A canoeist’s J-stroke carves perfect whirlpools in its wake. A kayak slides effortlessly through a gentle surf. A paddleboard slips this way and that like a water beetle. Paddling, among all our human-powered outdoor activities, may best evoke the idea of peaceful places. But it offers much more.
For one, it’s exercise that is adaptable to all skill and comfort levels. Wedging into a kayak for more than a couple of hours is tough on my knees these days, but a “sit on top” kayak allows me to shift my position frequently to remain comfortable and stay out on the water longer. Stand-up paddleboarding (also called “supping”) can be challenging to your balance, although the wider boards now being made offer more stability, even if they glide a bit more slowly through the water.
Because I’ve lived close to the Canadian border for much of my life, I’ve been fortunate to experience much of the country with a paddle in my hands. Paddling is an especially fitting way to explore, because water travel played such a pivotal role in Canada’s Indigenous and explorer culture. What follows are a few of my own voyageur experiences, from Québec to the Yukon. I hope they will inspire healthy paddles of your own — whether in Canada or closer to your own pond.
A multiday canoe expedition in Québec
I first met Diane Moreau in 2017 in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, a region in western Québec about 185 miles north of Ottawa, where she was part of a four-day canoe trip I joined on Lake Kipawa. She had recently celebrated her 50th birthday by paddling from Montréal, Québec, to Winnipeg, Manitoba, a trip of well over a thousand miles. Her love of paddling was infectious, and after my first day exploring the lake, I understood why. Lake Kipawa is a labyrinthine series of bays and narrows defined by scores of islands and pink granite rock outcroppings. Navigating it is like paddling within an aquatic jigsaw puzzle, a ton of fun if you know where you’re heading. Fortunately, our excursion leader, France Lemire, had created an app that mapped the entire 116-square-mile lake, from campsites to hidden coves. We were in good hands.
A multiday canoe excursion that covers a relatively short distance allows for plenty of time to take breaks from paddling for islet lunches. True, we did paddle hard to sneak under shelter during two thunderstorms, brief tempests that presented a stage of spectacular sky, but for the most part, canoeing’s sublime pace lent itself to plenty of pauses to relax.
The preponderance of bays also produced a series of wonderful French names, my favorite being Baie des Plongeurs, or Bay of Divers. “Diver” is the English term for loon, that wonderful, solidly boned, relatively ancient summer denizen of northern lakes. (The plaintive call of the loon on an eastern lake remains high on the list of things I miss most about “back east” since I transplanted to America’s West Coast.) This particular bay proved well named, as several common loons serenaded the sunset come evening.
Our group spent days traveling from bay to bay, often in tight channels shouldered by granite walls that, had Lemire not charted over 750 miles of shoreline, we surely would have missed. Not only had she identified the campsites, she had graded them. We slept in accommodations that she judged A-plus, on beds of soft balsam fir needles.
Lake Kipawa borders our final destination for this trip, Québec’s Parc National d’Opémican, which was created in 2013 to preserve the rich biodiversity in the area. Thirty-five miles from our put-in, we stowed our gorgeous, locally crafted Abitibi & Co. canoes and celebrated our voyage over pints of Québec’s famous blonde ale.
Multigenerational rafting and canoeing in Alberta
There’s something about a conversation with our kids that’s different when paddling a canoe or kayak together. I’m not sure if it’s the cooperative nature of rowing, the lack of digital distraction, or the peaceful ambience — or maybe some combination of all three — but like sound waves, sentences flow more easily out on the water. Of course, the silences can be just as meaningful — a quiet interrupted only by paddle drips, the rat-a-tat-tat calls of the kingfisher, or perhaps the growing roar of white water.
Many years ago I took my kids, ages 8 and 5 at the time, on their first white-water rafting trip through Class I and II rapids on the Athabasca River in Alberta’s Jasper National Park. (Like so many soft adventures — mountain biking and skiing come to mind — it’s important to take it easy when introducing young kids or grandkids to a new activity. Better to have them begging for more than begging for the experience to end.)
The Athabasca with Jasper Rafting Adventures is the perfect launch point for white-water rafting, especially on a hot summer day, when the icy water — it’s drawn from glacial melt in the not-too-distant Columbia Icefield — is welcomed as refreshing rather than scorned as freezing. The one-hour excursion features mostly riffles, plus a couple of good Class II face washes for those, like my kids, stationed in the bow of the raft. More reserved rafters stationed in the stern can avoid getting wet entirely — and the bone-jarring bounces too.
