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English Bay - Kayak Trip / Canoe Trip

Report Type: Day Trip Report
Trip Dates: July 26, 2007
Nearest City: Vancouver, BC, Canada
Difficulty: Moderate
Submitted by: David J. Mack

Description:

Vancouver, BC, is a beautiful city with great scenery and restaurants. On a kayaking day trip, you can enjoy the views of the city and mountains, while working up an appetite for roast lamb from your favorite Mediterranean restaurant.

I put in at 11:30 AM about 1.5 hours past low tide from English Bay Beach. Heading west along the shoreline, it didn’t take me long to get the hang of the Typhoon sit-on-top I had rented. Although Ecomarine has beautiful sea kayaks for rent, I was alone and didn’t think I could self-rescue in anything else. The Typhoon is a surf-boat, not a day-tripper, but it was the only SOT in their fleet. I immediately went into a holding pattern trying to cross the mouth of busy False Creek where there always seemed to be a power boat passing.

Once across False Creek, the wide shoreline consisted of large exposed rocks covered with algae and ravens, a few seagulls, and an occasional great blue heron. In the water, cormorants were hunting today’s menu special, small crabs. Wind was out of the SW but largely blocked by the shore at this point. The water was clear with 1.5 meter visibility, which helped me to avoid the rocky heads hiding under the water.

Tides here are an ass-kicking 3+ meters. This means that the character of the shoreline can change dramatically in a few hours. Paddling against the tide for most of the day would take the edge off my pace, but the bay here is so wide that if you stick to the shallows the current is not very noticeable.

English Bay wasn’t the salty ocean arm that I expected, but a brackish estuary, only about 1/4 as salty as the ocean. Huge amounts of fresh water must be pouring into the Strait of Georgia. The bird species were similar to those seen on my home estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, except for the much higher frequency of ravens here, and the jet-black coloration of the cormorants.

Small sailboats were tacking offshore in front of their club. Dwarf purple mussels were exposed on pilings of their pier, but no visible anemones or starfish. Ahead, I saw more brightly colored objects in the bay, which I at first took to be another fleet of small sailboats, but which turned out to be swimmers wading far from shore. At low tide, the shallow water off Jericho Beach extends almost half a kilometer.

Further along there was a pooch-friendly beach called Spanish Bank Beach Park. The dogs were having a blast, tussling with one another, vying with one another to retrieve balls cast out into the water by their owners. A guy paddled by with a dog on his surfboard. A woman swam accompanied by her setter, who she said was a great swimming companion. Vancouverites make American dog owners look like cat people. Only here would you see a sign far out in the bay which says in effect, “No dogs past this sign.”

The bouldery shoreline gives way to a long, sandy stretch. These sands were probably deposited here after being ground off nearby mountains by glaciers, and aren’t geologically old. The water is cloudy anywhere there’s a sandy beach because it still contains fine sediments. The sand is drab, as if the leftovers from too many charcoal grills were dumped into it. But it’s not really dirty. The color is due to dark minerals, probably including small bits of coal for reasons I’ll mention later.

Vancouverites have an excess of logs drifting in their waters, so they place them on their beaches. This strikes us Yanks as a strange thing to do, but a log is almost as useful as a hitchhiker’s towel: it can be used to block the wind on a cool day, provide a little privacy, perhaps a tiny spot of shade, or serve as a place to put things were they won’t get all sandy. At first I wasn’t too concerned about drift logs in English Bay, thinking that a collision was mainly a concern for power boats. But when I passed a huge log moving up and down in 1 meter swells, I realized they were much more dangerous than the small logs I often slip over in swamps back home. Stay away from those things.

As I approached the University Endowment Lands, I saw two seals (eastern pacific harbor seals) coming in with the tide. They were medium-sized and grey. From what I could tell of this population, the larger individuals were very dark grey to black, while the younger individuals are lighter colored. They were curious about the kayak, but it was a wary 15 m curious, not an intimate 5 m curious. With these seals, the best viewing strategy was to take a few long, quiet strokes in their general direction, then stop paddling altogether and glide. Compared to dolphins or manatees, the harbor seals spend a lot more time with part of their body exposed above water, spy-hopping. So you should be able to get a reasonable picture with a modest camera.

As the sandy beaches disappeared, the shore became covered with cobbles and logs. The dropping tide had created a path now traveled by hikers looking for a secluded, unoccupied spot. Nudists began to appear, some enjoying the shade, some worshipping the sun. The naked guy standing on the rocky point seemed to worship only himself. One guy was even perched on a cliff.

