Tofino Kayaking: Paddling through the seasons
by Dan Lewis, Tofino
It's hard to miss if you've been paying attention. The
shorebirds of Tofino have been heading south for almost two months
as I write this. The green grasses of spring have turned gold, the
energy stored in the seeds. Let's face it, summer has peaked
and begun to wane.
Time to hang up the paddle…What? You haven't managed
to get out yet? Fear not, gentle reader. With a few extra precautions,
paddling can be a year-round activity here in Tofino on the West Coast.
my favourite outings of the year is an annual trip to watch the return
of spawning salmon to local streams. There is something about the sight
of hundreds of fish milling about in a tiny creek, and the subsequent
decay of their bodies that helps keep my internal calendar on track,
reminding me of the transience of life, and the cycles of death and
The chum salmon or dog salmon come in with the onset of fall rains,
right around Thanksgiving (early October). They can be seen as late
as November, but much later than that and any experience of chum
will be mostly olfactory. Coho salmon come in a bit later, and can
through November, even past Christmas sometimes!
First you need to find out where your local salmon creeks are. If
you don't know where to find salmon spawning, ask at a hatchery,
or check with your local Streamkeepers group. People are often surprised
to find out just how small a creek can provide spawning habitat. I've
seen coho spawning in a ditch beside a 4-lane highway, after swimming
through a culvert. Chum salmon will also spawn in very small creeks — you
don't need a big river like the Fraser or Columbia.
My favourite spot is close to home, right here in Clayoquot Sound.
You paddle halfway up Lemmen's Inlet, to Sharp Creek on Meares
Island. Leave Tofino on a rising tide. It takes about an hour to get
there, and an hour to get back, plus at least another hour to watch
the fish. When you get to your chosen destination, park your kayak
safely above the high water mark. Walk quietly along the banks, and
be prepared to sit for some time if you wish to catch them in The Act.
There is a lot of preliminary activity—you may see a female digging
the nest (known as the redd) with her tail, moving a few cobbles each
time, slowly creating a hole of sufficient depth. Meanwhile the male
hovers nearby, usually right beside her and a bit downstream, with
his nose abreast of her dorsal fin. He crosses over her back from side
to side frequently, and will occasionally leave her side to chase away
other males hoping to get in on The Act, or a cutthoat trout hoping
to schnarf back a few eggs.
If you wait long enough, you may be fortunate enough to see a flurry
of activity when the female deposits her eggs in the redd, while
the male quivers beside her as he lets go his milt, some of which hopefully
contacts and fertilizes the eggs, while the rest is swept downstream
in a milky cloud. Right then the other males in the vicinity dart
and the cutthroat snatch any stray eggs being swept downstream by
The female moves upstream a bit, and begins again to push pebbles
with her tail, this time allowing the current to bounce them down into
redd, filling it in. The fertilized eggs spend the winter buried
in gravel, the waters of the creek bringing them life-sustaining oxygen.
If you arrive too late to catch The Act, you may see a female or
of salmon guarding the redd, which they do until their death some
When the salmon spawning season is over, winter is an excellent time
for waterfowl viewing. Which species you see will vary, depending on
where you paddle. Many ducks which breed in summer on lakes in the
Interior come down to the coast to over-winter on the ice-free waters.
Species to watch for include Mallards, Buffleheads, Grebes (Western,
Red-necked and Horned), Scoters (Black, Surf and White-winged), Mergansers
(Common, Red-breasted, Hooded),
Wigeons (American and Eurasian), Goldeneyes (Common and Barrow's),
and Scaups (Greater and Lesser). If you're lucky, you may even
see birds such as Oldsquaw, or Trumpeter Swans. And of course, many
year-round residents can be sighted in winter, including Great Blue
Herons, Belted Kingfishers, Bald Eagles, and Cormorants.
So how about those extra precautions? Be sure to check the marine
weather forecast before heading out—the timing of salmon spawning coincides
with the arrival of rain carried by the "pineapple express"— wave
after wave of Pacific fronts with gale force south-easterlies. Good
raingear is a must, as is warm pile, neoprene or woollen clothing.
Energy snacks and a thermos of hot tea are a good idea, especially
if you plan to sit watching wildlife for any length of time. Take a
flashlight, and keep an eye on the time — sunset comes surprisingly
early. And remember, there are fewer people out and about in the off-season — be
prepared and self-sufficient. See you out there!
Dan Lewis lives and paddles year-round in Clayoquot Sound, where he
operates Rainforest Kayak
Adventures in Tofino. He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1.877-422.WILD.
Tofino writer and sea kayaking expert Dan Lewis wrote this article about paddling in Tofino Time Magazine.