Paddling and Seeking Balance in the Creeks and Swells of the B.C. Coast

Our writer — and his former Olympian guide — take stand–up paddleboarding to the next level in B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest.

I paddle away from the dock in a soft drizzle, sheets of pale–grey mist hanging low on the green mountains that flank a long tendril of ocean. The precipitation is to be expected – we’re in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, so named for good reason – and the propulsion is no problem. Sufficiently attired in activewear, my wingman and I are on stand–up paddleboards, not cramped and damp in kayaks or canoe. And even though the guy gliding beside me has a pair of Olympic medals and knows a few things about racing, this afternoon’s journey is proceeding at a relaxed pace. Our destination, moored in a cove two kilometres away, is a floating cedar sauna where a stoked wood stove and cooler of beer await.

An obsession with stand–up paddleboarding, a.k.a. SUP, has brought me to the B.C. coast. When my lifelong passion for walking and exploring dry land morphed into curiosity about water, SUP struck me as an easy way to get closer to aquatic environments. The Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort, whose dock we just departed from, is the perfect place to deepen that relationship. Over the past four decades, the family–run, off–grid lodge has evolved from luxury fishing camp into Edenic outdoor playground. Owner/operator Fraser Murray – whose parents towed a refurbished float home across Queen Charlotte Strait from the northern tip of Vancouver Island in 1981, tapped a waterfall for electricity and opened for business a month later – has embraced their mantra that “nothing is impossible” at Nimmo. Which is why, beyond today’s low–octane outing, my paddling itinerary includes helicopter drops beside high–alpine lakes and speedboat shuttles to tidal rapids. And why Murray asked his pal Simon Whitfield – who won a come–from–behind gold in triathlon for Canada at the 2000 Olympics, took a silver eight years later and is now a Vancouver Island–based SUP guide – to helm bespoke paddleboard sessions with guests.

June 1, 2019
Two paddle boarders on a remote alpine lake with mountains in the distance
The resort’s own helicopter makes it possible to explore places that would be otherwise inaccessible: For much of the year this alpine lake is covered in snow.

“Paddleboarding is defiant: It’s like dancing on water,” Whitfield says as we approach the sauna, explaining how SUP has helped him navigate the transition away from intense competition. He tried the sport for the first time in 2010 while training with the national triathlon team in Maui, then fell in love with it after retiring in 2013. At first, he joined the West Coast SUP racing circuit, but soon found himself driving several hours to organized events when he would rather have been escaping by himself onto the ocean. “When you’re in wind or waves, paddleboarding is dynamic,” says Whitfield. “On a calm day, it’s absolute awe and magnificence. For me, paddleboarding is a way to figure out how I relate to the space around me.” As if on cue, a bald eagle flies above the cedar and fir that crowd the shoreline, and we spot a grizzly nosing the shallows at the end of the estuary.

Within minutes of arriving at Nimmo, I’m relating instead to the space below me. When our float–plane transfer from Vancouver Island splashed up to the lodge, I was greeted with a hot towel and blackberry–mint mocktail, and then Murray quickly ushered Whitfield and me into a helicopter so we could squeeze in a sunset paddle. Before I could finish my drink, pilot Clayton Spizawka had whizzed past snow–capped peaks and sawtooth ridges toward an unnamed lake above the treeline, landing at the foot of a sheer cliff glowing in the golden–hour light. We remove a pair of inflatable SUPs from the cargo basket, pump up the boards and push off from shore, breaking through a thin skin of ice and dodging mini–bergs on our way to the mouth of a glacial cave. The water and air are chilly, but it’s the scale, looking up at a 30–metre wall of white, that stops us cold.

Resort guide, Mike Terrell, wears a bright orange jacket and a navy blue tuque
Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort guides like Mike Terrell know every nook and cranny of the Broughton Archipelago.
The Cedar Room is a wooden structure that sits between the trees, much like a treehouse
The Cedar Room, one of two massage studios at the Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort, is tucked under the rainforest canopy.

We’re back in the chopper the next morning, soaring through verdant Jurassic Park valleys and skimming the elephant–skin crevasses of the Silverthrone Glacier before curling back toward the coast. Spizawka alights on the gravel flats at a bend in the Wakeman River, and Whitfield and I repeat the inflation routine, then paddle upstream, where the rushing current is pinched between ramparts of smooth, moss–covered rock just a few arm spans apart. Tree roots dangle from the canyon rim, blocking the sun and heightening the feeling that we’ve found a fissure into an off–piste reality where the wildest SUP dreams come true. “I’ve been imagining doing this for a long time,” Murray says when we return to the helicopter. “Paddleboards let you explore hidden places in an intimate way.”

A small aircraft glides across the water during low tide towards the guest cabins
The resort’s guest cabins at low tide.

