By Conor Mihell
Call it Canada's best idea. One hundred years ago, in 1911, Canada established the Dominion Parks Branch—the world's first national parks service. Back then, the Canadian government managed six parks—including iconic mountain retreats like Banff and Jasper (both of which remain among the nation's most popular destinations). Fast-forward to today and Parks Canada is now comprised of 42 national parks, four national marine conservation areas and hundreds of national historic sites. Needless to say, the network of protected areas is a paddler's paradise.
Opportunities for sea kayaking abound in Canada's west coast parks like British Columbia's Pacific Rim (home to the novice-friendly Broken Group islands), and the Gulf Islands, just north of the border from Washington's Puget Sound. On the east coast, Newfoundland's Gros Morne National Park boasts the most spectacular mid-latitude fjord this side of Norway, and Quebec's Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park is home to a diversity of whales, including massive great blues. Sea kayaking the backwater channels of Ontario's Point Pelee National Park on Lake Erie offers birdwatchers intimate views in a migration hotspot, and the remote, subarctic coastline of Labrador's Torngat Mountains is the adventure of a lifetime for expert paddlers.
But if we only had to pick three, here are our choices for the best sea kayaking Parks Canada has to offer:
Best in the West: Gwaii Haanas National Park and Marine Conservation Area
Gwaii Haanas—the aboriginal Haida name for the Queen Charlotte Islands, an archipelago located 100 miles off the northern British Columbia coast—is the only place in the world that's protected from the tops of the mountains to the ocean floor. These precedent-setting combination of a land-based national park and a marine conservation area is well deserved: The region has been called the "Galapagos of the North" for its outstanding biological diversity. The islands are accessed via BC Ferries from the mainland city of Prince Rupert.
On an eight day trip from Rose Harbor at the south end of Moresby Island to the northern boundary of the park at Moresby Camp, you'll see the largest black bears in North America, rich underwater kelp forests, whales, sea otters, bald eagles and some of Canada's oldest trees. The route island hops on the relatively sheltered east side of the archipelago, linking ancient Haida villages with on-site "Watchmen" offering tours, hot springs and primitive campsites in old-growth forests.
Sea Kayak Central: Pukaskwa National Park
Aptly called the "Wild Shore of an Inland Sea," Pukaskwa (pronounced Puck-a-saw) National Park encompasses nearly 60 miles of the most rugged, remote and scenic freshwater coastline in the world on Lake Superior in Northern Ontario. Here, the vegetation is decidedly boreal—representative of the coniferous spruce forests that swath much of the northern reaches of the globe. The coastline alternates between towering granite headlands, sweeping sand beaches and a handful of islands that provide refuge for a remnant population of woodland caribou, an endangered species. The water is chilly, creating a microclimate that's allowed rare, delicate species of arctic and alpine to persist since the last ice age.
The classic Pukaskwa sea kayaking tour begins at park headquarters in Hattie Cove and traces the entire undeveloped, roadless coastline to the Pukaskwa River at the park's south end. The trip's not over here: Paddlers still have another 55 miles of wilderness paddling along public "Crown" land to the roadhead at Michipicoten Bay. En route you'll camp on brown sugar sand beaches, see waterfalls tumbling directly into the lake and experience spectacular sunsets. Don't let Lake Superior's tideless, freshwater fool you: This is an advanced eight- to 12 day trip, and paddlers should be prepared for exposed paddling and the odd shorebound day due to rough conditions.
Treasure Islands of the East: Mingan Archipelago National Park
This isolated chain of approximately 1,000 islands and islets, stretched across nearly 100 miles of Gulf of St. Lawrence coastline in northeastern Quebec, seems purpose-built for sea kayakers. The region represents a geological time gap of billions of years: Ancient Canadian Shield granite landforms are interspersed with bizarrely shaped, highly eroded limestone monoliths and hoodoos. The Mingans rich marine life is the product of the intersection of the ice-cold, inflowing Labrador Current and the warm, nutrient-laden waters of the outflowing St. Lawrence River. Expect to see a variety of species of marine mammals like grey, harbor and harp seals and fin and humpback whales, and seabirds such as Atlantic puffins.
The park can be separated into three sections for sea kayaking. The 24-mile-long western portion, from Longue-Point-de-Mingan to Havre-Saint-Pierre, features several large islands to offer shelter and moderate one- to three-mile crossings. The central 40-mile section to Baie-Johann-Beetz includes Ile a la Chasse, a popular destination for birdwatchers. The balance of this section, however, is remote and subject to the Gulf's vulgarities, including persistent fog, swell and strong winds. Finally, the northernmost 30-mile section to the park's northern boundary at Aguanish is littered with countless islands, complicating navigation but offering shelter from the wind.