Paddling PerfectionBritish Columbia’s Barkley Sound
What makes the perfect destination for the perfect sport ?
Paddling, meaning sea kayaking and canoeing, is the perfect sport: a rare combination of exploration, local knowledge, intuition, skill, and muscle combined with the love of beautiful boats, good friends, elegant camping, and wilderness on water.
And the perfect destination? Tops on everyone’s list is the coastal waters of British Columbia. I have paddled many if not most of the best destinations along these shores, and if I had to pick one place that embodies what I love about a paddling adventure, it would be Canada’s Barkley Sound. This remarkable tear in Vancouver Island’s west coast, an island-filled sound 15 miles wide and 8 miles deep sandwiched between the island’s mountains and the Pacific Ocean, is a beloved destination for Northwest paddlers. Like a lover, like a friend, the islands, the passages, the mountains, the weather, and the Pacific combine to entrance all who paddle here. And over the years, the sound and the islands have become a fond memory, a place of proposal and conception, a great first real kayak trip in a real wilderness, and for many, an annual paddling pilgrimage.
British Columbia is one of the world’s premier ocean kayaking destinations. Kayakers enjoy easy-to-challenging waters, spectacular scenery and myriad wildlife viewing opportunities. Grey, Orca and Humpback Whales are commonly seen during their migration seasons, as are a variety of marine birds, seals and porpoises. The best kayaking weather occurs between mid-May and September. Rentals and guided tours are available.
So why is this British Columbian body of water singled out? Let’s begin with Perfect Reason No. 1–easy access. Barkley is the southernmost and closest of the five great sounds on the west side of Vancouver Island. A bushy-tailed paddler can beat the Seattle rush hour, drive 120 miles to Canada, and catch the mid-morning, two-hour B.C. ferry from Tsawwassen to Duke Point. Then it’s 120 more miles to the put-in at the Toquart Bay Recreation Site. True, a long day–figure on eight to nine hours to the put-in–but there’s still time to load and paddle to most any point in the Broken Group, set camp, get dinner going, and align the Therm-a-Rest to the westward-setting sun.
Scale is Perfect Reason No. 2. As with the bears and porridge parable–the distances between very right-sized islands is “just right.” From Toquart Bay you glide between lowering forested second-growth hills, pass through the Stopper Islands, kiss Lyall Point, and reach the first island in the Broken Group (and the first designated campsites in Pacific Rim National Park) in four nautical miles. Now you enter an ever-evolving labyrinth of passages and lagoons that define the 100 or so islands in the group. This compact archipelago is a maze of quiet bays, intriguing defiles, just-scrape-through passages, and short crossings that delight paddlers with a sense of discovery and timelessness.
This brings us to Perfect Reason No. 3–weather protection. This is known as Shipwreck Coast for a reason. The Pacific can butt against the outer islands with tremendous force. But not till you are midway through the group do you feel its presence, the breath-like rise and fall of its swells. Within the islands, the caution is surface winds coming in from the West, rising in the afternoon, but they have little fetch and hence create a very moderate sea. A second note is rainfall–more than 100 inches a year, which sounds perfectly awful. The silver lining is that from May through September the rain averages 3.37 inches per month, with July and August an arid two inches and temperatures averaging a perfect 64 degrees in the shade.
We all can take a little rain, but not all of us can paddle the extreme conditions of the open coast. Therefore, Perfect Reason No. 4, which I call Conditions for All. Barkley Sound is the department store of paddling. Once in the Broken Group, one can paddle the calm inter-island routes and/or the larger, wind-exposed open crossings between islands, yet still be protected from the Pacific. But it is this proximity to the big P.O. that delights paddlers, with its sea and swell, rock gardens, reefs, boomers, and passes. It can be challenging, with great hog-backed swells out of the far Pacific raising a din against the outer islands, and then the next day the same route can be a placid pup. The choice of staying inside or going outside is yours, limited only by your and your friends’ abilities. (Note: If you are a beginner, go with experienced paddlers, a club, or a guide service until your skills have increased.) And when you have had your fill, slip back to the shelter of the island’s lee and the campsite to the stars.
