January 04, 2002 Features & Images » Feature Story

Feature - The Skookumchuk legend 

Kayakers from around the world come to surf the reversing rapids

Let’s start with a brainteaser to get warmed up. Which of these things is not like the other: skiing, snowboarding, sledding and white-water kayaking?

Admittedly they all involve the basic ingredient H2O in some form, but the first three are winter sports and the latter is what we do when the snow melts in the spring. Right?

Well, not if you are one of the growing numbers of hard-core white water junkies who surf the mighty Skookumchuk Narrows rapids on Canada’s West Coast, whatever the weather or time of year.

I first heard about these rapids from my former flat-mate in Vancouver, Rob Michl, an experienced Class V kayaker who regularly tours the globe in search of big white water. Recently he was at home getting ready to go paddling. Sleet was falling outside. It was that time of year more suited to moving to Whistler rather than plunging into cold water. We thought he was crazy. However he wasn’t alone, as a subsequent trip to Skookumchuk was to prove.

The Skookumchuk rapids are apparently one of British Columbia’s best-kept secrets in the kayaking world, although word of mouth and the Internet are fast changing that. Taken from the Chinook language "Skookum," which means strong, and "chuck" which means water, this tidal phenomenon truly lives up to its name.

Located at the northern tip of the Sechelt Peninsula off the Strait of Georgia, the rapids are directly west of Squamish as the crow flies but access is via road and ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Gibsons Landing. From there you drive north on Highway 101 until you reach the town of Egmont – the gateway to Skookumchuk Narrows Provincial Park.

What causes the rapids is basically a whole lot of seawater and not much room. Water is greatly constricted at the Skookumchuk Narrows during tidal exchanges between Sechelt Inlet and Jervis Inlet. Because the narrow channel restricts the flowing tidewater, the difference in water level from one side of the rapids to the other can exceed two metres, and current speeds can top 16 knots (30 km/h) – making it among the fastest tidal rapids in the world. At peak, the flow rate is approximately 18,000 cubic metres per second. The final result: cavernous whirlpools, standing white water waves that can be surfed for several hours and, increasingly, people from all over the globe paddling little plastic and fibreglass boats through it all.

Take Renee Spielmann from Vancouver. He’s been kayaking for more than 10 years and coming to Skookumchuk for the past eight. Kitted out in a warm looking, blue dry-suit, Speilmann says there’s no reason not to surf there all year round. He describes the rapids as "paradise" despite the big increase in human traffic there over the past two seasons.

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