Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Inside Passage; Alaska to Seattle

Looking for adventure? Few accessible routes pack the kind of adventure you can have on a trip down the inside passage from Alaska, through coastal British Columbia to Seattle , on Puget Sound. Weather, currents, bears and open water all are available to test the hardy paddler.

Colin McDonald, a freelance writer, made the trip and reported on his success in a recent Seattle P-I story. Click here to read the story of his trip that began with three people and ended with one. It was quite an adventure.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Canoe the St. Croix River, Maine

David and Judy Harrison, long time paddlers and veterans of such rivers as the Back and Yukon, recently completed a family trip on the St Croix River in Maine. If you click here you can view a slide show of the trip complete with music.

(Be patient. Dave did the program on a Mac, which he swears by, and some PC users will need to download a free version of "Quicktime" to view the show. But it's worth it.)

Here is Dave's description of the trip:

Five days in next-to-last week of May, 2008, daughter Julie and her two kids joined Judy and I for a guided trip on the St Croix River. Fully outfitted, primitive campsites, with whitewater, wildlife, fishing, swimming, and just beautiful floating. A dream-come-true for me to paddle with the grand daughters, Juli and Judy. The kids really grooved on the fishing and seemed non-plussed by the whitewater. Two of the drops we ran were water that Judy and I (with our kids) would have walked in the "old days." But having experienced guides, all but "guaranteeing" a correct line through the drops, gave us the confidence to "proceed onward" -- as Merriweather famously said. Judy did, in fact, choose to walk, readily offering to be the photographer, and a good one, as you will see.

Enjoy their trip.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Baja: A Gray Whale and Sea Lion Adventure

(revised 3/27/08 with a link to Rob and Kay's slide show. See end of blog)
The desire to visit the California gray whales, swim with the California sea lions and escape winter weather in the northern U.S. brought ten experienced paddlers from the cold northeast and the wet Pacific Northwest to sunny La Paz on Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. They were drawn by the prospect of what amounted to back to back trips in very different climates and conditions.

The first segment, whale watching in Magdalena Bay on the damper and cooler Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula, was more boat riding than kayaking. The second segment, in the Sea of Cortez, promised more kayak time and warmer, dryer weather.

La Paz, with good connections to Los Angeles, was an ideal starting point for both legs of the expedition. Ground and sea logistics for the trip were handled by Baja Expeditions (BE), an experienced outfitter with offices in La Paz and San Diego, California.
The group, four from Seattle, two from Vermont, two from Maine and two who can’t decide whether they are from Maine or Vermont, gathered at the Hotel Los Arcos on a Saturday in late February of 2008.

On Sunday morning, promptly at 0730, the BE van and guides J. J. Puebla and Anibal Lopez rolled up to the hotel. After a quick breakfast and briefing at the BE offices the van headed north for a three hour drive to a campsite near the town of San Carlos on the northerly portion of Magdalena Bay.

Magdalena Bay is a 50 km long bay along the western coast of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. It is protected from the Pacific Ocean by the sandy barrier islands of Isla Magdalena and Isla Santa Margarita. The bay is noted for the seasonal migration of the California Gray Whales that go there during the winter to mate. Nearby mangrove swamps provide sanctuaries for sea birds.
Our van was met by two pangas, all purpose utility boats powered by large outboard motors. Gear went into one and the guests into the other for the short run down a narrow estuary to the base camp.

The camp consisted of about ten, ten foot by ten foot tents, large enough to stand in. Back from the beach two larger tents served as the dining room and kitchen areas. The area proved to be windy much of the time and the sturdy tents offered good protection.

The beach and camp area rested on some of the finest and most pervasive sand many of the guests had experienced. It snuck into every opening and quickly recoated the canvas tent floors despite frequent sweeping. But, except for the sand, the camp proved to be very comfortable.

An ample lunch appeared shortly after our arrival and by early afternoon we were settled in, fed and ready for the first whale spotting trip. We joined the guides and panga driver and headed south into the bay in a heavy, consistent chop. The windward side of the panga proved to be a wet spot when we moved at any speed but most were properly dressed and the weather was not too cool so we all survived with a minimum of chill.

In mid-bay spouts appeared as the big mammals rolled slowly along, rising to breath and announcing their presence with a water spout and hearty gush of air.

