Water leads to wilderness at tiny Egmont on the Sunshine Coast near Skookumchuck narrows

    1 of 4 2 of 4

      Whistler, Victoria, Seattle… Chances are you’ve already hit the major getaway destinations within a few hours’ drive of Vancouver. But within the same radius, we tend to forget about the Sunshine Coast.

      Sure, you may have day-tripped to Gibsons, a charming town minutes from the Langdale ferry terminal that is still trading on its Beachcombers fame. You may even have followed Highway 101 a half-hour onward to Sechelt, exploring the bays along the way. But continue farther north and you’ll find something you may not realize is so close to Vancouver: wilderness.

      Last fall, I drove the 87 kilometres from the Langdale terminal up to Egmont, a place I’d previously skimmed over on the map. Pronounced “egg-mont”, the village sits at the north end of the Sechelt Peninsula, a short jaunt off the highway south of the Earl’s Cove ferry terminal that leads to Powell River. Village, in fact, is too grand a term for Egmont, where the general store at the marina is the only discernible centre. But unlike in Gibsons, visitors don’t come here to shop and dine. Rather, they come to explore the water.

      Egmont sits at the crossroads of four major waterways: Sechelt Inlet, Jervis Inlet, Hotham Sound, and Agamemnon Channel. It’s a great jumping-off point for fishing, kayaking, and Zodiac rides in and around Princess Louisa Marine Provincial Park. Those who prefer fresh water can take a canoe out on nearby Ruby, Waugh, and North lakes. Or an hour-long hike through Skookumchuck Narrows Provincial Park brings you to the viewing area for the Skookumchuck rapids, the churning, turbulent, whirpool-filled white waters that are Egmont’s claim to fame.

      My destination for the weekend was West Coast Wilderness Lodge, a few minutes’ drive from the park and Egmont’s village centre. “Is it really wilderness if you can drive to it?” I wondered aloud as I pulled into the parking lot. But as I checked in, co-owner Paul Hansen explained that although the lodge does have Wi-Fi, the rooms don’t have telephones and there is no cellphone reception in the area. Score one for wilderness!

      Then Hansen led me through the vaulted, A-frame great room to the expansive deck outside. In an instant, the view of the inlet made the journey from Vancouver worthwhile. Built at the top of a 360-metre granite bluff, the lodge faces onto the type of scenery you’d see from an IMAX helicopter: sparkling blue water, dark-green forested islands, and great big sky. It’s the kind of “Oh, my God, take me there” vista that travel brochures use to entice visitors—literally. According to Hansen, a photo taken from this very deck represented Canada and its natural glory on a “Come to Canada” poster produced by a German tour company in 2002.

      The view from the lodge's main deck.
      Carolyn Ali

      Indeed, Hansen said, Europeans seem to know better than Vancouverites what this corner of the world has to offer: they make up 85 percent of his guests, flying for at least nine hours for the chance to be immersed in this natural landscape, the proximity of which we take for granted. “They can’t believe you can find a lake that nobody else is swimming in,” he explained.

      Still, I’ve always equated wilderness with a location that’s only accessible through hike-in camping or floatplane-in pampering. Sitting in the lodge’s restaurant later that night, it didn’t feel so far removed from city life to be dining on an elegant seafood chowder with swirls of cold-smoked steelhead and baby shrimp. (As it turns out, executive chef Warren Cobb formerly worked at Joe Fortes Seafood and Chop House.) 

      Seafood chowder at the lodge's restaurant.
      Carolyn Ali

      But, indeed, guests can arrive via floatplanes, which touch down nearby in the inlet after a half-hour flight from Vancouver. And as I scanned the horizon for herons, I knew this was just the floor-to-ceiling picture window onto a great deal more.

      That’s the thing about wilderness: you have to go outside to experience it. I’d gotten a taste just before dinner when I ventured into Skookumchuck Narrows Provincial Park. Skookumchuck is the Chinook Jargon term for “strong water”, and the rapids are certainly that. This is where the narrows connects Jervis and Sechelt inlets. As flowing tidewater funnels in and out of the narrow inlets, it swishes, churns, and rises up. The difference in water level from one side of the rapids to the other can be more than two metres, and the speed of the massive tidal exchanges (200 billion gallons of water each time) can exceed 16 knots, or 30 kilometres per hour.

      That makes for a pretty cool spectacle—if you get your timing right. Because I didn’t know to check a tide table for the tide changes when planning my day, I almost missed the drama. But, luckily, I had just enough time after I checked in to hightail it down the flat, four-kilometre hike through the park to the viewing point.

      Although witnessing this phenomenon is a must-do if you visit Egmont, it wasn’t the highlight for me. That came the following day, when I boarded Hansen’s Zodiac for a spin around Sechelt and Jervis inlets. Speeding through the tranquil water, following the gentle curves of the inlet, I quickly realized that my perch at the lodge was just a speck along a vast coastline of granite bluffs. We motored past islands, bays, and coves—even a waterfall with mist rising from the cliffs. When he cut the engine near Lone Tree Island, I watched in awe as a gathering of seals lolled about on the rocks.

      Seals bask on Lone Tree Island.
      Carolyn Ali

      But it wasn’t just the scenery that made me realize why Europeans go out of their way to vacation here. It was the remarkable sense of space. By road, there’s only one highway into Egmont. But the water opened up infinite possibilities, with no painted lines to hem you in. When we stopped in a peaceful cove, there wasn’t another soul in sight. Only silence, punctuated by the occasional birdcall. Just fresh, clean air and freedom.

      It felt a lot like wilderness.

      Access: For info on Egmont, see the Sunshine Coast website. The writer stayed as a guest of West Coast Wilderness Lodge. Find Skookumchuck rapids tide times on the B.C. Parks website.