We added an additional family layer to the trip in Lake Louise, 145 miles away in Banff National Park, when my in-laws joined us for a few days. At 70 and 58, they were significantly different in both age and physical ability, yet their paddle across calm Moraine Lake was easily achieved, aided just enough by my elder son. Moraine Lake is famous for its hypnotic blue-green water, a phenomenon caused by light refracting off the glacial till, also called “rock flour,” in the water. The Moraine Lake Lodge rents canoes, providing an effortless paddle beneath the magnificent Ten Peaks in the Canadian Rockies.
Stand-up river paddleboarding in British Columbia
Located an hour north of Vancouver, Squamish, British Columbia, was once little more than a tea stop for skiers and snowboarders en route to Whistler. The former mill port began transitioning into an outdoor recreation hub in the 1980s, then took off in the 2000s. Today, thanks to the Sea to Sky Gondola, outrageously good mountain bike trails, and the Squamish Adventure Centre, a source for local outdoor information and rental equipment, Squamish has grown into a four-season destination in its own right.
I’ve explored the Squamish area since the late ’90s, when I first rafted the Elaho River, which begins 45 miles away at the Elaho Glacier in the Coast Mountains. I still love staying at Sunwolf Riverside Resort, home to rustically elegant cabins, including eating at Fergie’s, arguably the best breakfast spot in the Pacific Northwest, famous for its scrambles, hashes and wilderness setting. I remain a huge Squamish advocate, having mountain biked and hiked in the area, but I had no idea about stand-up river paddleboarding until a friend invited me to try it.
Stand-up paddleboarding (“supping”) has trended for more than a decade among the core-obsessed fitness crowd. However, today’s stable boards and simple-to-maneuver paddles make it a great water-based activity for the rest of us too. The name aside, you don’t even have to stand up to stand-up paddleboard, and kneeling also gently works your muscles and allows you to enjoy lightly exercising on the water. True, you might fall off a couple of times at first, but the learning curve is friendly and most people are floating about comfortably in no time.
I’d certainly “supped” before, but always on lakes or in bays free of any current or surf. So it was with a little trepidation that we put in for a two-hour excursion down the Squamish River. Turns out, no concern was necessary, as the gentle flow eased us along beside families of red-breasted mergansers and a few vigilant bald eagles. The sun reflected brilliantly off the Stawamus Chief, one of the largest granite monoliths in the world, and I could just make out about a half dozen climbers charting much more challenging routes than ours. We paddled into the Squamish estuary at the tip of Howe Sound, eyes peeled for great blue herons and the more elusive American bittern, just two of the scores of species that nest here. After two hours on the water, we stowed our boards, steadied our sea legs and made our way to Howe Sound Brewing, conveniently located only steps away.
A Yukon solstice to remember
Like any former Jack London-obsessed child, Canada’s Yukon Territory fascinated me from a young age, its mythical remoteness and wildness both out of reach for a kid growing up in western New York. However, as a Pacific Northwesterner, I discovered it takes about as long to fly from Vancouver to Whitehorse, Yukon, as it does to fly from Seattle to San Francisco.
So off I went to spend a summer solstice paddling in the Yukon. I assumed it could never live up to London’s hyperbole and yet, within an hour of landing in Whitehorse, the territory’s capital and the largest city in northern Canada, I found myself in a canoe on Chadburn Lake, less than 30 minutes from the tarmac, watching a black bear sow and her twins rumble across the hillside above us. I also saw my first yellow-billed loon, a subarctic nester.
Chadburn Lake was one of those bonus nature experiences that we sometimes find easily in wild places, like spying a moose trio while on a wolf safari in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. A couple of hours later, paddling mostly superfluous strokes, I steered my kayak in the gently currented Yukon River. Not all was calm, however, as I soon encountered a sizable headwind where the Yukon expands to form Lake Laberge.
Lake Laberge is imprinted in every Canadian child’s mind. It is here where “There are strange things done in the midnight sun,” according to Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” one of Canada’s most treasured poems of the Great North.
I’ve been writing my own song to the North since I was a young child in upstate New York, tagging along with my mother on the Beaver Pond Trail in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, a life-formative trip that also included a family canoe excursion. Like members of the Indigenous First Nations, the French voyageurs and millions of Canadians, I cherish every moment I get to explore this great country with a paddle in my hands.
Aging Playfully Series
Check out these columns, and stay tuned for more coming soon:
- Series Introduction: The ‘Just Do It’ Lifestyle
- Exploring North Carolina's Research Triangle
- E-Biking Around New York's Finger Lakes
- Walking in England and Ireland
- North American Gardens You Should Visit
- Four Days on the Central California Coast
Crai S. Bower is a Seattle-based freelancer whose work has appeared in AARP The Magazine, Afar, Alaska Magazine, AAA Journey and more. He is a recipient of a 2022 Lowell Thomas Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism for an essay that appeared on AARP Members Only Access.
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