How to plan your kayak trip to Gwaii Haanas National Park Preserve
If you’ve read our article about why you should go kayaking in Gwaii Haanas, you’ll definitely be interested in how to plan your trip into the park. Figure out the logistics using our list:
1. When to go
The first thing that you want to plan is the time of year you go. For this, the weather window is definitely pretty tight. It’s a stormy place where rain is usually accompanied by heavy wind and big seas, and produces conditions not suitable for kayaking.
The islands of Haida Gwaii are known for their extensive year round rainfall. However, the least amount of rain falls in July and August, so those months are recommended. Have a look at the climate data, showing the months with the least rain.
2. How to get there
There are a couple of ways to getting to Haida Gwaii. You can drive and take the ferry, or you can fly.
Drive and Ferry
One way of getting there is by driving to Prince Rupert, and taking the 8 hour ferry to Skidegate. Once you get there, you’ll have to take another ferry to Sandspit. BC Ferries is the only ferry provider, so check their website for schedules. The ferry to Haida Gwaii (Skidegate) you’ll need to book in advance by phone or by filling out this form. Most ferries to Haida Gwaii leave Prince Rupert at 10 am, and leave Skidegate at 10 pm for a return to Prince Rupert.
Prince Rupert is a remote town located on the central coast of British Columbia. It is approximately 1500 km from Vancouver and roughly the same distance from Calgary. It will take you about a day and a half driving each way to get there. You can fly there, but then you may as well fly all the way to Sandspit on Moresby island. You can fly either from Vancouver or Prince Rupert.
If you have time, definitely drive to Prince Rupert and take the ferry, especially if you are taking your own kayak or canoe. That way you can easily pack your boat and all of your camping gear without worrying about paying extra for luggage. For the ultimate adventure, take the Inside Passage ferry from Vancouver Island all the way to Prince Rupert. A highly recommended trip.
If you’re limited on time, fly to Sandspit and rent kayaks. It will save you loads of driving. Also note, the ferry only takes you into Skidegate; from there you’ll have to take another ferry to Sandspit. It’s only about 20 minutes, but it all adds up into a lot of time in transit.
Sandspit airport is serviced by Air Canada through Vancouver, BC (YVR). Pacific Coastal Air and North Pacific Seaplanes (from Prince Rupert) also fly to Sandspit.
Book your ferry as early as you can, especially if planning to travel in the busy summer months of June and July! This definitely is not a user friendly as reservation forms are used for all their North Coast routes and you can’t book online, and sometimes you have to wait on hold for over an hour to speak to a ticket agent during peak times. We tried to book our ferry a week in advance in early August, and it several sailings we wanted were already full so we had to postpone our trip for a week.
4. Independent or organized trip?
Next, think about if you want to do a self guided or guided trip. There are definite advantages to both, just depends how comfortable you are on the ocean.
Gwaii Haanas is definitely not a beginner paddling destination. The north side of the park is fairly protected until you enter the Juan Perez Sound, and from there you are quite exposed to wind, waves and nasty weather. If you want to make it to Hot Springs Island (highly recommended, as the hot springs have come back after the earthquake) you’ll have to paddle about 5 km on open water. So before you go, be diligent in route planning, checking the marine forecast, and assess the seas. Will the weather hold for your return trip? Camping is not allowed on Hot Spring Island, so you need to be able to make it to Murchison or Ramsay Island to camp. Our group never made it to Hot Spring Island given stormy seas. Tip: apparently, the springs are not very warm in very stormy and rainy weather.
You should be capable at navigation, packing the necessary safety gear, weather observation, listening to the marine weather forecast and knowing what to do in case of an emergency. You should also be able to know when it’s safe to paddle and when it’s best to stay put. If you are a beginner, it’s recommended that you take a trip with one of the many guiding companies on the islands. Check out this list of guiding companies or check out Parks Canada’s list of all licensed companies.
If you’re going in on your own trip, hire Moresby Explorers to take you into the park and decide your drop off and pick up spots. They are very helpful, and emailing them was fruitful in our research for our trip itinerary. It will cost you about $700 to go in and out of the park. Of course, if you have time you can paddle both ways from Moresby Camp, but it doesn’t make sense, and makes sense to at least take transport one way. For example, get dropped off around Rose Harbour and paddle back; or start from Moresby Camp and get picked up at your planned end point.
You’ll have a radio with you, so you can easily get a hold of Moresby by radio to tell them your location for pickup. It’s highly likely that you won’t end up at the exact meeting place that you planned, so you’ll need to tell them the day before where to expect you.
Given the time and expense getting to Haida Gwaii, a longer trip is definitely recommended. If you just want to visit the park briefly, consider taking a one day tour by Zodiac, which will take you to all the important historic sites.
5. Get your park permit
You need a permit from Parks Canada to go into the park. If you are accessing the park with a tour operator, they will need to see your pass to the park before they’ll take you. If you have an annual Parks pass from Parks Canada (cost about $140 per year), otherwise, you’ll need to pay for each day in the park.
Reserve your permit in advance as popular months, particularly July, fill up fast. You’ll need to call the Gwaii Ha’anas visitor centre to schedule your trip, and you’ll have to attend a mandatory orientation on the park. This orientation basically tells you how everything works and what you can expect on your trip, and how to access the Watchmen sites. It also tells you some interesting information about restoration initiatives, such as the deer cull that happened in July of 2017 (right before our trip)!
Pro tip: after mid-August, it’s generally pretty easy to get a permit. The real rush is in July, so if you’re planning on going then, book your permit early.
6. Review safety procedures
You should self sufficient at rescue should something go wrong. In a kayak, you should be able to perform a roll, or at the least know how to exit your kayak should you flip. Once out of your kayak, you should know how to flip it back upright. This will be much more difficult (but not impossible) in a canoe. Take a rescue course in your area, most paddling shops or outdoor recreation centres offer this in a swimming pool.
You should consider packing a wet suit, or better yet, a dry suit for your trip. We didn’t have one, and luckily didn’t dump our boat in the ocean, but the odds of getting wet and cold are much higher in the choppy waters of this park. Though a wet suit won’t dry on your trip, every morning you’ll have to put on a slick suit, which is not the most pleasant experience, but will keep you safer out on the water.
If you aren’t wearing a wet suit, you should dress in layers including long pants and long sleeve shirt, and a Gore-Tex jacket for paddling. Of course you can adjust your clothing to the weather, but it never really is super warm in the park – it rarely gets about 20 degrees Celcius.
You’ll need marine charts. These are published by the Canadian Hydrographic Service. You’ll also need a marine VHF radio. You can rent one from Moresby Explorers (or other tour companies on Haida Gwaii). You’ll need this radio to get up to date weather reports and forecasts and you can use it to contact the Coast Guard in case of an emergency.
To pull off this trip, you’ll need to be proficient at reading marine charts and tide tables, listen to marine weather forecasts and put everything together, along with your own personal observations.
7. Plan your Route
You can spend as little as a few days to over a month paddling the park. It really is your choice how long you want to spend here, you won’t run out of places to paddle and explore. We met people who spend 4 weeks on a kayak trip. The absolute minimum time recommended because of difficulty of access is 4 days. Getting into the park itself takes a minimum of 3.5 hours by Zodiac boat (this includes accessing Moresby camp from where they launch the Zodiac). You can also paddle into the Park, which would take you a couple of days. The most cost-effective option is definitely to paddle into the park, at least one way, saving you a few hundred dollars in transport costs.