2-3 August 2021. Firstly, I had no idea how big it would be! I look at it askance. Holy shit that’s big! How are we ever going to be able to handle that? It’s a huge two-person touring kayak, bigger than either of us has ever used before, and not at all what I’d imagined. I didn’t know there was even such a thing as a touring kayak. Anyway we help lower it from the dock into the water and carefully climb in, me up front, and Don behind. The rental guy helps both of us adjust the pedals for the rudder which will be mostly (read entirely) controlled by Don since even with adjustment I can barely reach them. Neither of us has ever paddled a kayak with a rudder before.

Then we’re pushed away from the dock.

The kayak kind of spins around. Oh shit! We’re headed inland towards the adjacent dock. The rental guy and Surati are shouting instructions. Don and I are shouting at each other. It’s minor pandemonium until we get this brute turned around and pointed in the right direction. Somehow, in the choppy water, we manage to maintain a holding pattern

while Surati, an experienced kayaker, lowers her own boat into the water and joins us. Together we head off across the bay.

There are docks on our left, and huge pylons – channel markers – all across the bay. We’re following Surati towards a bridge about a fifteen minute paddle away. This is what she hears:
Me. Shouting: Go right, go right! I’m paddling like a lunatic trying to get the beast headed away from a pylon.
Don shouts back: I am!
Me. Still shouting: The other right!
And so on. Don thinks he’s driving a Ferrari – one pedal for the accelerator, one for the brake. We shout back and forth to each other almost non-stop, and paddle like crazy people trying to control the kayak and head in a somewhat straight line to the bridge. We’re hopelessly uncoordinated.

Surati points out that the wind’s behind us and the tide’s in our favour. Oh great! That’ll make the return journey fun. I think to myself.

Our friend has taken us, at our request, on “a quiet evening paddle” across Cowichan Bay and into the Cowichan River estuary. She knows we’re inexperienced kayakers, just not how inexperienced. We’ve been kayaking exactly twice: with our friend Ruth, also an experienced kayaker, in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam,

and for a short paddle, with a guide, along the Nam Khan River near Luang Prabang, Laos.

This is how I described kayaking on the Nam Khan River: The kayaking was glorious. A wide, serene river, a warm sunny day, paddling gently by beautiful scenery. A day, a place, an activity to be filled with joy and gratitude. A feeling of perfect happiness.

And here we are in a dirty great touring kayak headed across choppy waters with not clue what we’re doing. I’m fairly sure Surati would be amused to hear me describing the water as choppy. It was pretty calm really, just not glassy smooth.

Paddling a kayak. It’s not rocket science, but it requires a certain coordination and cooperation between two people in one boat, and a certain finesse with arm movements to prevent arm and shoulder fatigue. Anyway with perseverance we get better as we follow Surati towards the estuary entrance.

Surati’s so relaxed she’s taking photos. But then, by this point, so am I.

And then finally we reach the bridge that seemed so far away. It’s a tense negotiation to get under it without crashing into pylons or logs. More shouting happens; but we manage it without actually hitting anything and at last enter the river.

Oh what bliss. Oh what sweet heaven this is. It’s what I’ve been wanting. This is the experience I was drawn to from photos I’d seen of Surati’s previous excursions. All is peaceful here, all serene, all green reflected silence.

We are at last more comfortable in our boat,

more relaxed and present. There are still negotiations with submerged logs, but now it is the quiet evening paddle I was hoping for. We paddle and drift along in this tranquil untouched place. We are far from the business of life; the mundane has evaporated; time has stretched out. All that remains is this sacred church of green river stillness, reflected beauty, the boat, the paddle, the gentle splash of water.

Surati knows this river well. We follow her to a little beach she knows of and pull in for a break, dining on chunks of sweet watermelon.

At last it is time to return. Surati pulls out ahead of us to lead the way.

She is so skilled in her movements and shows us how to use the paddle to conserve energy. I try but it doesn’t really take. The return journey down the river is lovely, but from the bridge across the bay to the kayak rental place is as difficult as I imagined it would be – I don’t know if the tide had turned or not, but the wind has picked up and we are headed straight into it, and now the water really is choppy. It’s a serious twenty-minute workout; head down and put everything you have into it and just keep going until you get there.

The entire adventure takes 2.5 hours of mayhem and magic. We help get both kayaks out of the water, help Surati get her kayak back onto the top of her car, and head straight to the Cow Bay Pub for dinner on the patio (where we are looking a little frazzled)

and sunset – the perfect end to the day.

As if that wasn’t enough, the next day we go tubing.

We’re full of questions, but mainly what we want to know is will we get our butts wet? Can we get tubes with a solid bottom or do they have mesh bottoms? The thought of having our butts in a cold river for a couple of hours is not appealing. The only other time we’ve been tubing, years ago on the Penticton Channel, our butts were in the water, but the water was warm. We’re not so sure that Cowichan River water will be, even in August. As it turns out we needn’t have worried. We each get the deluxe river tube complete with solid bottom, paddle, and backrest!

At the dock I lower myself carefully into the tube and it immediately starts turning. It’s not as easy as I’d thought. I start working the paddle, understanding now why I have one. Last tubing adventure we merely drifted and used our hands to steer occasionally, but these bigger tubes are more like a boat, and the river is quite strong. Don joins me,

and then Surati,

and the three of us begin our journey.

It’s a party on the river!

A hot summer day; blue sky; clear blue rippling water; family-and-friends-playtime. There are a couple of paddle boarders,

but mostly it’s families or groups of friends floating on every kind of blow-up device you can imagine

including a mattress.

Once past the bridge we leave everything behind except for the vacation homes against a backdrop of lush forest dotted along the river banks. Many of the lucky folks that own them are sitting on their decks watching the party drift by.

One enterprising couple is selling ice cream from their deck so of course we stop for that! We have drinks and fruit snacks with us, but naturally they can’t compare with ice cream!

For the first hour or so the river is wide and we drift lazily along, paddling a little. But we are in no hurry so often we just sit and let the river carry us.

Then we come to the rapids. The river narrows and the speed picks up. The rapids are mini, hardly deserving of the name really but they do require some negotiation. And the river is shallow and there are some pretty big rocks; you have to be paying attention. More than once both Don and I get stuck on top of a rock like a turtle on top of a fence post. Two methods – lean as far back as you can until you’re almost lying, or lean forward and put one leg over the side and part-way stand. Either way will lift your butt up enough to get you moving again. Yeah, but the easy release didn’t stop me feeling exasperated with myself that I hadn’t been able to avoid that rock to start with when I’d clearly seen it coming. The river has its way with you.

As it narrows more the homes disappear, and the forest seems to close in and tower above us.

Eventually some three hours after beginning our journey we come to a small pebbly beach, pull in and make our way up to a shuttle bus that takes us back to our starting point, feeling relaxed, sun-soaked, and happy. It’s been a fine outing!

The Cowichan River flows out of Cowichan Lake; forty-five kilometres later it drains into Cowichan Bay. We go tubing at the very beginning of the river, and kayaking at the very end. The river flows through the unceded land of the Cowichan First Nation.

Photo credits:
Ha Long Bay – Ruth Matthews
Nam Khan River – tour guide. The particular day tour we took from Luang Prabang has been lost to the mists of time. All I can say is it included hiking, kayaking, and swimming with elephants.
All other photos: Alison Armstrong or Surati Haarbrucker – if I’m in them Surati took them and vice versa.

Next post: Another instalment in the Travel Highlights series: road trips!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.