Remote and wild, the waters immediately to the north of Desolation Sound are seldom experienced by the casual kayaker. Deep blue glacial-fed inlets cut deep into the towering mountains. Cliffs rise sheer vertically out of the water to icy peaks thousands of feet above. For competent paddlers, this area is easily accessible from the relative civilization of Desolation Sound.
The Redonda Islands and their associated waterways offer three distinct and unique channels to explore and access this remote area, all of which eventually lead to the spectacular mountains of Toba Inlet. Launching from Lund or Okeover Inlet, kayaking trips of a week or more can loop around the Redonda Islands, into Toba Inlet and return to Desolation through a different channel – creating a stunning experience in a wonderful and remote area of the British Columbia coast.
Lewis Channel, Teakerne Arm and The Rendezvous Islands
Lewis Channel, due north of Kinghorn Island in the middle of Desolation Sound, splits the islands of Cortes and West Redonda. Kayakers of all abilities are able to enjoy this passage, exploring the area on a challenging but comfortable day trip from Desolation, or gently easing into the wild and rugged terrain to be found further north!
The first stop for most kayakers in a trip up Lewis Channel is the charming old boardwalk village and marina of Refuge Cove, once an important and busy community on the main shipping route up and down the coast. While traffic slowed down in the fifties, Refuge Cove survived, and has experienced a renaissance of sorts in the last couple of decades with a few year round residents and the influx of summer recreation in the region. Haul your kayaks onto the chunky wooden docks and amble up the old boardwalk for a visit to the art gallery or second hand book stall. If time permits (and why wouldn’t it?), grab a coffee at the café and soak up the maritime activity of Refuge Cove. Exploring the Refuge Cove store is a must, as this remote variety store carries anything you could possibly need – including hard ice cream, an unexpected treat on any kayaking adventure!
The scenery unfolds as you edge further away from civilization. On the western side of the channel, Cortes Island - home to an eclectic community of around 1000 people - gently passes from semi-rural homesteads to uninhabited forest, while on your right heading north, the terrain of West Redonda gradually becomes more rugged. The shoreline is a continuation of jutting points and small, welcoming beaches, inviting kayakers to easily pull in for a lunch break or pitch a tent and watch the sun disappear richly behind the Discovery Islands to the west. The relatively shallow incline of Cortes Island keeps the West Redonda shoreline sunny and warm until late in the afternoon.
Halfway up Lewis Channel, cutting almost clean through West Redonda from west to east, Teakerne Arm is a wonderful side-trip for those kayaking in Desolation Sound – and beyond. The provincial park at the head of the arm has trails providing easy access up to warm and clear Cassell Lake - a welcoming swimming hole for visitors in the summer months. Just a short paddle from the base of these trails, this freshwater lake spills over the steep cliffs into the ocean in a wide waterfall. Kayakers can paddle right up to its base and feel the cool, refreshing mist as the roar of the water echoes off the steep cliffs flanking the falls on each side.
Beyond Teakerne Arm, Lewis Channel ends at the confluence of a number of smaller passages, converging on the Rendezvous Islands just off the northern tip of Cortes. The landscape opens up here and offers expansive views north along Deer Passage to the Coast Mountains and north-west up Calm Channel into the Discovery Islands beyond. South Rendezvous Island, an undeveloped provincial park, offers incredible camping opportunities.
Pull into silent, hidden coves and explore the grounds of forgotten homesteads in amongst towering old-growth firs and cedars. Afterwards, retire to camp by the shore and collect oysters from the bay as the sun sets behind the Discovery Islands in the west.
Very much a continuation of the ambience of Desolation Sound, Lewis Channel offers a relaxing introduction to the world beyond Desolation.
Waddington Channel, Roscoe Bay and Pendrell Sound
If you are looking to access Toba Inlet and the Redonda Islands from deeper in Desolation Sound, Waddington Channel - splitting East and West Redonda from north to south - offers a great diversity of paddling, from warm freshwater lakes to remote island camps.
Many people on a trip to Desolation Sound will visit Roscoe Bay and Black Lake, a calm and protected marine park and popular day paddle from the Curme Islands and Prideaux Haven. Tall trees stand straight and silent as you enter the narrow inlet, which twists and turns as it snakes surprisingly deep into West Redonda Island, before opening up suddenly to reveal a wide and beautifully calm bay popular with boaters and kayakers alike. A short trail leads from the head of the bay along the creek just a short distance to yet another fresh water lake perfect for swimming. For ambitious kayakers, portaging your kayaks the short distance up the trail provides a unique access to granite ledges and peaceful seclusion deeper into Black Lake.
