Strong Water: The Ebb And Flow Of Canada’s Biggest Tidal Rapids At Skookumchuck Narrows

As the crow flies, the Skookumchuck Narrows Provincial Park is only 53.2 kilometres from the Watershed Pub in Squamish, BC. Almost due west over Lake Lovely Water, the Tantalus Range and Tzoonie Mountain, the Narrows lie at the head of the Sechelt Inlet, on BC’s fabled Sunshine Coast.

 

Welcome to a West Coast party wave. No invites needed. Photo: Nate Klema

words :: Benny Marr

On a bluebird day, the park is a postcard in every direction and the crisp, clear ocean is full of sea stars, sunfish, urchins and waving kelp in vibrant, mesmerizing colours. What makes the place extraordinary however, is the water. More specifically, it’s the way the water moves, building into an impressive whitewater rapid before resting calm, flat and slack, then reversing in the other direction.

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During flood tides, the Pacific Ocean rushes through the pinch of land at the Skookumchuck Narrows and fills the Sechelt Inlet. On a 3-metre (9.8-feet) tide, as many as 200 billion US gallons (760,000,000 cubic metres) of water will pass through, creating impressive whitewater rapids. Boiling currents clash into one another, sheets of water collide and whirlpools form as the ocean spins around the boils.

 

When the ‘king tide’ swells up through the Skookumchuk Narrows in Sechelt, BC, a natural wave pool gets created and these guys get to play all day. Luke Hopkins (paddleboard) and the author get acquainted. Photo: Anne Pagano

For tourists, it’s an incredible display of the forces of nature at work, but for kayakers, surfers, SUPers and river boarders, it’s a playground. The word Skookumchuck translates into “Strong Water” and the ebb tide produces no surf waves, but is equally as impressive to the tourists as all that water flows back toward Egmont, the Earls Cove – Saltery Bay ferry route, and back out to sea.

Skookumchuck’s tidal exchange is one of the variables kayakers use to predict when conditions are optimal. The ebb and flood happens twice every day and a large ebb tide means that a lot of water is coming back in six hours. But the speed at which it returns is another variable. An online forecast for tourists shows S, M, L, XL tides throughout the monthly calendar, but as kayakers, we have to dig deeper and check a prediction site to see how many knots the water will be flowing during peak tide. If we can see five or more days in a row of rising speeds starting at 14 knots peaking before sunset, we know we have an all-time session before us.

 

Glass cleaning day at ‘Skooks’—no windex needed here folks. Photo: Kelly Funk

Kayakers all over the world have heard about Skooks, and if they haven’t been there, it’s on the list and that first visit is impossible to forget. The smell of the coast is new to some, and the mossy old-growth forest along the trail in from Egmont is magical. The cold ocean water shocks your taste buds and stings the eyes, leaving a salt residue on skin and gear that rivers do not.

Surfing at Skooks is as simple or as complex of an experience as the athlete wants. The wave is easiest to catch and surf at the beginning of the flood when the outflow of the wave is uniform and gentle. As the flood progresses and the speed of the water increases to fill the inlet, the waves grow in size and the rapid behind it becomes an inconstant, large disturbance in the flow, keeping some kayakers on the shore. The wave then continues to build and surges into a fully green face, with no water tumbling back down on itself, helping kayakers remain on the wave. This is prime.

 

Benny Marr is a river-munching machine, but loves the saltydog life when the waves are just right.

Anyone new to Skooks should watch the local paddlers (there are three) to learn the complexities of operation on the wave at prime and witness the skill necessary to stay on the full green face, using boat and paddle to find the perfect angles to maintain the surf. Without specialized, built-for-ocean, surf kayaks, that smooth green wave would sit lonely, with only the occasional sea lion fast enough to catch a ride. The surf kayak opens up a whole new dimension on the wave, and pushes boundaries beyond the limitations of a traditional freestyle boat, allowing the kayaker to effortlessly glide over the water, drawing smooth lines and arching, wide turns.

Typically, summertime tides peak late and we surf into the picture-perfect sunset, leaving only after waves and light have passed their prime. After that, it’s a hike back through the darkening forest to rinse away the salt with a jump into Brown Lake while talking about doing it again tomorrow. Skooks’ beauty is easy to appreciate, but you gotta love the consistency.

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