Perfect Reason No. 5 is my favorite–camping. Convoluted rocky shorelines give way to returning mature second-growth conifirs now more than 100 feet tall on islands no bigger than a mile square. The Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation people utilized the best of these islands for summer village and gathering sites today defined by the upshore middens (shell mounds) and the white-shell beaches. In turn, the Pacific Rim National Park wardens that care for the Broken Group have designated sites (and the world’s greatest outhouses) that mimic the earliest inhabitants’ needs: good beaches, upland camping, great sun, and protection from the elements.
Perfect Reason No. 6–protection and preservation. Once you enter the Broken Group, you are in the Pacific Rim National Park. During the season (May through September) the daily fees are low, and though the Parks Canada people have monitored a steady number of users, it is crowded in the best months, so be prepared to share your beach. As yet there are no plans for reservations for the sites in the Broken Group. This is a very well-maintained and well-policed marine park. Wardens swing by each campsite daily to share information, do maintenance, and ensure that campers are in designated sites. Their efforts and the clean camping of paddlers–small fires in the tideline, small group sizes (up to 10), packing out found trash–keep these islands fresh and wild.
Perfect Reason No. 7–wilderness. This final reason for going to Barkley is the returning wilderness. The Broken Islands are safe. The park was fully “gazetted” as a National Park in 1999. The islands were once logged, but you would not know that now. There is still logging in the distant foothills of the Vancouver Range, and some lights are visible off toward Ucluelet and Bamfield, but this place has an overwhelmingly wild and untouched aura. This place is ours to share with the Nuu-chah-nulth, the eagles, and sea lions for a long time to come. So gather those you love and come to Barkley to begin your own pilgrimage to the perfect destination.
Getting There: Fly into Vancouver International Airport and rent a car. Take Highway 99 South to Highway 17 West to the (B.C. Ferries) Tsawwassen terminal From Seattle by car, take I-5 north–bring passports for border crossing at Blaine (cheap gas)–and continue north, now on Highway 99. Ignore the first sign for Tsawwassen and take the second a few miles farther to Highway 17 Tsawwassen and get in the Nanaimo Duke Point ferry line. If your car/rack is more than seven feet, it costs more. Figure on taking three hours because of traffic and the border crossing. Call (250) 726-2868 to gauge the backup, and give yourself an extra 45 minutes. The two-hour B.C. ferry to Duke Point is terrific. Take Highway 19 to Highway 4. Follow the signs to Port Alberni (last-minute shopping here). From Port Albernie, follow signs toward Ucluelet. Important: A few miles out of town at the Husky Station it is 44.2 miles to the turnoff to Toquart Bay. The last nine miles is on good to fairly rutty dirt road–OK for non SUVs–to the Toquart Bay Recreation Site. There is no parking fee. Its not a great camp site, but adequate if you miss the morning ferries.
Logistics: Bring all your water. There are no reliable sources on the islands. Navigation: Canadian Chart #3671. Tides are not an issue. Wind is–if you are in the outer islands, be careful and stay close to camp if the wind is forecast for 15 to 20 MPH in the afternoon. In July August mid September, avoid the weekends or bring party favors. Plan to base camp then day trip. Contact Parks Canada for information and fees. It is OK to paddle the Broken Group out of season. Bring a weather radio. Cell phones work from some sites.
While You’re There: Pacific Rim National Park continues north to Long Beach (surfing, beach walks, and the Wickaninnsh Inn, which earned the Best in Canada award from Zagat for food and lodging.
Camping: The Broken Islands have some of the best camping islands in the world. There are eight designated camping areas in the Broken Group Islands within the boundaries of the Pacific Rim National Park. Camping costs $5 per person per night. Children under 12 camp for free. Log on to Here is a partial listing.
Joel Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Seattle, so when he says we can all take a little rain, he knows what he’s talking about.