North of Roscoe Bay, however, the idyllic and peaceful tends to give way slowly to the awesome and humbling. The shoreline of West Redonda on the left is steeper, the forest tangled. Across the channel the mighty spire of Mount Addenbroke rises sheer from the deep, glacially carved ocean to a height of 5200 feet. Few kayakers and even fewer boaters venture into this world where morning mists cling tightly to the thickly forested slopes. Behind you is the bliss of Desolation Sound, before you lies exploration and adventure.
Halfway up East Redonda Island, the long narrow arm of Pendrell Sound cuts deeply into this towering island. Pendrell Sound is a beautifully remote area with deep waters and very little tidal exchange, famous for having the warmest water on the British Columbia coast. The eastern shore, where Mount Addenbroke plunges steeply into the ocean, is classified as an ecological reserve established to conserve the unique coastal ecosystems of Coastal Western Hemlock and Mountain Hemlock. Protected from prevailing winds by this mountainous landscape, and offering uninterrupted views down the sound back to Mount Addenbroke in the south, a trip to the head of Pendrell Sound is a special addendum to any trip north to Toba Inlet and beyond.
Returning to Waddington Channel, and continuing north of Pendrell Sound, the feeling shifts more and more from a relaxing island-hopping vacation to expedition-style kayaking, as you perceive yourself heading deeper into the wilderness. At this point, the cliffs of both East and West Redonda are high and steep. Yet amidst this imposing landscape, just as you start to wonder if a pebbly beach or a flat ledge for a campsite can exist amongst all these cliffs and thick forest, an oasis appears.
Walsh Cove Marine Park is tucked neatly into a well-protected nook at the top end of West Redonda Island. Three small and easily accessible islets sit below the cliffs of both West and East Redonda Islands, which come as close as 120 metres at their closest point. During the day when the sun is at its highest, the rocky slabs of these islands heat up and provide the perfect place to sunbathe, or as the tide comes in, to leap from into the surprisingly warm, solar heated bay. The views south back to the mountains of East Redonda are picture perfect here.
Further exploration with your kayaks to Butler Point, immediately north of your island camp, offer mysterious and fascinating glimpses into the past. More than a dozen pictographs - Native rock art dating back to a time before Europeans discovered these lands - can be found in various places among the cliffs. Images of marine animals and human forms are plainly visible, while others provide more cryptic clues to the nature of life here far in the distant past. Aside from the imposing scenery, the contemplation of these artworks and the lives of those who made them conjure a sense of awe and respect for this incredible landscape.
A night or two spent in Walsh Cove is full of relaxing exploration and discovery, but to the north the mountains are silently beckoning. Immediately north of this island oasis, the channel narrows as it comes to an end. The water, for so long deep and dark, is suddenly luminous with turquoise blues and emerald greens as the glacial fed water of Toba Inlet, just beyond the passage, mixes with the open ocean.
Homfray Channel and the Coast Mountains
There are few experiences on the British Columbia coast that rival paddling out of Prideaux Haven, an idyllic island oasis at the north-eastern edge of Desolation Sound, and heading north into the mountains of Homfray Channel.
Everywhere else in Desolation Sound, the Coast Mountains are a stunning backdrop. From here on, however, they are no longer a backdrop but an ever-present reality. You are from this point into the mountains, their ice-covered peaks towering thousands of feet above you on every side. Of all the incredible places to visit in Desolation Sound and its immediate area, Homfray Channel on the way north to Toba Inlet is the most humbling. Remote and imposing, every stroke takes you further and further from civilization.
Thousands of years ago, vast glaciers covered most of the surface of British Columbia in huge sheets of ice. Endlessly advancing inch by inch, the friction and pressure they exerted carved massive valleys out of the rock. As the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice-age, these valleys filled with rising sea water, shaping the very landscape that we love and enjoy today.
On the left hand side of the channel as you paddle north, Mount Addenbroke dominates the landmass of East Redonda Island. From its peak 5200 feet above the ocean, it drops in immense cliffs to a depth of 2300 feet below the surface, the deepest point in Desolation Sound.
On the right, impossibly high above you, are the Coast Mountains. Water cascades down the wild, undeveloped valleys of these peaks in torrents, carving them deeper and deeper, and enters the ocean with a roar that reverberates off the cliffs all around you. Occasionally these valleys have been carved deep enough over a sufficient amount of time to open at their base into wide, flat bays, which for today’s kayaker provides the perfect place to set up a tent and spend the night amongst the towering mountains.