That night, following dinner, J. J. gave a lecture on “whale behaviors”, which was informative and alerted us as to the types of movements we could look for on future spotting trips. On the way to the sleeping tents the stars put on a spendid show against the jet black sky.
Monday the wind persisted, but so did the guests. Kayak trips to the mangroves were offered at 0600. That was the only time kayaks were used in the camp due to the distances that needed to be covered to view the whales. Hot drinks were available at 0630 and breakfast was served at 0730. By 0700 most of the guests could be seen wandering around the camp with a hot drink in the official BE thermal cup. By 8:30 the panga was loaded heading down the long bay in search of the whales.

As predicted by J. J. we saw breaching, spy hopping and extensive mating behaviors. The mating ritual was the most surprising. One female and one or more males would roll and twist on the waters surface like a giant water ballet. Unlike many species the males tolerate each other and show little competition for the females.
One whale bravely slowed near our boat and then drifted over to a point where he could be petted on the rough snout by the panga skipper. He then rolled away and passed under the boat with shear grace. A most impressive spectacle.

The wet, wind blown whale watchers returned to camp at 1330 for a late lunch and then returned to the open water for an afternoon of whales. The panga bristled with cameras and hundreds of pictures were taken. But, except for the mating ballet, the whales never exposed much of their massive bodies and then they were often some distance away. Perhaps clever editing by the photographers will bring the whales in to better view but it is likely many of the photos will show only open water.

Following a late dinner our guides provided addition information on types of whales and their living, traveling and eating habits. Most interesting.

After just two days a camp routine had been adopted by the guests, anchored by the meal and panga schedule. The tents proved very comfortable, no one was going hungry and even the sand was becoming tolerable.

Tuesday dawned calm. What a nice break after the constant wind of the first two days. The morning panga ride began with a slow cruise through a nearby mangrove swamp with its varied and abundant birds including herons and ibis. A fat coyote was spotted dozing on the sunny shore. That was followed by more whale watching, which was much easier on the flat, calm waters.
Following lunch we again boarded our faithful panga and headed due west to a narrow sandy neck on Isle de Magdalena, the barrier island that defines the westerly edge of the bay. Landing 100 meters from shore we waded the shallow water to the sandy island and then walked over an amazing sand dune landscape another 100 meters to the westerly shore and the pounding Pacific Ocean.

After a short morning panga ride, that was rewarded with the discovery of a mother with calf, we returned to camp, loaded our gear and retraced our Sunday path down the estuary to the waiting van for the return trip to La Paz and the beginning of the second phase of our combo trip.

Upon arrival the van swung by the BE offices so the guests could be fitted with wet suits for a future swim with the sea lions in the chilly winter waters of the Sea of Cortez. Then it was off to the hotel to shake off the last of the sand and wallow in the hot showers.

At 0730 the van returned to transport us to the BE offices for a quick breakfast and allow us to store unneeded luggage and gear. We then covered a short route to the docks where the dive boat “Rio Rita” was waiting to carry us north to Espiritu Santo Island where we would find a new base camp.

During the two hour, 25 mile ride it was decided to pass by the camp and go directly to the Los Islotes sea lion colony and do our snorkeling, taking advantage of the good weather and calm water.
Los Islotes is a busy place with boats arriving regularly from La Paz carrying divers, snorkelers and just plain sightseers who were wise enough not to get into the water. Swimming with the sea lions is an unforgettable experience. You can be up close and personal with a fast moving, at times, curious mammal. While relatively safe you must remember you are in their water and that they are a wild animal.

The group wasted no time getting suited up and into the water. The sea lion experience lived up to expectations. Several of the guests took wonderful movies of the fast moving sea lions that will be enjoyed by the “folks back home.” The four Seattle swimmers lasted only a short time in the chilly waters. They were followed shortly by most of the New England contingent, leaving just two of the men to enjoy the nippy water and the cavorting mammals. Those two, apparently impervious to the chill, stayed until they ran out of camera memory or batteries for their cameras.

Mid afternoon we arrived in camp and hauled our gear to shore. The Rio Rita stood off in deep water while we transferred gear and guests to a waiting panga for the short trip to shore.

The new camp was a bit more primitive than the last, though still very comfortable. Instead of walk-in tents with cots the guests moved into nice dome tents set along the beach. A large sun tarp provided an escape from the hot sun near a single large tent that served as the camp kitchen. Perhaps best of all, the fine clingy sand of Magdalena Bay was replaced by a coarser type that, while still easy to walk in, didn’t cling nor blow nearly as much.