Fraser was three years old when Deborah and Craig Murray made Nimmo Bay the family’s summer home. Their closest neighbours, Julie and Henry Speck Jr., members of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, lived 16 kilometres away in Hopetown. The couples became good friends and ran the lodge together. Julie helped Deborah in the kitchen and Henry, an internationally collected carver, became the lead guide. Today, Fraser and his wife, Becky, handle daily operations, while the Specks’ son Irvin works as a traditional guide. Amid this generational shift, the original focus on fishing has widened to include an array of spring–to–fall adventures, such as heli–hiking and wildlife viewing (pretty much any species of charismatic megafauna that’s on your wish list), plus a wellness program that features yoga and massage. SUP, which can be meditative or a rush or any tempo in between, embodies Fraser’s vision for the future of Nimmo. Pair boundless paddling with indulgent après – say, a soak in the hot tub at the base of the falls that supply the resort’s power, followed by sea–urchin and smoked–octopus canapés, then a feast of locally harvested Dungeness crab, scallops and spot prawns in the candlelit dining room – and you’ve found a formula for peak SUP.

Paddle boarding towards the dock of the smokey cedar sauna
Smoke on the water: Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort’s floating cedar sauna.

After we leave the slot canyon aboard the chopper, Spizawka soars toward a gunsight notch in the ridgeline; the ground, and my stomach, drop when we pass through. “This never gets old,” he grins, then lands in the lee of a 1,900–metre summit at Corsan Lake. Fine particles of glacial rock suspended in the water make it an electric cobalt blue. Whitfield attempts to give me a remedial stance and stroke lesson, stressing the importance of a steady upright core with shoulders open and knees bent, but the colour of the lake is distracting. Instead of concentrating on my form, I challenge him to a sprint. Whitfield humours me for a few dozen metres. Then, as my body starts to teeter from side to side, he bolts ahead toward the far shore.

There are only nine guest cabins at Nimmo. Mine, stocked with snacks and drinks and aromatic bath products made with pine needles and juniper harvested by a regional First Nations social enterprise, has a balcony suspended on stilts above Little Nimmo Bay. My morning commute follows a wooden boardwalk through the trees to a gangplank onto the floating half of the property; twice a day, imperceptibly, the main lodge, bakery, gym, guide shed and staff houses rise and fall up to six metres with the tide. I pour a coffee and take a warm almond croissant from the bar – breads and pastries are baked daily, often with foraged berries – and sit down with Whitfield to map out the day’s agenda.

A grizzly cub crosses a river in Great Bear Rainforest
A small grizzly crosses a stream in the well–named Great Bear Rainforest.
Simon Whitfield paddles across the icy blue waters of a remote glacial lake
Simon Whitfield explores a remote glacial lake in the wilderness near the resort.

After breakfast, we head out in the Fathom, a 36–foot custom aluminum catamaran, to the Lewis Rocks, where the inlet that leads to Nimmo opens into the Queen Charlotte Strait. Wearing wetsuits, we hop onto a pair of oceangoing hard–shell SUPs and surf the waves that form when the swell is constricted between granite outcrops. We battle upstream against the current, then pivot and rocket toward the boat. I take a break in a patch of calm water and spot a Steller’s sea lion eyeing me from five (then four, then three) metres away. Time to catch another wave!

Back on the Fathom, we motor southeast toward Broughton Archipelago Provincial Park, where a cluster of islands creates an ecosystem of krill, herring and other small creatures that bigger animals like to eat. We paddle away from the boat, anchor down and engine off, and are enveloped by a Twittersphere of chirping grebes and common murres. In the distance, a barrage of bass exhalations: a pod of humpbacks blowing plumes of spray into the air.

“We exist on land but we came from water,” Whitfield tells me. “Paddleboarding is communing with this.”

Aerial view of two people paddle through a clear lake surrounded by forest
A leisurely spin on a clear lake is enough to lend a bit of perspective.

At its best – and this moment surely qualifies – paddleboarding is about balance. Travelling simply and fluidly atop the water, body and mind settle into an elemental rhythm. Whether spellbound by whales or sipping beers in a floating sauna, I see SUP as a path to blissful stillness (so much stillness, in fact, that I miss my massage session while hanging out in the sauna). That’s one reason I love the sport. But I’m also hooked on the exhilaration.

With a wink, Whitfield suggests a small detour on the way back to the lodge: Roaringhole Rapids, where the ebb tide from Nepah Lagoon gushes through a narrow 35–metre–wide channel into Kenneth Passage, a dozen kilometres as the crow flies from the resort. From a distance, the rapids look – and sound – fearsome. But as the Fathom approaches and we drop our SUPs over the side, I can make out individual features in the torrent of whitewater. We work our way up the eddies along the shore, then sweep–turn into the surge of bumps, boils, swirls and standing waves, tumbling off and then clambering back onto our boards to take another run at nature’s everlasting treadmill.