Kayaking the Gulf Islands with my Toddler: “We’re Going to Need a Bigger Boat”

In Activity, Capital Regional District, Family, Kayaking, Regional Districts by ExploringtonLeave a Comment

My wife Kim thinks I’m crazy. My friends think I’m crazy. I’m sure my son Hemingway thinks I’m crazy. A colleague even accused me of being a Viking, after I described Hemingway’s first kayak trip at nine months old. I am probably the only one who believes in my sanity.

I don’t make the decision to take Hemingway kayaking, or even backpacking, lightly. I put a lot of consideration into the planning, for personal safety and enjoyment. Being outside is an essential part of my reality. This isn’t the case for everyone, but for me it’s important to spend as much time as possible outdoors, including time with my family. This means hauling them out kicking and screaming – sometimes literally.

Moments later he threw his book overboard!

Careful planning usually makes for an enjoyable and successful trip. The right equipment, the acceptable amount of risk-to-ability ratio, training, route planning, and more are all part of the process. It’s also important to choose who comes with you; going with the right people makes all the difference. I have to acknowledge Michael’s efforts, as he is amazing on all our trips. He has practically adopted Hemingway – playing with him and looking out for his safety, for example when Hemi crawled into Michael’s hammock. Even before we hit the water, I knew that Hemingway had taken to Michael. Hemi was always looking for him, and calling for “Mygo”. A strong impression was made – and even now, weeks later, Hemi can identify Michael’s car driving down the road.



My anticipation for the trip was high. Not only was my family joining in on the four-day kayak trip, but Michael was hitting the water with us for the first time in a long time. Easter weekend has a well-established tradition with my family as the first weekend for camping trips. It’s a celebration of the early spring time, and getting into a kayak for four days amidst the southern Gulf islands is always a treat. Furthermore, the trip had a different significance for Kim, as she’s a teacher: Spring Break! It’s time for her and her colleagues to take a break, recharge their batteries, and give a long exhale for the first time since winter break – and that’s a long time to hold your breath.

This trip has some familial precedence too. Kim and I did our first multi-day kayaking trip three years ago on Kennedy Lake, while on another spring break. Michael joined that trip too, but more significantly, Kim was five months pregnant. That trip would be our only multi-day kayaking trip without a child. This time, she is only three months along, making it feel like a new tradition of sorts. Of course, this time there’s an additional challenge – Hemingway. He’s not quite three now, and this is his longest overnight kayaking trip.

Gulf Island Map and GPS route
Gulf Island Map and GPS route

 Total Distance: 53 km

Day 1

We stayed the night in Victoria. This allowed a relaxed start to the morning, as we only had a short drive to the start of our adventure. We launched from Sidney and paddled on the ebb, out of the harbour and south toward the nearest island. Our route took us to the east side of James Island, paddling between James and Sidney Islands and eventually farther south. We exited the boat a number of times to inspect the long sandy beaches of James and Sidney Islands, but didn’t dawdle. We were enjoying the push of the ebb that helped carry us south to D’Arcy Island, Canada’s most southerly Gulf island.

James Island with Hemingway
Hemingway haveing his way
James Island with Hemingway
Lovely cloud structure on James Island



Upon arriving at the small island, we were overwhelmed by the natural features. We paddled west along the rocky north shore, passing the limited pocket beaches, and spotting numerous shelves above the high tide line. Ultimately, the perfect spot presented itself. A few lonely arbutus trees completed the west coast appeal of the raised grassy promontory, jutting out from the island to catch the last rays of the evening sun. Perfection! As an added bonus, a nearby pocket beach allowed us to pull our boats out easily, and quickly bring our bags to camp.


D'Arcy Island camping with family
Kim, enjoying the view. Our camp on D’Arcy Island
After setting up camp, Kim watched Hemingway while Michael and I explored the island. D’Arcy Island is now part of the Gulf Island National Park Reserve, but it has a long history rooted in racism, fear, and disease. We discovered the remains of the former leper colony along the west shore: crumbling concrete walls form the hollowed-out remains of the caretaker’s home. Farther along, two large footings define where larger structures were built, possibly the housing for the lepers themselves. On this micro-adventure, we followed a million coloured ribbons along a slightly booted path, cutting across the middle of the island to the west shore, where we found the official park campsite.
Caretaker's house on D'Arcy Island
Caretaker’s house on D’Arcy Island
Viiew of the bay beyond the ruins, D'Arcy Island
Viiew of the bay beyond the ruins

The site was simple and clean, with a composting toilet and official park signs containing some historical information. We discovered we weren’t alone, meeting two kayakers at the campsite. I could sense a feeling of disappointment as they talked to us, until we told them we had made camp on the north shore of the island. Smiles returned to their faces, and they bid us farewell as we continued back to our campsite.

Mommy and Hemi time, D'Arcy Island
Mommy and Hemi time, D’Arcy Island
Michael and Hemingway chiling in the hammok. D'Arcy Island
Michael and Hemingway chiling in the hammok

We had the perfect end to our first day at sea. We enjoyed the crackling sounds and warmth created by our small beach fire as we rested on the beach, listening to the sounds of the water lapping against the shore. The only intrusion beyond our own chatter was the sound of a billion frogs croaking far off on Sidney Island, two and a half kilometres from where we sat. Hemingway was a little character. As I lay on the beach, I had one knee bent and the other foot resting on the first knee. He scooted in beside me and sat the same way, complete with his hands behind his head as he looked up at the stars emerging in the night sky, and laughed. The moment didn’t last long before he whirled away to find something else to entertain himself. Soon it was bedtime.

