Seth and I have really gotten into kayaking over the past few years and try and go on a 2 night trip once a year. Our first trip was Sechelt Inlet on the Sunshine Coast and the last two years we have been exploring around the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. It’s a huge reserve, so there’s lots to explore! Last year we spent two nights exploring Pender Island and this year we took the ferry over to Vancouver Island and left from Sidney Marina over the Labour Day weekend.
Some of the larger Gulf Islands campsites are reservable, while the smaller backcountry sites are first come, first serve. I decided to book 2 nights on Sidney Spit, which is about an hour paddle away from Sidney. It has ~30 sites and is only accessible by boat, though most people opt to take the Sidney Spit ferry over to the island rather than paddle there themselves. I wasn’t totally sure what itinerary I wanted to follow, so I booked both nights and then played around with some ideas for where we could explore while we were there. Obviously paddling one hour to the Spit doesn’t make for a super exciting kayak trip, so we wanted to explore some of the other islands.
My initial thought was to paddle to D’Arcy Island for the second night. D’Arcy island is about a 10km paddle south from Sidney Spit at the opposite end of the island. However, as it got closer to the kayak trip, it looked like the final day was going to be pretty windy. I didn’t want to risk having a long paddle back in the wind on the final day, so we looked at some other options. It’s a bit far to explore as a day trip (20km), so instead we decided we would spend both nights on Sidney Spit, but day paddle to Rum Island, which is located at the end of a little group of islands on the north side of Sidney Spit, which would be more like 10-12km of paddling.
We left Vancouver on the 9am ferry from Tsawassen and went straight to the marina in Sidney. We rented from Blue Dog Kayaks and while we were filling out the paperwork I had a nice chat with one of the staff about where we were planning to paddle, asking about her favourite places. She said that she didn’t really like Sidney Spit because there are a lot of people and boat traffic, and that Rum Island was her favourite place to camp. There’s only 3 sites and because of its location, it’s great for whale watching. We didn’t make any decisions then, but I started toying around with the idea of staying at Rum Island instead. I knew we wanted to be at Sidney Spit for the second night because it would make for the shortest paddle back in the wind on Monday, but there was nothing stopping us from going straight to Rum Island on Saturday.
We decided to explore around some of the islands first while we mulled over where to stay for the night. When you leave the marina you can paddle up to the Little Group islands, which is north of the spit. Generally all the islands we wanted to explore kind of circle Sidney Spit, so it gave us time before we had to decide where we wanted to sleep. It was super calm in the marina, but pretty windy once we started paddling up to the islands. Overall I was a bit nervous about this trip because there’s a lot of open water paddling between islands and we didn’t have much experience with that. We stayed close to shore the entire time we were on Pender and while we did cross Sechelt Inlet a few times, it had been a pretty calm day.
It was definitely windier than I liked, but still okay for paddling. It was sometime after noon when we set off, so there was a fair bit of boat traffic zooming back and forth and we did get a bit sloshed around by the wake. Seth had trouble with steering in the waves since he never uses a rudder, and while I didn’t have trouble steering, my kayak seat wasn’t super well designed and I found it hard to get comfortable so that I could engage all the right muscles for paddling. Eventually we figured it out and made it work, but they weren’t my favourite kayaks. I still say Pender Island kayaks have the best rentals I’ve seen to date.
Anyways, it was a lot of work paddling, so we stopped at the biggest island in the Little Group and had lunch. I admitted that I was feeling drawn to the idea of camping at Rum Island that night instead, but was concerned about the long paddle to get there. We decided to set out towards Forrest Island, which is closest to the end of Sidney Spit, and then make a decision. We saw some seals lounging around the rest of the Little Group islands and made the crossing over to Forrest Island. We were definitely feeling the burn of the wind and not having kayaked in a while, so we mulled over what was the best decision. I was curious about Rum Island because I knew Sidney Spit was going to be very busy and I thought it might be nice to have a quieter night. But with only 3 campsites on the island and it already being 2pm, I was concerned we wouldn’t find somewhere to camp and I definitely didn’t have the energy to kayak all the way back to Sidney Spit after. Seth was more into going to Sidney Spit because he didn’t want to have to put up and take down camp twice, plus his logic was that we could still visit Rum Island as a day trip.
We agreed it was probably better to head to Sidney Spit, but as soon as we pushed back off the beach I started doubting myself again and even though Seth wanted to go to Sidney Spit, he made the call that we would push for Rum Island. He could tell I wanted to go and said that we were more likely to regret not going, so lets just do it. Aside from one other couple we’d seen at Little Group, there were no other kayakers around, so he reasoned it was likely there would be space for us.
