The sea kayak is the perfect vehicle for exploring distant archipelagos and faraway coastlines. Self-contained, built to handle long hauls and rough water, able to weave between impossibly narrow channels and over barely-submerged rocks, sea kayaks can go where no other boat can on the sea. All that remains now is deciding where to go. Here are eight journeys perfect for a week navigating the watery parts of the world.
Around The County: Circumnavigating the San Juan Islands
Sea kayaking is popular in the San Juans: but not this way. Most visitors to take the ferries to the central islands of Orcas, San Juan, or Lopez, and paddle the protected waters between the large islands. To experience the wilder side of the San Juans, skip the interior of the islands and make a big loop from the smaller islands in the open waters of Rosario Strait, Haro Strait, and Boundary Pass. Camps on James, Clark, Succia, Patos, Stuart, and Posey Islands give a feel of the taste of the great wide open. The sea cliffs on the south side of Lopez, battered by winter swell from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, give a sense of a rugged, open ocean-type shoreline. The west side of San Juan Island offers the best chance to see Orca.
Planning: This isn’t a leisurely, hang-out-in-camp route. Currents are strong in the San Juans, especially around the outer islands, so the ability to read charts and the current tables are key. Currents can interact with the wind to create choppy seas. Crossing Rosario Strait from Anacortes also means keeping a sharp eye watching for shipping traffic; the crossing of Cattle Pass should be done with an eye to the strong currents that flood north into the pass from the Strait of Juan De Fuca. There’s a lot of route planning, but you’ll experience a trip in the San Juans most people never see.
When to Go: Summer. Plan your trip with the currents.
The Broughton, British Colombia
The Broughton Archipelago is a string of small islands that rings the vast expense of Queen Charlotte Sound, which separates northern Vancouver Island from the mainland. Armadas of kayak tours companies patrol the waters near the launch point of Telegraph Cove, following the famous Orcas of Johnstone Strait. But if you leave the commercial tours behind and venture a bit further, and you’ll disappear into an island wilderness that ranges from the open waters of the Strait to tiny channels, uncharted rapids entering ocean lagoons, inlets penetrating deep into the mountainous BC interior, and whales, wolves, and bears. Once you venture beyond the trafficked waters of Johnstone Strait, you’ll see an occasional fishing boat at best.
Planning: Routes can encompass both the exposed expanse of Queen Charlotte Strait or protected island passages. Current planning is key, and since current tables only exist for a few places, the ability to intuit current behavior from a chart is key. Expect tide races where bodies of water like Fife Sound glow into the Strait. Small groups will have more camping options in the glacier-carved landscape than large ones. And bring good raingear.
When to Go: Summer.
North to the Hot Springs: Flores Island, British Columbia
The Coast Highway comes to an abrupt end at a dock in Tofino, British Columbia on the west side of Vancouver Island. Where the road stops, an endless string of islands begins in Clayoquot Sound. Exploring the nooks and crannies of this seascape of islands, beaches, surf, deep fjords, and massive trees can take weeks. There’s no bad paddling in Clayoquot Sound, but a great journey is to work your way to Hot Springs Cove, off the northwest corner of Flores Island. There are two routes to the hot springs: one on the exposed outer coast and another on the more protected but longer fjords. The outer route takes you past vast wide beaches, offshore reefs and rock gardens, giant kelp forests, and frequent pods of gray whales and sea lions. It’s also exposed to the open Pacific. The inner route takes paddlers by Shark Falls and through Sulphur Passage and offers a protected route when the sea conditions or group skills make discretion the better part of valor.
Planning: Pay attention to forecasts for swell height and direction, wind, and fog if taking the outside route: there’s no shelter on the outer coast. On the inside route, time your travel to with the currents. Campsites on the inner route are best suited to small groups: on the outside, wide beaches can accommodate an army.
When to Go: June, July, or September. August is known as “Fogust” on BC’s west coast.
Bonneville to the Sea: Colombia River
Bonneville Dam is the beginning point of the Columbia River Water Trail, a 144-mile journey that you can end at the Pacific, at either Fort Stevens State Park in Oregon or Cape Disappointment, WA. The journey follows the transformation of the mighty Columbia River through stages: from the steep walls of the Columbia Gorge, through the urban landscape of Portland and Vancouver, as it widens through waterfowl and eagle-filled mazes of island refuges, and as it becomes a vast sea-like body of water, with tidal currents, the rise of the distant Pacific, and, if you venture far enough west, the complexity and skill required to paddle on the sea.
