Sunday, 7 April 2013

Stand-up on the Salmon River

Darcy Wardrop- contemplating a highly technical section of the Salmon River :)     (pk photo)

 This was about about as technical as it got on a great stand-up-paddle trip down the beautiful and aptly named 'Salmon River' in September 2012. It was a cooler day with some occassional drizzle  but really nice conditions for this river- as in no wind. The problem with bright sunny weather in this area is that it often comes with strong northwesterly winds which blow up the river and can make for hard paddling especially as you near the estuary- not to mention the wind driven whitecaps once you get out in the open waters of Kelsey Bay .

The section of the Salmon River that Darcy and I paddled starts just above where the Salmon River and the White River join together in the beautiful Sayward Valley on Vancouver Island. The Sayward Junction is about a 45 minute drive north of Campbell River on Hwy 19. Turn left at the junction, cross over the Salmon River then left again on Hern Road and drive all the way to the end. A short trail leads from here  to the put-in on the Salmon River. It is about a 16km paddle from here to the take-out at the boat launch spit on the left side of the Salmon River estuary. 

Junction of the Salmon and White River's- White on the right- and shortly before I 'splooshed' (Darcy Wardrop photo)
The put-in is just out of sight and around the bend to the left in the picture. There is a sandy beach and a really deep pool there- a popular swimming spot for the locals and visitors alike in the summer.
Darcy made this section look so easy that, against my better judgement- I decided to try it too instead of wading across the White River and putting in again on the gravel bar to the right in the picture. This was what I had done when I had soloed the river the day before.
(The problem on that day was while I had remembered my camera, I had forgotten to put the camera card back in it- so no pictures meant I felt compelled to do the river again- and this time Darcy came too.)

Well, I didn't find it so easy and got dumped in just where the water piles up against the rock wall just out of sight on the left. Glad I was wearing my wetsuit or else the rest of the paddle on that particular day would have been a little chilly. Not exactly the way I wanted to start out the day but I managed to keep my camera dry.

After a very dry August, the river levels were very low and the water crystal clear and jade green. There were several thousand pink salmon schooling in the river in the upper sections and we could see where they had been digging out big shallow pits in the gravel river bed called 'rudds' for spawning and depositing their eggs. Further down in the lower sections there were also numerous schools of much bigger salmon- coho I think, holding in the deeper pools.

There were also plenty of spawned out dead salmon on the bottom and along the river banks. The presence of all this food had attracted a lot of bald eagles and turkey vulures which we saw perched in the trees along the river banks as we descended. The day before, I had seen a good sized black bear come out of the bush looking for a salmon brunch about 150 feet from where I was passing by.

The Salmon River was very shallow in the low water conditions that we had, and this had caused me problems with my fin hitting the bottom which mean't I'd had to carry my board down some of the shallow riffle areas instead of just being able to run them as I'd done in my old ocean kayak years before.
Fortunately, Darcy had come up with an ingenious solution to this problem by crafting two wooden fins for our boards which were about a foot long but only drew about 3 inches of water. These shallow draft fins enabled us to run several sections I hadn't been able to do the day before and also allowed us to do much quicker turns when needed. Yet because of their length, these plywood fins still worked well enough for paddling the longer, slower moving sections that make up most of the trip.

A typical section of the scenic and easy paddling on the Salmon River (pk photo)

Darcy meandering down the Salmon River; lower slopes of Mt.Kusam in the background (pk photo) 

As the river winds it's way through the Sayward valley on it's way to the ocean, we did pass some farms and a handful of houses but for the most part, the Salmon River feels much more remote than it actually is. But having said that, this is still a very wild place and home to elk, black bear, deer and eagles. It is also part of what's included in the area known as 'north Vancouver Island' which contains one of the highest concentrations of cougars in the world. As with the bears, everyone around here has a cougar story or two to tell as well.

Herd of elk resting in a field along the Sayward Valley Road (pk photo)

The day before, I had paddled all the way out into the river estuary and then crossed to the end of the long spit where the small boat launch is. I tucked my board and paddle out of sight as best I could and then rode my mountain bike back the ~12 km or so to where I had parked my truck at the end of Hern Road. But on this day I got out on the rocky river bank just beneath the bridge over the river on the Sayward Valley Road. My bike was stashed just above so I left my board there and went back to get the truck while Darcy carried on the rest of the way to the estuary and take-out point. This bridge crossing would make for a good alternative takeout if the westerly wind was really blowing.

If you go to and open up the 'Outdoor Recreation' tab then click on 'Location,' this will bring up an excellent Google earth view of the whole valley and the river route  from start to finish.

A great outing in a very beautiful area.


Paul Kendrick

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