It was a longer paddle than going to Sidney Spit. We had to do a water crossing over to Domville Island and then again to Gooch Island. We did it in one go and then took a break at a beach on the end of Gooch Island. Now that we’d committed, I felt much more sure of my decision and was excited see what Rum Island was like. We’d paddled up the south side of Domville Island, which was one of the hardest sections because a strong headwind funneled down toward us, but it was much more calm when we switched to the north side of Gooch Island. Seth spotted some cool ducks along the way and finally we landed on Rum Island. It’s not really a true island as it’s attached to Gooch, so we beached our kayaks between the two.
Fortunately for us, there were only two other tents at Rum Island and we happily took the 3rd site. No one else showed up, so it was a pretty ideal evening and we only had to share the island with 3 other people. I do love the Gulf Islands, especially all the arbutus trees. We were surrounded by them at our little campsite and had a great view looking out into the strait. I also love that all the National Park campsites have picnic tables for each site, a real novelty in the backcountry! These remote sites are not monitored full time by Parks Canada, but there were 2 outhouses with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and there’s a self registration box to pay your $10 camp fee when you arrive. There’s no predators on the Gulf Islands, so there’s no bear cache.
The one downside was that the wind was blowing right into our campsite, so while we’d been warm on the water, it was pretty chilly at camp. We decided to go for a little walk around the island to explore. It’s not very big, but you get beautiful views of the water and the little lighthouse at the end of the island. Otherwise, we took it pretty easy for the night. It’s easier to bring more luxuries when kayak camping, so we each had a little camp chair, which we set up to enjoy the view with a cold beer from our small cooler. We had chili for dinner and spent the rest of the evening watching the sun set over the rocks. We didn’t see any whales, but it was still a gorgeous evening. Once the sun went down, we went to bed early, having one of the best night’s sleep in tent, sleeping for almost 11 hours!
We got up around 8am, but I happened to wake up right at sunrise for a pee break and caught a beautiful glimpse of the sun coming up over the strait. The water was dead calm in the morning and we were excited to start paddling. Everyone got up and departed around the same time because I think we were all anxious to take advantage of the easy paddling after how windy it was on Saturday. My experience over the years has generally been that morning and evening are the best times for paddling. The wind tends to come up in the middle of the day, so I prefer to get up early on kayak trips.
We decided to head back towards Sidney Spit on the south side of Gooch Island this time and we paddled around Rum Island to check out the lighthouse, spotting some oystercatchers hanging out on the rocks. Seth did his Masters thesis on oystercatchers, so we love seeing them in the wild. They’re pretty hilarious with their giant carrot-looking bills and they made this adorable squeaking sound. I have a bit of a love hate relationship with kayaking because paddling in the wind is so exhausting, but there’s really nothing more enjoyable then drifting along on a really calm day. We took our time heading down Gooch Island and saw both a mink and a deer around the edge of the island. We also saw some dolphins swimming along in the Strait, though sadly no whales. We did catch a glimpse of a whale while having breakfast, but it never breached the surface, so we couldn’t tell what kind of whale it was, only see its wake as it swam along.
It was a much easier paddle back to Domville Island this time and we spent some time exploring the end of the island. There’s a little island called Ruby Island and lots of rocky shelves that were completely covered in seals. We always try to keep our distance with seals, but they always seem to get spooked anyways and drop into the water. One tip is to always approach them from the side and never head on as this makes them nervous, but even doing this, they usually prefer to observe us from the water. We took a break at the end of Domville Island this time and in the interest of switching things up from the previous day, decided to skip paddling up the island again and instead crossed over to the south side of Forrest Island. There’s a bunch of rocks at the end of the island that we thought looked promising. As a kayaker, you learn to always check out the little rock clusters because you’re almost always guaranteed to find wildlife there. Again, we found tons of seals and some cute little terns and a bunch of cormorants hanging around. We followed Forrest Island along the south until we were across from the tip of Sidney Spit and then made our last open water crossing for the day.
Even after the many open water crossings of this trip, I’m still not really a fan. It was so much easier on the second day, but overall it’s a lot less fun than paddling along the islands. Sidney Spit is definitely an interesting place. I could see why frequent paddlers in the area wouldn’t love it, but I’m glad we had the opportunity to experience both Sidney Spit and Rum Island as they feel like they are worlds apart from one another. Google maps doesn’t show the full Spit as parts of it are underwater when the tide comes up, but when the tide is low, you can walk several kilometers along the spit from the main island to the lighthouse at the end. It was low tide when we landed on the end of the Spit. The inside curve of the spit is super popular among sailboats and yachts and there were tons of people enjoying a day an the beach. There was no one at the end of the spit or down the other side, so we decided to hang out there for a bit and have lunch.
Even though there was little wind, it was very choppy at the end of the Spit where the water meets from both sides. It was a bit of struggle to push the kayaks back out into it, but only took a minute to paddle back to the relative calm of the inner part of the spit. We continued kayaking up the Spit, stopping again to check out some tidepools and counted 25+ oystercatchers hanging out and scavenging along the low tide. The wind had started to pick up, but once we reached the lagoon part of the island, it was dead calm again and we paddled into the beach next to our campsite.
