Orcas and Islands Kayaking Exploration, Northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14016A, Kayak


  • Kayak Johnstone Strait, one of Canada’s best areas for viewing whales
  • Boat to an abandoned First Nation (Indian) village and see historic totem poles
  • Paddle among small verdant islands in the Broughton Archipelago Marine Park


  • Double kayaks and kayaking equipment
  • All meals from lunch on day one through lunch on the last day
  • Transportation by water taxi 


DatesAug 10–15, 2014
StaffPatrick Tierney

Trip Overview

The Trip

"We know orcas organize themselves into sophisticated social groups…their powers of cognition may be too complex for us to quantify.” - Alexandra Morton, Listening to Whales

Intimately experience the grandeur and wildlife of Canada’s Johnstone Strait and the nearby Broughton Archipelago Marine Park along the northeast side of Vancouver Island, home to a high concentration of orca and humpback whales, porpoises, and dolphins. Our nature “cruise” is in a group of sleek, stable sea kayaks.  We will travel in this time-honored manner, exploring small inlets, creek mouths, cedar forested islands. At times we will paddle hard through current-filled channels to better view creatures big and small, such as jumping coho salmon, organized orca pods, breaching humpback whales, rolling seals, bounding black bears, and soaring bald eagles. On other days we’ll undertake a more aggressive paddle and stroke 10 miles so we can better observe wildlife or get to an ideal camp.  On a clear day the glaciated peaks of the Coast Range loom large across the water.  During our six-day exploration, we'll have time to notice if hundreds of jellyfish happen to float past, pulsing with color and symmetry.  We'll have passage quiet enough to hear the keening of sea birds, the yelping of sea mammals, and the splashing of playful pacific white-sided dolphins. However, these marine creatures are wild animals who roam a large area and the weather and winds can greatly influence where we go and what we see. Each morning we will jump into our kayaks, snap on the spray skirts, and explore a new area, often moving to a new camp. We'll carry our food and camping gear with us in dry bags inside the kayaks.  It's amazing what you can fit in a kayak!  In at least one instance, we’ll need to lean into our strokes across a two-mile-wide open channel. On one of the days, we’ll travel and land in much the same manner as the First Nation people of Mahmallilikullah did for hundreds of years to go home past a giant red pictograph to their long house and totem poles on Village Island.

The trip begins and ends in historic Telegraph Cove (TC), a tiny fishing village near Port McNeil on the northeastern corner of huge Vancouver Island. This is a remote location, but it is accessible by auto on paved roads or by small regional airlines to nearby Port Hardy.  In TC, we’ll hold our pre-trip meeting among the giant skeletons of marine creatures in the Whale Interpretive Center and hear about orcas and this fascinating rich aquatic ecosystem. The next day, we’ll hold a safety and kayak orientation. After loading our boats, we’ll start paddling and exploring this unique area. We are likely to see both whales and other boaters, as this area is world-renowned. Although we can not 100% guarantee you’ll see orcas, this is the time of year when they concentrate in the Johnstone Strait area, so viewing them from camp and on the water is quite likely and very exciting.

On days two through five, we explore wildlife-rich Johnstone Strait and the island maze of Broughton Archipelago Marine Provincial Park, where we may hear their deep exhalations or see distant spouts of whales and other marine mammals.  Our guides will allow the weather, tides, wind, available camps, and group interests to dictate where we paddle and camp. Established in 199, the provincial park is home to seals, harbor porpoises, and sea lions. River otters, mink, and raccoons can often be seen playing along the shoreline. Coastal black-tailed deer are common and black bears can also sometimes be seen. Over this multiday period, we’ll explore new areas each day, some with up to ten-mile paddles, and at other times slow the pace. We plan to have opportunities to learn about the area’s fascinating aboriginal, 19th- and 20th-century human history and take a short hike in lush forests. On one of the days, we’ll try to observe Indian rock art on a cliff and then respectfully explore Village Island and the remains of a totem pole and long house, which held old-time potlatchs, a grand scale gift-giving festival and legal and economic event practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada. You’ll also observe a controversial element of the modern British Colombia seascape -- fish farms. That Atlantic salmon you get from your hometown store may be from one of these. You’ll learn about fish farm influences on wild Pacific salmon and the ocean environment. After a morning paddle on day six, we return to Telegraph Cove and the trip’s end.  A no-host dinner in TC that evening caps a wonderful outing.  

