Let’s Talk: Kayaking Safety

Spring is my favourite time to go kayaking! It’s too cold in the winter and the alpine backpacking season is so short in the summer, that Spring has become my core kayaking season. I’ve been on several kayaking trips over the years and bought my own kayak last year, but I am by no means a kayaking expert. If you’ve read my avalanche safety post, this post will be a lot like that in that it’s mostly about me discussing some of the risks in hopes of convincing you to take a paddling safety course.


I’d kayaked and canoed a handle of times as a kid and a teenager, mostly just renting a kayak for a couple of hours or going on a guided tour. We decided to take up kayak camping in 2018, but my first order of business was to take a basic kayaking safety course first. I didn’t know anything about self rescue and figured this was a basic skill before going paddling for anywhere longer than a few hours.

I was definitely right and took the Paddle Canada sea kayaking basics course. Most of what I was hoping to gain from this course was how to get back in my boat if I fell out, which I did learn, but I would say the most helpful part of the course was actually the focus on paddling skills. Even 4 years later, I’m still not a great paddler, so this is something I’m always focusing on. If your arms hurt after a day of paddling, then you’re not doing it right. If you’re in the lower mainland, I did my course with West Beach Paddle and highly recommend!

Kayaking is not inherently difficult, but like a lot of adventure activities, it does have a certain amount of risk associated with it. If you’re not prepared for the conditions and you capsize your boat, suddenly it has a lot more risk. Knowing how to do partner and self rescue is a skill that actually isn’t that challenging, but something that I think it’s really important to know how to do, and not necessarily intuitive without training. If you don’t know how to get back in your boat, then you should really consider what kind of conditions you go out in. If it’s summer and you’re just renting in a lake for an hour, it’s probably fine, but if you’re going into any kind of remote conditions for an extended period of time, definitely take a course.

In addition, if you’re renting, it’s likely the rental company will provide you with all the safety equipment you need, but if they don’t, make sure first and foremost that you have a PDF. Most kayakers I see are wearing lifejackets, but I see a lot of SUPs out and about in Indian Arm without any lifejacket on board and it boggles my mind. It’s the single most important piece of equipment, at least make sure you have it on board, and better yet, wear it. The other pieces of equipment that are required on a kayak are a whistle, hand pump, towline, and a paddle. I also recommend having a paddle float and a spare paddle. If you don’t know what a paddle float is, take the course.


My experience has been that reading the conditions is also very important. The course I did focused on managing wind and weather, and a little bit about navigation, in your decision making. The mountains and topography in the lower mainland can create some really interesting wind and wave patterns and the best time for paddling is early in the morning or later in the evening. If the wind gets over 20km/h and you’re a beginner, it’s best to plan not to go at all. Seth and I once spent all morning loading the kayaks and driving to our destination just decide not to go at all because the wind had come up. On multi-day trips (and on some day trips), you also want to be prepared with extra provisions in case the conditions change and you can’t get back when you’d intended. It’s better to wait out strong winds and currents, especially if you’re not a strong paddler.


Since taking the basic sea kayaking course, we recently returned to take Paddle Canada’s Level 1 course, which is focused on day tripping. So we went over additional navigating skills, how to read current and tide charts, and worked on improving all our paddling strokes. If you’re a casual paddler, I think just doing the basics course is likely fine, as the main skill you want is the ability to get back in your boat. However, when we did the Basics course, it didn’t cover self-rescue, only partner rescue. Our instructor was great and taught us self-rescue anyways, but it’s an important consideration if you’re going solo or in a double, so check if your course teaches it.


Before taking the course, I’d only ever been out in double kayaks. They’re bigger, but I viewed it as more fun and you do have more power in the boat with two people paddling. Though they have gained the nickname of “divorce boats” because of the tendency to argue with your partner when you’re both in a boat together. We learned so many skills at the course and decided it was safer to have 2 boats as opposed to one (for the purpose of rescue, but also so that we could each focus on our own skills and interests when out on the water). Since then, we’ve always kayaked together in singles, except when we went on a 3-day trip in New Zealand where the rental company refused to rent singles. This was due to how windy it can get and their doubles are a lot more stable on the water. So it does depend on location, but generally in BC it’s recommended to use 2 singles over a double.


So in conclusion, as always when it comes to safety, my recommendation is to make it a priority and take a course if you frequently kayak, are going on an overnight trip, or going anywhere remote or with challenging conditions. It is a bit pricey, which is why I mostly recommend the Basics Course, which is only 1 day and will cover all the most important aspects of kayaking. But if you’re interested, the Level 1 course is also great and runs for 2 days. We’d like to do Level 2 some day, but it’s a lengthy course that involves a multi day trip, so for right now, we’ll wait a few more years and continue to practice our skills on our own!