Following lunch the guests joined the guides for a wet exit drill with the kayaks. BE insists its guests know how to get out of a boat in the event of a capsize. Not wanting to get wet again the guests mounted a feeble protest to what was viewed as an unnecessary immersion but, in the end, all participated and likely enjoyed the experience. Fortunately the shallow water in the bay was much warmer than at the Los Islotes sea lion colony.

The bay in front of our new camp was alive with sea birds, particularly the California Brown Pelican. All day long they smashed headlong into the water in pursuit of the small fish in the bay. They look so clumsy but seem to be good fishermen.

Finally the day arrived when we would actually go for a kayak trip. The disadvantage of base camp kayaking is that you basically have two paddle choices; leave camp and turn left or right! We went left, or south, and took a slight detour to an offshore island before exploring several coves and ending up on a beach three coves south. After a stretch the guides led a climb up the north ridge to the site of caves inhabited by ancient people of the area. The walk was accompanied by a brief history of native cultures delivered by the two guides.

After lunch back in camp the group split up. Six took an afternoon paddle with J. J. and four took a hike up the narrow gully east of the camp. When the groups returned most took advantage of a nearby fresh water well to scrub off the sweat and grim of the day. Having the well was a distinct advantage for the camp site.

The warmer nights at this camp, as opposed to whale camp, allowed the guests to enjoy the wine, the beach, the stars and good conversation well into the evening.

Saturday we went north, to explore the coast and get even more exercise. We shore crawled past nearby coves, watching the ever present pelicans and their other feathered fishing friends. We passed through the shallow channel that separates Espiritu Santo from its northern neighbor, Isla Partida. Fog enveloped us as we made our way north, along the Partida shore creating a surreal atmosphere.

Returning to the channel we returned to the west side of Partida and settled into a west facing cove for lunch. BE went all out for the affair, even transporting the white plastic chairs from the base camp to the lunch beach. It was a little embarrassing for the hardy paddlers but we used them and hoped no one saw us luxuriating on a remote Mexican beach.

Our lunch took an ironic turn when the squid salad was unveiled. By coincidence a dozen squid had committed suicide on the beach and offered up quite an aroma if you were caught down wind. Eating squid on a beach covered with their cohort's carcasses seemed strange. But our BE supplied squid was actually quite tasty!

After lunch a wind had kicked up giving the group a wet but safe crossing back to the shelter of Espiritu Santo but no wet exits were required and the group returned invigorated from a good paddle.

Sunday was moving day once again. We rose early, packed, cleared out the tents and then were offered two choices; a panga hunt for whales in the Sea of Cortez or a lazy morning in camp. Six chose the panga and four stayed, exploring the canyon east of the camp just south of their own.

At noon the Rio Rita returned with a new group of campers and loaded us up for the return trip to La Paz and the bustle of normal living. The ride south was highlighted by a dolphin escort we picked up just outside the La Paz harbor. Twenty or more cavorted in the Rio Rita’s wake for ten minutes giving everyone a memorable show. They are remarkable and very entertaining creatures.

Once ashore it was back to the BE offices for a farewell margarita, some tee shirt shopping and a hardy thank you to our guides, both of whom did a wonderful job herding the group and answering an endless stream of questions. They clearly love what they do and the environment in which they operate which made the trip even better for the guests.

Overall the trip to Baja was a success and it conclusively proved two things. First, if you want warm weather in the winter, go to Baja. Second, if you want to travel with a fun, compatible group, go with a bunch of kayakers. Most of the group had not met before the trip nor had they done any “adventure” travel together. Travel can bring out the best and worst in people. This group was great! There were no whiners. Everyone took the sun, sand, spray and other outdoor indignities in stride while contributing to a healthy and entertaining conversation. It would have been hard to vote anyone off of that island!

Baja Expeditions deserved high marks for the talent and dedication of their people, and the efficiency with which they ran the trip. Vans showed up on time. Boats showed up on time. The food was varied and good and they were able to accommodate any special food or beverage requirements of the guests.

La Paz proved to be a perfect jumping off point for the trip. While it is growing rapidly and risks being overtaken by the pressures of tourism it has not become a tourist mecca like Cabo San Lucas. No one tried to sell us a time share. Souvenir shops are hard to find. Good restaurants are plentiful. It is hard to find Mexico in Cabo. La Paz has found a way to retain its charm.