Planning: the Lower Columbia Water Trail identifies campsites along the route. Shortly west of Skamokawa, WA, you’ll need to decide if you want to end your trip on the Oregon or Washington side of the vast river mouth. Wind and tide are major factors on the lower river, and most paddlers try to make westerly progress early in the day before west winds rise. Campsites can be scarce in the refuges.
When to go: May, when the river is full of spring runoff, the days are long, and the summer west wind aren’t at full strength.
Lake Powell, Utah
A bit of a departure from other trips on this list, Lake Powell is a conundrum. Created by flooding Glen Canyon behind the infamous dam, it’s both an affront to river lovers, and a stunning place to paddle a sea kayak. The open water of the lake narrows down to many narrow, tight flooded canyons that serve as launch pads for hikes up narrow slot canyons and to arches that are only accessible by boat. The Slickrock, blue water, and intense blue sky offers and austere landscape craving for a slow-paced exploration.
Planning: the lake is massive, and you’ll need to pick which region to explore. Once that’s been decided, let the itinerary be dictated by what you enjoy most—hikes, side canyons, or the wide-open feel of the lake. You’ll need to pack out human waste, best done with a PVC-pipe and wagbag setup known to big-wall climbers.
When to Go: Spring and Fall. Avoid the monsoon season and flash-flood hazards, as well as searing summer temperatures and houseboat traffic.
Hakai, British Colombia
The Hakai region of British Columbia’s central coast is very difficult to access, and well worth it. Part of an even vaster region that extending to the Alaska border and beyond, this coastline holds trip possibilities of limitless scope. Most trips begin by taking the ferry to the native village of Bella Bella, and from there, island-hopping begins. The “outside” includes islands like Stryker, the Goose Group, and McMullin Group, as well as the west coast of Calvert Island. Interior routes will lack the ruggedness and sandy beaches of the wave-worked outer coast, but will make up for it with a mazelike series of islands, the occasional uncharted tidal rapid, and protection when the swell gets big. Highly skilled paddlers can venture as far south as Calvert Island.
Planning: Most routes in the Hakai will require a few crux moves, with exposure to the open sea. The route from Bella Bella to Calvert Island requires three such moves: rounding Superstition Point, Crossing Klididt Sound, and Hakai Pass, where current and swell mix. The closure of the BC Ferries Queen of Chilliwack, which dropped off and picked up kayaks en route, makes this area more difficult to access—and less crowded.
When to Go: June and July
Deso and Disco: Desolation and Discovery, British Colombia
The strange names don’t have anything to do with 70s dance moves. It’s a reference to a combined tour through Desolation and Discovery sounds on the northern end BC’s Sunshine Coast. Strings of mountainous islands and still-more mountainous coast range inlets are the backdrops for these two series of islands that are both similar and different in character. They’re similar in that they’re all mountainous and steep, and are easily linked together by paddle trips. They’re different in that Desolation Sound is known for warm water and very mild currents, and Discovery, just to the northwest a few miles, has some of the strongest currents in the world in distinct tidal rapids like Arran, Dent, Yucultas, and Hole in the Wall. A tour through the region is a great way to spend a week, or more, regardless of whether or not you seek the rough water of the rapids.
Planning: A loop through the area can leave and end at either Quadra Island or Lund. In the Discovery Islands, knowing the times of the tidal rapids is key, as the windows of slack are narrow, often as little as ten minutes during a full moon. But seeing them at full force is a treat, and several campsites and calm paddles make this possible. Touring the Discoveries is a more flexible experience: the mild currents require less planning, but wind in inlets like Toba and Bute should be monitored with care.
When to Go: June through September
Surround the Sound: Puget Sound
Puget Sound is a kayaker’s dream: hundreds of miles of protected water, islands, and rich seagoing heritage. Most paddlers in the Northwest overlook the paddling out their back doors to venture to British Columbia of the San Juans. But many journeys of a week-or-longer exist in the Sound, hopscotching between islands and Cascadia Marine Trail campsites from Olympia to Point Roberts, taking in everything from the glass towers of Seattle to the tidal rapids of Deception Pass. It’s a different kind of experience, paddling often within an easy range of a fresh shot of espresso, busy waters amongst the urban and suburban as well as the wild. But it’s a journey well worth doing.
Planning: A range of routes are possible throughout the sound, making use of Washington Water Trails campsites. Be aware of shipping traffic that plays the sound, and cross busy channels with care. Plan the rest of your travel to ride the currents.
When to Go: Whenever you’re ready.