1. HAIDA GWAII, BC, CANADA
Start: Sandspit (guided)
Recommended time: Eight days for an exploration of the southern region; 14 days-plus for the full monty
A brilliant island-hopping sea kayak adventure that packs every single thing you may desire – wildlife, First Nations culture, a pristine marine environment and sublime camping and fishing are all on offer in one of the world’s premier paddling destinations: Haida Gwaii.
Also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, this archipelago sits just off the northern coast of Canada’s British Columbia. Contained within the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Maritime Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, the islands are home to the Haida First Nations people, and also to a massive array of marine and wildlife.
It’s for good reason Haida Gwaii is referred to as Canada’s Galapagos; whether it is whales, massive seabird colonies (and raptors, such as the bald eagle), dolphins, fish species (including the ubiquitous salmon), unique marine life or black bears, you will spot them all from your sea kayak. And even the bears are different here: the Haida Gwaii black bears are accounted as the largest of their type, due to there being no competition (in the form of grizzly bears), and also due to the fact the islands cop no real winter, so the bears do not have to hibernate and thus don’t lose much weight. They also possess overly large jaws, which have evolved to accommodate their primary food source: intertidal marine creatures – namely shellfish.
So how about the paddling? Well, in among all the gawking at the natural highlights, you will paddle between campsites on relatively sheltered coastal waterways, with only a few sections of open ocean paddling as you head south (on this suggested journey) from Kat Island, past a few Haida historical sites (including the magical Tanu and its remnants of a Haida village) before reaching your southernmost destination: the island of SGang Gwaay Llnagaay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the site of the last Haida village in the south of Haida Gwaii to be abandoned. There are still remnants of longhouses and other buildings here, but it’s most famous for its many carved memorial and mortuary poles. The resident Haida Watchmen offer guided trips and it is a definite must-do.
Over the course of eight days (or longer if you have more time) of paddling you will be fully immersed in a simply wonderful world. Potential highlights of this extraordinary paddling adventure include sitting in your kayak as whales feed not more than 100 metres from you, paddling through the marine life-rich Burnaby Narrows, experiencing the richculture of the Haida First Nations people, being mock-dived at by bald eagles, landing on shore at the end of a day’s paddle to be confronted by a rather large bear on that same beach and camping in ancient forests right near the Pacific Ocean.
2. THE GREAT GLEN WAY, SCOTLAND
Start: Fort William
Recommending time: Three days plus
There's something super special about a coast-to-coast adventure, but that feeling is accentuated even more when the route you’re taking follows a liquid line – especially when the water being crossed includes a Highland loch known the world over for its resident monster.
The Great Glen was declared Scotland’s first official canoe trail in 2012, but the waterway it follows dates back a wee bit further. Roughly 450 million years further, to be exact, to a geologically violent age when a fault line ripped Scotland in half, creating a chain of connected inland seas: Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour.
Wild rivers naturally link these lochs – and experienced canoeists and kayakers regularly run their rapid-riddled length – but in the early 19th century, engineering genius Thomas Telford joined the deep dark dots with the Caledonian Canal, making it possible for larger boats (and less skilled paddlers) to travel from one side of Scotland to the other.
You can paddle in either direction, but most people follow gravity and the prevailing wind, and start in the west, in Banavie, near Fort William, where a series of eight lock gates keep the saltwater of the Atlantic out. From there, it’s all downhill (sort of) until you’re spat out into the North Sea at Inverness.
In between those two points, you must navigate 96km of water. Although some of this is along a manmade channel – some definitely isn’t. The crux lies in the negotiation of the lochs, particularly the 37km-long, 230-metre deep Loch Ness, which can be scary even if you don’t believe in monsters.
Wind-whipped waves can often get up to two-metres high here. Indeed, there’s speculation that sudden waves have played their part in creating the monster myth (as random rollers can look a lot like humps in the water), which dates back to 565 AD.
In the right conditions, though, this is a spectacular paddle.
The entire route takes three to four days, and there are campsites along the way, and portaging facilities around the locks. Wild camping is permitted on the shores of the lochs – along with campfires, so long as you adhere to the principles of the Scottish Outdoor Code and apply Leave No Trace ethics.
The banks of the lochs boast numerous historical ruins and buildings, including Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness, which dates back to 1296, and 17th-century Invergarry Castle on Loch Oich, close to the Well of the Seven Heads (named after a particularly gory story from Scotland’s past). And there’s an option for those who want to run the rapids on the wild rivers, one at the end of Loch Oich and another from Dochgarroch into Inverness.
3. CLARENCE RIVER CANOE AND KAYAK TRAIL, NSW
Start: The Junction, Nymboi-Binderay NP
Recommended time: Eight days (weather/water-level contingent)
Hidden in the high hills of the NSW North Coast hinterland is the start-point for one of Australia’s best canoe adventures: the Clarence River Canoe & Kayak Trail. This seven-day journey (if time is an issue, you can put in further downriver for shorter trips) is suited to relatively experienced paddlers and comprises a near-perfect mix of whitewater and flatwater, brilliant wildlife-spotting opportunities (including the chance to see platypus) and excellent riverside campsites.
The Clarence River Canoe & Kayak Trail is comprised of three famous rivers – the Nymboida, the Mann and the Clarence. The trail starts from The Junction campground in Nymboi- Binderay National Park and follows a northerly direction for most of its length, before looping back to the southeast at the confluence of the Mann and Clarence, and then on to the finish at the township of Copmanhurst. Along the way, those paddlers who tackle this journey will encounter sections of rapids, flat water and a few waterfalls (these have to be portaged). And they will have the opportunity to camp at some very well set-up campgrounds that offer facilities ranging from basic bush camping through to full amenities (including showers and toilets), right on the banks of the river.