So, if you want to be warm and make new friends, gather a group of kayakers (canoeists might do) and head to Baja.

It has been asked, “if everyone was such a great kayaker why didn’t they kayak out to see the whales?” The answer is simple. It’s against the law. Our guides advised us that kayakers are not allowed on whale watching trips. Only licensed and trained operators can get up close the Magdalena Bay whales and then, only if they obey a strict set of rules designed to protect the giant mammals. So while kayaking was allowed in the past, that is apparently no longer the case.
(To view Glen and Sarah's slide show of the trip click here. To see Rob and Kay's slides, click here.)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Ocean Paddling from Bella Bella

Part II: The Adventure Begins; Ocean Paddling from Bella Bella

Arriving in Bella Bella in late afternoon we packed gear and paddled north, then west, looking for a camp site for the night. We wanted to get far enough from the village to feel secluded but get set up by dark. We found a quiet cove, on the north side of Campbell Island, sharing it with a southbound kayaker, one of two we would see for ten days.

The next day we continued our western heading with Horsfall Island on the left and wide Seaforth Channel on our right. As the main route to Alaska a steady stream of commercial and cruise ships passed in the distance, none close enough to be an annoyance. Camping options were limited on the north shore of Horsfall so we settled on a clear cut coastal cove on the next island, Dufferin. Not pristine, as we’d hoped, but firewood was plentiful and, without the shade, the sun was warming in the camp. We were awaken by a gaggle of Sandhill Cranes on their way to nesting grounds in the north. They were most impressive.

At this camp we made a decision. We could continue west, round Athlone Island, and head south along its exposed ocean side or swing south through narrow channels that lie east and west of Durrerin that lead to more protected waters in the islands. The channels were tempting. They are narrow, scenic and must be run with the tidal current. But the weather was favorable and the ocean tempting so we took the outside or ocean route.

Coming through a narrow passage at the NW corner of Athlone we were greeted by the exhilarating ocean swell, blue sky and clusters of sea birds who, like us, were just riding the waves in the morning sun. There was no going ashore on the rocky coast so we were delighted to come across a small sandy island off the SW corner of Athlone where we could go ashore, stretch and grab a snack

NOTE: Always keep food and water handy above the spray skirt or, at least accessible in the cockpit. You may not be able to get ashore for long periods but need an energy boost. Lack of nourishment can be a problem if conditions turn foul.

The next days were a series of wonderful camps in the islands. Water was scarce so we took advantage of every seep or stream we came across and gave our filter a good workout.

The next big decision was, do we cross to Goose Island? Goose is the western most island of the group and is reached from the north or east via a three mile crossing. We wanted to go because “it was there” but feared getting stuck there by a weather change. With a favorable forecast (a good weather radio is advisable) we made the crossing and set up camp. It was worth the effort as Goose offers some good paddling on all sides.

On departure day we began to question our Goose decision. The fog was complete. The good news was that few boats ventured into the rocky islands so chances of being run down were slim. Still, it was eerie leaving the Goose behind as we descended into the utter and complete fog. The water was so still only passing seaweed on the surface indicated forward motion. After an hour we made landfall and, as soon as we entered the island group we burst into blue sky that we perceived as just reward for our ghostly crossing. Goose was worth the effort.

It took several more days to complete the circular course, arriving back at Bella Bella from the south, in time to stow gear and wait for our ferry.

The Bella Bella area holds many charms.
· It is accessible but not too accessible.
· You can chose from multiple courses as you weave through the islands.
· You will likely have the place to yourself. Power boaters tend to avoid the rocky inlets and channels.
· Wildlife adds an extra bonus; birds, seals, sea otters, killer whales. The majestic ravens put on a show many evenings. They are very smart birds.

But there are cautions as well so study your charts and guidebooks:
· Campsites are limited by the rugged coast.
· Water is hard to find. Fill up at every opportunity and, if you get rain, catch it!
· You will be on your own. Don’t expect to be rescued from some mishap by a passing boat. One solo kayaker we met had filed a “float plan” with the Canadian Coast Guard; a sensible precaution.
· Don’t miss your ferry!

