faster and a little bit farther as time went on.
Go for a kayak along the coast! It is an incredible place filled with so many different and exciting regions.
If you have any questions about the route or travelling along the north and central coast, please send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re looking for a complete guide of the central and north coast, check out John Kimantas’ book, Wild Coast 2. It is an incredibly detailed resource that covers the places in this article and many, many more.