The first of these bays you will come across as you head away from Desolation Sound is Forbes Bay, a wide cove located at the base of iconic Mount Denman. Forbes Bay is to this day an important cultural site for the Klahoose First Nation, and a large parcel of the bay has been designated to them in recognition of the connection they have to this incredible location. Thickly forested, with Forbes Creek entering into Homfray Channel from the mountains above, Forbes Bay looks every bit a bear paradise … and indeed it is. While perhaps (but not definitively) just out of Grizzly territory, black bears are often seen by the river on the beach. While it is thrilling to see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat, visitors to these areas must keep in mind that they are in a remote area in the presence of wild animals, and act accordingly with respect and caution.
Another large bay with good camping opportunities is Attwood Bay, further north near the mouth of Toba Inlet. The sheltered cove is gouged out of the otherwise steep cliffs and offers good protection against any inclement weather to pass before attempting to enter the mouth of spectacular Toba.
Pryce Channel and Toba Inlet
"In the grandeur of their scenery these inlets surpass all the others within this area and must rival in their magnificence all examples of the fiord type in the world.”
- J. Austen Bancroft, writing for the Geological Society to Canada in 1911, describing Toba and Bute Inlets.
The snow-capped peaks of enormous heights that flank both sides of the entrance to Toba Inlet make it seem almost impossible for any body of water to pass through them. Looking at the Coast Mountain range here, you can really get a sense for the feeling of helplessness that Captain George Vancouver - while attempting to find a passage through them in 1792 - must have felt each and every time he was repelled by their enormous size.
Yet Toba Inlet does cut a considerable way into these mountains, some 20 miles from the mouth of the inlet to the estuaries of the Toba and Tahumming Rivers at the head. For the determined kayaker that enters these remote waters, the breathtaking mountain views to be found around every turn are the ultimate reward for their endeavour.
The three routes of access from Desolation Sound already mentioned - Lewis, Waddington and Homfray Channels - meet at the top of the Redonda Islands at Pryce Channel, which stretches from the mouth of Toba Inlet in the east almost all the way to the Rendezvous Islands in the west.
Deep waters of rich, dark green give way to colours of turquoise and blue as you make your way up Pryce Channel towards glacial fed Toba Inlet. The northern mainland is composed of sheer granite cliffs, occasionally broken up by thin, faint waterfalls. The steep shore of West Redonda Island to the south has deep, forested valleys that cut inland, shielding streams and creeks that flow from lakes high above.
It seems at times that time stops moving when you are paddling up here. A whole day can pass without seeing another soul, with the possible exception of a colony of sea lions hauled out on a ledge on the shore, barking and crashing into the water at the first song of your approach, suddenly interrupting your otherwise serene enjoyment of your apparent isolation.
As you come closer, however, Toba starts to dominate all scenery and thought. Winds flowing out of the inlet - sometimes called outflow or katabatic winds - can funnel out with tremendous force, particularly in the afternoon, creating wind waves over 6 feet high even as you are making your approach! A strong knowledge of the potential conditions, as well as the technical ability to deal with sudden and abruptly changing conditions, is essential.
While the first impression of Toba may be that the steep cliffs and towering mountains offer nothing in the way of shelter, small, pebbled, pocket beaches at the mouth of the inlet lead to hidden, sheltered ten sites amongst the rainforest.
Hugging the western shoreline, however, it does not take long for these little nooks and coves to be replaced by sheer vertical cliffs. Cascades of water tumble down ravines choked with vegetation, and in one dramatic spot spilling and crashing hundreds of feet to the inlet below.
The final destination for most kayakers on a trip into Toba Inlet is the beautifully remote Brem Bay - where the Brem River Valley cuts a wide swath through the mountains at its back and long, flat beaches offer amazing camping opportunities at the feet of snow-capped mountains.
Located roughly half-way down the inlet, the Brem River - formerly Salmon River - is an important cultural site for the Klahoose First Nation, and an equally important feeding sight for local bear populations, who feed season-round not just on salmon but on trout and a variety of vegetation found throughout the rich valley.
Yes, this is Grizzly country, and the big brown bears are often seen at the shoreline, especially where the river enters the sea. Pull your kayak onto the beach and step right beside the impression of a huge paw on the white sand – as a shiver runs down your spine! As with most remote areas of the BC coast, explorers of this region must be vigilant. However, with proper planning and preparedness, a trip to this awesome and humbling Coast Mountain destination is an experience that can be safe and immensely satisfying.
Desolation Sound is well regarded for its calm, protected waters and idyllic island campsites. The expansive views of the Coast Mountains and rugged forests provide the perfect scenic backdrop for a relaxing vacation in paradise. For more adventurous kayakers however, these immense peaks and valleys offer an intriguing glimpse into the possibility of deeper exploration beyond.
This is a Powell River Sea Kayak tour destination!