There are many opportunities for canoeing and kayaking in seawater and freshwater along the Sea to Sky region.
When flat-calm, Howe Sound is an inviting place to paddle, but beware the outflow winds that build on summer days. The Sound is a channel for winds drawn out to the ocean from cooler inland regions. Kayakers will have an easier time of it than canoeists when the winds rise. It’s worth heading offshore to enjoy the views of the Howe Sound Crest and Britannia ranges that are not revealed from land.
The 1.2-mile (2-km) paddle north from Porteau Cove to Furry Creek is a pleasant workout. Watch for pictographs painted on the rock face on the north side of the small bay just past Furry Creek. (Keep an eye out for errant golf balls that may shank your way from the nearby golf course.) Porteau Cove, about 15 miles (24 km) north of Horseshoe Bay, is also a designated Marine Provincial park, with sheltered moorage. The boat launch at Porteau Cove Provincial Park is the only public one accessible from Hwy 99 between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish.
For an extended trip, launch from Lions Bay Marina and head 3 miles (5 km) across Howe Sound to nearby Gambier Island. Tucked away from view just inside its sheltered southeast corner is Halkett Bay Marine Provincial Park. A government wharf lies at the end of the bay where a thick fringe of hemlock and second-growth fir shield the shoreline from view. If you walk into the shade of the trees, you’ll discover a series of clearings linked by old logging trails that have assumed the character of sedate laneways. You could camp here where there are several formal sites or on a small island just offshore in the bay. The island boasts a small beach, above which stands a clearing large enough for one tent. While on Gambier, follow the old logging road that terminates beside the campsites at Halkett Bay west to Camp Fircom, a half-hour walk. At first the road leads through the forest, but it descends to the shoreline as it nears the camp, with a pleasing view to the south of Hood Point on Bowen Island.
Four rivers merge into one at the northern outskirts of Squamish. The Cheakamus and Cheekye join forces in quick succession, then the Mamquam swells the volume in the Squamish just before its confluence with Howe Sound. There’s good sea kayaking and canoeing on the Squamish River almost year-round, though you must be wary during high-water volumes. These traditionally occur during autumn storms and spring snowmelt. Two of the best locations for launching and taking out are beside the Squamish River dike on Government Road in the Brackendale neighbourhood and at the federal dock at the west end of Loggers Lane in downtown Squamish on the Mamquam Blind Channel. To reach it, follow Cleveland Avenue south from Hwy 99 through downtown Squamish to Vancouver Street. Turn left and drive two blocks to the dock.
The advantage of launching from the dike is that you have the current in the Squamish running in your favour. Drift downstream past the Squamish Spit into Howe Sound with your binoculars at the ready. There’s always something to see along this stretch. If you launch from the federal dock, be prepared to do some steady paddling around the Squamish Estuary to reach the Spit. The afternoon winds tend to kick up quite a chop. Those with open canoes should avoid Howe Sound during these times.
Of the four lakes in Alice Lake Provincial Park, Alice is the one most suitable for paddling, especially canoeing (motorized boats are not permitted on any of the lakes). There are launch sites at each end of the lake beside the picnic areas.
Rough and ready Brohm Lake has a boat launch for hand-carried boats only, located a short distance from the parking lot on Hwy 99. This diminutive lake is ideal for a quick paddle and is primarily used by anglers.
Lakes in the Whistler region are often hemmed in by thick forests. Paddling out on their open surfaces reveals views that are restricted from shore. In fact, some of the best views in the area are reserved for paddlers. On a clear, calm day, the surrounding peaks are so perfectly mirrored on the lakes that you would be hard-pressed to tell the reflection from the original.
The best example of this is Callaghan Lake (Callaghan Valley). Drive to the end of the Callaghan Lake Forest Road and launch from the rough approach at lakeside. Within minutes you’ll have left the hubbub of the campsite behind and be drifting over the deep, emerald-hued lake. Water temperatures are so frigid that algae barely blooms, which accounts for the lake’s exceptional clarity. It takes 30 minutes’ solid paddling to reach the far end of the lake (about 1.2 miles/2 km), much of which is not visible until you round a point of land in the lake’s middle. You’ll spend most of that time with your mouth hanging open. (Fortunately the insect population is sparser here than on shore.)
Looking across the lake to the east, you’ll see a panorama of peaks that extends from Whistler Mountain south to the Black Tusk and beyond to the glaciated slopes of Mount Garibaldi near Squamish. This is without question the most expansive mountainscape to be found in Whistler. To the south is a formidable barrier of snow-clad mountains that separates the Squamish and Callaghan Valleys. Chief among the peaks is Powder Mountain, whose icefields form an unbroken white mantle. The flanks of Callaghan and Rainbow Mountains dominate in the northwest and north, respectively. One or two locations around the lakeshore suggest places to take a break, but the bugs, at least until late August, will soon have you back on the water.