There are many highlights along this exciting route including the chance to run challenging rapids, but you can also take it easy and float slowly along the flatter sections and keep an eye out for the abundant wildlife in the region. This combination – whitewater, wildlife, great fishing and sublime camping – is what we reckon makes this seven-day journey so appealing, and is complemented by the fantastic sense of remoteness you’ll also experience along this paddling trail.
There are many accessible put-in points along the route as well, so if you haven’t got the time for the full-monty trip, you can always tick it off over a few separate visits. The flatter sections (around Lilydale Riverside Camping Reserve or at Copmanhurst) are also ideal parts of the trail in which to introduce children to the delights of canoeing. A day’s paddling on the Clarence River, followed by a night under the stars spotting local wildlife, is every young paddler’s dream adventure. This well set-up paddle destination is the perfect place to start them on their life of water-borne adventure.
4. FRANKLIN RIVER, TASMANIA
Start: Collingwood Bridge
Recommended time: Nine days
From the moment you put in with your raft on the Collingwood River (a short distance away from the confluence of it and the Franklin), the next nine days will forever etch themselves in your paddling memories; travelling down Tassie’s Franklin River by whitewater raft should be a rite of passage for any paddler – that is how amazing this journey is.
It is not hard to pinpoint what the standout moment is rafting the Franklin River – put simply, it is every one of those nine days where you travel through a truly remote, near-inaccessible part of the southwest Tasmanian wilderness. The river’s rapids are all unique in terms of their varying degrees of length, ruggedness and overall challenge (some are way above running; you will portage the gnarliest, such as The Churn), but these wilder, rougher sections are epic fun, and are compensated by sublime campsites such as the one at Newland Cascades, where you shelter under ancient open cave overhangs, with the river roaring past below.
You can run the Franklin faster than the nine days but we’ve chosen this World Ex-guided trip as our favourite Franklin River experience simply because, along with expert guides and awesome food, you do get a bit of time to take in the side trips along the river’s length. This includes stopping off at world-famous Rock Island Bend (the subject of that very famous Peter Dombroskis photo that was used in the Save the Franklin campaign in the 1980s), and exploring the lush green canyon of The Lost World, on the last day.
In between these and other side-river highlights, you will soon immerse yourself in river life. From striking camp each morning where you load up all your gear into the huge drums, then load up the rafts with said drums, through to experiencing everything from Grade V rapids to silent, smooth sections of the river, and then pulling into yet another sublime campsite in the evening, the Franklin will soon become your life.
The terrain varies the entire way; from more open valleys with rolling green hills above, to the narrow, faster flowing, cliff-walled sections that make up the Grand Ravine, there is no real constant. Except, that is, for the rare chance to enjoy the simple act of dipping your drink bottle into the river, and then drinking the water straight out of it. As one guide told AG Outdoor Editor Justin Walker: “By the end of the nine days, you’ll have become the Franklin.” Yep, it sounds romantic, but if there’s ever a place to reignite your passion for paddling – and the Aussie wilderness – then a rafting trip on the Franklin River is where it will happen.
5. YUKON RIVER QUEST, CANADA
Finish: Dawson City
Duration: Three to five days
Besides being another canoe and kayak event with a killer backstory, the Yukon River Quest can also claim to be the longest annual paddling race in the world. The 715km mega-marathon traces the route that prospectors took during the Klondike gold rush at the tail end of the 19th century, travelling down the mighty Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson City in northern Canada’s wild Yukon Territory.
Known as the Race to the Midnight Sun, the quest takes place in terrain just a few degrees shy of the Arctic Circle, and traditionally kicks off at high noon on the Wednesday closest to the longest day of the northern hemisphere’s calendar, the summer solstice, when the sun barely bothers going to bed at all. In near-as-dammit 24-hour daylight, the event is contested by single and double canoes and kayaks, and eight-person voyageur canoes. It begins with a half-kilometre sprint along the riverbank before solo competitors and teams jump into their boats and begin paddling – an action that will become virtually subconscious within a few hours (let alone a few days).
The hardest part of the course is the crossing of Lake Laberge, a 50km stretch of current-less water, where any headwind can prove disastrous. And then there’s the fatigue. There are two compulsory stops during the entire course – the longest one at Carmacks, where exhausted competitors are forced to rest for a minimum of seven hours. Otherwise racers paddle day and night. There’s no rule to say you can’t pull over and stop anywhere you like – and people do – but there’s a good reason that bear spray is listed among the compulsory race gear.
The snowmelt water of the Yukon is fast moving and freezing cold, but there is only one set of serious rapids along the entire 715km course: Five Finger Rapids, encountered a few hours after leaving Carmacks. It’s clearly stated during the race briefing, and in the instructional booklet, that you have to take the right-hand channel through the jaws of this rabid rapid, but the whitewater always claims a couple of victims, especially among the larger voyageur canoes.
The fastest paddlers are often finished by Friday morning, but for many it takes a day or two longer before the welcome sight of Dawson City looms into view. For everyone, fatigue and sleep deprivation are constant companions after the first day, and it’s not at all unusual for paddlers to experience sleep monsters (hallucinations common to long-distance endurance athletes when they’re operating on minimal rest).
For all the discomforts it involves, the Yukon River Quest is a genuinely classic event, and a must-do for experiencecollectors and passionate paddlers. The terrain of the Yukon Territory is utterly untamed, and the scenery is spellbinding from start to finish, especially on the sections that take you through remote riverside First Nation settlements, where locals come out to cheer you on.