Kayaking Twin Islands

Since we weren’t allowed to travel outside of our health region over the May Long weekend, options for camping were pretty slim in the lower mainland. We’ve been wanting to kayak up Indian Arm since before we bought our own kayaks, and we decided to do a short trip out to Twin Islands on Saturday night.

Carolyn and Steve have a sailboat that they dock at Lonsdale, so the plan was for them to spend the night in Bedford Bay, near Belcarra, we would camp on Twin Islands, and then we could explore around Indian Arm together on the sailboat.


Me and Seth wanted to leave out of Belcarra, but there’s no overnight parking anywhere in Belcarra (they really need to do something about this, I’m fine to pay for it, but there’s literally no options), so we were forced to leave from Deep Cove instead. Usually we launch from Belcarra around 9am and have no problems with parking, so we figured that would be sufficient for Deep Cove as well. We offloaded the kayaks and all our gear at the main parking lot and then I went in search of street parking while Seth brought everything down to the beach.

I was not prepared for how busy Deep Cove was at 9am. It was completely crawling with other boaters and picnickers. I drove around for ages looking for street parking before finally giving up and parking way up in the bush and walking 15 minutes back to the beach. The boat loading zone has to be one of the worst designed loading zones I’ve ever seen. People were double parked all over the road and the beach in front of the kayak rental shop must have had about 2 dozen paddlers.


We had offloaded further down the beach, so it was just us and a family of 4 who were loading up their canoe. It was a gorgeous hot, sunny day, so we put on sunscreen before launching into Deep Cove towards Twin Islands. Our plan was to go directly to the island to secure a campsite and then spend the rest of the day around Indian Arm. It was still really calm on the water when we left, so a lot of the paddlers charted a direct course across Indian Arm to Twin Islands. I don’t like paddling in the middle of a huge open body of water for extended periods of time, so we clung to the coast until we were parallel with Raccoon island before crossing Indian Arm.

As the name suggests, Twin Islands comprises two islands located very close together. When the tide is low, you can walk between the two, when the tide is high, you can paddle between them. The tide was pretty high when we arrived, so I paddled around to have a look at the two islands. The North Island has steep cliffs along the exterior and the only way to get on the island is from a dock on the north side. In contrast, there is a small beach on the South Island where you can land, so we decided to land there.


Seth took a quick run around the island, it’s not very big and there were already several tents set up, but he found a nice spot looking north across the inlet. We dragged all our gear up to the site, but decided to relax and have lunch before setting up. Unfortunately, it was then that Carolyn called to tell us they weren’t going to be able to make it out for the day. They had loaded all their gear onto the sailboat and backed out of the marina, only to discover their throttle was broken. They could reverse, but they couldn’t get the boat to go forward! So they were going to have to commit the day to fixing the problem before they could do any sailing.

After we had lunch I heard some other paddlers talking to the people in the campsite next to us about how camping isn’t actually allowed on the south island and debating whether to camp there or not. This came as a surprise to me because I hadn’t read about it anywhere in my research and couldn’t see any signs. We did some quick research since we still had cell service and I was able to find one line on the parks webpage that says “south island is just for day use”. Then I did a walk around the entire island and did find a single sign in the middle with a no camping symbol. We didn’t notice it when we first came in because it’s not visible from the water and another group had literally set their tent up right in front of it.


So we had a little bit of a dilemma. I hate breaking rules in the backcountry because they usually exist for a reason. In this case, I suspect it’s because there’s no outhouse on the south island. We had come prepared for this because I actually thought there was no outhouse on either island, but my conscience didn’t feel right to camp on the island once I knew you weren’t supposed to, even though clearly other people we’re doing it. To be frank, the entire island was a bit of a gong show. There were boats everywhere and tons of picnickers and campers.

We had wasted time on the south island offloading and eating our lunch and I knew sites were now going to be slim on the North Island as well. So we debated what to do for a while and eventually decided to pack everything back up and skip camping altogether. The day was mostly supposed to be about spending time with Steve and Carolyn and neither of us was excited about camping on a super crowded island. Instead, we decided to paddle around Indian Arm for the afternoon and then return to Deep Cove before dark. It was a little disappointing, but I know we made the right chose not to camp where it’s not permitted.


At least we hadn’t set up any gear, so it didn’t take too long to repack the kayaks. A dozen people had abandoned their boats on the small beach and neglected to give any thought to the rising tide, so Seth rescued 2 kayaks and a canoe that had started to float away because they hadn’t been tied on. We were both incredulous at such a level of negligence that we weren’t sad to leave Twin Islands behind. I would have liked to check out the North Island at least, but the dock makes it very difficult because you have to carry your kayaks up the gangway and store them on the island, which neither of us wanted to do with fully loaded boats.

