Octopus Islands Provincial Park
Credit: Pam Johnson

At the foothills of British Columbia’s largest mountains lie some of the strongest tides and currents in the Northern Hemisphere.

Shaped by the landscape and carved by glaciers, an intricate network of islands creates channels of dynamic tidal rapids. Currents at Surge Narrows, Okisollo Channel, Hole in the Wall and elsewhere circulate oxygen and nutrients, which in turn create rich intertidal environments for marine life to flourish. This archipelago, which includes the Discovery Islands and Octopus Islands Provincial Park, is also part of the world’s largest protected coastal Douglas fir rainforest. And all of this conspires to create a destination ideal to explore by sea kayak.

We meet Ralph Keller, co-owner of Coast Mountain Expeditions, at the Heriot Bay public docks on Quadra Island to load our gear onto his boat for transport to Coast Island Lodge on the east coast of nearby Read Island. Home to Ralph, and his wife, Lannie, this gem of a lodge is ensconced amongst rainforest on the northern tip of Evan’s Bay. Our foursome—which includes my husband Jim, nephew Regan, and friend Jeannie—is assigned a basic cabin near the main lodge. Jim and I claim the top floor bedroom while Regan and Jeannie each get a private room below; an outhouse and sauna, both built by Ralph, are close at hand.

Before we share supper around a huge fir table, we meet our guides, Sylvan and Liz. Their easygoing demeanors belie a deep knowledge of and passion for the area. Ignoring the light drizzle, we then head out for some kayak skills and safety instruction, running-through paddling strokes and self-rescues. Moon jellyfish drift in the bay where we practice. Common to the area, these translucent jellyfish are harmless, though I also notice two red jellies, which I’m told have a mild sting. They don’t bother us and are a fascinating harbinger of sights to come.

Octopus Islands Provincial ParkPam Johnson

The next morning, we load our kayaks under cloudy skies, then paddle around Frederic Point and north towards Rendezvous Island. We settle into a comfortable rhythm, negotiating giant kelp and keeping our eyes peeled for eagles and sea lions. We aren’t disappointed. On one of the rocky islets, I notice some black oystercatchers—conspicuous with their bright orange beaks.

After lunch, we paddle to the northeast side of Read Island. (Our initial campsite, on Rendezvous Island, was occupied.) We get to work unloading kayaks, pitching tents and setting up the kitchen area; the focus soon turns to food and conversation. Meals are typically a highly anticipated part of any kayak adventure and this trip is no different. Fresh seafood chowder with savoury cornbread muffins pair perfectly with the crisp Pinot Grigio I’ve packed along.

We awake the following morning to dewy tents and a hearty breakfast. Octopus Islands Provincial Park will be our base for the next two nights, so we load up camp and head out. We paddle north around the tip of Read Island through Whiterock Passage, an area steeped in First Nations history, finally entering Surge Narrows Provincial Park. Our guides have timed it perfectly and we hit the narrows at slack tide. Hugging the shores of Maurelle Island, we paddle north, stopping at an inlet along the way for lunch.

After a five-hour day, we arrive at the park and set up camp. We have the island to ourselves. Liz hunts down a restroom area “with a view” and makes an eco-friendly john—a pop-up toilet using biodegradable bags. Thankfully, the rain holds off until we are tucked into our tents for the night.

During breakfast, we watch ribbons of fog dance over the ocean and waft through the layered mountain peaks. It’s ethereal. We hop in our kayaks and putter along the rocky shorelines, eventually stopping for lunch at Waiatt Bay on northern Quadra Island. After lunch, we decide to hike a nearby trail. It becomes a gentle one-hour traipse through ancient and second-growth rainforest. Fir and hemlock trees, moss, giant ferns and flora in multiple shades of green envelop us; a magical world of mist and humidity. Newton Lake, a small, dark blue mountain lake, comes into view and within minutes we’re revelling in its brisk freshwater. The balance of the day is spent back at camp, lounging under the sun.

As darkness descends, with the moon concealed behind cloud cover, we head out in our kayaks. We dip our paddles into the ocean and it lights up like millions of fireflies. This miracle of nature is called bioluminescence, caused when our paddling agitates phytoplankton.

Octopus Islands Provincial ParkPam Johnson

After breakfast, we load up our kayaks one final time and head to Okisollo Channel. Here, we encounter some of the most fascinating marine life I have ever seen. We observe large, multi-legged sunflower sea stars, leather stars, sea urchins, dozens of starfish both purple and orange in colour, a grey seven-legged starfish, kelp crabs and dozens of tiny hooded nudibranchs (“sea slugs”). I could have stayed here for hours, but we have a schedule to keep. As we cross the channel heading southeast, whales breach just to the south of us. We pause for a moment to enjoy the show.

Paddling strongly, we successfully enter Hole in the Wall Channel during slack tide. Keeping to the south side of the channel, we hug Maurelle Island’s northern coastline. The paddling is vigorous but we soon cruise into Florence Cove, hungry for our last lunch of the trip, followed by a short paddle north to meet up with Ralph for the boat pickup. We spend our final night back at Coastal Island Lodge, storytelling over a shared meal and lots of laughs. I’m already plotting my return. 

Excursions: Local Hikes

Hike to the three peaks of the Chinese and Beech's Mountains (moderate to strenuous; five-kilometres; approximately four hours return, with short detours to each peak). For panoramic views of the Coast Mountain Range, Desolation Sound, the southern Discovery Islands and Vancouver Island, South Peak is the one to seek.

Or try Surge Narrows Trail (three kilometres; moderate; three hours return), located in Surge Narrows Provincial Park. This hike takes you through the forest and atop cliffs to three viewpoints over the fascinating tidal rapids and islets of Surge Narrows (go at high tide). The first has rock ledges for seating and makes a great picnic stop. The second requires a scramble; there is a fixed rope for assistance. The third is only accessible at low tide and provides a nice view of Beazley Passage. Be sure to check the tide schedules for the day before heading out. Pick up Quadra Island Hiking Trails, published by the Quadra Island Trail Committee, most anywhere on Quadra.

If You Go

Accommodations: Discovery Islands Lodge B&B Hostel (Quadra Island); discovery-islands-lodge.com

Coast Mountain Expeditions Octopus Islands Adventure, $1185 (four days/three nights); coastmountainexpeditions.com

 This article originally appeared in our Summer 2015 issue.