Kayak Surfing Skookumchuck Narrows Tidal Rapid

Skookumchuck Narrows, BC is known as one of the best places in the world to ride a standing wave in a kayak.  It’s remote and takes a bit of intention to get there, but when we can get away and take a few boats, it’s always worth the journey.  This time around we brought our newest design, the Selkie and the Pinguino 145 4PD.  The Pinguino has been there a few times already but it was the first time for the Selkie and we were curious to see how she would perform on the wave. The current was a little stronger than the previous Pygmy trips (a whopping 12+ knots!), so we were excited to see the wave under these conditions.  It’s about an hour paddle from the Back Eddy campground & cabins or a two mile hike down from the trail head.  The whitewater boaters who come to play on the wave usually hike, or paddle a sea kayak and tow their smaller boats behind.  We opted to paddle around and get on the water by 7am in order to make it to the wave before it got big, which would allow us enough time to set-up camera gear and get settled before the action took place.  When we arrived a small wave train had already begun to form but for the most part it looked fairly mellow.  Sea lions popped up here and there curious and playful.  Looking at the area, seemingly benign in soft morning light, it was a bit difficult to imagine the powerful flow to come.  Snow capped the surrounding hills at only about five hundred feet above us.  The inlet is truly stunning.

Slowly the water began to take shape and a wave train developed, smooth and glassy at first.  The sea kayakers love when the wave looks like this.  They paddle elegantly into the flow with their long boats and fluidly carve on its polished looking surface. Then the first wave in the series began to break down.  A foam pile started to develop on the far side and as the flow intensified the massive churning increased covering more of the wave’s surface area.  At times the entire wave was a giant pile of foam with no perceivable “tongue”. Sea kayakers tend to pull out at this point and seemingly pass the baton to the whitewater boaters.  The whitewater paddlers slip into their plastic play boats and slide down a rubber mat above the wave, like seals entering the water.  After paddling out into the middle of the current, they then line themselves up so that the stern of their boats is caught in the foam, like a baseball in a bubbly mitt.  Their short, maneuverable kayaks turn and spin playful in the white chaos.   The feeling on shore is supportive and exhilarating.  Folks cheer and whoop and holler for the acrobats in boats.  It’s a powerful wave and the consequences can be substantial.  As the current builds the water down the inlet becomes more turbulent.  Whirl pools develop and there are some tricky eddy lines.   When a boater is sucked down the flow after being spit off the wave they call it “going on tour”.  Some folks “go on tour” more than others, depending on their level of experience.  It seems particularly painful watching the shorter boats struggle against the currents.  My arms ache just watching.  The sea kayakers seem better equipped for this part.  But they all do it with a smile, excited for their next ride and they all seem to be supporting each other, keeping an eye out when someone goes on an especially long ride.  I’m impressed with the friendly atmosphere.  Sometimes adrenaline situations can bring out competition in a negative way, but this feels incredibly healthy and the focus seems to be on having fun.

It’s amazing to see the athleticism and potential of what a well trained body can do in a boat on such a powerful wave.  It’s a bit like the feeling someone gets while watching the Olympics.  That first day out there were even some guys with surfboards (see photos below).  They wore flotation and had air canisters around their necks in the case of an extremely long hold down.  Sea Kayakers are concerned about the possibility of being “window shaded”, where the boat gets stuck in the foam, flipping and rolling, and the paddler may have difficulty breaking the cycle.  Surfers have the concern of getting caught in the same foam pile, or worse yet, catching an undercurrent that takes them deeper and doesn’t surface them till further down, so the air canister serves to give them a breath under water.  Adrenaline is definitely flowing.  Even for spectators.

When most of the other sea kayakers were pulling off, professional paddlerJaime Sharp seemed to just be getting warmed up.  He hopped in and out of sea kayaks and his whitewater boat skillfully.   One of the guys on shore mumbled something about how he’d never seen a sea kayaker out when the wave was this big.  Jaime surfed the Pinguino 145 4PD in some of the biggest surf we have seen it in and got out raving about how well it performed: “I was unsure of how such a wide boat would perform out there, though it was awesome. The extra beam meant when I had it hard up on edge, the water line was almost nothing and it would turn on a dime for aggressive bottom and top turns. The beam combined with the great rocker also meant the boat turned out of steep drops off the lip of the wave and would not dive under unless you wanted it too.”

Then he hopped in the narrower, low volume Selkie.  Suspicious at first how this little boat would perform for him we had a hard time getting him out once he got in.  He had this to say, “She fits good though I was not so sure how it would handle on the wave. Once I figured out it was not as forgiving as the Pinguino with bottom turns I was able to really work it. Both boats had a great ability of being able to side slide on the green face, allowing me to work off the left and right foam piles. I loved how predictably you could get it to pitch pole on step drops; and man being able to spin into a back surf was a great surprise. I want to surf this boat more!”

Slowly the foam pile began to diminish, the current slowed and the wave resumed its glassy surface.  We had been there since early morning and it was now late afternoon.  By the time we packed up our camera gear and leftover lunches the wave was nothing more than a strong eddy line.  Strange currents and whirlpools still lingered down current but for the most part it was benign and welcoming again. We paddled back to the Back Eddy Campground and Cabins in low afternoon light and excitedly chatted the whole way, reminiscing over the action filled day.  The next morning we would wake up and do it all over again and we could hardly wait to see that magical transition of water and the dance of the kayakers in such a remote and beautiful place.




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