words & photos :: Cory Leis.
Whistler was so laden with thick, heavy smoke, you couldn’t help but taste it. Forest fires raged to the north and east with smoke engulfing BC all the way from the Rocky Mountains to Tofino, on the edge of the continent.
Sitting indoors watching constant newscasts about severe air quality issues was beginning to take a toll on the collective psyche of our summer adventure posse so, literally hemmed in by the worst fire season in BC’s history, we began looking deeper into our own backyard.
Five years in the making, the newly opened Sea to Sky Marine Trail popped up. Stretching from Horseshoe Bay to Gibsons to Squamish, the meandering paddle is the only saltwater route on the Trans Canada Trail network (other water routes are freshwater). Kayakers and canoeists are now able to safely navigate Howe Sound and overnight along the coastline via a network of three provincial parks and six campsites never more than 17 kilometres from one to the next.
Since my first drive up the highway decades ago, I’ve always wondered what lay beyond those islands sometimes enveloped in cloud, other times hammered with wind and whitecaps, or just sitting calm and vibrant against an indescribable blue Coast Mountains sky. It all seemed so close, yet so completely unreachable without a boat. Who has a boat? Who needs one? We had stand up paddleboards and time to kill. Our escape plan was simple – pack the van with four days’ worth of grub and beers (no gram counting, the coolers and growlers were coming!) and head south to hopefully flush our forest-fire lungs with fresh, salty air from Howe Sound, North America’s southernmost fjord.
With the loose goal of a multi-night circumnavigation of Gambier and Anvil Islands we elected to begin and end our journey at Porteau Cove, a halfway point along the Marine Trail. Our loop would consist of a 58-kilometre paddle to explore the coastline west of the islands, the side we never see from the road. After stuffing our dry bags, redistributing extra gear, checking the coolers and battening down anything loose or hanging, we paddled south with the outgoing tide.
Paddling saltwater ups the ante: big water, bigger tides and potentially dangerous winds (those 20-knot gusts that keep the kite boarders satisfied up at the Squamish Spit could easily blow us out to the channel.) This particular launch felt especially eerie due to the pervasive forest fire smoke. We could hear the highway but couldn’t see it, nor could we see Gambier Island, our destination. It seemed we had a private, salty world to paddle through, our senses heightened to enjoy the rich sea life. Dolphins danced at a distance, groups of sea lions sang from their small islands and curiously poked their heads around our boards. Safe and happy in Halkett Bay Park that evening, we charged up with a venison sausage, cherry tomato and goat cheese pasta, and just the right amount of Coast Mountain brews. It definitely beat sitting at home watching smoke forecasts.
Day two’s paddle plan looked big, we intended to cover over half the total distance of the four-day journey. Navigating the southern coast of Gambier, the haze-filtered sun warmed the air and each of the three large bays seemed to create a shift in the wind. Rounding the corner towards Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast, we stopped in a protected little nook that offered us a place for lunch. It’s been decades since Relic and Nic battled in these waters for logs escaped from their booms on the classic 1980s television show The Beachcombers, and I wondered what their reaction would be to our low-tech mode of transportation.
Another smoky morning on trail. Photo: Cory Leis
The west side of Gambier and Anvil Islands offered remote rustic camping, seaside caves to explore, and world-class views of the coastal mountains. We saw few other people, only the occasional tug or fishing boat trolling a favourite bank. It was hard to believe we were only a kilometre or so away from a highway that sees over 1 million cars each year.
Howe Sound has only recently recovered from years of pollution from the Britannia Mine. After decades of devastation, local residents are seeing a return of sea mammals like dolphins, humpback whales and orcas. As we approached McNab Creek, a proposed sand and gravel pit site, I found it hard to imagine that a large multi-year development like this could positively impact the area at all, let alone this unique wilderness experience on the Trans Canada Trail. I’m doubtful that introducing potential traffic, noise and water pollution to this area is in our collective best interest.
Paddling these waters, there’s no better way to be inspired to protect them. And as we glided away from shore in glassy waters on our last morning of the trip, I relished my new perspective of Howe Sound – an intimacy that only an adventure over water can provide. With the sun poking over the ridgeline, smoky and orange, we pointed our boards towards Porteau Cove, rejuvenated, and salty to the bone. -ML