Alt’kisem from Ashlu (Howe Sound East Side)

The first section of the route starting near the Ashlu bridge.

The second section of the route around Anvil Island and finishing at Porteau.

Ashlu River to Porteau Cove via Halkett Bay and Anvil Island. 95 km. 4 paddling days. 1 cold weather rest day.

L & I were living in Whistler in December 2020 and had been off the ocean for quite some time. The weather forecast was terrible, but we were keen to get out for a few days. We also had to deal with COVID restrictions which were urging us to stay local.

My sister lives in Squamish and we took full advantage of her for a car shuttle. While we have paddled Howe Sound a few times, we always stick to the west shoreline, away from the highway (but not the noises of it!). This time we wanted to explore the eastern shore – mostly motivated by the desire to see one of the great pictograph panels of the south coast and one of only a few rock art sites in Howe Sound (odd considering the abundance of ochre near Mount Garibaldi).

We thought we would make the trip more interesting by starting near the confluence of the Squamish and Ashlu Rivers, about 35 km from the ocean.

Detail of launch site. Easily could have used the access from the campsite just north of the bridge. The Squamish Valley Rd is running along the right side of the river.

Day 1: December 27, 2020 – Camping on the Squamish River

A few weeks before the trip we drove down the Squamish Valley Rd to scope out launch sites. We concluded that the beaches just south and north of the Ashlu bridge would be ideal. On December 27, we drove down from Whistler, I dropped L off with the kayaks to pack up around 11AM and drove to my sisters house in town, where we left our truck. She drove me back down the valley, but unfortunately, K’s Tesla wasn’t cut out for West Coast logging roads and I had to jog the remaining kilometer back to the beach.

L had been waiting a bit by the time I returned and was eager to go! It was getting a bit later in the day and being so close to solstice, we only had about 2 hours of day light remaing.

L ready and waiting to get going. It was cold!

Neither of us had ever paddled on a river, let alone on a river in a sea kayak, and while the majority of this trip is a leisurely float with a minimal current helping you along, there are still some obstacles and challenges for the novice. The majority of the first day to our campsite just down river of Baynes Island felt quite remote as the river leaves the road for large sections. Even when the river paralleled the road, given the time of year, we saw little traffic or people.

Some hairpin turns, debris in the water, fast flowing section, and log jams gave us pause, but we eventually negotiated the kayaks to the confluence of the Cheakamus and Squamish Rivers. It was a gorgeous paddle, and great to see the mountains that we know so well from a different perspective. Just past the confluence of the rivers we faced the trickiest section of water, but in the end, it was all quite straight forward.

L floating down the Squamish River.

The gnarliest section of “rapids” that we ran, just past Baynes Island.

We pulled in shortly after the rapids onto a beautiful sandbar. Given the time of year, the water level was very low and there was ample camping along most of the river. We had expected to get a bit further, or even to the ocean on the first day, but we started late and still had about 12km left to the estuary. It was nice not to have to worry about tides though! We lacked drysuits on the trip and by the time we unloaded we were very cold, especially my feet. Thankfully it hadn’t started to rain yet!

We ate a great pasta dinner and fell asleep to clearing skies over Mount Garibaldi.

Chilly camping on the Squamish River – very remote feeling despite being so close to town.

Camped on a sandbar on the Squamish River with Mount Garibaldi behind.

Day 2: December 28, 2020 – to Porteau Cove

The morning was frigidly cold, but the sky was clear and it looked like any cloud in the valley would burn off shortly. We enjoyed the final pull of the current past Brackendale before joining the more tidal section of the river and resuming our regular paddling speed. Seals swam by and eagles patrolled the trees. Garibaldi and Atwell sported a fresh coat of snow and glimmered in the morning sun. It was a great morning.

Packing up in some rare sunshine.

Views of Garibaldi from the Squamish River.

By the time we reached the estuary, a small inflow wind had picked up. We crossed over to the shoreline near Watts Point and enjoyed the bluffs and views down the sound. As we paddled into Britannia Bay a large bob of harbour seals followed us and played under and around our boats. They would stay with us for about half an hour, porpoising in the small wind waves.

Anvil Island with the distinctive Leading Peak was a constant companion for the day. A classic Howe Sound hike leads to the summit of the peak.

Back on the ocean – heading south near Watts Point. A classic Howe Sound landmark is prominent in the centre of the photo: Leading Peak on Anvil Island.

L enjoying the views of Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia from the heli-pad on the summit of Leading Peak on a clear spring day in 2018.

Paddling past the community of Britannia Beach.

The shoreline between Britannia Beach and Furry Creek is removed from the highway and was quite pleasant. Typical BC south coast forest grew directly over the ocean and granite bluffs plunged into the sea. Across the inlet was a favourite Howe Sound campsite of ours – Zorro Bay. The BCMT group has done a great job of building a Howe Sound Marine Trail, of which Zorro Bay belongs to.

Near Furry Creek, we began scanning the rock bluffs for a set of pictographs which we heard existed in the area. We quickly found the incredibly detailed work of art and pulled out the camera to photograph the panel. As with almost all pictograph sites, there is typically easy access from the water.

Unfortunately for me, on this occasion, the combination of poor footwear and slimy intertidal rocks caused me to slip. I pushed off the granite as best I could and lunged for my boat. Only my lower half got wet as I scrambled back into the boat, but it was a cold shock. I repeated the maneuver, this time with more grace and was able to take some close up shots of the pictograph.

An amazing pictograph panel near Furry Creek, one of several in the Squamish area.

L wisely admiring the rock art from the comfort of a boat!

