Kayak Adventure: Exploring the Majestic Broken Group Islands
A kayak trip to B.C.'s Broken Group Islands, just southeast of Ucluelet, uncovers white-sand beaches and turquoise-blue waters within reach.
May 19, 2017
It’s a game that’s easy enough to play: What would you take if marooned on a desert island? But a four-day kayaking trip to the Broken Group Islands proves an even greater packing challenge, where wind, blanket fog, torrential rain and glorious sunshine are all possibilities.
The Broken Group is a cluster of more than 90 islands nestled in the calm waters of Barkley Sound in Pacific Rim National Park. For beginner paddlers, it doesn’t get any better—pristine waters, white-sand beaches and an oasis of stillness in the notoriously rough Pacific Ocean, all accessible for a long-weekend getaway from Vancouver.
However, the secluded location (the islands can be reached only by boat from Port Alberni, Ucluelet or Torquart Bay) and the lack of drinking water, electricity and shelter mean it’s a trip that requires preparation.
Lured by the promise of Robinson Crusoe-like adventures on deserted beaches, our group of seven novice kayakers sets its sights on a self-guided tour through this remote archipelago.
What the hell do we even bring? I wonder, mentally trying to squeeze in food and water, plus everything from toques and mitts to bikinis and flip-flops. Dad-chic cargo pants with zip-off legs help carve out more room for snacks. But drinking water, bug spray, first aid kits, fire starter, headlamps, tents, sleeping bags and pads, layers of clothing (and a surprising amount of chocolate) are the real necessities.
We set out from Sechart Lodge, the quaint bed and breakfast where our water taxi dropped us an hour earlier, about a kilometre north of the Pacific Rim National Park Boundary in Sechart Channel. We have barely cleared the launch and I spot seal heads bobbing two metres from the bow of the double kayak I share with my husband. Suddenly everyone in our group of paddlers is screaming out wildlife sightings like excitable kids on a first trip to the zoo: sea urchin and starfish in the shallows; mussels and crabs hanging off exposed rocks; bald eagles flying overhead. I scan the horizon for the big guns (sea lions visit in late summer and early fall, while grey and humpback whales cruise the coast from February to October), but no dice.
We take a meandering route through the Tiny Group—an island cluster in the middle of Broken Group, about 10 kilometres from Sechart Lodge—nestled in shallow water so clear and turquoise that it looks like a tropical Thai lagoon. With the sun beating down on our backs, it’s hard to believe we’re still in Canada. But appearances can be deceiving, and shocked shrieks confirm our locale when we brave the ocean for a freezing dip.
Stopping for a snack break on dry land, my husband opens the main hatch between us. “That’s strange,” he says. “I think we’ve sprung a leak.” Sure enough, an alarming amount of water is lapping around our dry bags. But it’s fresh water, not salt. A review of our supplies quickly reveals we’ve lost nearly four litres of drinking water due to a slow leak in one container. It’s not quite the doomsday scenario that it could have been, since we’ve overestimated supply. (The best advice I can offer: always be prepared. It’s better to come back with extra water than struggle to find any on the islands.)
Designated campsites exist on seven Broken Group Islands: Hand, Turret, Gibraltar, Willis, Dodd, Clarke and Gilbert. Our plan is to island-hop in a clockwise direction over three nights, starting at Clarke and ending at Gibraltar.
Our hull makes a satisfying scrape as it beaches nose-first on Clarke Island—a destination well worth the 15-kilometre paddle. This vast white-sand strip stretches end to end across the island and serves as the perfect backdrop for our waterfront digs for the night. Over a flask of victory whisky (day one, still alive!), we lazily admire the killer sunset pouring over the rocky west side of the island.
That night, we meet our only neighbours for the trip: solo kayaker Martin and two older gents who are completing the journey for the umpteenth time. The crew makes for a fun evening of s’mores and tall tales spun around the fire. Even though it’s a national park, fishing is permitted with a licence and we jealously listen to their stories of crabs, sea urchins and fish caught for fresh seafood feasts.