This trip is designed for hardy individuals with wilderness camping experience.  You must have had prior sea kayaking experience to participate in the trip (see Trip Difficulty below). We may paddle up to 10 miles in a day through mostly protected waters, but could encounter strong currents and two-foot waves large enough to wash over the deck. We all must make at least one two-mile crossing of exposed water. Your experienced licensed guides will read the tide and weather conditions and choose the most appropriate route at the time.  Proper pre-trip conditioning (see Trip Difficulty below) is important for your enjoyment and safety. The weather in coastal Canada can be cool and rainy (that is why they call the area a temperate rain forest!) as well as have blazing sun. You need to be very well prepared with personal equipment and in attitude/expectations about the weather.  Proper raingear and tent are essential (a gear checklist will be sent to you). When the sun comes out, we peal off the layers and the landscape will be even more surreal. This is a shared experience, so all participants join in carrying group food and gear in their kayaks and preparing camp. We will be using two-person kayaks for increased stability and safety (see Equipment below for limited option of a single kayak).

Your Sierra Club leader has over 30 years of kayaking experience and has participated in or led many sea kayaking and rafting trips into the wilds of Alaska and western Canada. The professional guides for the trip are certified and have had many years of sea kayaking experience in Johnstone Strait and Broughton Archipelago. They are very willing to share their love and knowledge of this area and help you become a more confident and inspired kayaker.


Pre-Trip: We will have a pre-trip meeting at 6:30 p.m. in the lobby of the Whale Interpretive Center, 26 Boardwalk, Telegraph Cove, Vancouver Island, Canada. The meeting will give you a chance to learn trip details, receive your dry bags, and enjoy a private tour and discussion with the Whale Interpretive Center staff. Afterward you can stuff your sleeping bag and personal clothing into dry bags at your motel, and ready your pad and small backpacking-sized tent for the next day. You are strongly encouraged to stay overnight in Telegraph Cove as the next closest town is Port McNeil (18 miles away) and you are responsible for arranging and paying for the taxi. Note: It is at least an eight-hour drive from Vancouver Airport, and if the closest ferry is full, it can take up to nine hours to get to Telegraph Cove (see transportation section below).

Day 1: After you eat breakfast on our own, meet the group at 8:30 a.m. at the Telegraph Cove boat launch ramp next to the RV Park. There you will receive a final safety and kayak orientation. Once you pack all your gear into the kayak, we will begin paddling. In the afternoon, we’ll unload the kayaks, gear, and food, then carry them above the high-tide mark and set up camp.  In the evening, the guides will prepare a delicious dinner and share stories of the area. 

Days 2-5: We will spend these days kayaking and exploring the various islands, inlets, and passages in the Johnstone Strait and Broughton Marine Archipelago area. On each day, our local naturalist guides will assess the weather and tide conditions and plan a course that optimizes chances for wildlife viewing and great camping, while maintaining safety margins for the group. They will also explain the history and geology of the area, and lead us to a First Nation cultural site. Paddles will be up to 10 miles in a day, although some will be half that distance. 

During this time, we plan to undertake the following activities and visit the following locations. The exact itinerary will depend on weather, tidal currents, and group abilities/interests.

    • Paddle a two-mile open water crossing at Johnstone Strait with spectacular views of the Coastal Range, when tides and weather are favorable
    • Observe orcas after paddling close to Robson Bight Ecological Reserve
    • Hike to Eagle Eye Lookout to observe wildlife and talk with reserve wardens
    • Visit a First Nation cultural site on Village Island or petroglyphs on Berry Island
    • Conduct a short service project
    • Opportunities to view whales, porpoises, dolphins, Stellar sea lions, bald eagles, marine birds, and black bear
    • Cross Blackney Passage and Parsons Bay, areas frequented by orca and humpback whales
    • Observe a fish farm to learn about their impacts on Pacific salmon and orcas
    • Camp in both remote and slightly developed campsites with great views
    • Enjoy an evening dinner and campfire, relax, take a short walk in the rainforest, socialize, drop a fishing line, or read a book
    • Become a more confident and proficient paddler with the help of guides

    Day 6: After paddling for a few hours in the morning and eating lunch, we will arrive around 3 p.m. in Telegraph Cove, where the trip officially ends. After unloading our kayaks and gear, you can walk back to your lodging in TC. But after a warm shower, you and the entire group and guides are invited to a no-host dinner in Telegraph Cove.

