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Feature - The Skookumchuk legend

Kayakers from around the world come to surf the reversing rapids

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Let’s start with a brainteaser to get warmed up. Which of these things is not like the other: skiing, snowboarding, sledding and white-water kayaking?

Admittedly they all involve the basic ingredient H2O in some form, but the first three are winter sports and the latter is what we do when the snow melts in the spring. Right?

Well, not if you are one of the growing numbers of hard-core white water junkies who surf the mighty Skookumchuk Narrows rapids on Canada’s West Coast, whatever the weather or time of year.

I first heard about these rapids from my former flat-mate in Vancouver, Rob Michl, an experienced Class V kayaker who regularly tours the globe in search of big white water. Recently he was at home getting ready to go paddling. Sleet was falling outside. It was that time of year more suited to moving to Whistler rather than plunging into cold water. We thought he was crazy. However he wasn’t alone, as a subsequent trip to Skookumchuk was to prove.

The Skookumchuk rapids are apparently one of British Columbia’s best-kept secrets in the kayaking world, although word of mouth and the Internet are fast changing that. Taken from the Chinook language "Skookum," which means strong, and "chuck" which means water, this tidal phenomenon truly lives up to its name.

Located at the northern tip of the Sechelt Peninsula off the Strait of Georgia, the rapids are directly west of Squamish as the crow flies but access is via road and ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Gibsons Landing. From there you drive north on Highway 101 until you reach the town of Egmont – the gateway to Skookumchuk Narrows Provincial Park.

What causes the rapids is basically a whole lot of seawater and not much room. Water is greatly constricted at the Skookumchuk Narrows during tidal exchanges between Sechelt Inlet and Jervis Inlet. Because the narrow channel restricts the flowing tidewater, the difference in water level from one side of the rapids to the other can exceed two metres, and current speeds can top 16 knots (30 km/h) – making it among the fastest tidal rapids in the world. At peak, the flow rate is approximately 18,000 cubic metres per second. The final result: cavernous whirlpools, standing white water waves that can be surfed for several hours and, increasingly, people from all over the globe paddling little plastic and fibreglass boats through it all.

Take Renee Spielmann from Vancouver. He’s been kayaking for more than 10 years and coming to Skookumchuk for the past eight. Kitted out in a warm looking, blue dry-suit, Speilmann says there’s no reason not to surf there all year round. He describes the rapids as "paradise" despite the big increase in human traffic there over the past two seasons.

"There used to be nobody out here and the only reason you would stop (paddling) was because your arms get tired," he says, glancing at the lineup of boaters waiting for their turn on the rapids.

"There are probably 30 boaters here today, which is pretty ridiculous, and it’s busy all year round. You have to rotate so people don’t get pissed off."

That said, Spielmann still believes it’s worth making the journey to get there.

"It starts as flat water, slowly building into a green wave then a small foam pile, until it become this huge crashing pile," he enthuses. "People come from all over Canada and overseas to surf here, but you have to know what you’re doing because of the dangerous hydraulics you can get caught in."

Bill Hay, a longtime paddler, white-water rafting guide and kayak instructor from Chilliwack, agrees that conditions at Skookumchuk can get intimidating. However he says it’s a good thing.

"The whirlpools, boils and holes that can form during high tidal flows can get just ugly, so novice boaters will get off the wave when it starts breaking. The tides cause a natural breakup within the kayak group."

He pauses and laughs. "I’ve seen some pretty big eyes out there when people get out of their comfort zone."

Skookumchuk has been good to Hay, not only for optimum play boating conditions but also for swag. A photograph of him kayak-surfing the rapids in the spring 2001 edition of Rapid white water magazine led to some free gear from paddling companies, despite him being misnamed in the article. He says one of the best things about Skookumchuk is that you can plan a trip there months or years in advance.

"Twice a day you get these tides running at 10 to 16 knots resulting in waves up to 12 feet high when you are in the trough. River rapids are dependent on the snowmelt and snowfall – way less predictable."

The development of short, flat and highly manoeuvrable kayaks specifically designed for play boating on white water rapids has undoubtedly also helped boost uptake of the sport. While old "downriver" white water kayaks measure up to 13 feet, the new boats are less than half the length. Basically it’s a whole new ballgame.

"The old long, round style of boats are easier for paddling onto the wave because the water being displaced forces them to go straight," explains Hay. "But the shorter boats are easy to turn, easy to spin and get those big aerials without losing control."

Many paddlers at Skookumchuk solve the challenge of paddling against the water flow by entering the water above the rapids and gliding in backwards. Two paddlers repeatedly using this formula were Whistler locals Corey Boux and Andre Benoit. The pair work respectively as a doorman at Maxx Fish and "saving lives" as a pool attendant at Meadow Park Sports Centre. Boux also safety kayaks for Whistler River Adventures and Wedge Rafting during the summer. Benoit says it was a mission to get to Skookumchuk but well worth it.

