Kayaking in BC



David Whitley escapes from Vancouver to paddle amongst some rather elusive seals


What is that?

From the end of the jetty, it looks like there’s something in the water. I point over to the disturbance of the calm ocean surface, and Peter shakes his head. “If it keeps its head above the surface for more than a couple of minutes, then it’s not a harbour seal.”


He’s right. It’s a rock. And Peter Loppe should know – he’s been taking kayaks out on Indian Arm for nearly twenty years. Just half an hour’s drive away from downtown Vancouver, this glacier-cut inlet is a tranquil branch of British Columbia’s most southerly fjord.


Canada’s fjords

You don’t tend to hear too much about the Canadian fjords but, despite the blanket marketing campaigns, Norway doesn’t have a monopoly on this front. A series of them splinter the Canadian coastline up from Vancouver to the Alaskan border, and there is a remarkable biodiversity contained within these craggy landscapes.


Part of this is due to the shallow soil of the surrounding temperate rainforest. When the rain comes – as it frequently does in this part of the world – waterfalls burst into life down the hillsides, taking the soil with them. The resulting nutrients end up settling in the fjord and allowing kelp to grow. This draws in the fish, which in turn draws in the predators.


Survival strategies

The elaborate ecosystem leads to some unusual survival strategies. As we push off in our kayak, Peter turns us round to look at the wooden legs of the jetty. They’re encrusted with hundreds of mussels, way above the water level. “Look how small they are,” he says. “You’d never serve them in a restaurant, would you?”


Enormous tides of around five metres mean that the mussels have to make a choice. Do they aim for the rocks and supports that are only covered by water for a few hours a day, thus not getting much food, or do they go lower and leave themselves at the mercy of marauding starfish?


On closer inspection, a clear hierarchy emerges; bands of colour spreading upwards reveal what lives where. Scores of purple starfish bob around in the water, while mosses and mussels compete for space above. At the higher levels, the barnacles hang out, while a seemingly barren black stripe seems to create a natural cut-off point before the Douglas pines takes over the mountainsides.


“The black bit is the splash zone,” says Peter. “Freshwater dwellers can’t live there because it’s seawater, and seawater creatures can’t live there because the water doesn’t often get there. That leaves only algae” You can, apparently, go round the 243,000km Canadian coastline and see this for much of the way.


The birds

Fascinating though this is, I’d rather hoped that there would be more to wildlife aspect of this kayaking adventure than peering at shellfish and algae. Luckily, the fjord is also throbbing with birdlife. The seagulls do their darnedest to shatter the peace, ducks fly off in formation every time the menacing kayak approaches, and the Canada geese gracefully glide in pairs. We spot one of the geese on the rocks, guarding a nest.


Peter explains that the male gets the raw end of the deal in the nesting arrangement. The males are generally more attractive, and thus hubby’s job is to stand slightly away from the nest, acting as a decoy for any passing birds of prey that might fancy munching on the chicks.


The Twin Islands

After a couple of hours spent sauntering around the coastline, looking up at the still snow-doused mountains and steadily picking up sunburn from the reflections on the water, we pull over at the Twin Islands. Well, at least they’re twins at high tide; at low tide, the narrow channel between them becomes a rocky land bridge.


We moor the kayak and scramble up to a vantage point with splendid views across the fjord. Peter whips out his miniature barbecue and sets to work on a three course lunch – home made salsa and dips, followed by grilled fresh salmon and potato salad then strawberries and cream. It’s a rather impressive feast considering the limited facilities. We chat about the history of the Vancouver area, from logging and fur outpost to major metropolis within 150 years, until Peter spots something in the water.


“A rock?” I venture, conscious of my earlier misidentification.

“No – look. It’s a river otter,” he replies. “Wow – I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of them in here before.”


On the way back we go to investigate some rather less natural additions to the fjord. A sprinkling of holiday homes dots the shoreline, each boasting its own jetty. Many can only be accessed by boat, and there are a few curious gaps. “That’s where one burned down,” says Peter. “They can’t get fire insurance out here, because the fire trucks can’t make it.”


But the harbour seals can, and finally my fruitless rock-spotting turns good. In front of us, the seal sticks his head up for a look around, then follows up with his backside and plunges back down into the water. And while swimming after him would be one way to explore the fjord, I suspect it’ll be a little chilly in there. I think I’ll stick to the kayak.


Details: Contact Lotus Land Tours (Vancouvernatureadventures.com) to arrange a kayaking adventure on Indian Arm.


Disclosure: David Whitley was a guest of Tourism Vancouver.