Backpack

At home on the sea

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

CHRIS WOOD April 17 1995
Backpack

At home on the sea

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

CHRIS WOOD April 17 1995

At home on the sea

Backpack

ADVENTURE

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

CHRIS WOOD

Water chuckles softly along the slender vessel’s plastic skin, the only sound to disturb the warm afternoon silence. With a light flick of her paddle, New Zealander Tina Godbert points her boat’s narrow, brightly painted bow into a sheltered cove barely 20 feet across. Overhead, the moss-grown eaves of the Pacific rain forest shelter the untidy nests of bald eagles. Closer to the water, the iodine smell of kelp and sea grapes baking in the sun at low tide carries strongly across the green sea. In the sunlit depths, a starfish as red as a strawberry extends an exploratory tentacle towards a spiny black sea urchin.

Abruptly, the reverie dissolves. As Godbert slips out of the protected cove, a small wave catches her craft, rolling it sharply. But the effect is more alarming than dangerous. Digging one paddle deeply into the water, the bronzed, bikini-topped dentist forces her nimble boat nose first into the light 10-inch chop. A wave larger than the rest dashes water

across the boat’s narrow foredeck and onto Godbert’s exposed midriff, only partly protected by a rubber splash guard. The chilly shower prompts a sharp yelp of surprise from the vacationing dentist. But then, kayaking is meant to be an intimate experience.

These are watercraft of the most personal kind, more akin to prosthetics than to actual vessels. Properly fitted into a modem kayak, a human paddler morphs into a kind of aquatic creature, at home as a bubble on the lively surface of the sea and capable of exploring nooks and crannies of coastal nature previously accessible only to seals, otters and ducks. “We had seen pictures of people kayaking with orcas,” enthused Godbert, who paddled Barkley Sound on Vancouver Island’s west coast with companion John Doig last summer. And while the couple did not, in fact, see any of the area’s resident killer whales during their three-day trip, Godbert consoled herself: “We did see a bald eagle instead.”

Such unparalleled close-ups of nature are one reason for the fast-growing popularity of sea kayaking on both the Atlantic and the Pa-

cific coasts. Equally attractive to aging baby boomers is the modest physical effort needed to handle a kayak. At 60 lb. or less, the tiny vessels are light enough to launch by hand from a car-top carrier for an afternoon outing—while being roomy enough to carry enough camping gear and food for a 10-day cruise. Factor in the relatively modest cost— rentals start at about $30 a day—and it’s little wonder that these modern, high-tech counterparts to the ancient Inuit kayak have become the coolest new way to sample nature firsthand in safety and comfort. Observes Maggi Slassor, who operates a kayak sales, rental and guided-tour business out of Port Albemi, B.C., 140 km northwest of Yictoria: “It’s a cheap way of getting out on the water. It’s not as strenuous as mountain biking or hiking. And the creature-comfort level is definitely higher.”

Inexpensive they may be, but today’s kayaks are hardly unsophisticated. Moulded from various materials in lengths from 16 to more than 21 feet for two-person boats, modem kayaks are highly evolved watercraft. Although they closely resemble their traditional sealskin-and-wood precursors, contemporary kayaks are built from resilient and durable plastic, fibre glass, or even graphite and nearly indestructible Kevlar. Flotation chambers ensure safety, while watertight hatches fore

TOP SPOTS

Popular locations for sea kayaking in British Columbia include Barkley Sound and Clayoquot Sound, both on the west coast of Vancouver Island. One of the best spots to view killer whales is Johnstone Strait, between the island’s northern coast and the mainland. For all but the hardiest kayakers, the season generally runs from early April to late October.