Equally enthralling are the peaks and glaciers that reflect in Cheakamus Lake, though the lake itself is more difficult to reach. If you have a lightweight canoe or kayak you’ll have no trouble making the 2-mile (3.2-km) portage from the parking lot to the lake, particularly if you have a folding kayak or a two-wheeled dolly. The trail is only moderately difficult and as it is suitable for mountain bikes, you should have little difficulty wheeling through the forest with a canoe or kayak in tow. About 4 miles (6 km) long, Cheakamus is the largest lake in the Whistler region; having gone to this effort, consider overnighting at Castle Towers Creek or Singing Creek Campsites. Both of these streams enter the lake near its east end, several hours’ paddle from the rough launch and campsite at the lake’s west end.
Paddling is also the only means of exploring the Cheakamus River’s braided headwaters and sandy-shored delta. Watch for a giant, hollow black cottonwood sticking up at the southeast corner of the lake. Looking up from the lake you can easily pick out features such as the avalanche chutes on the south slopes of Whistler Mountain. These are the same treacherous pitches that, when snow-covered in winter, lure unsuspecting skiers and snowboarders out of bounds. Follow along the bumps of Piccolo, Flute, and Oboe summits – the Musical Bumps – as they lead to Singing Pass.
Placid paddling on the River of Golden Dreams is a tradition that links today’s visitors with Whistler’s past. The ‘river,’ also called Alta Creek, was named by Alex Philip who, with his wife, Myrtle, ran the Rainbow Lodge at the whistle stop of Alta Lake, the first commercial attraction in the valley.
From modest beginnings in 1915 until the Philips family sold the business in 1948, Rainbow Lodge established Alta Lake (which officially changed its name to Whistler in 1966, and became the Resort Municipality of Whistler in 1984) as the pre-eminent recreation destination west of Jasper in the Canadian Rockies.
Ever the romantic, Alex renamed the creek to the River of Golden Dreams, and sent many a honeymooning couple paddling down the gentle stream to Green Lake and back to the lodge. This is still an attractive and mildly challenging canoe paddle, particularly when water levels are high.
In summer, short portages may be necessary to cross shallower sections. The fastest-flowing sections of the river occur at midpoint, where the creek flows beneath the Valley Trail’s Twin Bridges – paddle hard in the sweeping S-turn that follows – and north of the Hwy 99 bridge as the creek makes several sharp bends before entering Green Lake. This last section is a pretty sight, indeed. A put-in/takeout is located beside the Valley Trail’s River of Golden Dreams Bridge, downstream from the hwy. A large parking area and public phone are located beside the pedestrian bridge. If you are not planning to paddle back to Alta Lake, this is a good place to arrange to be picked up. Another plan is to leave a bicycle here before you start; drive your vehicle and boat over to Rainbow Park, paddle downstream to Green Lake, then ride back along the Valley Trail to reclaim your vehicle, returning to retrieve your boat by driving west on Alta Lake Rd to Hwy 99, a short distance north of the River of Golden Dreams. Canoes are available for rent at Alta Lake at both Wayside Park and Lakeside Park, and at Green Lake near the outlet of the River of Golden Dreams. If you’re looking for a little lake to practice rowing or paddling on, boats and canoes are also available at Alpha Lake Park, a family-oriented site in the Creekside neighbourhood.
Green Lake Park has a sandy beach from which to launch a canoe or kayak. The park is located on Lakeshore Drive in the Emerald Estates neighbourhood near the north end of Green Lake. Follow the signs to the boat launch on Summer Lane from Hwy 99, then turn on Lakeshore to reach the park. (The vehicle boat launch is also a good place to begin exploring Green Lake but lacks the ambience of the park.) Water in Green Lake is often opaque due to the silt carried into it by 19-Mile and Fitzsimmons Creeks, two of its major tributaries. When ice-free, the lake is a pronounced shade of green on all but the greyest days. Paddle directly across the lake from the park to reach Parkhurst, the site of an abandoned logging community. Follow south to reach some of the best beaches on Green Lake, located north of Fitzsimmons Creek. The Green River drains out of the north end of the lake. Its exit isn’t that noticeable until you are almost drawn into it. Avoid being caught in its current as this is a dangerous, swift-flowing river from the get-go.
As it flows through Paradise Valley, the Cheakamus River is a clear emerald colour, except in those places where it billows with whitewater. The total length of its run is just under 7 miles (12 km) from the put-in at the north end of Paradise Valley Road to the take-out just above the Cheekye Bridge on the Squamish Valley Road. Except for a rough, Class III section at the midpoint where Culliton Creek enters the river, this is a consistent run with a predictably steady, Class II descent. Water levels in the river are controlled by a BC Hydro dam farther upstream on Daisy Lake near Whistler. A steady flow is guaranteed, as much for the health of fish stocks in the river (a debatable point with local anglers) as for paddling. The takeout at the bridge is next to the SunWolf Outdoors Centre on the east bank of the river. Caution is suggested should you wish to paddle below this point. Boulders pushed into the river from the nearby Cheekye River have created a drop below the bridge that may be more than less-experienced kayakers or rafters can handle.