We had the current with us, so we decided to paddle up Indian Arm a little way to see the old Buntzen Lake powerhouse. It was a quick paddle along the coast to get to the powerhouse, but the water was getting pretty choppy so I was a little nervous. I read that Indian Arm is best paddled in the early morning or in the evening and that the wind tends to come up in the afternoon. This was our first time paddling in the afternoon and it definitely wasn’t the best conditions. There’s no where to land by the powerhouse so we decided to make our crossing and head over to Thwaytes Landing, a small section of beach that has been designated as a Regional Park.


It was an uncomfortable paddle, especially when any motorized boats would pass us, throwing their wake up over the tops of our kayaks. Normally I don’t have a problem with power boats, but these were not being considerate of paddlers and would speed by very close to us. I know they have the right of way, but they’re a lot faster than me and if they decide to pass right next to me, there’s really nothing I can do about it. It was a choppy landing at Thwaytes, but we had the beach to ourselves. There’s no facilities and it’s one of the stranger regional parks I’ve visited, but it’s great that it exists because there aren’t many rest points for paddlers along the arm.

The waves did die down a little bit while we hung out on the beach, so we decided to re-launch while things were a bit calmer. We didn’t want to go any further up the arm, so we started back the same direction we’d come. The waves had gone down a little, but there was still a pretty strong headwind to paddle against. We definitely got a good work-out and took another break at Brighton Beach, which is across from Twin Islands. It’s not a public beach, but we figured we could break at the end because generally you can’t own the beach below the high tide line (although Seth did some research and there are homeowners that own the beach because they bought the land before this rule came into effect). Unlike the camping rules though, I don’t care so much about this one!


We were interested in going back to Twin Islands to go for a swim, but we didn’t want to cross the arm again, so we decided to head back to Deep Cove instead. It was tiring and took longer than anticipated, but we managed okay and finally paddled into the cove around 5pm. The water was surprisingly warm, so I decided to go for a quick swim in Deep Cove. Pre-Covid I would always go on a May Long weekend camping trip with my friends and me and Carolyn would go swimming, so I always swim at the end of May and all I can say is the ocean is definitely warmer than the alpine lakes!

I hiked back up to the car and we re-loaded the kayaks and all our gear. I texted Carolyn to let her know we were back and she quickly gave me a call to see if we wanted to come join them for supper since we were still in North Van. So we ended up picking up take-away and eating our dinner on the sailboat sitting in the marina! Not quite the meal we’d planned for the day, but we laughed that at least we finally got to hang out on the boat! We’ll definitely try the trip again in the future, but next time we’ll try to paddle out Friday night instead of Saturday morning to hopefully beat some of the crowds. Or potentially even go on a weeknight because it’s just so busy on the weekends, it does take away from the experience.

So overall, not the trip we planned, but we made the best of it and had some lessons learned about paddling in Indian Arm. Fortunately, since we don’t have to rent kayaks, it’s relatively easy to try the trip again soon.


Kayaking Keats Island

Following up on my post about kayaking the Sooke Basin, the other day kayaking trip I want to write about is the time Seth and I rented kayaks from Gibsons and paddled over to Keats Island. We were over on the Sunshine Coast for my beautiful friend’s wedding and we decided to stick around for a day afterwards to explore in Gibsons and go for a little paddle. I’ve been over to the Sunshine Coast a few times, but I’ve only spent limited time in Gibsons, so we had a blast exploring around the town centre.


We had a yummy breakfast at Molly’s Reach, which some of you might know from the popular TV show, Beachcombers, which ran through most of the 70’s and 80’s. My parents were incredibly enthusiastic about it the one time I took them to the Sunshine Coast, so it was remarkably my second time eating in the diner. We spent some time strolling along main street window shopping, before heading over to Alpha Adventures to rent 2 kayaks for a couple hours.


We’d been partying it up at the wedding the previous evening, so we weren’t looking to do anything too strenuous. It was a bit windy, but nothing too worrisome. Alpha Adventures have some really nice kayaks and it didn’t take us too long to get going. We decided to head straight across the channel and paddle along the edge of Keats Island to the Shelter Islets. Little islands are always a great place for wildlife watching and we were hoping to see some seals.


I feel a little bit like I’m cheating to call this post “Kayaking Keats Island”, because we only paddled a very small portion of the island, but we did see several seals hanging around the islets and we decided to stop on the beach in Plumper Cove Marine Park for a snack break. it was pretty sheltered paddling along the shore of Keats, but it did feel like the wind was starting to pick up, so we decided to head off again and cross the channel to get it out of the way.


It wasn’t too bad paddling back across the channel because the wind was hitting us sideways, but it was a bit of work paddling along the Gibson’s coast to get back to the Marina. In my opinion this stretch is better seen from Gibson’s town, so in retrospect, I likely would have preferred to go the same way back along Keats Island. Oh well, we got a nice arm workout on the way back and were thrilled to end the trip with a visit to the Tapworks Brewing Company for a flight! Tapworks is located right along the main road and has an upstairs balcony, so it’s a great place to hang out and we really enjoyed it!