Cold and wet, we decided to head to Porteau Cove and try our luck with a campsite. We have launched from here on many occasions and stopped for snack breaks, but have never actually camped here. We paddled past Furry Creek with its artificial islands and then past a surprisingly busy Porteau Cove. The sunny weather had brought people out, but COVID restrictions restrained Vancouverites to local areas, and the day use area definitely reflected this. Many campsites were also booked, but we learned they were being used by groups to social distance and meet up for the day, but many were not actually camping overnight.

We found an empty site and by evening the majority of folks had headed home. We logged onto Zoom to attend a family Christmas party and opened gifts that we had brought with us in the kayaks. Some celebratory wine and a hearty dinner of pasta was followed by hot chocolate and Netflix in the tent. Always feels weird to be so connected while out camping!

Camping at Porteau Cove. Could honestly be set up in a better way for kayaks, although we may not have approached the most ideal site. It was cold!

Day 3: December 29, 2020 – to Halkett Bay, Gambier Island

Leaving Porteau fairly early we continued down the eastern shore of the inlet until we reached the shortest crossing to Anvil Island. The wind was blowing hard on the radio, but only small gusts bothered us. We wanted to get off before it made its way past Bowen and built fully. We headed towards Christie Islet and Pam Rocks, where we were greeted by gulls and cormorants. An eagle perched high on one of the rocks, harassed by its smaller cousins.

Paddling towards Pam Rocks with a darkening sky.

The building wind quickly chilled our wet hands and constant rain and showers slowly seeped into openings in our paddling gear. Small wind waves found their way through damaged spray skirts. We were getting dangerously cold, and quite fast. We stopped to put on more layers but were still quite cold – even with pogies on, L’s hands were getting very stiff. We needed to get off the water quickly, before the rain and wind became too heavy.

By the time we reached the beach at Halkett Bay, we had both lost most fine motor control in our hands and struggled to open the kayak hatches. We did our handy kayak warm up dance, quickly got on dry clothes, fired up the tea, stuffed chocolate in our bodies, and then focused on the tent and tarp. Standard routine for camping on the coast, but definitely the most I have been affected by the cold in such a short amount of time.

This trip would be the impetus for investing in better cold weather gear – something that would come in handy when we moved to Port McNeill in two months time.

The pleasant pebble and rock beach at Halkett Bay. Although I’m sure it’s quite nice in the summer, when we arrived the entire upland was a muddy mess!

Halkett Bay campsite was quite wet, slippery, and muddy, but that was to be expected given the time of year and recent weather. We had to haul our stuff up a decent distance from shore, but figured we would be happier with the certainty that we would not wake up in a puddle. Given the forecast, we also figured we would be here the next day. After setting camp near a picnic table, we settled in for the evening, happy to be cozy and dry!

Our home for a couple nights in Halkett Bay on Gambier Island. A picnic table for three nights in a row felt like a true luxury.

Day 4: December 30, 2020 – Rest Day at Halkett Bay

While the wind was not forecast to be too terrible, the rain was torrential and it had snowed down to sea level the night before. All our gear was mildly damp and the temperature hovered around 0C. We elected to spend the day relaxing and reading in the tent instead of battling hypothermia.

I finished reading Whale in the Door by Pauline Le Bel, a mix of natural history and cultural exploration of Howe Sound. The title of this report was inspired by the reading of this book. In the middle of such dismal times for our environment, it is great to see at least some small victories.

The days are short when you sleep till mid-morning and eat dinner in the later afternoon, and before we knew it, we were falling off to sleep for the final night of the trip.

Day 5: December 31, 2020 – to Porteau Cove via the north side of Anvil Island

With no scheduled plan, we weren’t quite certain when we would return, but we were cold and wet and didn’t want to spend New Years Eve in such a pathetic state – especially given that we were only an hour paddle from a warm bed! We decided to head back via the western side of Anvil Island, a section of shoreline that we had yet to paddle.

Nice light paddling along the Gambier Island shoreline.

We crossed over to Anvil from Gambier. A small breeze blew, but the wind had died from the night before, the sky was clear and the temperature was bearable.

The shoreline of Anvil Island is quite bluffy on the west side and the recent rain provided numerous waterfalls. I always love seeing the dedicated locals putting up sport climbing routes on the granite slabs in Howe Sound. We found routes on Anvil’s west shore, as well as many routes on the west side of Howe Sound, north of Porteau. Right on!

In no rush, we enjoyed a leisurely paddled around Anvil and then called my sister from the boat to convince her to meet us at Porteau. We played around in some waterfalls and then crossed back to the eastern shore of the sound. Another Howe Sound trip ending in Porteau Cove!

An advantage of paddling in the rainy season – waterfalls are everywhere!

Taking a plunge under a waterfall on Anvil Island.

It was quite busy again at Porteau Cove, but there is lots of room at the boat launch and we hauled our kayaks to the parking lot. We unpacked and got changed and waited for my sister to come by. She picked me up and we drove back to Squamish to collect the truck. From there I drove back to Porteau where we loaded the kayaks and drove home! Not the most efficient way, but its tricky to move two 18′ sea-kayaks around!

Despite being very cold and wet for the majority of the trip, this was a really fun exploration! We both prefer the solitude of the western shoreline, but you can also see and hear the highway from there as well, so the remote feeling is lost. I can definitely recommend starting on the river for a bit more of an adventure, although it complicates the logistics of the car shuttle.

The pictograph panel is a stunning highlight of this trip (consult The Rock Art of the Northwest Coast by Doris Lundy for more information) and combining a visit to the rock art site with a climb of Leading Peak, a visit to Pam Rocks, and a circumnavigation of Anvil Island would make a world class sea-kayaking weekend trip in any season!

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