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Cabana in the woods: A five-day kayaking trip into B.C.'s wilderness

We slip into a kayak and paddle off the grid for five days in British Columbia’s Desolation Sound, a marine park on the Sunshine Coast.

Sunshine Coast, B.C.

“Are we halfway there?” I asked our tour guide Erica casually, trying to mask the exhaustion I felt two hours into my first-ever kayaking trip. “Not quite, but close,” she replied with a hint of concern about whether I’d make it to our final destination, Cabana Desolation Eco Resort, an off-grid lodge in British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast.

“Not quite but close” she replied with a hint of concern about whether I’d make it

Or maybe it was just my own uncertainty that I was projecting. This was only the first of a five-day kayaking trip and there was plenty more paddling ahead of me.

Our not-quite-halfway point was a deserted beach in a pebbly cove about three nautical miles from our departure point in Lund, which itself is a four-hour drive north of Vancouver. We stopped for a packed lunch stowed away safely in the hutch of Erica’s kayak. As she was setting out the picnic spread I took the opportunity to stretch out my arms from side to side, hoping to work out a knot my back. My paddlemates Margo and Barry, a retired couple from Vancouver, were casually strolling around the cove and taking photos on their smartphones. Why wasn’t anyone else stretching? Weren’t they as sore as I was, feeling the pain and strain?

Kayaking in B.C.

I was told that core muscles are integral for kayaking – they’re much stronger than arm muscles, which tire quickly. “Pretend you’re hugging a beach ball between your body and your paddle,” Erica recommended as I practised my stroke on shore prior to departure, twisting from side to side as my arms remained nearly stationary at 90-degree angles. But the movement proved to be much more challenging on the water as my knotted shoulder blades, noodle-like arms and achy lower back protested. Margo and Barry made it look easy. Not only were they paired up in a double kayak for twice the paddling power but they were also experienced paddlers who had embarked on a few similar ventures elsewhere in the province. That meant I was the novice in our group of four paddlers in three kayaks, lagging behind and trying my best to keep pace.

Thankfully we took plenty of rest stops along the way – to inspect one of many shore-side oyster farms; to watch an eagle swoop down into the water for its latest marine meal and devour it on land; or simply just to stop and admire a beautiful wilderness vista across the clear water.

The region we were kayaking in, Desolation Sound, got its name during an expedition by the explorer (and namesake of the province’s largest city) George Vancouver. He deemed the area remote and unpleasing during a surveying mission in the late 1700s. It’s hard to imagine what Vancouver must have been seeing, or thinking, back then. Desolation Sound is now a designated marine provincial park and considered one of the most picturesque coastal regions of the province.

Sunshine Coast, B.C.

The majority of our route thus far had traced northwest through the Okeover Inlet, but once we approached the end of the peninsula a stretch of open water about one nautical mile across stood between us and our destination of Kinghorn Island where the lodge was located. It was mid-afternoon by this time and a light wind had picked up into a westerly breeze.

The associated westerly waves, with the beginnings of whitecaps, slowed down our northerly progress to the island all the more. As large waves began to crest over the bow of my kayak I reminded myself of the exit strategy we were taught on shore to use in case of an accidental flip. Pull out, then up on the aptly nicknamed ‘oh crap strap’ at the top of the spray skirt that kept my lower half dry and tucked into the vessel.

Thankfully, I didn’t need to put this knowledge into use. After what felt like an eternity but was probably about 20 minutes, we reached the shores of Kinghorn Island upright and intact. The westerly winds were now conveniently blowing us around to the edge of the island and closer to our destination. So, copying my paddlemates, we held the blades of our paddles out vertically, like small sails to catch the wind. I found solace in the fact that after nearly five hours of kayaking, I finally had company in this feeling of utter fatigue.

Rounding the northeast corner of Kinghorn Island, I caught sight of wooden fixtures on a rocky hump that sat in the sun, along with what looked like window panes from a distance. Erica told us they were solar panels that helped power the lodge’s kitchen, along with small box gardens that grow herbs and lettuce. “Never before have I been so happy to see a solar panel,” I said to the group, realizing it was a sign that we’d finally reached our ultimate destination.

