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.