Canada – Sandspit


I arrived a day late due to a delayed departure from Heathrow and I had enjoyed the bonus of a night in Vancouver courtesy of Air Canada. Sandspit airport is one of those glorious affairs where one arrives through a door from the airfield, picks up one’s luggage on the right hand side and exits the terminal, all within 15 metres. I did pause though, to enquire in the visitors information about the location of the Bayview Gardens B&B. “Oh, you must be Paul. We were expecting you yesterday! These two ladies are your guides for the kayak tour”. Thus the tone was set for my eagerly awaited trip to the Pacific North-West.

Haida Gwaii or Land of the Peoples

The Queen Charlotte Islands or as they are becoming more commonly called, Haida Gwaii or Land of the Peoples. This is deemed more appropriate than being called in honour of a king’s consort who never crossed the Atlantic, let alone visited the region. I had spotted a bald Headed Eagle within 100 metres on my walk to my accommodation, much to my delight. They are very common as it turns out, considered to be the greatest proliferation here as anywhere on Earth. That didn’t diminish my pleasure at seeing them at all on my subsequent sightings. The guesthouse was very welcoming and I was continually aware of how marvelously quiet it was everywhere. I had the remainder of the day to settle in until tomorrow eve when we were due to muster for the pre-trip brief to collect equipment and be briefed on Park etiquette. This was sort of learning how to “do what bears do in the woods”, with minimal effect, among other things! Also, this was my first meet with my fellow travellers, apart from Sara and Renee, our guides. The rest of the party were an American couple who had paddled a bit, a Canadian couple, also experienced, three guys from Calgary with very limited kayaking short of some pool sessions to have them wet exiting and a chap from Gosport, UK on whom I won’t comment!

We were supplied with a sleeping bag & mat, tent and 2off 20 litre dry bags. Next morning had us aboard a minibus on route through logging tracks to our egress point. We had to load 6 single boats and 2 doubles onto a suitably adapted ‘Zodiac’ - the generic term for a RIB in these parts. To follow was a colossal amount of food; at least it seemed to me!. That done, we boarded for our transit to Gwaii Hannas Reserve National Park. Fortunately this temperate rain forest region was not giving us temperate rain and while I am not a white knuckle thrill-seeker, I found the hour long ride really good fun and thoroughly enjoyable. We were deposited at Tanu Island and a reverse repeat of the loading was executed on the beach, our first camp spot. No shortage or problem in finding first class pitches there with great outlooks! In no time at all the ‘girls’ had us fed & watered and contacted the settlement across the water to agree a visit.

Walter the watchman

About 3hours later we were greeted on the beach by Walter, my first encounter with one of the ‘watchmen’ a term attributed to folk who spent the summer months greeting visitors, giving tours and offering insight into the proud heritage of a once dominant people, at ease and comfort in control of their environment. The style of the village had longhouses facing out to sea with their totem poles telling visitors much on the folk therein. The tour through the remnants of these longhouses proved impressive with their building techniques still evident despite the fallen massive timbers decomposing under the moss. Leaving remains is a great part of their ethos of decay and renewal also part of the reason the ‘watchmen’ take up residence during summer, to prevent outsiders arriving and disrespecting what are very important sites to these native people. Walter was good company with a quiet dignity and a wry sense of humour. A memorable introduction. It was then back to our beach for evening meal and soak up the scenery from all around.

We’d been told previously that we had the rear hatch for our personal effects and the forward was for group provisions. This gave me cause for concern (I am not as concise in my packing a kayak as a certain Mr Bisset) but putting my kit aboard next morning had me realising how voluminous these boats were, a fact which became more evident when I tried edging it. Very little effect once we had got afloat. We set of along the shore with eagles above, seals below and the guides keen to offer us information about the flora and fauna - on this occasion regarding the various kelps and their properties and uses.

The paddling was easy in the extreme, the holiday having been sold along these lines with emphasis being of the fact that kayaks are a low impact way of accessing this pristine wilderness. We made our way eventually to Windy Bay, up a beautiful creek; perhaps the name a hint to its location slightly inland. There was a rebuilt longhouse here to allow visitors some insight to their construction. A warm welcome and warm evening filling my contentment with having opted for a trip of this nature. Well fed and watered in a lovely camp spot, a good night was had. The views of the creek constantly changing with tide change and sunrise couldn’t fail to impress. Soon afloat again we skirted shorelines on what was a very short voyage today around the coast to Gate Creek. This was a wide beach on a sweeping bay with backdrop of the huge cedars and driftwood of fascinating hues and shapes. Plenty of room to erect tents and after lunch I was to the end of the beach for a bathe in the creek for an invigorating cleanse. This set me up for a relaxing rest of the day, very easy to do with the surroundings to explore with walks.