But, cautions notwithstanding, the Bella Bella area take you back in time to a quiet and simple place, free of modern life’s intrusions. Try it.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bella Bella, An Little Known British Columbia Destination

Part One: Getting to Bella Bella

Bella Bella; an Italian kayaking destination? No, it’s a village on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada, that is a study in contrasts as a kayak destination. Remote and accessible; challenging with benign options; rugged and beautiful; protected or ocean paddling. The Bella Bella area is worth the trip.

Located on Campbell Island, the village of Bella Bella is less a destination than a starting point. As the raven flies the village lays 100 miles north of Vancouver Island and getting there takes planning and ferry schedule coordination.

Load everything you will need, including food and a few days water, before heading for the ferry. You can purchase supplies along the way, on Vancouver Island, but who wants to go shopping on the travel day. There is a village store in Bella Bella but, after that, you are on your own. Cross the Canadian border and head for the ferry terminal at Tsawwassen, south of the City of Vancouver. The ferries are often busy but they do accept reservations; a nice feature ( ).

A two hour ride across the Straits of Georgia will take you to the bustling city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, the starting point for your four and one half hour drive north to Port Hardy, your jumping off place. It’s a long drive so enjoy the experience. It’s a beautiful island and don’t get all worked up about the clear cuts you will pass. Logging is a part of the island culture and there are plenty of uncut areas to gaze at.

Depending on arrival time and the ferry schedule you may have to spend the night in Port Hardy. You can dig out your camping gear or settle into one of the fine motels in town ( ). I recommend the motel option. Kayakers have a reputation for being cheap so it’s nice to leave a little money in the local economy, which depends heavily on tourism for its survival. It will be your last shower for a while so enjoy it.

The ferry to Bella Bella sails only twice a week. Check the schedule to plan both your northbound and southbound sailing. A schedule reading error will cost you a couple of days. The system runs a boat tailored to this run, the Queen of Chilliwack. If you make the ten hour sailing at night reclining seats are available. We skipped the chairs, pulled out our pads and sleeping bags and slept on the carpeted floor. An informal atmosphere prevails and the crew is very accommodating. Food is available on board.

Upon arrival you simple carry your kayaks and gear to the nearby beach, pack and prepare to launch. Since you will need to haul your kayaks and gear both on and off the ferry, mesh duffle bags are useful. Small items can be stuffed in the bags, minimizing the number of trips required. Since the ferry crew is anxious to stay on schedule a quick unload is encouraged (though it is unlikely they will assist you.) You’ve arrived and are ready to paddle.

Next post I’ll tell you about our trip that included sea otters, whales, ocean paddling and running a rapid.

Key Words: Vancouver Island, Bella Bella, Ocean, BC Ferries, Port Hardy

Monday, January 28, 2008

Get Warm; Try Loreto Mexico

Tired of cold weather? Consider a fall or winter paddle in the Sea of Cortez, south of California. Loreto, on the east coast of Baja, is serviced by several experienced kayak tour operators and can be reached from the USA via Delta and Alaska Air flights. It still has a small town, undiscovered feel though development is beginning to change that.

Popular trips travel to and from Loreto along the Baja coast or off shore to one of several large islands in the Sea of Cortez. You’ll camp on sandy beaches and see a range of stark, desert like scenery. Water and air temperatures are very comfortable in the fall. From January to spring the water can be too cool for comfortable swimming without a wetsuit and evening air can warrant a light jacket. But, at its worst, it’s balmier and dryer than northern destinations that time of year.

The following services can help you plan your trip:
Sea Kayak Adventures:

Miramar Adventures:

Prefer to use your own kayak? You can do it if you don’t mind the hassle factor. Loreto is over 700 non-freeway miles from San Diego. Once you get there you will be on your own for maps, park permits, finding water sources and all the other things we take for granted in Canada or the USA.

On your own or with a tour you will find the Loreto area a warm, dry alternative to the winter north.

Click here to find the map to Loreto

Monday, January 21, 2008

First Strokes; Kayak Basics

“Oh sure,” you say. “I’m just supposed to hop into a kayak and head out into the ocean. I have no idea how to paddle one of those unstable looking things.”

Q: How would I begin?

A: Take a lesson. There are kayak clubs and lessons available in most major cities. A random Google of cities as distant as New York, Atlanta, Miami, Kansas City, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle revealed places to sign up and take lessons. Lessons give you a good opportunity to determine if it’s a sport you are even interested in. Some people are never comfortable in a kayak or being so low in the water. Others take to it like a duck to ….oh never mind.

