The #1 complication for planning kayaking trips in British Columbia: congestion


Photo caption: Sidney Spit Provincial Park is an exceptional destination with wide open spaces and few people -- until you need to use what is made available for recreation. The problem is access, as this park is another example of increasing restrictions on use to deal with problems of congestion.

By John Kimantas

I was fortunate to be project manager for creating the Salish Sea Marine Trail, a kayaking route still little-known and seldom-used linking Victoria and Vancouver as a paddling portion of the Trans-Canada Trail. It was a tougher task to create than we could have thought possible, in the end, for a number of reasons, but a key one being the relative inability to officially link the two ends. 

On the Vancouver side, it made sense to have one trailhead at Horseshoe Bay, as this would connect it directly to the Trans-Canada Trail (TCT), which for the TCT until that point was a dotted line across the Strait of Georgia on the BC Ferries route to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. The intent of the Salish Sea Marine Trail was to offer a self-powered alternative via the Sunshine Coast to Texada Island, then Lasqueti Island, then the Ballenas-Winchelsea Archipelago and finally through the Gulf Islands to Victoria.

The creation of the route meant meeting with civic officials at the District of West Vancouver to formalize Horseshoe Bay as the trailhead. It seemed a no-brainer, as it was the listed trailhead already for the Sea to Sky Marine Trail between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish. The meeting seemed to be the perfect time to bring up the fact the district had never set up the sign for the Sea to Sky Marine Trail at the Horseshoe Bay waterfront park where the trailhead which was the agreed trailhead. Instead the sign had apparently been parked in storage somewhere for the previous few years.

We immediately found out that the district had no interest in formalizing Horseshoe Bay for any trailhead, nor were they interested in providing an alternative. The rationale was Horseshoe Bay was already congested and frequented by ferries, making it an unsafe location. Additionally, the officials said the demands on other waterfront locations was already too great and special interest groups vying for their use too numerous. Authorizing any new specialized use was simply not possible. The result was the creation of a marine trail with no trailhead (though we did find an alternative eventually).

The situation was no better on the Victoria side. We met with civic officials who were supportive, and it made sense to link up at Clover Point, the Victoria start of the Trans-Canada Trail that from there meanders across the country. But it had the difficulty of many other launch locations in urban areas: limited parking, congested use by multiple user groups, small facilities in the form of the existing boat ramp, less than ideal beaches and a situation best for calm conditions only. It was by no means ideal. Worse yet, no ideal alternatives were located nearby.

You can read about the current situation for the Salish Sea Marine Trail on the BC Marine Trails website. You can also see it on the BC Marine Trails map. Note the trail website page contains this caveat: "Note that some stretches of this trail do not meet maximum distance between campsites. You may have to include a B&B or find beach camping along the way."

The main culprit for this is along the Sunshine Coast. There are access points, to be sure, but no waterfront camping from Vancouver until Simson Provincial Park on the Thormanby Islands off Sechelt. That is a long day's paddle.

If you wish to undertake the Salish Sea Marine Trail (an epic week-long to two-week adventure), the official starting point we did eventually find (and got permission to name for such) was Jericho Beach. This makes wonderful sense, as it is accessible and public with an expansive waterfront. One win! There weren't many others.

Most people won't be doing the entire trail, but rather day trips or overnight trips to the adjacent Gulf Islands. For good reason. These are wonderful, accessible locations seemingly worlds apart from the nearby urban areas. Getting to them is the main difficulty.

Take, for instance, a favourite trip of mine to Pirates Cove Provincial Park set just off Ladysmith. It can be a delightful trip from the Cedar boat ramp along the string of islands to Pirates Cove on DeCourcy. You can picnic or overnight, your choice. 

The first problem you will encounter is the Cedar boat ramp. It is steep, narrow and busy. There is also extremely limited designated parking. The only backup option is finding roadside parking along narrow rural roads not designed for this purpose and generally fronting homes that don't need or want their curbsides used as a busy parking lot. 

(An alternative might be a local waterfront park, Blue Heron, but this changes the route from a waterside paddle along beautiful islands to an open crossing. It also has parking issues including no overnight parking.)

