By: Bruce Kirkby.
Late last summer, with smoke blanketing the interior of British Columbia and meagre salmon runs beginning to fight their way up drought-stricken rivers, Norm Hann and I lashed paddleboards to the roof of his truck and headed north along the Island Highway, towards Telegraph Cove. Norm had invited me to tag along on a commercial paddleboard group he would be guiding in the Broughton Archipelago. Despite a long history of SUP expeditions, I harboured some reservations.
Introducing people to the sport of stand-up paddle boarding is Norm’s expertise and passion. Holding the highest Paddle Canada certifications in every SUP discipline—flatwater, river, surf, touring & instructor training—he is one of the most recognized Canadian SUP professionals. He unquestionably loves what he does.
On the other hand, despite spending decades as a commercial raft and sea kayak guide, I had deliberately moved away from the industry. Age and a young family were admittedly factors, but I also found the constantly growing certification-requirements and guide-association memberships eroding the freedom that originally drew me to the outdoors. Add in a growing cultural emphasis on luxury “glamping” (gourmet meals, massive tents, hor d’oeuvres), and it all felt like a distraction from the real reason I wanted to take people outside—to connect to the wild.
In the years since my professional guiding days I’d fallen deeply in love with wilderness paddle boarding and felt protective of the experience. Now I worried: by accompanying a bunch of strangers on a guided expedition, would I risk jading the new-found joy that SUP brought me?
I first met Norm in 2016 at Mountain Life magazine’s flashy Multiplicity event, when adventure speakers deliver back-to-back Ted-style talks to a raucous audience, as part of the Whistler World Ski and Snowboard Festival. The talent on stage was stunning; names that need no introduction, including Rory Bushfield, Benny Marr, and Jimmy Martinello.
But at the after party, as champagne bottles were decapitated by sabres and house music thumped, I found myself huddled in a corner with soft-spoken Norm, sharing our love for paddle boarding on the Canadian coast. Until that moment, I didn’t know that anyone else was out on the ocean atop a SUP…out doing the same thing as me.
Three years earlier, I’d bought a cheap inflatable and taken it to my local lake. The very first thing I noticed—having spent far too much of my adult life seated in chairs, desks, sofas, kayaks and rafts—was how darn good it felt to be standing. The views were better too—beavers and bull trout flashed beneath my feet. Most notably, after a few minutes on the board, a peaceful, carefree feeling descended. Perhaps the constant demand for proprioceptive balance had helped tune out the noise, thoughts, and self-chatter of modern life—a physically dictated standing meditation. Whatever the case, I was hooked.
A month later I tentatively set out to paddle from Vancouver to Victoria—not sure if the idea was crazy or revolutionary. Once amidst sun and seals, there was nowhere else I wanted to be. The next summer I raised the stakes, paddling solo from Port Hardy to Tofino along the outer coast of Vancouver Island. As wonderful as that journey was, I returned home with the nagging sense that I could do even more with a strong partner.
Then Norm appeared.
A few months after we met in a noisy Whistler bar, Norm invited me to join him on an attempt to follow a long disused Grease Trail, once linking the coastal Git’gat community of Hartley Bay with the Skeena River. No one in living memory had travelled the route and the five-day expedition beat the snot out of us. After dragging fully loaded SUPs upriver, through head-high devil’s club, we portaged a desolate height of land, and then ran class III rapids on the Ekstall River. Amid the struggles, it became clear that Norm and I formed a rare outdoor combination—one where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
So year after year, we continued pushing our limits, rounding Cape Scott the next summer, and then the notorious Brooks Peninsula the year after that. As our experience grew, so did the scale and ambition of our plans.
“They are all women,” Norm explained, as we searched for his group in the Telegraph Cove fisherman’s pub. Each of these guests had been on trips with Norm before, and due to the relatively small SUP community in Canada, they all knew of each other. They had independently arranged to carpool from Vancouver and share a motel room—which seemed impressively collegial. They welcomed me like a long-lost brother.