    We recommend that you do not make plans to fly out of Vancouver any earlier than 8 p.m. on Saturday, August 16 (unless flying from Port Hardy).  Our goal is to get into Telegraph Cove in the late afternoon on the 15th, and you will want to rest and clean up before dinner and travel the next day. Additionally, experienced Canadian backcountry travelers always leave at least one day leeway on either side of a trip to accommodate any sudden changes in weather or things taking longer than expected. We cannot guarantee you will arrive at Telegraph Cove at a specific time on July 15 and it is a minimum of eight hours driving and ferry time to reach either Vancouver or Victoria airports (see section on Getting There).



    Getting There

    Travel into Canada by USA citizens requires a passport, usually an international flight, and transit through Customs and Immigration. This outing begins and ends in Telegraph Cove (TC), northern Vancouver Island, Canada. You have two realistic alternatives to access Telegraph Cove: A) Automobile; and B) small regional aircraft plus a taxi ride.

    Access by automobile: The very small harbor village of Telegraph Cove (TC) and the nearby small working harbor town of Port McNeil are accessible by paved roads from Victoria airport or by a combination of ferry service and road from Vancouver airport. From either Victoria or Vancouver, it is a long travel day. If you are flying into Victoria, you can rent a car and drive north on Highway 19 to just before Port McNeil, where the paved Telegraph Cove Road leads to the TC harbor. Total travel time from Victoria to TC is about eight hours and there are no ferries needed.  If you are flying into Vancouver airport, you must rent a car and drive about 45-60 minutes to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal (make a reservation and arrive 45 minutes prior to departure). This is a busy time and the next available ferry is often full (requiring a two-hour wait for the subsequent departure), so it is recommended you acquire a reservation for your car in advance from BC Ferries. The car ferry to Duke Point Terminal in the city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island takes about two hours and costs about $60 each way for a small car and $17 per adult (in 2013).  It is then a four-hour drive to Telegraph Cove or Port McNeil. Pubic bus service is not realistic, as there is only one early morning bus from Nanaimo to Port McNeil. The Port McNeil Taxi provides service to Telegraph Cove.

    The Sierra Club leader will be trying to organize carpools from Vancouver to help reduce the high rental car costs and fuel consumption.  Let the leader know if you are willing to share a seat and costs of a rental car with one or two others, or if you desire to ride with another person on the trip.

    Access by airplane: There is a full schedule of flights into Vancouver International Airport and they cost about $100 less than flights to Victoria in 2013.  If flying into Victoria, look into WestJet as well as the other carriers.

    The quickest way to access Port McNeil from Vancouver is via Pacific Coastal Airlines, a small regional air carrier that flies into Port Hardy, located about a half-hour’s drive north of Port McNeil and 45 minutes from TC.  These flights can be expensive. From Port Hardy, it is about a $95 taxi fare to reach Telegraph Cove. There is currently no direct regularly scheduled air service to Port McNeil. Some have found this regional flight and taxi to be more cost effective than a rental car and ferry from Vancouver.

    Accommodations and Food

    The trip meeting place is in the lobby of the Whale Interpretive Center (WIC) in the small village of Telegraph Cove. You are strongly encouraged to stay overnight in TC as the next closest town is Port McNeil (18 miles away) and a no-host taxi is available but expensive.

    Within easy walking distance of the WIC are the following TC accommodations:

    Telegraph Cove Resort Historic Houses and Cabins. Located on or near the waterfront, each historic house or cabin sleeps two to six persons and is self-contained, with bathroom and fully furnished kitchen (no phone or television). These are highly recommended because of their scenic location, historic flair, and proximity to meeting place.  Only a few houses/cabins are available, so advanced reservations are a must. Costs in 2013: $175 for a cabin sleeping two; $260 for a cabin sleeping four; or $280 for a cabin sleeping six.  Phone: 1(800) 200-4665. Email: tcltd@island.net

    Dockside 29 Hotel and Suites in Telegraph Cove.  The only motel in the village. Newer rooms right on the water.  Rooms start at $146 in 2013.  Close to meeting place. Phone: 250-928-3161. Email: admin@telegraphcove.ca

    Telegraph Cove Campsite.  A forested campground with 120 sites, a ¼-mile walk from the  TC waterfront. Showers. Phone: 1(800) 200-4665. Email: tcltd@island.net

    The town of Port McNeill is located 18 miles from Telegraph Cove and has a limited contingent of stores. The following is a selection of accommodations there. Please remember: if you stay in Port McNeil, you are responsible for arranging and the costs of getting to/from Telegraph Cove.