I’d only made the reservation about 2 weeks prior, so I couldn’t really believe my luck in getting what I would consider prime camp spots. Like I said, most people come in on the passenger ferry, which is about a kilometer away from the campground, so they have to hike their gear in, but we had campsite number 1, which is located right next to the beach, so we were able to just pull up on the beach and unload right to our campsite. Besides us, there was only one other site that had kayaked in. It was a family of 4 and they happened to be right next to us.
It was still pretty early in the afternoon when we arrived, but unlike Rum Island, it was really hot. The lagoon shelters the campsite, so there’s very little airflow coming in and the sun just beats down on you. We set up camp and then hung out in the shade for a bit. We didn’t want to let the afternoon slip by, so we decided to go on a little hike along the lagoon trail. After having completed this hike, I have to say “lagoon trail” is a bit of a misnomer. It does track around the edge of the lagoon, popping out on the beach on the west side of the island, but there are approximately zero lagoon views. Seth pushed his way through the shrubs to catch a glimpse, but mostly it’s just forested. It wasn’t too disappointing though because the beach on this side of the island is pretty much deserted. All the crowds hang out along the spit, so we had a nice walk along the sandy beach to pass the time.
I wish we could have gone swimming, but the timing wasn’t really right. It was right at low tide when we arrived and the lagoon gets pretty gross at that point. It’s all shallow stagnant water with marshy grass. However, when the tide comes up, it cleans out the lagoon debris and moves up over the sandy beach, making for great swimming – it was just too late in the evening at that point to want to go for a dip. Instead, we decided to take the kayaks out for a short sunset paddle. We paddled across the lagoon to watch it set behind the horizon, and then headed back to the campsite as the light disappeared. This was just before the smoke from the US fires started to move into BC, so it was an amazing orange sky!
The one thing that hung over us for the entirety of the trip was our Monday morning paddle. I was keeping a close eye on the weather and Sidney had actually issued a wind warning for Monday, with winds gusting up to 70km/h. 20km/h is generally acknowledged as the threshold for kayakers, so I was keen to get out of there as fast as possible in the morning since we had to do a 3km open water paddle. It was still calling for wind early in the morning, but my experience has been that its usually pretty calm if you go early enough. We decided we would get up at 5am, aiming to be on the water by 7am.
It was pitch dark when we got up. There was definitely some wind, but it looked manageable. The trickiest part is that in the lagoon, it’s usually calm and it’s not until you paddle further out that you get an idea of what the weather is actually like. It started to brighten up shortly after 6am and by 6:30am, we were pushing back from the beach to start our paddle. I love paddling early in the morning, but it’s definitely the first time I’ve been on the water before sunrise.
It was a bit of a struggle to paddle up out of the lagoon. We followed the sandbar to the edge of the spit and although it wasn’t very wavy, we did have a pretty strong headwind to push against on our way out. It wasn’t too strong that we couldn’t push through it, but strong enough to give us an early morning workout. According to Seth though I was super speedy, which tends to happen when I’m anxious about something and my adrenaline kicks in.
We stopped for a break at the end of the spit to prepare ourselves for the paddle across to Sidney. Our plan was to assess the crossing from the end of the Spit and we had come prepared for the event that we wouldn’t be able to make it (brought enough food and water for an extra night), but fortunately it wasn’t looking bad yet and we were optimistic it might be a bit easier than paddling out of the spit since we’d no longer be paddling into a headwind. We were right. It was a bit choppy pushing off the spit, but the water was pretty calm going across the strait. It was certainly easier than it had been when we’d started paddling on Saturday and we had the advantage of being ahead of all the other boat traffic, so there was no wake on the water. It ended up being one of our nicer open water paddles. We took our time to avoid tiring ourselves out in the event the wind did pick up, but we ended up doing the crossing in about 45 minutes and pulled into the wharf in Sidney at 8am.
Since it was still early in the day, we decided to stick around Sidney for a bit. We had a nice second breakfast at an outdoor patio on the main street and then did a bit of shopping. I had no idea that Sidney is also known as “booktown” and has a ton of bookstores lining the main street! So we ended up visiting two shops and I went home with my bag a little heavier and my wallet a little lighter. We had a 4pm ferry reservation, but we didn’t want to wait that long, so we tried to catch the 12pm instead. It was super busy at the ferry terminal with all the long weekend traffic, so we did not make the 12pm ferry, but we did get the 1pm and were happy to have a few more hours to relax at home!
So overall, it ended up being another great kayaking trip! I probably wouldn’t rank it as my favourite because of all the open water paddling, but I’m glad we decided to stay at two different campsites and I had a lot of fun adventuring around the area. There’s still a lot more campsites and islands to explore in the Gulf Islands, so we’ll definitely be back!