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Best of the City: Paddlers' paradise

Kayaking, outrigger canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding and dragon boating are all popular pastimes on the water.
Don Cohen

Nanaimo is a harbour for all sorts of crafts, including ones powered by paddles. Kayaking, outrigger canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding and dragon boating are all popular pastimes on the water.

“Of all the cities on the Island, Nanaimo has the best paddling by far,” said Richard Antonchuk, owner of Alberni Outpost, an outdoor recreation store. “We have protected waters and waters that aren’t too rough and different types of scenery.”

An appealing paddling adventure is closer than a lot of people think. The most popular place to kayak is Newcastle Channel, accessible from the Brechin Boat Ramp next to Departure Bay ferry terminal. Circumnavigating Newcastle Island offers paddlers a few different perspectives in one short trip.

“You experience the city side when you’re on the inside of the channel, and the lights of the city if you’re going in the evening,” said Antonchuk. “But when you get on the outside of Newcastle … you don’t see the homes or anything else – all you see is the rugged coastline of Newcastle. It’s a nice, safe paddle and an easy paddle to do.”

It’s such a perfect spot that some in Nanaimo want to build on its potential. The Nanaimo Boathouse Society has asked city council for land next to the boat ramp for a community boathouse to accommodate all sorts of paddlers.

Camela Tang, the society’s president, said visiting dragon boaters, for example, consider Nanaimo a paddling destination.

“They love the water, they love the harbour, they think we have wonderful scenery,” Tang said. “The opportunity is here. People from Nanaimo do not take enough advantage of that.”

There are a variety of locations suitable for launching a kayak. The Cedar Boat Ramp offers a few different possibilities as far as places to go. From there, Antonchuk said, kayakers might enjoy visiting nearby De Courcy Island.

“You get to see all the sandstone cliffs and all that around there. Some real nice paddling there, and protected,” he said. “If you’re a little bit more the adventurous type … you’ve got False Narrows and we’ve got Gabriola Passage; you can play in the moving currents a little bit.”

Mary Logue, vice-president of the Nanaimo Paddlers club, mentioned some of the same spots, but there are countless directions to point a kayak.

“Most of the paddlers know, or they soon find out when they come out, that it’s a paddling paradise,” Logue said.

Launching from Brechin Boat Ramp or Departure Bay, the Nanaimo Paddlers might go over to Newcastle, or they might head up to Neck Point or down to the Nanaimo River and Jack Point. The cliffs at Gabriola Island and Valdes Island are worth seeing, and the Flat Top Islands off Gabriola, she said, are “really spectacular.”

Paddling offers unique ways to experience Vancouver Island.

“With a kayak you can go very slowly along the shore and see a lot of underwater sea life. It’s nice to see the city, actually, from the water. It’s pretty amazing when you’re coming in between Newcastle and Protection,” Logue said.

Stand-up paddleboarders can go some of the same places as kayakers, though beginners might want to try them out on calmer waters such as Westwood Lake.

Antonchuk said stand-up paddleboards continue to become more popular, and said they’re light and easy to lift, and also easy to learn.

“The learning curve is virtually nil,” he said. “You stand on the board and away you go. Yeah, you may feel a little bit shaky when you first start, but you stabilize out pretty fast.”

There are a lot of ways to get out on the water in Nanaimo, and opportunities for a peaceful paddle, or a fast-paced paddle, or anything in between. Alberni Outpost offers lessons, guided tours and rentals, as do several other businesses. The city has a vibrant dragon-boating community, keen boathouse advocates, an active sport paddling club and the Nanaimo Paddlers club with more than 300 members.

“People are taking advantage of it,” Antonchuk said. “But there are some that forget that we live on the water and it’s so easy to take advantage of if they want to.”