    Haida Way Inn, Port McNeil.  A basic but clean motel, with restaurant and liquor store. Convenient if you have a rental car.  Room with two queen beds was $110 in 2013. Phone 866-599-6674. 

    At Water’s Edge B&B, Port McNeil.  A very nicely furnished new facility. With separate bedrooms, each with bathroom and a scenic location on the beach. Knowledgeable, friendly owners. $135 in 2013. Email: atwatersedge@telus.net

    Hidden Cove Lodge, Port McNeil.  A more remote facility in a scenic waterfront setting. Higher level of service.  $175 in 2013. Phone (250) 956-3916 

    All food from lunch on August 10 through August 15 will be provided. While camping, the meals will be hearty and varied, with foods that can still be prepared over small camp stoves and will be kept within the limitations of what our kayaks can hold. There will be no ice chests and we will focus on easy to prepare items that are still tasty and fun.  Vegetarians can be accommodated. Tell the Sierra Club trip leader at least one month in advance if you have food allergies and dietary restrictions. 

    Guides will prepare meals, but participants clean their own dishes. Participants will share equally in carrying group food and gear in each kayak.

    Trip Difficulty

    Kayaking is a wonderful way to explore the wild and often otherwise inaccessible Canadian coastline. This outing requires boating skills and previous kayaking experience, stamina, and preparation. Although our paddles will not likely be more than 10 miles in a day, the variables of a two-mile open water crossing, variable weather, potentially strong winds and currents, along with two-foot waves, merit a moderate difficulty rating for this outing.  Adequate pre-trip fitness preparation is essential, paying particular attention to shoulder, arm, torso, abdominal, and back muscles. Proper pre-trip fitness levels will enhance your enjoyment, as no one likes to be the last boat back to camp.  If not already doing so, at you must have a rigorous weekly exercise regime at least two months prior ot the trip, including weightlifting and stretches focusing on the upper body.  It is highly recommended that you paddle a kayak or canoe at least five miles once just prior to the trip.

    The trip is open to adult participants who are comfortable with wilderness camping in a possibly rainy environment.  You must have previous kayaking experience. In particular, you must know how to swim, be experienced, and be comfortable with paddling in waves large enough to wash over the deck.  You must be reasonably fit, be able to paddle up to 10 miles per day, and sit with your legs in an extended position for a couple of hours at a time, without physical limitations.  A PFD or life jacket is provided and must be worn at all times while on the water. Your guides will offer suggestions to make it fun and help you become a more confident paddler during the trip.

    When possible, we will go for short hikes while on land, which could last an hour. Additionally, everyone needs to be able to help carry gear and boats up and down the beach each day as we set up or take down a camp. This is hard work and can be difficult after a day of paddling, yet it is also a great way to build camaraderie among all of us. Despite the effort required, what will make it all worthwhile is being in proximity to whales, marine birds, and cedar-covered islands.

    Equipment and Clothing

    We will be camping in a remote forested setting every night. You will need to bring your own small high-quality tent, sleeping bag, and pad, or rent them in Telegraph Cove. You must notify your Sierra Club leader at least one month in advance if you want to rent gear. Your tent must be very rainproof, and your sleeping bag must be synthetic rather than down-filled so that you remain warm even if the bag gets damp. The optional rental package of sleeping bag, pad, and high quality tent is $75. You must provide your own paddling and camping clothing. The outfitter provides a neoprene-cuffed paddling jacket. You are provided a two-person kayak (shared with another person), two small dry bags, paddle, life jacket, spray skirt, and sponge. Single kayaks may be available for very experienced paddlers only (kayaking experience log will be required) with two-month advanced reservations and approval of the Sierra Club leader. If you get a single kayak, there is an additional $70 single kayak charge and you still must carry some group gear.

    Detailed lists of recommended clothing and gear will be sent to participants after they have registered for the trip. Most of this will be similar to what you would need for a fall backpacking trip, but a few more items are needed to stay warm and dry on the water.  



