My friend Alex and I went for a morning paddle up Indian Arm a few days ago. This southernmost fjord on the west coast of North America may sound like a remote, exotic location, but the 18-kilometre long, mountain-lined inlet is smack dab in middle of BC’s Lower Mainland. With North Vancouver to the west, Port Moody to the east, and Vancouver and Burnaby to the south, we were paddling in a region populated by almost 2.8 million people.
Despite the human density, our paddle strokes were taking us into an area known locally as the North Shore. Here, the urban jungle bumps into a true and vast wilderness—a place of rushing rivers, mountainous terrain and ocean. Many have perished in the mountains here, hopelessly lost or trapped a mere stone’s throw from the twinkling lights of the city. Cougars, black bear and other predators roam the forest… and the sea.
The water was glassy that day, and Alex brought along a Mustang Hudson Drysuit for me to try out. As one of the company’s designers, he wanted me to give the suit a test run over the next few months. It slipped on easily and featured snug neoprene wrist gaskets and reinforced booties that are far more durable than traditional latex gaskets. Despite the warm rays of the sun, the new waterproof-breathable garb was comfortable as we cruised past shoreline houses and then up into Say-Nuth-Khaw-Yum Provincial Park, which encompasses most of Indian Arm. The name of the Park means ‘Serpent’s Land’ in the local Tsleil-Waututh First Nation language, and it doesn’t take long in its embrace before you feel like you’ve escaped metropolis. Eagles flew overhead and plentiful harbour seals lazed around in the water like dozing puppies, ignoring us as we glided by within a boat length.
We paddled past Twin Islands (a popular camping spot) to a friend’s off-grid cabin project on the east side of the Arm. He was working on the build and gave us a tour of his ingenious creation before we cruised back toward our put-in at Strathcona Park. A few minutes later, my off-grid friend James came racing out in his runabout.
“I just got a call from my neighbour—apparently there are some Orcas coming up Indian Arm!” he exclaimed.
I’d never heard of ‘Killer Whales’ coming this far in from the open sea, having to navigate Canada’s busiest port just to get here.
We scanned the waters with James for awhile but saw no sign of the cetaceans anywhere. He headed off to look elsewhere while and Alex and I carried on. Then, a few minutes later, we saw them.
A black, six-foot dorsal fin sliced the water a couple hundred metres away. We sat there watching as their gleaming backs rose and fell toward us. You’re officially supposed to keep a fair distance from whales when you spot them, but our kayaks were mere flotsam compared to these speedy, powerful creatures. They came right to us—circling, rising, descending and generally threshing about our boats. There were four of them in total: two younger Orcas, one female and a large male. At one point the massive male appeared from the depths only five metres from our kayaks. Its dorsal fin arched high above my head as it exhaled, eliciting involuntary hoots of awe and elation from the two of us. After a few more minutes of hanging out, they headed north to continue their hunting.
I thought of the nonchalant seals we’d passed earlier, who very likely had never seen Orca before, and would be easy pickings. These Orca were transient members of the species, as opposed to resident Orca, who only eat only fish (primarily Chinook salmon). The transients prefer seals, sea lions and other cetaceans like dolphins and small whales. As their name indicates, they roam far and wide in search of prey.
Alex and I continued to watch the whale crew until they vanished into a backdrop of sparkling water and tree-cloaked mountains. As we turned to leave, something caught my eye just to the left of my cockpit. Rising from the depths, the baseball-sized object was white and gelatinous, with spots of red. I reached into the water and picked up a soft, oily blob that smelled strongly of fish. It was a chunk of fresh seal blubber—a piece of the meal just consumed by the Orca family.
I presented it to Alex: “Local, free-range, Orca-harvested seal blubber!”
“That would fetch a fine price from the foodies down at the Granville Island Market,” he retorted.
With all the harbour seals we’d spotted on the way out now conspicuously absent, we paddled back bathed in the afterglow of an encounter with the wild side of the city.