Nova Scotia, with its thousands of kilometres of rugged coastline, is also a sea kayaker’s paradise, although the season tends to be shorter: from about mid-May to mid-October. Highlights include the dramatic western coast of Cape Breton and the province’s picturesque eastern shore, home to famed kayak-designer Harrie Tieken. In Newfoundland, the grandeur of Gros Morne National Park, along the Rock’s west coast, is not to be missed.

and aft keep gear dry. Seats on most models adjust for comfort, as do the pedals that control a small, sternmounted rudder. (Steering can also be accomplished in the traditional manner, by paddling on one side or the other of the boat.) Light, strong and responsive, the boats take little time or strength to master. They are also significantly safer than their closest floating relative. “You can take rougher water and not be as constrained as you are in a canoe,” says veteran kayak guide Ron Needham of Port Albemi. ‘Your armchair athlete,” he jokes, “can quite easily get into kayaking.”

The price of a kayak encourages involvement. Single-passenger boats made from plastic start around $1,500. Fibre-glass versions go for twice that much while graphite-and-Kevlar models carry prices as high as $4,000. The merely curious, however, can try the experience for substantially less. One Vancouver Island outfitter, AlphaWave Adventures Ltd., rents individual kayaks for as little as $30 a day, and offers customguided excursions into some of the most heartstoppingly beautiful scenery on the B.C.

coast for about $100 a day per person. Rates are comparable on Canada’s east coast, where kayaks offer an unmatched way to explore the coves and islets of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Residents or visitors to either coast enjoy almost unlimited choices of cruising waters. National marine parks afford some rudimentary services (such as privies on many of the Broken Group of islands in Pacific Rim National Park). But many more experienced kayakers prefer to point their craft into less-travelled waters, paddling alone or in groups as far from civilization as muscle power will take them. Among kayakers in British Columbia, notes Needham, even extended cruises from Alaska are not

uncommon. For western travellers who want a destination more exotic than a national park, but not quite as challenging as the Alaskan fjords, a few West Coast outfitters offer packages that include transportation by private floatplane or coastal ferry to untouched coastal archipelagos.

Although the featherweight craft are easy to handle, experienced paddlers urge novices to spend some time—two hours with an instructor is often sufficient—practising basic safety manoeuvres, including how to right an upside-down kayak. Adequate, warm, weatherproof clothing is essential for extended overnight excursions. And even when setting out in apparently sheltered waters, boaters should never leave shore without the means to find their way back: a compass, a local chart and up-to-date weather information are essentials. Also mandatory: a personal flotation device, a first-aid kit and some way of signalling for help, such as marine flares. “Sea kayaking is a lot easier than the river kayaking we’ve done,” said Godbert after her threeday excursion. But when the Wellington dentist and her paddling companion encountered sea fog, a frequent late-summer threat along both west and east coasts, “we were quite unprepared for that.” They admit they were lucky to find their way back.

Guided-tour operators often provide cooking utensils in addition to boat-safety basics. But in most cases, paddlers are expected to provide their own tents, sleeping bags and sunscreen. Happily, flat-water kayaks, unlike their white-water cousins, are large enough to accommodate ample camping equipment— along with a bottle of wine or some other

Lightweight and inexpensive, kayaks offer unparalleled access to nature

touch of luxury unheard-of among those who explore nature on foot.

Something else that may soon become essential for those venturing into the most popular cruising areas is a reservation. The growing popularity of kayaking has increased pressure on some of the most accessible archipelagos, including the Broken Group of islands. In response, the parks service of Heritage Canada is developing a quota system, likely to be in place by next year, to limit the number of boaters using the most popular areas. A similar system already limits the number of hikers on the neighboring Pacific Rim coastal trail.

On the other hand, adventurous kayakers are increasingly extending the sport’s season. Although May to October is still the peak paddling season on either coast, hardier types can be found nosing their silent craft into unspoiled coves and along the verge of unpopulated beaches throughout the year. Slassor, in fact, is hoping to join other determined kayakers for her annual Easter pilgrimage to the Broken Islands. “The major drawback,” she says, “is that once you’re out there, you never, ever, want to come back.” □