    • Broughton Strait, Marine Chart #3546.  British Columbia Hydrographic Service.
    • Johnstone Strait and the Broughtons Recreation Map. By Wavelength Magazine. Highly recommended. Can be purchased in TC. Not waterproof so requires a watertight map holder.


    • The Wild Coast: Volume 2: A Kayaking, Hiking and Recreational Guide for the North and Central B.C. Coast. This is not particularly helpful for our trip, but is good if you plan to kayak at other locations along the island at a later time.
    • Morton, Alexandra, Listening to Whales. Ballentine Books, 2002.  This is an absolute “must read” for this trip if you want to learn about orca whales from a renowned whale protection researcher and activist who lives in the area. An easy read, it is a non-scientific story of her research, and includes urban marine parks and her home among the giants of the Broughton Archipelago. Much of the book is centered in the area we will be visiting.
    • Proctor, Bill and Yvonne Maximchuk. Full Moon Flood Tide. Harbour Publishing, 2003. Another great book about the very area we will be kayaking through. It is a personal history of the Broughton Archipelago by Bill Proctor, whom many consider to be a coastal legend.  He tells short stories of Native cultures and early European settlers, loggers, and fishermen, many of which he knew, and shows how he has become an advocate for protecting the area. Although it may be a little tough to read before the trip, you may really enjoy this during and after our kayaking if you like history.
    • Fisher, Robin and Gary Fiegehen, Vancouver's Voyage: Charting the Northwest Coast, 1791–1795. Published by Douglas & McIntyre, 1992.
    • Troll, Ray and Amy Gulick, Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rainforest. 2010. A beautifully illustrated book on salmon and the rain forest.
    • Hansen, Dr. James, Storms of our Grand Children. Considered one of the best books on climate change by a world-renowned climate expert who has served as a consultant on the subject to three presidents. 


    “If we are to preserve any wilderness for generations after us, we have to understand that animals and plants have a right to life, not a right based on what makes money for us.” - Bill Proctor, Full Moon Flood Tide

    We will place an emphasis on learning opportunities and conservation of orca and humpback whales and other marine mammals (porpoises, seals, sea lions). This area is renowned for its seasonal migration of orcas. Some research suggests their life span is half of what it was 50 years ago and a number of organizations are conducting studies to find out why. Inevitably, the questions arise on the health of the ocean, pollutants, the effects that ocean temperature changes and other human activities are having on the delicately balanced life cycles of marine mammals, salmon, birds, jellies and plankton. Another controversial issue in coastal Canada is the decline in the number of returning wild salmon and what effects fish farms are having. You will hear what several experts have to say about these subjects and we plan to visit a fish farm, so the outing provides a wonderful chance to learn about these issues. 

    We’ll also need to think about how close we can come to whales and wildlife without disturbing them. Getting too close or chasing a whale to get that ultimate photo can be harmful to them, even in a kayak.  Our group will adhere to the “Be Whale Wise” marine wildlife viewing guidelines for boaters.

    Through much of Vancouver Island you will see forest clear cuts.  What have these past actions done to the forest and animals that depend on it?

    Issues beyond our immediate trip region will be raised, as British Columbia is a huge area of rich resources that have not always been utilized with conservation for the future in mind. Our discussions will roam from fisheries, to mining, to permafrost thaw and rising ocean levels, to lifestyle changes of First Nation people and more. There are proposals for new pipelines carrying dirty oil -- derived from tar sands in Alberta and later transported via huge oil tankers though the treacherous coastline and its fragile ecosystems. Are these directions that our society should be heading in?

    Bring your favorite topics and local issues along to share!

    In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

    While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.



    Pat Tierney has been sea and river kayaking for over 33 years in Alaska, Canada, Colorado, Utah, California, and Central and South America. He and his wife were co-owners of a NPS-licensed whitewater rafting company for 25 years. Pat was also a kayak-based river ranger and researcher for the National Park Service and US Forest Service. He has kayaked in Johnstone Strait and been a leader of sea kayaking trips into Icy Bay near Cordova, and Endicott Fjord south of Juneau, Alaska, Kenai Fjords National Park and in Prince William Sound, Alaska; and rafting trips in Denali and Glacier Bay National Parks. Pat is a Wilderness First Responder and a professor of recreation, parks, and tourism at San Francisco State University, instructing sea kayaking, ecotourism and other classes. Pat is proud to have received a national Sierra Club Outings Program “Top Leader of 2009” award.

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