It all began mid-April 2023, during a casual chat about memorable sea kayaking expeditions in the Pacific Northwest. A few days later, my partner Gabby and I discussed exploring the Inside Passage: a six-week self-support journey traveling 1200 miles along the British Columbia coast. On the 12th of June, we were packing our kayaks on the banks of the Skeena River—self-invited guests to one of Canada’s most spectacular and vulnerable ecosystems.
All over the world, wilderness areas are shrinking, drastically impacting the species that live there. Canada is no exception. Less than 3% of old-growth forest remains on the west coast of Canada, and British Columbia still hasn’t enforced banning old-growth harvest despite the previous government’s promises.
The climate is changing—even the wettest areas are drying out. In British Columbia this year, temperatures regularly topped 30° Celsius by early May. Snow had melted off 2000-meter peaks by early June, and inland forest fires raged soon after. The impact is all too apparent everywhere we look and worse where we don’t.
Gabby and I grew up on the edge of vast wilderness areas in New Zealand, with national parks on our doorstep and childhoods spent exploring the forests, mountains and rivers. I feel most alive when challenged by the elements of nature: sea kayaking in 25-knot winds, styling a Class V rapid or climbing a new mountain.
We’ve made a career of these passions, but living the adventure-traveler lifestyle is far from carbon-positive. Every day, I feel the weight of responsibility for exponentially increasing the rate of climate change with the lives we lead and the desire to protect the places we love. With homemade vegetarian meals, second-hand kayaks, and the ‘Leave No Trace’ principles, we did our best to satiate our exploratory appetite while minimizing our environmental impact.
After two hours of shifting and shoving, we had all but two dry bags in our boats, which we strapped on top. We waved goodbye to our friend Xavi and pushed off into the silty glacial water of the Skeena River.
Over the next three days, we descended the lower Skeena Valley, paddling past snow-capped granite domes, cascading waterfalls and dense forest, working our way to Chatham Sound and the Pacific Ocean. It felt good to leave the city behind as we pushed deeper into the British Columbia wilderness.
The first evening, we stopped to set up camp on what looked like a grassy meadow only to find a muddy tidal zone with fresh wolf prints. Further investigation revealed an old logging site surrounded by dense regrowth. It wasn’t ideal, but we weren’t sure if the next camp would be better.
On the second day, the headwinds were relentless. A strong northwesterly funneled up the valley, and progress was slow. The camp we had identified on the map looked great and arriving with high tide made life even better. But before long, we discovered we weren’t the only fans of the place. Large bear prints with claw marks and scat marked the ground: a grizzly.
It was time to practice our “Bearmuda” triangle. We positioned the tent on the beach, the kitchen in the other direction, and hauled our food cache three meters off the ground in yet another direction, all roughly 100 meters apart. We had a restless night, waking at every noise while the tide lapped at our feet. Rather than stick around, we put on the water at 3 a.m. The stars lit the way as we took a gentle pace, matching the ebbing tide and flow of the Skeena. We made it 20 km before the sun rose, illuminating Chatham Sound with the glow of a new day.
Leaving the swirling currents of the Skeena behind us, we entered the Inside Passage: A series of sounds, channels and straights protected by islands from the Pacific Ocean. Stretching from Skagway, Alaska, to Olympia, Washington, these calmer waters have been preferred by seafarers for hundreds of years. Pristine coastline, pebbled beaches and crystal-clear waters reflected the vibrant ecosystem beneath the rippled surface.
A low-pressure system was forecasted to bring heavy rain and strong southerlies. We pushed on, taking advantage of the mild conditions. Entering the infamous Grenville Channel, the hillsides rose steeper, and the passage narrowed. At kilometer 54 for the day, we scouted for camp in Kumealon Inlet.
We set up the tent in the shelter of mature cedars and ate dinner on a grassy headland, looking back at the way we’d come. Belly full, I felt my body relax, lulled by the peace that follows being challenged by nature. Watching the clouds build until they obscured the sun, I was even more excited for what lay ahead.
The next few days, winds battered the coast. Clouds hung heavy, and rain drenched the land. Torrents of water gushed down drainages. Ocean currents pushed and pulled us with the flooding and ebbing tides. The 40 km long channel narrowed to 600 meters in width, creating surging humps of boils even at slack tide.
As we continued south, the rain continued its relentless abuse. The wind cut between our outer layers, chilling our bones. Our fingers turned pruney and sore. We needed to rest and warm up. Paddling into Mosely Point, two black bears wandered out of the forest to forage through the grassy meadow. My heart rate shot up, but awe soon replaced fear as we quietly coasted past. We landed on shore as the bears padded back into the forest, seemingly unaware of our presence. Still buzzing from the encounter, we set up the fly and lit a small fire.
After a hot cup of tea and some leftover curry, we felt revived enough to push on towards Douglas Channel. The following morning, a bright light shone through the trees—sunshine? It seemed like weeks since we had last felt its warmth. We took a slow morning, soaking up the sun and drying our kit.
As we paddled across Douglas Channel, we listened to the chatter of local fishermen on the VHF radio. With a “Gday,” we inquired about the weather. “Tomorrow is meant to be like today.” “There’s a high-pressure system moving in for the next few days.” No suggestions as to what the wind might do, but it was something.
The paddle across to Whale Channel was a delight. The water was pure glass. A gentle sea breeze picked up, assisting our progress along the southern coast of Gribbell Island, home to the legendary spirit bears, a rare subspecies of black bears with blond fur. We watched in awe as an orca swam by, silhouetted against the horizon by the evening light.