Q: Do I need to own a kayak?

A: No. They will provide the kayaks and all the equipment for paddling; paddles, life jackets, spray skirts, etc. You just show up and listen.

Q: So once I know how to paddle, then what?

A: You decide what you want to do with your new skill. If you want to do some kayak camping, or expedition kayaking, consider a phased regimen that allows you to gradually expand your skills and confidence. Let’s say you live in New York City:
1. Take a day trip with the local group.
2. Take a weekend overnight trip with a group, either in the local area or at some other scenic local.
3. Book a weekend or longer trip at some destination spot, say the coast of Maine.

Each trip gives you more understanding of what you enjoy about the sport or what you need to purchase to make the experience more enjoyable. Most tour outfitters provide the kayak, paddle and safety equipment. You will need to provide footwear, sun and rain gear and other personal items that you find make you paddle experience more enjoyable.

Every time I travel with friends or a guide I pick up some new tip or idea that I can adopt to make the experience more enjoyable.

Q: What if I don’t have time for lessons and all of that. I want to take my son on a week long trip in Alaska next summer. Can it be done?

A: I’ve seen it done. It’s riskier but doable. I’d suggest doing some reading on-line or at the book store so you know what to expect. Guides will try to pace the group to the skills of the participants. When a novice couple joined our Alaska tour:
· They arrived without gloves and quickly developed blisters. We loaned them gloves.
· Their rain gear was of the cheap plastic variety that was as wet on the inside as on the outside and tore easily.
· They packed too much of the wrong gear, making packing the kayak a chore and meant others had to carry their share of the food.

They survived the week but likely never paddled again. If they’d done a little reading they would have avoided many of the mishaps they encountered. So you can paddle “cold turkey” but it is not advisable.

In short, kayaking is a fun sport if you start out right and learn a few basics. If you jump right in you risk having a bad experience that can sour you on the sport forever. It’s your choice. Both ways work.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Barkley Sounds Deer Islands; Kayak Paradise

Want to avoid the kayak crowds? Consider the Deer Group, nestled along the south shore of British Columbia’s Barkley Sound. Less popular than the Broken Islands, six miles to the north, the Deer Group can be reached without the use of a ferry or the risk of a long open water paddle. That said, the area is not for beginners; the Sound opens up to the vast Pacific Ocean and weather can turn ugly but, if you plan ahead and watch the forecast, you can take advantage of the protection offered by the Deer Islands.

The best launch site is the little town of Bamfield, about two hours west of Port Alberni. If you arrive late you can camp near town or take advantage of several B&B’s in the area. ( &

After launching in town a two mile paddle puts you in the islands. We chose Diana, one of the closest, and used it as a base for exploring the west end of the Group. Weather permitting a paddle to the Folger Island sea lion colony is worth the effort. The noisy animals will protest your presence while they entertain you with their diving and barking antics.

Having spent two days exploring the west end of the Group we broke camp and headed northeast toward the Stud Islet off the north shore of Tzartus Island. The shoreline varies and numerous rock caves beckon the curious paddler along the way.

Campsites are scattered throughout the Deer Group. Some are on Native Reserves and require prior permission to use. One of the best resources for the area is the Barkley Sound map produced by Coastal Waters Recreation. ( They are not navigation charts but they do show campsites, points of interest and areas that might be challenging for a paddler. The size of a highway map they are easy to handle on the water and in camp.

We found a sandy beach camp site in the Stud Islets, just south of Weld Island.

The next day we headed southwest, cutting through Robbers Passage to explore the south side of Flemming Island. The Port Alberni Yacht Club outstation, in the passage, was the only sign of development we encountered the entire time. We ended up in a prepared campsite on Sanford Island. We were told the site was maintained by a gentleman who claimed the island as his own. Since it was fall, he was not in residence and we took advantage of the wonderful surroundings.

One note about Deer Group paddling. Water is scarce. Hard to believe in the rainy northwest but it’s true. There are creeks on Tzartus Island, near Holford Bay, and on the southern end but we didn’t go ashore to find them. We made do with the water we carried.

