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Kayaking Sechelt Inlet

Adventure travel on a shoestring As I steered my kayak past Tuwanek Point and bounced through the standing waves of an ebbing tide-rip I had to remind myself that it had been only three hours since I left West Vancouver and it had cost less than 50 b

Adventure travel on a shoestring

As I steered my kayak past Tuwanek Point and bounced through the standing waves of an ebbing tide-rip I had to remind myself that it had been only three hours since I left West Vancouver and it had cost less than 50 bucks to get here.

Our four boats hung close to the rocky shoreline. Riding the outgoing tide and boosted by a strong ocean wind we made good time, and the following sea was just rough enough to make paddling interesting. Betty and I had our own boats, daughter Janet, and son-in-law Robert got theirs from Peddles and Paddles, an outfit located near Porpoise Bay that rents top-line equipment and provides secure parking for cars left at the end of the road. We were just beginning a five-day camping trip in Sechelt Inlet.

For those of us who have been bitten by the bug the compulsion to travel is like a chronic disease, an affliction that can be controlled but never cured. Unfortunately those "far away places with strange-sounding names" are often beyond the reach of time and budget. But here in B.C. one needn't go far to find spots that offer adventure and a sense of discovery right on our doorstep. Sechelt Inlet is one of the easiest to get to.

A 40 minute ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale, a scenic one hour drive through Sechelt and along Porpoise Bay road, and we are at the Peddles and Paddles boat ramp. An hour later, boats loaded and spray-skirts adjusted, we are on our way.

Sechelt Inlet itself is about 2 km wide and 30 km long but it is only part of a larger complex of fjords that includes Salmon, and Narrows Inlets, each more than 15 km long. The only link between this vast interior seaway and the open Pacific is through Skookumchuck Narrows, a cleft in the granite where tidal currents surge in and out at speeds up to 12 knots. Except for the turbulent waters of the Skookumchuck, Sechelt and its companion inlets offer protected waters where families, or people like Janet and Robert who are new to the sport, can enjoy ocean kayaking in a safe but challenging environment.

There are nine provincial campsites within the Sechelt Inlets, only one of which (Porpoise Bay) is accessible by car. The number of tent sites at each kayak camp varies from two or three to a dozen or more depending on how cozy you choose to be with your neighbour.

In less than three hours from Peddles and Paddles we nosed onto the beach at Nine Mile and were surprised to find the campsite nearly empty. This was Betty's night to cook so while she set up the kitchen on a chunk of driftwood the rest of us hauled the boats above high tide and pitched our tents. Its amazing what great cuisine can be served from a single-burner primus stove. Feeling mellow and full, with a glass of Robert's apre-dinner wine in hand, we leaned back against a beach log and watched the tide turn and start to creep back up the beach. Here at our camp in Sechelt Inlet, miles beyond the nearest road, the rest of the world seemed strangely remote and unimportant. Even the tide is out of sync with the rest of the Pacific. On the other side of Skookumchuck the tide turned three hours ago. So for the next five days we adjusted our lives to the unique rhythm of the Inlet.

At six the next morning we caught the tide flowing north. The wind had already come up and the sea had a nasty chop. If things stayed like this for the next few days we would have a rough trip home. But as we rounded Nine Mile Point and turned east into Salmon Inlet the sea flattened out and within an hour our boats were slicing through a glassy, mirror-like surface.

Once into Salmon Inlet we were committed to paddling without a break for about three hours as there is virtually no place to get ashore for the first 10 km. A fact worth contemplating before that third cup of morning coffee.

Unlike the outer coast, where every square inch of intertidal space is crowded with life, the deep fjords like Sechelt are relatively barren. Instead of huge encrustations of starfish we see individual purple stars and multi-legged sun stars – each worthy of an appreciative closer look. I let my kayak drift over a clusters of jellyfish. Saucer-shaped and fringed with delicate tentacles, they pulse aimlessly through the water, sweeping invisible food into their transparent bodies. I couldn't help thinking that these primitive creatures have probably not changed much since the earth's oceans gave birth to life millions of years ago.

Our destination was Thornhill Creek, a large campsite about half way up Salmon Inlet. We arrived to find most of the site occupied by a Christian youth group from, of all places, South Carolina! Friendly people but we declined to join their evening service. Janet had discovered a small bay farther east, a real Godsend – a beach of our own and a pristine campsite in the shade of some old arbutus trees. The folks from South Carolina must have put in a good word for us.

In the absence of divine intervention the best way to assure getting a good camp site is starting early. It’s also the best time to paddle. We were on the water before six the next morning, headed for Kunechin Point. An early-morning mist, swirling up from the gently rippled water, spread into a thin layer of bright sea-fog above us. In about an hour the sun burned through and the mountains on both sides of the inlet were bathed in bright sunlight. The scars of logging are now largely healed but the forest is a patchwork of second-growth trees in various stages of maturity, a legacy of intense logging dating back to the turn of the century.

We dawdled along the northern shoreline, poked into little bays to puzzle over the curious remains of some long abandoned enterprise and, as we passed the big blue floats of an oyster farm, anticipated a meal back in Sechelt. Farther on we stopped to watch the ritual of pellets being cast to the frenzied salmon churning up the surface of their pens at one of the high-tech fish farms. A blue heron stood on the railing and peered hopefully through the protective netting.

Despite the dawdling our luck held. There was no one at my favourite campsite in a little bay just east of Kunechin Point. I don't know the history of this place but the grassy knoll where we pitched our tent must once have been the site of someone's home. The building is long gone but parts of the garden, including a luxuriant growth of hydrangeas, has survived and become part of the landscape.

That evening we paddled out to a cluster of small rocky islets and narrow surge-channels on Kunechin point. Its a favourite haul-out for harbour seals. They pay little attention to our kayaks, continuing to snooze until we are only a few feet away. Then, bouncing awkwardly on their bellies, they slip into the water and stare back at us resentfully. A flock of black oyster catchers with long bright-red beaks watches us warily before taking flight in a chatter of protest. On a nearby rock a mother merganser nervously assembles her flock of 13 hatchlings. We give them a wide berth as we head back to our tents and settle in for the night.

The coast of B.C. can be dangerously seductive. Its tempting to stock up the boats and just keep going – to just forget about the job and all the stuff back in the city. But, knowing how easy it is to get back, we resist the temptation. Before heading back to the ferry and the final leg of our journey home we stop in Sechelt for a meal of local oysters, pan fried to perfection by the chef at "Pebbles" – fine dining in the comfort of T-shirt and jeans.

Well it wasn't China or even Siam, but it was a great trip – the kind of outing that satisfies the travel-bug without ravaging the budget. And for those not lucky enough to live in B.C., those who come from far away places like South Carolina, Sechelt Inlet is truly an exotic destination.