The encounter was more powerful knowing these majestic creatures are critically endangered. Research from the last 30 years shows Southern Resident orca whale populations were as low as 73 individuals in 2022 and declining. One reason scientists point to is lack of prey. Chinook salmon, a vital food source for Resident orcas and spirit bear alike, remain threatened by rising water temperatures and habitat loss. The orca slipped below the water, its absence a sobering reminder that the Pacific Northwest could one day lose several of its most iconic species.
Our route continued south through the Princess Royal Channel, where mountains rose steeply from the water’s edge. With camping options scarce, Butedale, a historic fishing and mining camp and cannery, provided insight into the past and a wharf to sleep on. Founded in 1911, Butedale ceased operating in the 1950s. In its heyday, up to 400 people lived there; now, it’s a ghost town waiting for the next developer.
We set off at first light, the tide in our favor. Bald eagles and turkey vultures stretched their wings overhead. A small fishing boat chugged past. As we rode the ebbing currents south, the waterline lowered, revealing the plants and animals that live between inter-tidal zones. Gabby gave an impromptu intertidal lecture tour, and the tidal cycle flew by.
Green Inlet Marine Provincial Park offered a delightful campsite. We spent the afternoon swimming in the cascading creek and lazed in a grassy meadow before preparing pan-baked pizza for dinner. A splash of water for steam to melt the parmesan—perfection.
As Princess Royal Channel opened, we headed for Griffin Passage. The description, “take extreme caution, tidal rapids,” and “some of the last pristine old-growth forest,” had captured our attention. Paddling into the passage, I was dismayed to discover the old-growth stands had also captured the forestry industry’s attention. Large areas of recent clear-cut scarred the landscape. Helicopter logging had taken its toll, and it didn’t look like they were stopping soon.
According to a report by the Wilderness Committee, old-growth forests in British Columbia are home to over 1,000 species of plants, fungi, and animals. These forests are crucial to biodiversity and the survival of a vast variety of species. It seems wrong that one man can so easily burn, spray or cut down an entire forest and destroy all that live within.
That night, the airy howls of wolves and hoots of owls pierced the silence. In the morning, we rode the waves out into Matheson Channel. By late afternoon, we’d paddled far enough west that the topography had changed from deep fjord systems to low-lying coastal islands. A sandy beach, the first we’d seen, was a delightful surprise. We circumnavigated our little island paradise barefoot, delighting in the sand’s warmth.
The next day, the fog hung so heavy we could barely see. The sounds of boat traffic and a light wind helped us orient as we crossed open water, but the compasses and navigational chart saved the day. As the day wore on, the clouds burned off, and the bright rooftops of Bella Bella, a small First Nation township on Campbell Island, came into view. Re-supplied with fresh fruit and veg, we waved goodbye to our new friends and continued due south. With our sights set on the outer coast, we left the busy Lama Passage and paddled out around the McNaughton Group.
Soon, camping on picturesque white sandy beaches and battling early morning fog became the norm. We were a long way from the fjords and the Skeena. Here, the Pacific swell crashed against the coastline, weathering sea-worn granite. Forests grew sideways at a 45° angle, cowering away from prevailing winds. Sea wolves stared out at the ocean, retreating into the forest when they caught our scent.
Calvert Island began with summery beach days at the Hakai Research Institute followed by challenging conditions down the west coast. The headwind increased, whipping the ocean’s surface into confused chop on top of a roiling westerly swell that rebounded off the rugged coast. As we approached Dublin Point, the tidal currents added to the chaos.
Thick bands of sea fog swept in, obscuring any sight of the coast to our east. We relied on waves crashing to the east and the westerly winds on our left to guide us. As if the powers at be heard our silent prayer, the clouds parted, and islands appeared, offering tranquil conditions. Rounding the southern half of Calvert Island, a humpback whale breached only a few meters from our kayaks.
Crossing the 10 kilometers back to the mainland, the central coast of British Columbia, we realized that we were already halfway through our expedition. Paddling across this open expanse of water, we felt small and insignificant. A tugboat and barge chugged past, carrying a massive load of recently felled logs. Watching the barge disappear onto the horizon, I felt a profound sense of loss.
We had spent weeks under the shelter of these trees, mesmerized by the habitats they nurture. It felt pointless to appreciate and explore these wild, vulnerable places if I could not also help to defend them. We paddled onward, thoughts turning to our voice and the power of sharing these experiences.
As our journey continued south, the wilderness turned to developed countryside and yachts replaced wildlife. After 1189 km and six weeks surrounded by Canada’s most remote wilderness, we paddled into Puget Sound. Landing on the beach of Squamish, the contrast of environment over our journey hit home. We pulled up on shore, our boats lighter and our hearts fuller, already longing to return.
Guest Contributor Gabriel Vink Wackernagel strives for balance in life, pursuing his passions through exploration, outdoor education and environmental conservation. An accomplished whitewater paddler, sea kayaker and rafter, Gabe is happiest when among wilderness and nature, whether in his homelands of Aotearoa, New Zealand or on waters far from home.
Editor’s note: For more information on the importance of old-growth forests, visit the Wilderness Committee, the Ancient Forest Alliance or visit Stand.Earth to sign their petition to help protect BC’s old-growth forests from logging.
All images courtesy of Gabriel Vink Wackernagel and Gabby Bruce.