For more information on paddling the Deer Group Mary Ann Snowdon’s classic, “Sea Kayak the Gulf Islands” (formerly Island Paddling) is recommended and available at

Monday, January 7, 2008

Kayaking an Arctic River; A Wildlife Adventure

The summer of 2005, Dean Behse, my wife Kathy and I were able to fulfill a long time dream. We joined two naturalist guides and five other guests for a once in a lifetime kayak trip down the remote Thomsen River in the Canadian Arctic. The trip came highly recommended and we were drawn to the area by the sheer remoteness of the place and the promise of an abundant birds and wildlife living in an area virtually untouched by humans. We were not disappointed.

The Thomsen River flows north in Aulavik National Park on Banks Island, which lies at the western entrance to the fabled Northwest Passage. About the size of Vancouver Island, Banks is home to less than 200 year around residents and the remote Aulavik Park sees fewer than fifty visitors in a typical year. The Thomsen can only be paddled during a narrow June-July window after the ice melts and before the water flow drops and it becomes too shallow. Like several other Canadian Arctic parks, Aulavik can only be reached by plane during the short summer season and offers absolutely no services of any kind for the visitor.

“That is the beauty of the place,” says Dean. “It’s totally undeveloped. Once you are in the park you’re on your own.”

We chose W&S Expeditions, a Canadian tour company, to lead our band of adventurers. We’d kayaked with them on two other occasions and it was their glowing reports of Banks Island wildlife that placed it on our “must see” list. The lead guide, Bob Saunders, was a biologist with nearly ten years experience guiding in the north country. The second guide, Jamie Whiteside contributed arctic experience, a penchant for organization and an exceptional singing voice to the mix.

In mid June the Bellevue contingent met former club member David Harrison, four other guests and the guides in Edmonton, Alberta, for the start of the journey. We flew north to Inuvik by commercial jet, spent the night and then boarded a chartered Twin Otter (the big brother to the deHavilland Single Otter flown locally by Seattle’s Kenmore Air) for the three hour flight across the Beaufort Sea to Banks.

Lacking a formal runway, a luxury in the Arctic, the Otter deposited us on the flat shoreline of the Thomsen River and left with the promise of a return flight from a particular sand island near the mouth of the river two weeks hence.

The plane’s departure was one of the more memorable moments of the trip. It lifted off into a snow filled 30 knot wind leaving our group standing on the treeless tundra beside a jumbled pile containing five collapsible kayaks, five tents and a mountain of food and personal gear. As we dug through the pile in search of additional winter clothes we all questioned the sanity of otherwise normal people who would give up home and hearth to come to such a barren place.
Once tents were up and anchored, providing us with a respite from the wind, spirits revived and we began to assess the island that was to be our home for the next two weeks. The slow flowing Thomsen is surrounded by low, rolling hills. From a distance the ground looks quite dead but on closer examination the tundra is very much alive with masses of hardy plants and spring flowers on a spongy base.

The first day was devoted to repacking our food stocks into kayak sized nylon bags which were distributed so each kayak carried a portion of the group supplies. In the land of the midnight sun the packing operation carried us into the evening and the first dinner wasn’t served until well past 10:00 p.m.

“Time somehow loses meaning when you have no schedule and it’s light 24-hours a day,” said Dean. “It became difficult to remember what day it was!”

The next morning we assembled our collapsible Klepper kayaks, by stretching their rubberized canvas skin over a fragile looking wooden frame. The sturdy little boats proved to be quite seaworthy and capable of carrying two people and all of our food and camping equipment.

The second day we fell into a routine that would be maintained for the duration of our Banks Island stay. With 24-hour daylight, eating habits were adjusted to reflect an Arctic tempo; breakfast mid morning, lunch late afternoon and dinner between 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. Any concern about sleeping in our bright yellow tents with the midnight sun were quickly dispelled. Typically tired after a day of paddling or hiking, no one complained about the light. On kayaking days we would break camp, be on the river by late morning and in a new camp by early evening. Other days we would stay ashore and devote our time to hiking, fishing or just relaxing.

The prevailing north wind was a factor everyday. The good news was that it kept all but the hardiest bugs at bay. But, with rare exceptions, it was always blowing against us on the river creating a paddling challenge. One afternoon we simply gave up paddling, tied lines to the kayaks and walked along the shore, dragging the boats behind.

Where possible we tucked our five rugged little tents into gullies beside the river, sheltered from the strongest winds. Our guides capitalized on that protection allowing them to perform kitchen magic at meal time. Breakfast ranged from staples like cold cereal and oatmeal to pancakes, omelets and eggs benedict. Lunch, in camp or on the river, consisted of cold cuts, fruit, a variety of breads and other surprises. Dinner was the highlight of the eating day. Soups, chili, burritos, cous cous and polenta served with assorted canned meats kept everyone’s calorie count up.
When the fishermen were successful their Arctic char or trout would be added to the menu.

