Travel Canada: Canoodle in a canoe for two

Want to impress your fiancee? Take her for a paddle through the Queen Charlotte Islands, says Mark Lunn
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The Independent Culture
Seeking wilderness is not everyone's idea of romance, especially when it involves seven nights' camping and 60 miles kayaking down an island chain in sight of Alaska. Add the words "temperate rainforest" and even the most besotted lover may pause for thought. It rains up to 25 feet a year on Canada's remote Queen Charlotte Islands.

I hid the two-page kitlist from my fiancee until I'd paid in full, in case she changed her mind. It began with synthetic underwear - not exactly lingerie - and ended with biodegradable salt water soap. In between were other necessities such as water shoes, fishing lures and, sadistically - the water barely reaches 50 degrees - a swimsuit.

After a four-day overland journey from Vancouver, we found ourselves on the islands with eight other would-be Hiawathas. As well as Janie and me, the group included two couples from Oregon, a couple from Washington, a young Glaswegian, and a 67-year-old Californian called Eric. And then there was Bob.

Our kayaks and the first campsite lay on tiny Swan Island, in the heart of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. "Gwaii Haanas is a rugged and remote wilderness," says the Canadian tourist board. "Independent travel will only be safe for those who are experienced in marine travel... and who know how to plan and prepare for complete self-reliance." I didn't show this to Janie either.

After an hour speeding over mirror-smooth water, we stopped in a hidden cove called Echo Bay for our first rite of passage. Impressed by the natural beauty, we drifted noiselessly towards shore while a black bear moved sulkily into the forest. Hungry bald eagles gazed from the tops of giant cedars and hemlocks. As we neared the mouth of a small freshwater creek, we saw the salmon - hundreds of silver shadows gathering for their journey upriver to spawn and die.

Swan Island had a small sandy beach and a green moss-clad wood, and our fancy tent had already been pitched beneath a red cedar. Grant, our Vancouver- born chief-cum-guide, gave us his orientation talk. Some was serious, especially the "C" word... what to do if, God forbid, you capsized. The sea is cold and island currents treacherous. He also emphasised the importance of treating Bob with respect. This was "no-trace" camping.

We inspected our 20ft sea kayak, adjusted the foot-controlled rudder and learnt how to load equipment in the watertight hatches fore and aft. I strapped a solar panel to the stern for the VHF radio - vital for detailed weather information and emergencies. We struggled with our spraydecks and lifejackets, squeezed into the cockpits, and went for an ungainly zigzag around the sunlit bay.

The evening saw us gathered around a cedarwood fire. Grant and Meg, the junior guide, performed their first miracle with the propane stove. After a steaming pasta feast, they presented us with a freshly baked lemon and poppyseed cake.

That night, only the reckless scamperings of a hungry racoon and the distant thunder of an ancient tree crashing to the ground broke the gentle rhythm of the sea. We were woken at dawn with fresh coffee, French toast and maple syrup. After a chilling wash, we set off for a gentle eight-hour paddle. Bag Harbour, a remote inlet, boasts a small river. We moved upstream for a few hours, awed by 200ft trees and the exuberant moss hanging from branches, and carpeting the ground, accompanied by the primeval croak of ravens.

Meg, a biology student, found licorice ferns to nibble. And she offered Eric a glistening orange slug to lick. A true Californian, he accepted. "Like an unripe persimmon," he murmured thoughtfully before his tongue went numb.

In the next few days, we paddled ever deeper into the wonderland, struggled through wind and waves, explored dark forests, hooked and cooked fighting salmon, watched black-tailed deer amble gregariously past our campfire, kept watch for bears, gazed at pink sunsets over unruffled water, and wandered with the ever-popular Bob in the intertidal zone, seeking red anemones, green and blue starfish, giant moon snails and spider crabs.

We reached our destination, a tiny island in the open Pacific called Skung Gwaii, one sunny morning. We walked through the dim forest to a small cove where a few old apple trees stood guarding the giant remains of a longhouse and a few dozen haunting, intricately carved totem poles. The village, Ninstints, was abandoned after the apocalyptic smallpox epidemic of 1863. The Queen Charlotte Islands' real name is Haida Gwaii - "the place of the Haida". Like many First Nation people, the Haida were virtually wiped out by the Europeans, after 7,000 years of living in harmony with forest and sea.

Now Ninstints serves as a reminder of what little is left of Haida culture. Unesco declared Skung Gwaii a World Heritage Site in 1981.

Our expedition was blessed. It rained for only two hours in the whole week, the winds and tide were in our favour, and nobody capsized. Bob gave us all a helping hand. He's a little waterproof bag with loo paper and a trowel. Not exactly luxury, but the engagement is still on.

Fact File

MARK LUNN paid US$1,340 (around pounds 840) for an eight-day kayaking trip with Tofino Expeditions (001 206 517 5244). British Airways has a current fare of pounds 352 return from London Heathrow to Vancouver (Quest Worldwide, 0181-546 6000). From there, bus and ferry connections to the Queen Charlotte Islands, take 30 hours. Flights there on Canadian Airlines (0345 616767) cost pounds 212 one-way.

Mark Schatzker paid pounds 502 for a return flight from London Heathrow to Toronto on Air Canada (0990 247226), but discounted fares are available from Quest Worldwide (0181-546 6000). Cottage and lodge companies include: Cottages Unlimited (001 613 284 0400) and the Cottage Country Travel Service (001 905 470 0385). Expect to pay between pounds 110 and pounds 520 per week.

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