A Vancouver sea kayak adventure serves up an authentic—and logistically simple—taste of the city’s aqua culture.
What the bicycle is to Amsterdam, the kayak is to Vancouver. People kayak before work and after work, and I have no doubt that some kayak to work. There are nearly a dozen kayaking outfitters and half a dozen kayaking clubs in the city, and lots of cars with kayaks strapped to their roof racks, even on weekdays.
Look at a map of Vancouver and you’ll quickly grasp why: It’s a place enmeshed in bays, inlets, straits and rivers. If there’s another North American city that makes it easier to float your boat, I don’t know it. Which is why there’s no better way to experience Vancouver than by paddling a sea kayak on a guided shoreline tour.
For more than 30 years, the hub of the city’s kayak culture has been Ecomarine Ocean Kayak Centre on Granville Island, a 10-minute cab ride from downtown. This 15-hectare (37-acre) parcel of old industrial warehouses on False Creek was carefully transformed in the 1970s into a thriving home for artists, small businesses and the now legendary Granville Island Public Market. Since then, a coral reef of waterfront restaurants, theatres, galleries, studios, shops and cafés has grown up here.
Ecomarine is considered to be the first sea kayaking shop in North America. John Dowd, an accomplished kayaker and writer from New Zealand, opened it in 1980. The laid-back Chris Ladner bought Ecomarine in 1989 and has been growing it ever since. A fourth-generation Vancouverite, Ladner has been kayaking since he was a kid. “I made my first kayak when I was 13,” he told me. Here in the Pacific Northwest, that’s a rite of passage, a mark of the true devotee.
On the Water
“We want to make kayaking a unique thing to do when you come to Vancouver,” said Ladner, who would be my guide for a morning on the water. Wearing loose-fitting workout clothes and a fleece, I was properly fitted into a personal flotation device. After going over a few rudimentary paddling tips with Ladner, I gingerly lowered myself into the cockpit of a 5-metre-long (17-foot) single fibreglass kayak, and off we went with a small group of other enthusiasts.
We paddled past dozens of docked powerboats, sailboats and brightly coloured houseboats out into False Creek. A little Aquabus, looking like it had floated off the pages of a children’s book, putted across the creek. Sliding under the Burrard Street bridge, we slipped into the bay.
I had never seen the city look quite so lovely. The rare blue sky, the glass-and-steel towers, and the steep green backdrop of the North Shore Mountains helped. But it was the slight wind on the water and the harbour seal keeping watch off the bow that clinched the deal.
No Experience Required
Sea kayaking is something almost any reasonably fit person can do on the first try, which is part of its appeal. The one thing to remember, Ladner told us, is that achieving the proper stroke involves rotating the torso, not the arms. It required some thought at first, but mastering the stroke gets you home without the novice’s usual souvenir, sore arms. In short order, we established an easy paddling rhythm.
“About 90 percent of our paddlers are first-timers,” Ladner said, which was evident enough from my companions, who were a little squirrelly about the thought of tipping. But Ladner’s guided voyages are in sheltered waters, so there’s little chance of having to right yourself with an Eskimo roll. The point is to use the sea kayak as a way to appreciate Vancouver’s natural beauty.
We went along the shoreline of the city until we came to Stanley Park, a 400-hectare (1,000-acre) heavily wooded oasis in the heart of the city, now verdant with trees, ferns and flowers. The still snowcapped North Shore Mountains played cat and mouse with bulky clouds that had drifted in off the Pacific. We kept our eyes peeled for sea lions, orcas and, most of all, grey whales, which occasionally stray into these shallow waters.
We didn’t see one, but gladly settled for bald eagles, blue herons, harbour seals and a colony of double-crested cormorants that can only be glimpsed from the sea side of 15-metre-tall (50-foot) Siwash Rock. To the west were distant views of Vancouver Island across the Strait of Georgia, the beginning of the Inside Passage.
“It’s amazing that you can come down to the Vancouver waterfront, rent a kayak and paddle all the way to Alaska,” Ladner remarked. “We get a couple of people who actually do just that every year.”
“Maybe next time,” I thought, my mind now centred on the lunch I would assemble at the Granville Island Public Market. It’s rare enough that you can fit in a couple of hours of exercise and exploration just a 10-minute cab ride from a downtown hotel. It’s rarer still that by simply picking up a paddle, you can so immerse yourself in local culture.
Where to Start
From May through September, Ecomarine Ocean Kayak Centre offers guided two-and-a-half-hour paddles from Granville Island and English Bay Bathhouse for $65 per person. The company also offers sunset tours, full-moon tours and rainforest tours that include hiking, as well as multi-day tours on Vancouver Island at Clayoquot Sound and Johnstone Strait. 1668 Duranleau Street, Vancouver; 1 604/689-7575 or 1 888/425-2925.