The best whitewater kayaking around Whistler happens on the Cheakamus River. Put-in points include the upper section of the river accessed from the Cheakamus Lake Road and the Whistler Interpretive Forest’s Riverside Trail, as well as on lower stretches of the river near its confluence with Callaghan and Brandywine Creeks near the Cal-Cheak Forest Recreation Site.
There are four lovely lakes in the Pemberton region that paddlers will find attractive – Birkenhead, Anderson, Lillooet, and Joffre. Joffre is the junior member, while 3.5-mile-long (6-km) Birkenhead is somewhat larger. The other two are much bigger, and much breezier. All of them are sequestered among the peaks that range through this heavily mountainous area. Of the four, Birkenhead Lake is the most welcoming for a quiet sojourn around its shoreline. Launch from the dock at Birkenhead Lake Provincial Park and paddle south. A surprise awaits you, as it does on many mountain lakes: Tenquille Ridge’s white-walled flank, hidden from view at the dock, begins to reveal itself to the west, while the mountains that hem Anderson Lake begin to appear in the north. Late spring, when the surrounding snow-topped peaks reflect on the lake’s surface, is one of the best times to visit here.
Nearby Anderson Lake lies at the north end of the D’Arcy-Anderson Lake Road. There’s a boat ramp here next to Heritage Park, where those with boats on trailers can put in. Steel-grey Anderson is a large, rather forbidding lake to paddle, with few places to land, particularly along its west shore, where the BC Rail line runs. Lillooet Lake is equally large, but has a friendlier appearance. It must be the colour that makes a difference: milky green when seen in full sunlight, a deep jade colour towards dusk. There’s a boat launch at the Twin One Creek Forest Service Recreation Site about 6 miles (10 km) south of Hwy 99. An alternative approach is to launch a hand-carried boat from a rough site beside the Birkenhead River Bridge on Hwy 99. The river flows into the north end of Lillooet Lake, where a delta of soft silt is steadily deposited by the nearby Lillooet River. An attractive destination to head for is the sandy beach at Strawberry Point Forest Service Recreation Site. Allow an hour to make the 2.5-mile (4-km) paddle journey one way.
High above Lillooet Lake are the three small Joffre Lakes. Two of them require a challenging hike to reach, but Lower Joffre Lake is just minutes from Hwy 99 at the Joffre Lakes Provincial Park trailhead. Not many visitors make the effort to carry a small boat through the forest to the lake, but those who do are treated to the finest landscape surrounding any lake in the region. Not only is the lake fantastically coloured – shades of turquoise and aquamarine – but it is also surmounted by the massive Joffre Glacier Group. On a clear day, time seems suspended as you paddle here in absolute stillness.
The Lillooet and Birkenhead Rivers have been providing sport for whitewater kayakers since the invention of fibreglass. The Lillooet can be treacherous, owing to the numbers of submerged sweepers brought down into the river as a result of logging and slope instability, particularly in the Meager Creek drainage. The Birkenhead is much more predictable and also more pleasantly landscaped.
The Lillooet River system runs for almost 120 miles (200 km) with Class II-III water throughout. Runs include a 3-mile (5-km) stretch on the Upper Lillooet River between the put-in at riverside on the Upper Lillooet Forest Road north of Pebble Creek and the take-out beside the Meager Creek Forestry Road bridge. A lengthier stretch of paddling runs for 9 miles (15 km) between the bridge and takeouts at the km 23 or km 25 markers on the Upper Lillooet Road.
The Birkenhead River provides more challenging Class III-IV kayaking in tighter confines as the river runs for about 3 miles (5 km) between the narrow bridge over the Birkenhead north of Owl Creek on the D’Arcy-Anderson Lake Road and another bridge near Mount Currie on the road that leads to the Pemberton Sportsmen’s Wildlife Association fish hatchery. To find the takeout, turn east onto a gravel road on the south side of the train tracks as the D’Arcy-Anderson Lake Road leaves Mount Currie.
There are many terrific rivers for whitewater paddlers to play in around Lillooet, and one of the very best is the Bridge River. Featuring Class III+, IV, and V water, with easy portages around the headiest sections, the Bridge demands that those who paddle here be advanced kayakers. The put-in is at the confluence of the Yalakom and Bridge Rivers north of Lillooet, from where it’s a 16-mile (26-km) ride to the Fraser River. The Bridge offers everything an expert paddler can hope to find: fast water, raging rapids, hair-raising drop-offs, and challenging technical stretches.