The promised wildlife did not disappoint us. The island is home to the world’s largest muskox herd. Built like an American buffalo the muskox sports a shaggy winter coat well adapted to the harsh northern winters. In the summer, as they shed their winter fur, they look a bit ragged. We saw them every day; sometimes in the distance and sometimes very close to camp. Normally they are skittish around people but we heard they can be aggressive so we treated them with respect. Wolf, fox and the hamster-like lemming rounded out the mammal populations. None of them proved curious enough to threaten our food supplies.

Dean, an early riser at home, maintained that schedule on the river taking morning hikes while everyone else slept. On one such hike he spotted and photographed the only wolf seen on the trip. “He captured an image on his digital camera so we wouldn’t write off the sighting as a tall tale,” Kathy offered with a smile.

Bob, the guide, favored midnight hikes and had excellent luck spotting difficult to find birds and wildlife well after midnight.

Any concern about potential polar bears was put to rest by the guides who pointed out that the big white bears favor the ice pack along the island coast where the seal hunting is best. While not unheard of near the mouth of the Thomsen the guides had never encountered a bear up-river and rated the risk low. That was fine with us.

The wide variety of birds nesting on Banks provided a never ending aerial show. Considering that migrating birds must cross all of northern Canada and 100 miles of open sea to reach Banks the variety of bird life impressed us. Snowy owls, gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons, eiders, loons and sandhill cranes were just some of the species we identified.

In addition to birds and wildlife our guides provided an archeological bonus. Several hundred year old campsites along the river gave evidence of native peoples that once lived in this harsh environment. The absence of contemporary visitors meant the stone tent rings and other signs of native life were well preserved.

After 13 days, 100 miles of paddling, eight different camps, seven fish tales, one wolf tale and, between us all, about 2900 photographs we pulled ashore for the last time on a sand island that was to be our final campsite and the landing strip for the return flight. With a mix of relief and sadness we began taking the kayaks apart and organizing our gear for the flight out.

There had been some difficult days when wind and rain lashed our campsite, driving us into our tents for hours at a time. There was a day on the water when the wind was so persistent it felt like we were paddling in molasses. But those days were more than offset by the wildlife, the sunny days and the stark beauty of the island. Both guides and guests had made the best of every situation and nary a discouraging word was heard during the two weeks.

As the day of departure dawned we were reminded of Arctic Travel Rule #1 in the park visitor guide.

“The schedule will change. Poor weather conditions often prevent scheduled flights from arriving on time. A delayed departure is a real possibility ...”

Via satellite phone the guides confirmed that weather in Inuvik had delayed all flights and put our schedule in jeopardy. After a long day of uncertainty we learned our plane was in the air and finally, as midnight approached, the sound of the reliable Otter was heard. After a last look around our river home we climbed aboard and were soon heading back to a world of cell phones and internet access.

“It was nice to be back but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The trip proves there still are places on this earth where you can truly ‘get away from it all,’” said Dean.

Would we recommend the trip to others?

“Absolutely! It is one of the few unspoiled places left,” said Kathy. “I loved the birds and wildflowers. Another trip north is on my life list, but not this year.”

Additional Information About Banks River

Northern Canada offers a range of choices for the would-be traveler. Many are accessible by car and lodging choices range from first class hotels to tents in the tundra. But the area can easily be enjoyed without “roughing it.” Festivals, fishing, hiking, boating, wildlife viewing and just driving around are options. A variety of online resources are available to help with your travel planning.

Canadian National Parks: The parks site provides information about the Canadian system; what to expect, how to get there and trip planning information.

Provincial Government: The two northern provinces most accessible from Bellevue are the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Both have excellent sites to assist with your travel planning.
For the Yukon visit

For the Northwest Territories visit

Guides and Outfitters: There are many qualified outfitters and guides. They can be found with a web search or through links from the government sites. Outfitters in the area include:
W&S Expedition which offers several kayak trips in the area.

Nahanni River Adventures which offers trips on most of the areas major rivers.

Canadian River Expeditions which offers rafting and canoeing trips.

Black Feather offers canoe, kayak and hiking trips. The also offer women only trips.