Kayaks operate in the same zone as the seals: too far out for swimmers but too close for power boats. The harbor seals stare long enough at kayaks to make you think they’re curious. But they seemed absolutely obsessed with beaches that had people on them. It was almost as if there they were expressing a deep longing, perhaps for a nap on a favorite sunny haul-out spot.

If you want to see rocks, beaches and cliffs are likely places to look, and the Endowment Lands shores have both. Although I had expected only igneous rocks, they came in a surprisingly wide variety, and there were a few sedimentary and metamorphic rocks as well. There are lots of granites, but impressive porphyries are also common (basalts with large white or pink crystals in them). More than once I examined freshly broken rocks and found scattered pin-head sized garnets on the surface. As for the few sedimentary rocks, there were black cherts, cherty limestones, and some conglomerates cemented so intimately the pebbles will surely remain locked in their matrix until Doomsday.

On the shores east of the Endowment lands there are coarse to fine sandstones containing layered traces of coal. The larger pieces, now contorted into thin black potato chips, presumably used to be small sticks and tree branches in sand deposits. These “coaly” sandstones weather into appealing shapes under wave action, and the crumbs of coal contribute to the dark component of the local beaches. These sandstones also contain finely dispersed bits of coal which suggest that even older coal deposits contributed to the sand, just as they do today. Vancouver has prettier rocks, but these were my favorites.

I was expecting rocky cliffs, but got a big surprise: almost 100 meter walls of firm sand. This is usually a recipe for collapse, but the material of these cliffs contains just enough clay/silt binder to provide strength, while still being permeable enough to drain well. A geological reference simply refers to these miracle sands as “compact ice-age sediments”. In Vancouver’s wet climate, all it would take would be a single layer of impermeable clay to destabilize the sand above it, turning NW Marine Drive into a shortcut to the beach in a few decades. Still, given the ocean waves nibbling at the bottom and run-off from streets and parking lots, it’s astonishing that these cliffs aren’t eroding faster.

To the NE of Wreck Beach there is a Goldilocks zone for viewing local rocks. You need to find a cobble bar which isn’t too close to a sandy beach with its dulling silt, and which is just the right distance up the beach: too close to the low-tide zone, the rocks are covered with algae; above the high tide line, the rocks are dulled by dust.

I picked one such beach that looked uninhabited, but nudists are everywhere, like a reality version of Where’s Waldo? I said, “pardon me” to an elderly gentleman reading behind a log, wearing a sun-hat and nothing else.

As you turn counter-clockwise around the Endowment Lands, you can expect the water to get bouncier as you leave the protection of English Bay. At this point, there’s nothing between you and Vancouver Island but 30+ kilometers of cold, open water. On this day, I got a double-dose of bounce because I was turning into the wind. The Typhoon didn’t track well of course but it was never tippy.

When I finally reached Wreck Beach, I was surprised at how large and apparently popular it was. When I lived in Vancouver in the late 80’s, I had imagined it as a small beach shared by a few UV-starved eccentrics. It is indeed a clothing-optional beach for those who don’t need to hide their bodies behind logs (because they are fit from going up and down the 100 m of stairs). But the lee of the breakwater has collected a LOT of sand, making it a deeper and more impressive beach than Jericho. Colored parachutes were used as tents to provide shade. Seals with huge, black, liquid eyes stared at the oblivious crowd on shore.

On my way to the breakwater, I passed a guy swimming out to a line of floats. The floats are a guide meant to keep swimmer and power boats from mingling, but at low tide they don’t necessarily provide good guidance as to what constitutes a reasonable swimming area, being all of 500 meters from shore. He was a strong and obviously confident swimmer...

I had wanted to sneak into the log-booming area on the other side of the breakwater, but the cranes were operating so I called it a day and turned around. I paddled for 5 minutes, then another seal sighting caused me to look back. The swimmer was now headed for shore, but he didn’t seem to be making any progress. It slowly dawned on me that he was in a rip-current, presumably a clockwise gyre formed as the incoming tide surges past the breakwater. It was a hefty rip, because when I stopped paddling I drifted into the wind. He was clearly tiring because he was switching between sloppy strokes and treading water.