Day 2

After a restful first night, we packed our gear and paddled a course around D’Arcy Island. We drew near to the west shore of Sidney Island; Halibut Island, where a possibly nude man greeted us from behind a hand-built rock wall, high on the plateau above the bluff; Mandarte Island, the home of bird poop and a few brightly-coloured shacks; and finally, to our destination of Isle-De-Lis, better known as Rum Island. YARRRR!

nesting birds on the heights of Mendarte Island
nesting birds on the heights of Mendarte Island


Cormorants hugging it out on Mendarte Island
Cormorants hugging it out on Mendarte Island


Michael making it all look easy
Michael making it all look easy

We had great weather for the day and timed the tides well, taking advantage of the flood. Even so, we were still slow. Michael frequently surged ahead, leaving us in his wake. I could see him turn his head, taking a break while allowing us to catch up. Sea Pig is a beast to paddle, and Kim’s growing belly, along with Hemingway in the centre hatch, prevented us from wholly efficient strokes.

We circumnavigated the island, and after some searching, we found the best port on the north side of Isle-De-Lis: a small isthmus between Isle-De-Lis and Gooch Island. The shore is sheltered and the beach composed of large round gravel. My only complaint was the distance between our camp and the shore. This was compounded by the fact that the site contains only three tent pads, and they were already occupied: a group of men was using the island as a home base for their Easter Weekend scuba extravaganza! We slogged out from the beach beyond the official camp, edging our way across an escarpment to our home for the night, on a southwest-facing pasture of moss.

The weather didn’t hold. As we set up our tents, the sky billowed with dark cloud, and by late evening rain was falling. Michael and I forced ourselves to make a fire on the beach. Even in the rain, the fire was welcome. The night was black, the moonless sky a void of nothingness. The fire illuminated the wet rocks around us and we drank our whiskey as we chatted, swapping dark secrets under cover of night.

Day 3

The real adventure came the following day. The rain continued in the morning, and we installed two tarps to shelter us as we ate breakfast. By mid-morning, the sky was a patchwork of blue sky and grey cloud – yet we were determined to find adventure! All of us circumnavigated the small island, exploring all points on the compass, via a rough worn route that makes its way around the outside of the island. A big highlight was discovered close to camp: nested deep in the moss, bunches of prickly pear cactus! What a contradiction!

Prickly Peak Catci nested in dense moss
Prickly Peak Catci nested in dense moss

By noon, the sun was blazing – just in time for the Easter Bunny. Michael brought out some chocolate eggs and hid them around the camp. Hemingway delighted in finding the foil-wrapped treats, pocketing them gleefully and grimacing as he tried to chew through the foil. In the sun, we set our gear out to dry. The humidity of the rain had soaked into everything, and the sun aired it out.

Matthew Lettington and Family
family photo: credit Michael Paskevicius

We prepared to leave, but Michael and I had one last excursion: find the hidden rum cache – and find it we did! A bountiful handcrafted chest, stocked with the finest rums to be had at ye olde BC Liquore stores. We signed our names in the log, and took a swig of rum to continue the tradition started a lifetime ago during the prohibition era.

Oh snap! Looky what we found


Yo Ho Ho!

In the mid-afternoon we left the island behind us, paddling west behind Gooch Island toward Sidney spit. The long sandbar is a feature to marvel at, and then curse! We followed the flood to round the spit. Unfortunately, we maneuvered around the tip and paddled against the current. The short distance was made longer as we paddled against the flow: it’s a lot like walking up a down escalator. We only had a few hours of light left, so we hurried.

We landed safely. Kim was exhausted and demanded a costume change. I did my best to oblige, making hot drinks for both her and Hemingway as I unloaded the kayak. The weather was odd. The spit formed a division between two extremes: to the west, the sky was dark and ominous; to the east, it was clear skies and sunshine on the mainland. The combination created a unique look on the water. All the while, buoys and boats gleamed in the warm light, contrasting beautifully with the dark navy water that reflected the turbulent skies above. Not long after we had set up camp, we came to understand what was happening: we were directly between two weather systems, and we were soon hit by the extremes.

Kayaking the southern Gulf Islands
Michael examinign the beacon

Without warning, the air transformed. Pleasant gusts became fierce winds, making our tarp and tents dance with alacrity. The wind came and went, lasting only a few minutes each time. On the water, the calm surface came alive, whitecaps rising in the wind. We observed a man attempting to row his dinghy from a moored vessel to the opposing side of the bay. The effort was futile: row as he might, it was a losing battle. As he gave up, the wind pushed him quickly back to his ship in just a few seconds. We fared better: tucked inland, we were saved from most of the wind. Nevertheless, we were still blasted. Water ran from our rain gear. Poor Hemingway sat fixated, shivering against a tree he was using for shelter. We asked him if he wanted to go into the tent, and he didn’t argue. We retired to the tent for snuggles in the warm dry sleeping bags.

Day 4

The next morning dawned with great weather again. The temperature crept into the high teens as we explored the island, venturing around the campsite to the old brick factory and back to our camp. Along the way we explored the forest, the beach, and even interrupted a nesting sea bird that tried frantically to draw us away from her nest.

Boom! Not sure what he’s thinking
With no friends to torment hime, he set to burrying himself

As afternoon approached, we were in the boats again with the sun at our backs, paddling the long crossing between the spit and the pier that started our adventure. We landed with no issue and then life crashed into us as we packed our gear and re-adjusted to the life of city-dwellers.

Will we do this trip again next year? We won’t do this exact route, as bigger adventures await. But – call me crazy – we will be heading out with the little ones. We are most definitely going to need a bigger boat.

Watch his video of the trip….

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