Overnight, the soothing sound of gentle rain pattering against the tent’s fly lulls me to sleep, but by morning the weather shifts. At 9 a.m. our friends from the night before are already pushing their kayaks into the ocean, gesturing wildly at the clouds darkening overhead while we blearily roll out of our sleeping bags. We scramble to pack up—our idyllic paradise has gone very Deadliest Catch, and we have the longest crossing ahead.
My stomach churns at the thought of battling swells. I’m prone to seasickness and the whitecapped waves lapping in the distance do not look inviting. We decide to stick to the shoreline, but we still have to cross the Coaster Channel to reach the protected inner islands.
Coaster Channel (Photo: Boomer Jerritt/Tourism Vancouver Island.)
The first part is the worst. Straining with each stroke, I shoulder-check for the shore and we are barely moving. I’m not the only one struggling. I catch sight of my friend Chloe, the least experienced paddler in the group, and see my own silent terror reflected in her colourless face. At one stage, the lurching swell picks up her kayak and she nearly disappears from sight.
We somehow make the crossing unscathed, friendships and marriages intact. It’s easy to laugh about your fears from the safety of the shallows, but battling the wind makes me uncomfortably aware of nature’s hazardous power. This is truly the wilderness—there isn’t a soul in sight.
We agree to avoid open water and instead spend the afternoon exploring beaches and sea caves on Dicebox and Effingham. Reaching the Gilbert Island campsite, we see it’s completely deserted except for one surprised deer. Sunlight breaks through the island’s thick forest canopy in soft streams, giving the area a sparkling, almost fairy-like feel.
And then we hear it: that eerie, high-pitched buzzing just on the edge of our ears’ capabilities. At just 10 minutes in, jumping around wildly, we christen the campsite “Mosquito Island.” The bloodsuckers are undeterred by our bug spray, so we quickly build a smoky fire to ward them off. Still, armed with the day’s stories and a bag of cheap red wine, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.
Calm seas and sunshine greet us on day three, so our party of seven shoves off early for Gibraltar Island. We encounter a river otter fighting a spunky crab on land and a sea otter casually lolling on its back in the ocean as we slowly navigate to our final campsite.
By the time we reach Gibraltar, we feel like old hands—salty sea dogs who can navigate a web of islands, start campfires, spin stories, paddle through wind and waves, and, most importantly, stay alive. The local Tseshaht First Nation beach-keepers drop by to check our permits and share the story of how the first Tseshaht man and woman brought life to the area: a cut from the man’s side created the “life pulse” and the population of children created the scattered islands.
We celebrate our last night with a smorgasbord of food (smokies, cheese, packet curry and at least four types of candy), card games, and an evening paddle on still waters. My paddle dips into the black, and much to my amazement, the ocean below instantly explodes with blue fireworks of bioluminescence. Each stroke sprays illuminated droplets that cascade off the kayak and streak back into the water.
Our short moonlit journey to a protected cove highlights the magic of Broken Group: it’s at once silent and teeming with life, big and empty, beautiful and terrifying. This is the perfect ending to a truly West Coast adventure—all on our own steam.
Catch a BC Ferries sailing from Horseshoe Bay or Tsawwassen to Nanaimo, or fly direct to Nanaimo or Tofino.
From Vancouver Island
Taking a boat from Vancouver Island to the Broken Group Islands is recommended for beginners, to avoid the open water crossing. Lady Rose Marine Services runs trips from Port Alberni and Ucluelet to Sechart Lodge, north of the national park, and offers kayak rentals.
Peak season is mid-July through August. To avoid crowds visit May to April, or September to early October.
Pack a compass, nautical charts #3670 and #3671, and tide and current tables (refer to Tofino tables). A cell- phone, GPS and marine VHF radio are recommended. See the Parks Canada Broken Group Islands 2016 Paddler’s Preparation Guide for more info.
Fresh water is not guaranteed; plan for four litres per person, per day. All group members should have basic paddling skills and be able to read weather conditions, maps and tide charts. MEC North Vancouver runs free introductory marine navigation courses.
Camping fees apply May 1 to September 30 (but all national parks are free for Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017).