Aquatic adventures: Caving & kayaking in Canada

From helicopter tours to kayaking on meltwater and heading down ice caves, British Columbia is awash with adventure opportunitiesMonday, 8 April 2019

When you get the blues in British Columbia, you get the full spectrum: the azure of a remote lake rippling in the summer sun; the incandescent turquoise of glacial meltwater on pure ice; the kaleidoscopic blues of an ice cave’s vaulted ceiling. Blues so blue and varied they sting your eyes and leave you grasping for synonyms.

It’s summer in Canada and nature is rioting up in the mountains. I’m in a helicopter being piloted by Nick Drader, the owner of Compass Heli Tours, heading for one of the world’s most enviable kayaking spots — a melting lake fed by glaciers. The sun has been beating down for the past two days, and waterfalls are careening down the slopes, even while most of the summits are still capped with snow.

Everything looks so near — at one point, I have to stop myself reaching out to brush the tops of the evergreens as we scrape past the peaks. Some of the bodies of water are fully melted, while others are still frozen solid. We come to land on the snowy banks of a lake so remote it doesn’t have a name. Much of it is still frozen, apart from the ribbon of meltwater running along the circumference that’s to be our playground for the day.

The sun is out and it’s hot. I shed my heavy layers and scoot down the steep bank, snow spilling over the tops of my boots, and get into my kayak, which is anchored at the water’s edge. This is my first experience of meltwater on ice. I marvel aloud that it’s the same blue as a blowtorch flame. “I know, right,” Nick smiles. “I come up here every other day and this colour still blows my mind.”

We set off, and droplets of ice water flick through the air from my paddles in iridescent arcs. The ice hasn’t melted as much as we would’ve liked, and there are slushy bits where we need to dig in with our paddles and push ourselves along, scraping and dragging towards open meltwater. It’s worth the effort. It’s so clean and clear, my eyes can follow shafts of sunlight all the way down to the bottom, where I can even count individual rocks. The air is still, the only sound coming from my paddle slicing through the water as I go around the lake. My arms start to pleasantly ache, and before I head back, I reach down and scoop up some water and am mildly surprised when it transforms in my hands from immutably blue to crystal-clear.

We stop at a picnic bench (an incongruous sight in this wilderness) and go ashore to chill in the snow, still wearing our swimsuits. Munching on sandwiches, the sun pounding down between the stripy shade of helicopter rotor blades, a swim seems in order. It’s not every day you get the chance to splash about in a glacier. So, I head back down the snowy embankment and dash straight into that dazzling blue and dunk myself completely. The cold punches all the oxygen out of my lungs and my brain snap-freezes. Nick hands me a towel, laughing loudly.

The next moment, I’m up into the blue again, on another helicopter ride. This time with Headline Mountain Holidays to the Pemberton Ice Cap. Or, more accurately, beneath it, to explore a network of ice caves that few travellers have experienced. Thanks to climate change, coming decades will see the caves welcome fewer visitors still as the ice cap melts and the terrain become unsafe to visit — or vanishes entirely.

We land on a hillock of snow high in the mountains, under which the entrance to the caves is hidden. My guide, Matt King, hands us helmets and headlamps and we scramble down over rocks to the cave’s entrance.

The ice forms a crust above the opening to the tunnel, which appears as dark and foreboding as any cave when seen from sunny ground level. It’s only when we descend to the bottom and cross a gravelly stream that we get a proper idea of what we’re in for — the walls and ceiling of the cave are composed entirely of ice; countless shades of blue opening out and away far underground.

The main caverns are huge, with rounded ceilings high above us. The ice has formed in undulating scallops, creating the feeling of being caught in the barrel of a frozen wave. In some of the smaller chambers, the blue glow is so vivid it’s like being inside an aquarium. At one point, I find myself hugging a pillar of floor-to-ceiling ice and have to resist the urge to touch it with my tongue. But I’m distracted by the constant drizzle from the ceiling — a reminder that nothing lasts forever.

I head off down a branching tunnel, boots kicking up the gravel at the bottom of a tiny stream of meltwater, my gloved hands feeling their way against the descending ceiling. After a dozen metres or so, I’m completely enveloped in icy blue. I spin round and round in slow circles, willing my eyes to drink in more. I notice air bubbles and clouds of grit trapped in the ice, a reminder that this was all liquid at some point. There’s a moulin close by — a natural skylight in the tunnel that lets beams of sunlight in, which ricochet off the walls, creating yet another dimension to the swirling palette of blues around me.

I mumble an incantation under my breath: “Cerulean, aquamarine, azure, cobalt, indigo, ultramarine, cyan, turquoise…”

Top three British Columbia’s aquatic experiences

Flight-seeing by float plane
The Bowen Island Fly ’n’ Dine package involves boarding a floatplane in Vancouver to fly over seascapes and inlets to Bowen Island, where you’ll have dinner overlooking the water.
Where: Bowen Island is in the middle of Howe Sound, a 20-minute ferry from Vancouver.
How to do it: C$275 (£156) per adult or C$149 (£85) per child. Includes flight, dinner and transfers.

Hydrotherapy at Scandinave spa
Set amid the idyllic wilderness of Lost Lake Park, this outdoor spa offers myriad hot and cold pools, Nordic waterfalls, relaxation areas and treatments. Silence is encouraged and mobile devices aren’t allowed.
Where: Just outside of Whistler Village, around two hours north of Vancouver.
How to do it: Bath access from C$70 (£40) per person.

Marine wildlife tour
Watch orcas and whales frolic off the coast of Vancouver, and glimpse sea birds and other marine wildlife. Crew are on hand to provide insight into the area’s history and its diverse wildlife.
Where: The half-day tour heads through Georgia Straight, past dozens of islands.
How to do it: C$170 (£96) per adult and C$130 (£74) for teens, C$105 (£60) for children.

For details on how to book a trip to British Columbia, visit hellobc.co.uk and Destination Canada

Scott Dunn has seven nights in British Columbia from £6,500 per person. Based on two staying at Shangri-La, Vancouver and The Westin Resort & Spa, Whistler, both room-only. Includes glacial kayaking with Compass Heli Tours, a helicopter ice cave tour with Headline Mountain Holidays, activities including a cycling tour and whale-watching, car hire and Air Canada flights.

Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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