The swimmer showed great presence of mind by heading perpendicular to the unseen current, trying to reach the breakwater. After hearing him cough once on saltwater, I figured him for the stubborn type who would slip under the water before ever calling for help (in other words, like most good swimmers). So I paddled toward him as quickly as I could, wondering how I would help a guy that looked like he outweighed me and my boat combined. We reached the breakwater at the same time and he, tired, politely declined help. He probably should have taken a tow rather than scramble across half a kilometer of huge wet boulders, alternately slippery and barnacle-covered, in his bare feet and swim trunks.

On my way back, a dark grey mother seal spy-hopped with a small light grey infant. He playfully nudged the back of her neck, as if to get her moving. This was the only infant I saw, and the only time I saw two harbor seals separated by less than 10’s of meters. There were many other adults in the area.

Near this same location was my only “animal X” sighting of this trip. It was something long and dark, swimming mostly submerged along the surface in a manner which was unlike any harbor seal. It was far from shore and disappeared before I could draw closer. I suspect it was a California sea lion.

The moored cargo ships out in the bay drew my attention. Leaving the relative shallows of the Kitsilano area, the water got rougher as if I had crossed an invisible line. I felt a little silly crossing such open water in the Typhoon, but then a woman passed by on a surfboard paddling with her arms. The feeling passed. The cargo vessels run generators 24 hours a day, so the impression when I drew near was not the expected one of magnificence but of old paint, rust, and the stink of diesel fumes.

A large harbor seal surfaced with a fish in its mouth, tail still flapping. He stared at me as he chewed it with his side (carnassal) teeth, which made the strangest rattling crunching sound. Imagine the sound of sawing through a bony fish with a pair of serrated garden shears and you won’t be too far off.

On the return trip the view is better and slowly changing: Lighthouse Point, Grouse Mountain cable car, downtown Vancouver, and Stanley Park. I also had a clear view of the volcanic cone of Mt. Baker which went completely unnoticed on the outward leg. The bay seemed empty of people until I got closer to English Bay Beach. After passing the tacking sailboats and a couple of powerboats, I entered an area devoted to rowing sports. A girls’ team was sitting in two long shells receiving instructions from their coach as he circled them in his power boat. Their presence was extremely unfortunate, because it meant that I had to focus on my paddling technique and finish strong, even if it killed me.

This was a trip of significant local interest for wildlife such as birds and seals, scenery, and beaches covered with interesting rocks. The described trip was about 24 km in 7 hours. The water was too cool for pleasant swimming in deep water, but not cold enough for a wetsuit. It was a perfect day for swimming trunks in a sit-on-top, although I had to pour water on myself now and then to cool off.

From English Bay, one can also take a small side trip to Granville Island in False Creek, where Ecomarine has a shop. If you ask nicely, they might let you park your kayak there while you go for a coffee. One can also travel as far as the large rock just offshore of Stanley Park, next to some sandstone cliffs. But Ecomarine doesn’t want renters to go to the narrow beyond that point where renters may either be eaten by cargo vessels or find themselves unable to paddle back against a tidal current of 4+ knots.

Accommodations:

Ecomarine Ocean Kayak Centre
Although I was initially grumpy about having to use a put-in which was kilometers out of my way, and which didn’t open until 11 AM on my only free day in Vancouver, the sting was alleviated by the extremely friendly and otherwise helpful sales people. They reminded this southerner that because of the long summer days at these latitudes, an all-day rental wouldn’t have to come back until 9 PM. In addition to the kayak, they outfitted me with a featherable paddle and a throw-bag. When I asked for a spare paddle, the salesperson wisely suggested I bring a ½ paddle since even that would be a tight squeeze on this small sit-on-top.

Ecomarine’s focus is the few hour rental and lessons market, so don’t expect their busy management to return phone calls regarding your requests for custom outfitting, no matter what you’re willing to pay. I’ve been disappointed by inflexibility of liveries from Milos to Maui, and suspect there’s a folding kayak in my future.

Fees:

Rental on a solo kayak for the day is CAD$ 59

Directions:

English Bay Beach, next to Beach Street at the end of Davies.

Resources:

The website for Ecomarine Ocean Kayak Centre is www.ecomarine.com.
One-stop Vancouver beach park information can be found at vancouver.ca/parks/rec/beaches/, including tide tables, special designated areas, coliform counts, etc.

There’s a nice Wikepedia article on Wreck Beach at wikipedia.org/wiki/Wreck_Beach

An initial virtual tour via Google Earth was helpful for estimating distances.
I use http://tbone.biol.sc.edu/tide/ for tide predictions.


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