Cabana Desolation Eco Resort

After hopping out of our kayaks and hauling them up onto shore we were shown to our homes at Cabana Desolation – standalone cedarwood cabins that housed comfy mattresses on log beds and a chaise lounge chair. Just outside each cabin there was a sink with running water and a propane-heated outdoor shower. Open window screens replaced traditional glass panes on the wall facing the ocean, letting in the cool and fresh sea breeze at all hours.

going off the grid wasn’t supposed to be this cushy

I flopped down on the lounge chair, my mouth hanging slightly open as I stared out at the view, dumbfounded by its beauty and my state of exhaustion. I felt like I was cheating the traditional outdoors experience with such a well-equipped abode, but I wasn’t complaining about it. After a hot shower, we collected at the outdoor dining area for dinner. We were joined by another set of kayakers for a Middle East-inspired meal of basmati rice, lamb kebabs, roasted eggplant and sautéed chard and beets cooked from scratch by the lodge’s chef Alix who also lives on site. Travelling off the grid wasn’t supposed to be this cushy.

We fell into a regular rhythm for the days that followed. After Erica checked the weather conditions and wind report we decided on an appropriate spot within kayaking range to explore. Following a hearty breakfast (veggie popovers, squash pancakes and a Japanese-inspired omelette among them), we’d paddle off and reach our destination at midday, picnicking on a lunch packed by chef Alix, before returning home. Among the most beautiful spots we paddled to were the Curme Islands, which were about an eight-nautical-mile paddle, round trip. The waters here were so clear and blue that I could have been fooled into thinking I was in the Mediterranean.

Sunshine Coast, B.C.

By the fourth day, I decided I had earned myself a “personal day” on Kinghorn Island. I forwent the daily kayaking expedition for a day of reading, yoga on the dock and, admittedly, napping in my cabana. By the afternoon, the guilt of relative inactivity had set in so I took advantage of the warm weather and sunshine, pulled a shortie wetsuit up over my body and snorkelling gear over my face and glided face-first into the clear blue ocean.

I must have spotted 50 giant starfish brightly coloured in purples and pinks

Snorkelling may seem like a counterintuitive activity anywhere in Canada but the waters here are surprisingly tepid – the warmest north
of Mexico. It makes these waters a happy home for marine species you might otherwise spot in tropical destinations. As I snorkelled around the shores along Kinghorn Island I must have spotted over 50 giant starfish brightly coloured in purples and pinks (I’m told the colour variation is caused by what they feed on), tubular sea cucumbers with their spiky protrusions and a single reddish-orange crab. I learned that urchins and anemones also make a home in these warm waters.

Starfish in B.C.

Rain had been forecasted for the fifth and final day of my stay at Cabana Desolation. Most guests typically kayak back to our launch point in Okeover but I’ve opted for the powerboat return since I had a flight to catch and didn’t want to take the chance that more whitecaps would keep me from hitting my departure timeline.

This day allowed us a peek into the logistics and operations of the resort, which I’d come to take for granted as a guest. “Changeover” days, when guests depart and new guests arrive, are designated on Thursdays and Sundays. This is when the resort’s owner, Adam Vallance, powerboats over from Okeover with his wife and teenage daughter. They help to clean and service the rooms, readying the property for its next crop of guests.

Cabana Desolation Eco Resort

As we rest in the outdoor café with mugs of tea we have an opportunity to chat with the brainchild behind this masterful feat of construction and hospitality. Vallance had a background in drafting and architecture before he switched gears into running his own kayak touring company, Powell River Sea Kayak. Cabana Desolation was spawned from his desire to offer a more upscale experience beyond the kayak camping tours he already offered. So Vallance took out a 60-year lease for the crown land we were currently on and designed all the major elements of the lodge from its six cabanas to the outdoor café area, where we enjoyed our meals and downtime, as well as the raised, curving boardwalks that connected it all. Running water for our sinks and showers was pumped up from a spring located half a kilometre away from the lodge, which is part of Vallance’s maintenance duties on changeover days.

Construction spanned over two years from 2012 to 2014 as Vallance painstakingly powerboated over all the tools and planks of wood required for building, except for the longer beams in the café and kitchen for which he required a rented barge for transportation. Vallance admits he might not have embarked on the mission if he had known beforehand about all of the hurdles he would have had to overcome. But the results are nothing short of impressive. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe for what it must’ve taken to put the property together and I know everyone else in the group felt the same way.

Sunshine Coast, B.C.

This incredible feat way outdoes my own achievement of making it through a five (okay, three) day kayaking adventure. As we ride in the powerboat, my kayak safely secured to the stern, we zoom back to Okeover roughly following the course we had kayaked five days prior, serving as a fast-forwarded highlight reel. The return journey seems to last a little bit longer than I expected. Did I really paddle all that way on my own? Despite the rain that was falling, I felt in good spirits and my muscles had recovered after a much-needed day of rest. Just for a fleeting moment, I thought to myself, today would’ve been a nice day to head out for a paddle.

cabanadesolation.com

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