Northeast of Campbell River, British Columbia, the wide Strait of Georgia narrows into a maze of islands, channels and coastal mountains called the Discovery Islands. The winding channels and steep mountains make it look like an ideal sea kayak touring destination. And it is, but go with caution: the Discoveries are guarded by some of the word’s fiercest tidal rapids, where the ocean flows like a whitewater river. The challenge is worth it: the Discoveries offer incredible marine life, scenery, and some of the most dynamic water on earth.
Currents, Currents, and Currents
Any trip through the Discovery Islands must be planned around ocean currents, especially when navigating any of the nine notorious tidal rapids: Surge Narrows, Hole In the Wall, Arran, Yucultas, Gillard Passage, Dent Rapids, Green Point Rapids, or the upper or lower Okisollo rapids. These areas must generally be traversed at slack by anyone other than skilled rough water paddlers. These slack water windows are short, often fifteen minutes or less. At full throttle, expanding standing waves, large whirlpools, and boils. And timing your paddling with the current may mean waking up very, very early.
Watch the Rapids
But that doesn’t mean you should live in fear of the tidal rapids. They’re a blast to watch. Wilderness campsites can be found in the midst of two of the rapids and near others, perfect for sitting on the rocks watching the currents swirl one way, then switch and flow the other direction.
Play If You Dare
And some paddlers use the rapids as a playground for whitewater-like conditions in sea kayaks. The most common play spots are Surge Narrows and Upper Okisollo, where standing waves form on the flood current. This is no small commitment: the water is cold, the features are massive on a strong current, and football fields of whirlpools, boils, and confused water lie in wait behind the waves. Be on your game and bring a strong group. If the big stuff is too big, look for smaller side features in the side channels of Okisollo, Surge, and Beazley Passages
Campsites in the Discoveries are small and relatively few compared to the mile-long beaches of Vancouver Island’s west coast or the big group campsites in the San Juan Islands. Groups of two or three tents have far more options than larger groups, as well as less hassle in getting going early in the morning to catch a tidal current.
But in those small campsites, a hammock is a critical piece of equipment. Trees abound and provide a perfect vantage point for waiting for tidal currents with a flask of bourbon and a book. If the currents are going to make you wait, you might as well wait in style.
The Longer the Better
The Discoveries will eat up whatever time you want to spend there, and the timing of tidal currents and narrow windows of slack in the rapids complicate route planning. We had a week, and quickly figured out that wasn’t enough time for our planned circumnavigation if we also wanted to have time to play in the tidal rapids. We chose the latter. But side trips and slow explorations are part of the region’s beauty.
Keep Yogi Wild
Bears live in the Discoveries, too. Most are black bears. But grizzlies live in the fjords and river deltas of the B.C. mainland, like Bute Inlet, Longborough Inlet, and Ramsay Arm. They’ll generally keep to themselves until they become accustomed to human food. Keep a clean camp, hang your food or store in bearproof canisters, and separate cooking areas from tents.
Bring Your Intertidal Guide
The Discoveries’ intense tidal currents stir up marine nutrients, which is the food base for some phenomenally rich tidepool life. The walls of the rapids are covered in multiple layers of sea urchins, sea cucumbers, anemones, sea stars, and other critters. If you forgot your high school biology, there’s no better place to re-learn a coelenterate from an echinoderm. The nutrients also attract fish, which in turn draws seals, porpoises, and bald eagles, which constantly feed in the tidal rapids.
But most of all, go. Pick a week in summer, pack the kayak, and discover the Discoveries.