Paddling Adventures

A family explores Cortes Island by kayak




“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
— Mary Oliver

“Shhh, listen … they’re close.”

Stillness. My daughter examines me out of the corner of her eye, grinning. My son feigns disinterest to mask his uncertainty.

“There!” The spout of a grey whale explodes 100 metres off the bow of my kayak. Then another, and another. The kids squeal in awe and terror. It’s the perfect ending to a perfectly imperfect adventure.

A seven-day sea kayaking trip around the north end of Cortes Island with two children under seven was an exciting, albeit daunting prospect. We’d been working up to it over the years with shorter and progressively more challenging trips, but this journey would test the limits of what the kids could both handle and enjoy.

Paddling with children complicates the usual trip-planning considerations: paddling distances need to be shorter, bad weather forecasts are given careful consideration, campsite choice is influenced by whether there are enough interesting and safe areas for kids to explore, and, of course, the menu—packing enough kid-friendly food is vital to staving off hangry crises.

Our first day dawned bright with light winds. The put-in at Squirrel Cove on the east side of Cortes Island went smoothly, and our mountain of gear fit surprisingly easily into our two boats—one single and one double with an extra hatch for kid number two. The 15-kilometre paddle to our first campsite at the end of Teakerne Arm was lovely, punctuated with only an occasional whine. A group of kayakers already there gave us a friendly welcome, as is the way of sea kayakers, and we managed to squeeze our tent onto a rocky outcrop above the tide line. Tired but anticipating a swim in a nearby lake we’d heard about, we started to set up camp.

“Are the sleeping bags in your boat?”

“Um, no. I thought they were in your boat?” Pro tip: double check ALL the camp totes before setting off. My superhero of a spouse returned with the forgotten gear a mere five hours later.
It could only go uphill from there.

On our second night in the middle of Lewis Channel, the wind blew hard. I was restless, tossing around into the wee hours. The forecast had changed and was looking bleak with strong headwinds forecasted for several days. This, when combined with the strong tidal currents in Lewis Channel, presented conditions that would be too challenging for us. I was going to have to accept the possibility of being stuck for several days on a small windy bluff and was already brainstorming ways to keep the kids’ morale high.

However, late in the morning, after I lost countless games of UNO to my children, the weather gods offered us a window of calm that coincided with a favourable ebb tide—and we went for it. We travelled safely up the channel and around the north end of Cortes, arriving at our new home for the night a few hours later. And what a home it was.
Shells crunching underfoot, we pulled the boats up above the tide line on a small pocket of beach and the kids squealed with delight. Immediately we knew this was a special place. Hundreds of oyster shells were arranged into pathways that stretched into the forest and upwards onto a picturesque bluff, where we found a gorgeous cliffside camp kitchen with an unbeatable view. Islands dotted the sparkling horizon, a white-tailed deer grazed on a rocky islet just off shore, and the sunlight was lazily turning to the golden hue of late afternoon. Paradise.

In this paradise, we turned to the work: unpack the boats, locate and put up the tent and set up beds, set up the camp kitchen, hang the hammock, get the kids into dry clothes, hang a bear rope for the food, locate a freshwater source (which may be scarce on the coast in the height of summer), and start cooking dinner. We try to make sure the kids contribute to small jobs and understand that trips like this are a team effort.

Over the next few days, we moved a few more times and camped in several more memorable spots. We formed lasting memories: the grey whales off my bow, the kids playing on beach logs for hours while I read my book and supervised from the hammock, the hidden lakes with perfect sunny rock outcroppings where we could remind the kids how important skinny dipping is for the soul, the endless giggling as our kids scampered along trails through old-growth forests, the two of us holding hands and sipping wine while we watched the sunset….

On our last night, we sat overlooking another quiet bay while playing cribbage. We had just managed to cook our final lentil dinner before running out of fuel for the camp stove. It would be cold oatmeal for breakfast. Our trip planning wasn’t perfect, but we made it home. Perfectly imperfect.