"Corey was working until 2.30 in the morning at the club and we had to catch the 7.20 a.m. sailing out of Horseshoe Bay," he says. "The only sleep we got was in the ferry terminal, but we try to get out here at least once a month."

So why go to all that effort when the Cheakamus, Elaho or Squamish rivers, for example, are so much closer to Whistler?

"Skookumchuk is like the best powder day, every day," he grins, before heading back to the water.

Incidentally it was training in powder and snow that helped Boux gain his current sponsored status in kayaking.

"I come from a competitive snowboard background so when you do one, it’s easy to get better at the other because you are in the right headspace," he says. "I just love this sport."

Taking a breather from the wave while munching on sandwiches were Candace Maines, Tristan Ray and Dean Wagner. The three are students in a Kamloops-based adventure guide program and were at Skookumchuk for the weekend. It was Wagner’s first visit and he was impressed with the rapids, although he says you definitely need to have mastered your roll to paddle here safely.

Maines agrees that kayaking Skookumchuk can be intimidating at first and you need your helmet for protection, not from rocks but from other paddlers.

"The last time I came there were at least 35 paddlers, which really sucks because you are sitting in the eddy forever," she says. "There were six women paddlers kicking ass (that day), which was great to see. The sport is growing fast."

Not surprisingly, the white water antics of the rodeo kayakers are becoming as much a draw card for visitors as the rapids themselves. What is surprising perhaps is that local authorities haven’t taken it upon themselves to plaster the prime viewing spot at Roland Point with warning signs or fences, in line with the usual government policy of saving us from ourselves.

And Skookumchuk is can literally reach out and grab you. At its peak, the rushing tide is so strong it is forced out on a convex curve against the banks, and viewers are within a few metres of the main wave. Maines says witnessing the reverse flow is even more spectacular.

"It’s wild! The middle turns into a massive whirlpool and the vortex is so deep," she explains. "You certainly don’t want to go anywhere near it."

As it turns out, white water action isn’t the only thing to keep spectators spellbound. A family of huge sea lions frolicking gracefully in eddies upstream of the rapids had everyone scrambling for their cameras, while seabirds called to each other overhead. Then there was the float-plane pilot that buzzed us, flying by a mere 10 metres overhead.

And don’t forget the underwater sea life. Enriched by a constant supply of plankton and dissolved oxygen, the clear waters of Sechelt Inlet teem with a spectacular array of marine life, such as giant barnacles, sea anemones, hydrocorals and starfish. Paddler Peter Spear from Vancouver recalls a late night session when he and friends made the 40-minute flat-water paddle back towards the car park, rather than walk the trail.

"The phosphorous in these waters during the summer is amazing," he explains. "There was no moon and there were all these torpedoes of light shooting around from the fish underneath and our boats were all lit up. Absolutely amazing."

Spear says he paddles all year round because the water temperature is fairly constant.

If you haven’t yet caught the kayaking bug, a trip to Skookumchuk might change that. Or maybe the words of Bill Hay could sway the tempted.

"For me it is soul boating. It’s a pretty amazing feeling spinning around on a green wave and it doesn’t require a huge amount of skill because it’s Skookumchuk. Once you get over the fear of the wave it’s phenomenal."

Regardless, Skookumchuk Narrows is a beautiful place to spend the day, see marine life in and above the water and watch people do cartwheels in brightly coloured boats. But before you go, here’s an insider tip: parking is a nightmare at Horseshoe Bay. Especially if you plan to leave your vehicle more than three hours. Having arrived with two vehicles, we wanted to leave one behind but all long-term spots were full. In his quest to find overnight parking our photographer, Hugh Marsh, ended up way back near Highway 99. Despite a sprinting effort worthy of the Olympics, the ferry departed with our group safely onboard minus our photographer, who was inconveniently still on the dock watching us sail away. But as you can see from the pictures, all’s well that ends well. He made it in the end.

Details

Transportation — Return ferry between Horseshoe Bay and Langdale on the Sunshine Coast: $22.25 for your average sized vehicle, plus $7.75 per person. Allow up to 90 minutes to reach the Skookumchuk Narrows Provincial Park trailhead on Egmont Road off Highway 101. Winding roads and laidback locals add up to a slow driving pace. Allow 40 minutes for the trail walk to the rapids.

Accommodation — Camping, bed and breakfast and hotel options, prices can be bargained down in the off-season.

Food: Within walking distance of the rapids was an open general store and liquor store, a closed-for-the-season Bake House, and the Back Eddy Pub. For those who dare, there is the pub’s famous Skookumchuk Burger. Legend has it that if you can swallow the $14.50 price tag, you cannot swallow the whole burger, because it’s so massive – just like the rapids.

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