After being shuttled into the archipelago by water taxi, we camped that first night on the tranquil Burdwood Islands, an ancient village site marked by the white shell beach of an eroding midden. Norm’s trips are centred on self-reliance so everyone was responsible for packing and cooking their own food. The group set up their own tents. All I had to do was take care of myself. It was kind of like being on a trip with friends…that I didn’t know yet.
The next morning, securing everyone’s gear on paddleboard decks became quite a production—but to be fair, the women had only been on daytrips before, and loading a paddle board for the first time isn’t easy.
But once on the water, the group came alive. Everything was new and exciting. They gasped as we drifted over beds of urchins, while schools of juvenile salmon flashed beneath our bows. A pod of Dall’s porpoise passed, and curious harbour seal tailed us. As the midday sun baked down, the paddlers leapt from their boards, splashing in the cool waters. Norm and I followed. We were not hammering out the kilometres we were accustomed to, but we were having fun being outside.
That evening, as I rinsed my dinner bowl, a muffled cry caught my attention. A member of our group was laying by the shore, motioning for me.
‘I twisted my ankle,’ she explained tearily. She was unable to stand…And we were on a StandUp Paddleboard trip.
Norm and I discussed options. Sending her home by water taxi felt akin to losing a family member. The group begged us to let her stay, declaring they would find a way to support her—even if it meant slowing the pace.
So the next morning, Norm rigged a dry bag in the centre of her board, which she straddled awkwardly, like a rubber pony. As the hours passed, and our group slipped onwards,
through the misty Broughton islands, she kept pace. Every night, upon arriving at camp, we piggy-backed the injured paddler to the eating area, to the biffy, to her tent. And as we did, the bonds between us grew closer—in the way only outdoor challenges can forge.
Along the outer White Cliff islands, we listened to sorrowful gulls while humpbacks fed nearby. Norm pulled in a pair of rock cod for dinner. Sometimes, when the winds picked up, and waves sloshed across the boards, I sensed concern in some of our group—self-doubt, even fear. But they courageously threw themselves at the challenges and I reassured them that even if they fell in, it was no big deal. In the bigger scheme of things, if they didn’t fall occasionally, perhaps they were being too cautious.? It’s a paddling metaphor that I think extends to how we live life. Besides, they’d already been swimming before, hadn’t they?
Laughs soon echoed over the waters. Somewhere along the way, I realized I hadn’t thought about the future, or the past, for days. Instead, I was living stroke by stroke, taking each moment as it came—such a precious state in the modern world, and fleetingly rare.
On our final night, we sat huddled against the northwest breeze on rocky headlands, looking out over Blackfish Sound. A trio of sea lions played below. Along distant shores, occasional Orca spouts billowed up. The next morning, after dropping the group back at Telegraph Cove, Norm and I pointed our bows south, and race towards his home in Royston. We paddled from sunrise to sunset, covering 250 kilometres over a long weekend. It was exactly the type of paddling expedition I’d grown to love with Norm; uncertain, challenging, exhausting, and revitalizing, all at once.
But instead of jading my love of SUP, the previous five days with a commercially guided group had reaffirmed just how special it is to travel the Canadian coast, precariously balanced atop a paddleboard. With just a tiny bit of instruction, the confidence of these enthusiastic curious, open-hearted middle-aged women had grown by leaps and bounds. And along the way, they had bonded more closely not just with each other, but with the wilderness itself. And what more can one ask of a trip?
Bruce Kirkby and Norm Hann are ambassadors for Mustang Survival, producers of top-quality recreational paddle equipment, including PFDs, storm wear, and dry bags.
On their SUP expeditions, they always pack:
- Greenwater 35l Submersible Deck Bag (“Bombproof. And because of its low profile, incredibly efficient in crosswinds.”)
- Callan Waterproof Pants, Jacket and Shorts (“Having these along gives piece of mind. No matter what rains and winds come, we’ll stay dry day after day. I admittedly wondered about waterproof shorts at first, but they are amazing! And they keep the butt dry no matter what we sit on.”)
- Torrens Hooded Thermal Jacket (“Form-fitting and super cozy, it’s our go-to warm layer.”) (“Form-fitting and super cozy, it’s our go-to warm layer.”)