Thundering whitewater, mountain-fringed lakes, translucent seas, breaching Orcas and curious bears — whether you're travelling by kayak, raft or canoe, you can see a lot with a paddle in BC.
And there's plenty of liquid territory to choose from: the province's 25,725-kilometre (15,985-mile) coastline includes deep, mountainous fjords, dozens of marine parks and nearly 28,000 marine islands, the vast majority of which are uninhabited. Inland paddlers can choose from more than 100 river systems and tens of thousands of lakes.
Waterfall-laced fjords, clear waters, whales and a variety of abundant marine mammals, bird life, and First Nations cultural sites all draw sea kayakers to BC's coastal islands, coves and marine parks.
Day and multi-day guided kayak tours are available in all of BC's main kayaking regions. Some tours may focus on Aboriginal culture and history, others on whale watching and wildlife viewing, remote wilderness experiences or day trips with gourmet picnics. Accommodations range from wilderness campsites, base camps, mother ships, luxury lodges or B&Bs.
A popular paddling spot for beginners is Indian Arm, offering sheltered wilderness paddling just 45 minutes from downtown Vancouver. Also near the city, just 20 minutes by ferry from West Vancouver, is Bowen Island, where kayakers can set out to explore the islets and secluded beaches of Howe Sound.
Just west of Vancouver, the Sunshine Coast has several marine parks and idyllic paddling spots, notably Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park. One of BC's most popular marine parks, it's located north of the community of Lund.
The Gulf Islands, in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver and Victoria, offer protected waters, easy access by ferry, and — bonus — fine dining and luxurious inns. The islands also boast plenty of deserted beaches and uninhabited islets, especially in the Gulf Island National Park Reserve in the southern part of the archipelago.
Kayakers can depart from Port McNeill and Telegraph Cove on northeastern Vancouver Island to explore Johnstone Strait and Broughton Archipelago Provincial Park. This maze of sheltered, largely uninhabited islands, bays and islets is one of the world's richest Orca (killer whale) habitats and a major centre of Orca research. The odds of seeing the animals from a kayak are high. During the summer many kayak operators offer guided trips in this area when whale and wildlife viewing are at their peak.
On Vancouver Island’s west coast, between Ucluelet and Bamfield, lies the Broken Group Islands, part of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. This popular paddling destination draws kayakers from around the world to their pristine white sand beaches and calm, protected, wildlife-rich waters.
Further afield, paddlers with a sense of adventure make their way to the Great Bear Rainforest on BC's central coast. Take a multi-day guided tour or depart the ferry at McLoughlin Bay for access to the Hakai Luxvbalis Conservancy, the largest marine protected area on the BC coast. Near Klemtu, try to catch a glimpse of the rare white Kermode (Spirit) bear on Princess Royal Island.
Another of the world's great kayaking adventures is a multi-day paddle among the ancient Haida village sites and forested islands of Gwaii Haanas. The first park in the world to be protected from mountaintop to ocean floor, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site occupies the southern end of Haida Gwaii off BC's north coast. Guided trips to this area are highly recommended due to the remote location, unpredictable weather and the culturally sensitive nature of many of the sites.
BC's mountainous, canyon-sliced terrain means there's no shortage of whitewater here. You could even test your paddling skills on the huge standing waves at one of BC’s famous reversing tidal rapids.
On Vancouver Island, intermediate to experienced kayakers can try the 30-kilometre (19-mile) paddle down the Cowichan River, from Lake Cowichan to Duncan, just north of Victoria. (The rapids generally run fastest in winter.) An hour’s drive east of Vancouver, the Chilliwack River is a training site of the Canadian National Kayak Team, and features everything from advanced canyon sections suitable for experts to slower-moving sections that are perfect for intermediate kayakers. Several rivers in the Thompson Okanagan, including Mission Creek, Kettle River and Similkameen River, mix manageable paddles past sage-covered hills and orchards with challenging canyon sections. In the Kootenay Rockies, calm waters and waterfalls reward kayakers on Lower Arrow Lake; canyons, mountain scenery and Class II to V rapids draw experienced kayakers to the Elk River, near Fernie. In the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast, the Chilko and Chilcotin rivers provide legendary stretches of non-stop whitewater. More whitewater, with wildlife, Gold Rush history and steep canyon scenery, draws kayakers to the Quesnel and Taseko rivers.
Though British Columbians are partial to their kayaks, canoeing, that quintessentially Canadian activity, still holds its own, and you can find a mountain-fringed lake with a canoe launch pretty much anywhere in BC, from the suburbs of Vancouver to the clear lakes of the Kootenay Rockies.
The most memorable trips, though, are the many multi-lake canoe routes in BC's scenic wilderness settings. The best-known is probably the 116-kilometre (72-mile) canoe route in Bowron Lake Provincial Park, near Barkerville in the Cariboo Mountains. This six- to10-day route takes paddlers through 11 lakes, with connecting waterways and portages. To avoid overcrowding on this popular circuit, the number of canoes per day is restricted. Reservations, through www.discovercamping.ca, are required. .
Some lesser-known but equally scenic routes include the Powell Forest Canoe Route, a 57-kilometre (35-mile) circuit of eight lakes and seven portages on the Sunshine Coast; the Nanika-Kidprice Canoe Route, which links four lakes southwest of Houston in Northern BC, and the longer Nation Lakes Route, near Fort. St. James, also in Northern BC.
On Vancouver Island, the Sayward Forest Canoe Route, near Campbell River, is a three- to four-day, 48-kilometre (30-mile) network of 12 lakes and eight kilometres (five miles) of portages through the pristine forests of northern Vancouver Island. Also near Campbell River is the six-lake canoe chain in Main Lake Provincial Park on Quadra Island.
In the Thompson Okanagan, Wells Gray Provincial Park is home to Murtle Lake, the largest paddle-only lake in North America, and several other wilderness paddling lakes, some with views of waterfalls. In the Kootenay Rockies, the Columbia River offers 235 kilometres (146 miles) of clear paddling through mountain scenery and the wildlife-rich Columbia River Wetlands, one of the longest continuous series of wetlands on the continent.
With more than 100 river systems rushing down mountains and through canyons, it's no wonder that amazing rafting trips can be experienced in every region of BC. You can shoot rapids on an adrenalin-rich day trip, take a scenic, slow-moving float on water gentle enough to photograph wildlife as you drift or join one of the world's great expeditions on an epic northern river journey.
Rafters in Whistler can choose from whitewater expeditions or family-friendly wildlife viewing on the Elaho, Squamish, Green, Birkenhead and Cheakamus rivers. In winter, you can float down the Squamish River to view large numbers of eagles gathered at Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park, near Squamish.
Lytton, at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson rivers, about three hours northeast of Vancouver, has been dubbed the "Rafting Capital of Canada." Outfitters here navigate rapids with such vivid names as the Hell’s Gate, Devil’s Kitchen, Witch’s Cauldron and the Jaws of Death.
In the Kootenay Rockies, the Kicking Horse River lives up to its name with one 20-kilometre (12-mile) section near Golden, where the class III and IV rapids with names like Shotgun and the Last Waltz provide plenty of thrills.
For a truly epic journey, consider a nine- to 12-day rafting trip along the Tatshenshini-Alsek river system in BC's remote northwest. Flowing through the world's largest internationally protected terrestrial ecosystem — part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site — the area is home to more than 350 valley glaciers and some of North America's highest peaks. The Tatshenshini-Alsek is one of the most magnificent river systems on earth, and is the setting for one of the world's great wilderness adventures. www.hellobc.com has details.