I have always been a canoeist, but when I moved to the British Columbia coast 12 years ago, everyone was paddling kayaks. I joined in, mostly casting aside my single blade and tandem tripping boat. In the decade since, I’ve occasionally met a rare and unusual species of paddler—the coastal canoeist.
Newfoundlander Richard Alexander helped create Paddle Canada’s ocean canoeing curriculum and he is one of just five instructor trainers in the discipline in Canada. In his mind, the canoe is the ultimate wilderness tripping boat for every type of water. “A lot of the great northern river trips end on the ocean,” he points out. These trips are the Holy Grails of expedition paddling, he says, and canoes have the versatility to navigate all sections—portages, river, lake and ocean.
When I first arrived on the coast, I was amazed by the amount of gear sea kayakers packed. Roll-up tables and chairs, multiple kitchen sinks, two-burner stoves and propane tanks are standard, especially in guiding circles. If you like to travel in luxury, a canoe can handle the excessive load without all the packing problems associated with kayak hatch Tetris. And portaging is never an issue on the ocean.
“I can carry comfortable chairs, lots of water, food for two to three weeks, beer rather than spirits, fresh produce in a cooler, all without packing problems,” confirms Alan Thompson, a Paddle Canada ocean canoeing instructor trainer.
More important than load, what about safety? Canoes are harder to rescue in big waves, especially when loaded, and even harder to self-rescue. Instructor Tony Shaw says the vulnerabilities of the craft might breed better judgment. Now in his 70s and still teaching courses, Shaw says, “It is the very fact canoeists know the limits of our choice that makes us safe and careful paddlers.”
Training programs tend to focus heavily on the development of situational awareness and judgment. It’s about knowing when to go out and when to stay at the campsite and enjoy the beer, camp chair and library of hardback books.
Ocean canoeing is not just about being conservative. Paddle Canada’s Thompson has been paddling the British Columbia coast in a Prospector since the mid-90s. He’s traveled to places where canoes are seldom seen, including the Brooks Peninsula on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He says if you’re willing to wait out the weather, a canoe can go to the same places as kayaks. Plus, because of their durability and the ease of getting in and out, canoes can sometimes land and launch in situations where a loaded kayak cannot. Big swell and waves? Alan says throw a spray deck on and you’ve got a craft that can handle it.
“Your badass cred increases exponentially when you’re an ocean canoeist,” adds new instructor Julia McIntyre-Smith. A Musgamagw Dzawa’daenuxw from Ukwanalis (Kingcome), British Columbia, she says, “Our elders tell stories of the whole community canoeing down to Steveston to pick apples, then onwards to the U.S. to pick hops.” The route covers hundreds of nautical miles and includes significant crossings, current and exposure.
The canoe is closely connected to the history of the coast.
“Indigenous people have done it for thousands of years, why shouldn’t we?” asks Pete Smolders, a former instructor for Coastline Challenge, a program taking adjudicated youth on 26-day trips on the West Coast.
Some instructors also say sea kayaking gets novice paddlers on ocean terrain too quickly. Conversely, paddling a canoe requires practice and technique to do at all. “It’s the difference between banging on a drum and playing the fiddle,” says Alexander, arguing coastal canoeing takes more skill than sea kayaking.
His challenge to the naysayers? “Follow me and see if you can do it!”
Fiona Hough has worked as a paddlesports guide, instructor and trainer for more than 25 years. Find a coastal canoeing course at www.paddlecanada.com.
“In the deep space of the sea, I have found my moon.” —Jacques Yves Cousteau | Photo: Penny Huang