Day dawned with whale spouts on the horizon - Humpbacks I’m informed. A little bit of wind had produced some little waves. This wouldn’t have caused a comment amongst my fellow Club members but some instruction in launching was deemed prudent by our trip leader. This involved 3 or 4 bodies around each boat as it launched. I’m sure you see a slight flaw in this plans as we crew grew few. But all set out dry and willing. This chop was probably the most vigorous of the entire trip - not for nothing is it called The Pacific! We soon had the side wind on our backs and made good way enjoying ourselves on the water. Lunch was taken on one of the few rocky beaches I can recall and post break we made our way through the Murchison Islands towards Hot Spring Island. This was a much anticipated destination but we were informed that an earthquake a few years ago severely restricted the flow of hot water. Some positive paddling had us there - yet another beautiful landing with stunning views of the strait. Greeted by two lady ‘watchmen’ and fed (again!).

Majestic wood

A tour was led through a majestic wood with the fungi and moss and fallen trees giving a fairytale like atmosphere. The path led us through the forest to a beach that gave us the option of following the beach back around past the spring outfall or returning along the wooded trail. I chose the latter to enjoy the place in solitude. Arriving back at the lodge, I was just enjoying the views when I was invited in for some tea. Sitting with my tea relating to my host what a memorable trip it was becoming, she said how much pleasure they got from receiving visitors. The poorer flow of the spring had depleted visitor numbers and I think I would have said the place was the better for it. Time was they had to monitor peoples time in the pool. As it was, we were the only ones there and I did manage a soak in the pool albeit more sort of double bath size but a pure delight, nevertheless. A good nights camp again, although I was disturbed in the night by some nocturnal critter activities. Enquiries at daybreak had me of a mind it was an otter.

Humpback whale.

From the beach the next morning, we were treated to a Humpback in the strait breeching and tail slapping. Although distant, it was clearly visible and quite an extended display. On getting into the boats to leave, I spied an octopus right in close to shore and very watchable in these clear waters. What a great start to another sunny day! A short hop, stop for comfort break then onwards to our biggest crossing, not on a grand scale to regular paddlers but a good exercise and satisfying effort. We navigated some channels and islands to our destination for the day, a very nice secluded beach with wonderful mossy tent pitches under the trees. It was here we encountered a trio of kayaks late in the day. They fetched up on a small beach next door. It transpired they were a French Polynesian couple and a Canadian chap. They were all using collapsible boats. They had been using the boats internationally for 8 years and were as enthusiastic as youthful novices. We said our goodbye on the beach in the morning, them one way and we another. We set off following coasts rich in diversity and skies rich in eagles. With leisurely (not for the cooks) lunch breaks and early set ups of camp it was easy kayaking. That and the abundant food had me putting on weight as the trip progressed.

Burnaby Strait

We were getting towards to southern extent of the journey, the Burnaby Strait. This is a high point for nature lovers due to the amount of nutrients flushed through the channel and the life forms i.e. Starfish, Batstars, Sea Cucumbers, Crabs, Sea Urchins and other such marine life that an ignoramus such as I is unable to inform you of. Our access was going to be from a campsite about 1km away so we could visit on the low tide of the springs that were prevalent. Our guides earned their keep assessing the extent of the flood tide as we were limited for space for tents and boats due to the isthmus we landed on between two small islands running into dense woodland at each end. The care taken to secure boats was rewarded as the signs of a really high water mark were visible in the morning. Yet another feast for breakfast - fruit, cereal, bread, sausages and bacon set us up for the last paddle. The Burnaby Strait is unique and it was a wonderful finale to the time spent afloat.

Photos taken, we returned for our last meal together as a party. Four of us were leaving on the RIB which was bringing in four newcomers. Fortunately the fine weather continued and the RIB arrived on cue for our transit out. This was another thrilling ride on wide seas and stunning landfalls. The drive back through the logging roads afforded me my view of a bear. Although a small example it was a treat and I’m told this is a sub-species of Black Bear with slightly different jaw evolved from the abundance of shellfish in their diet. I still has 6 more nights booked in Sandspit and initially pondered on how I was going to pass my time. Never fear, I had a most gratifying time. Some spent sitting on the beach birdwatching, such a proliferation of eagles, turnstones, plovers, one blue heron (on a RED list apparently) and oystercatchers, ohhh!

Yes, oystercatchers!

Since I started paddling in England I have acquired a fondness for Oystercatchers, their ubiquitesness and vociferousness. Well their American cousins have all those same endearing traits; the same but for the fact they lack the white wing bars of our birds. Sandspit had the feel of a bye gone age for me. People drove slowly in cars which they didn’t bother to lock; much like their houses. They stop and offer lifts to strangers walking roadside and generally seem to be at one with the world. I shall cherish the time I spent there and the memories formed.

Companies used

I travelled with Kingfisher and found the trip very worthwhile, but is not a cheap experience. I was travelling alone, so appreciated the group tour.

An alternative are the Moresby company who operated the RIB which took us down to the Haida Gwaii Heritage area.

Having looked at their website, they do the works regarding hire of equipment and operating the shuttle. I know two Club paddlers organised their own trip thing using their services and spoke very highly of the experience, and that would be cheaper than booking a guided trip, (assuming you are competent of course to do so).

Here is another company I found but know nothing of their operation.