The second issue, if you wish to overnight, is camping availability. Pirates Cove is not on the provincial park reservation system, as most provincial parks have become, but rather designated as backcountry camping. Despite that designation, it is most assuredly not. There are six designated camping sites up a stairway on a bluff away from the waterfront. Previously a much larger string of sites was wet along the opposite side of the cove, but those were closed and the capacity greatly reduced, ostensibly to console neighbouring property owners who complained of the noise (the risk of a beautiful waterfront location next to a beautiful park, one can suppose. No matter how privileged your situation, one can always find reason to complain, it seems).

As other provincial parks and national parks switch to reservation systems, the options for spur-of-the-moment getaways continue to decrease. One example is another great kayaking destination from Victoria: Sidney Spit Provincial Park. It too went through a change in campsite locations moving them away from the waterfront. This was done for environmental reasons, which is commendable in a sense, except that day use continues the degradation.

For actual waterfront camping locations, you will have to keep searching farther and farther afield -- if you can get to them. Take the Broughton Archipelago, one of the great kayaking destinations less so for the islands but more for the killer whales transiting that stretch of Johnstone Strait each summer. There are essentially three access points to the entire region: the private launch at Telegraph Cove beset with extremely high use and fees for both launching and parking; Naka Creek, which can be difficult to reach and is away from the main attractions; or Port McNeill, which is also distant enough to make it significantly less than ideal.

Given Telegraph Cove has little capacity to deal with the thousands who want to visit, the result is a bottleneck that will only get increasingly worse.

On the west coast of Vancouver Island, entire regions have often single points of access for kayakers. Take for instance Nootka Sound. The main access point to the central sound is Cougar Creek, a congested provincial recreation site. From there options diminish rapidly and eventually peter out altogether.

In urban areas, the parking congestion is the primary consideration. Choices may exist, but limits to overnight parking or even outright restrictions can often lead to kayakers skirting the rules by seeking out obscure and distant locations. The latest example is Tofino, the single gateway to Clayoquot Sound, which has instituted pay parking but limited overnight parking to one central location where parking is already at a premium. Because this parking lot can also be used for day parking, it fills quickly. The only alternative, then, is to unload your kayak and gear then drive to some distant location along a rural road that hopefully you can find without parking restrictions, then make your way back to the launch.

The problem is there are few better answers for situations like this. Too many people, limited public waterfront access points and limited infrastructure. All combined it is becoming a universal issue.

My favorite example is the best launch site for access to Surge Narrows on Quadra Island: Hoskyn Channel. It was always a terrible launch -- a steep dirt road where backing down would likely end in a burned out transmission trying to drive back up. This site is used by locals of the Surge Narrows community, the residents of the adjacent island areas, so they feel a privileged right to the limited parking. Add the creation of a waterfront trail, resulting in the new user group of hikers using the same parking, and you have even greater congestion. The end result is the locals rallied against the concept of a Discovery Islands Marine Trail (a feasibility study for a project of which I was also project manager), and ended up killing its creation. The irony is the marine trail would have addressed access issues and likely led to more facilities or directed paddlers appropriately, but now instead we have multiple user groups vying for the same public spaces in competition. That outcome was the ideal ending for no one, even if the locals feel they chased the kayakers away. They did not. They just left them to fight for the same space as before.

I don't want to leave everyone feeling it is hopeless. It is not. There are several remedies available.

1. Time your visit appropriately. Mondays to Fridays are always better than weekends for launching or landing. Off-season weeks are always better than the peak summer weeks in July and August.

2. Research where you want to go. Know the parking restrictions and best practices for visiting before setting out. Don't be blindsided by not being aware of the demands on the location and the expected high level of use before you arrive. Seek out designated areas for kayaking launches that provide ample parking and space for use. Cowichan Bay, Nanaimo and Ucluelet have designated paddle launch sites. This is a huge step forward and a reason to visit these locations in preference to many others to support these initiatives.

3. Support BC Marine Trails. This organization is working to represent the interests of kayakers in terms of public use of public spaces. Since I can point to almost all restrictions in this regard in recent years being done without representation of the kayaking community, their work is paramount. Join them at bcmarinetrails.org.

John Kimantas is author of numerous kayaking and coastal guide books and owner/operator of Wild Coast Publishing.