Pick Your Paddle

Sea Kayaking

This is bliss: cutting across Vancouver Island's crystal waters     Photo: Corel

BEGINNER / HAMMOCKS BEACH STATE PARK, NORTH CAROLINA
With 4,650 square miles of warm, shallow estuaries and sounds protected from the open Atlantic Ocean, North Carolina's shores harbor choice journeys for first-time family kayakers. An optimal destination is Bear Island in Hammocks Beach State Park, about 25 miles southwest of Beaufort; its 3.5-mile-long sand beach offers aprEs-paddle swimming, shell gathering, and the chance to see the endangered loggerhead turtles that occasionally come ashore in summer.

Make this trip a two-day venture, with a night of beach camping on Bear Island. Start from the mainland put-in near the visitor center (where free trail guides are available) and follow the well-marked three-mile kayak trail that meanders through marshes and tidal flats. Along the way, tell the kids to keep an eye out for great blue herons, egrets, oystercatchers, and ospreys. Make sure to enter with the incoming tide and leave with the outgoing tide to facilitate paddling and avoid low-tide shallows. If you're game for more, a similar water trail circumnavigates the park's Huggins Island.
The trails can be paddled all year; water temperatures range from 50 degrees Fahrenheit in winter to the eighties in summer. Camping is by permit only—get one at the park's visitor center (910-326-4881; www.ncsparks.net) for $8 per night—and prohibited in the nights with, and surrounding, summer full moons, when turtles are nesting. Island Rigs Kayak (252-247-7787; www.islandrigs.com) leads day trips to Bear Island ($45 per adult; $65 per adult and child sharing a tandem kayak) and rents kayaks (3 days: single, $125; double, $150).

INTERMEDIATE / BROKEN GROUP ISLANDS, WEST OF VANCOUVER ISLAND
The Broken Group—more than 100 islands and islets off the west coast of Vancouver Island—is a favorite with families because open-water crossings are short, beach landings easy, and the shorefront camping clean, beautiful, and replete with composting outhouses. Add to this the prime wildlife viewing, featuring bald eagles, seals, sea lions, and killer, humpback, and gray whales, and you'll keep everyone entertained. While some exposure to the open Pacific, with its fog and wind, makes this trip occasionally challenging, the protection of the many islands helps paddlers experience the wild outer coast without the worries of surf landings and monstrous groundswell. Wilderness Inquiry (800-728-0719; www.wildernessinquiry.org) runs five-day trips ($675 per person) that begin and end at Toquart Bay, a base camp on the northern shore of Barkley Sound. (With water temperatures often in the sixties, Wilderness Inquiry suggests that paddlers weigh at least 90 pounds to reduce the risk of hypothermia.) Spend the first night on Hand Island, one of the inner islands, where you might see a stone fish trap used by the Nuu-Cha-Nulth people who once inhabited these shores, before heading farther west toward Dodd and Turtle islands.

Ultimately, the beauty of the Broken Group is its scale—much more intimate than Washington's San Juan Islands—which allows kayakers to explore several islands each day. Make sure to picnic in the Tiny Group, a cluster of islets where low tide exposes white-shell beaches.

ADVANCED / DOWN EAST ISLANDS, MAINE
Some of the Atlantic seaboard's finest ocean paddling is among the 2,000 islands on the untamed coast of Maine. Set your sights on the Down East Islands, the 255 lumps of earth along Maine's northern shore—a secret world of sheer headlands, evergreens and pastures, and granite islands. The Maine Island Kayak Company (800-796-2373; www.maineislandkayak.com) offers multiday trips. The three-day journey ($495 per person) from Stonington to Acadia National Park's Isle au Haut is a true Down East kayaking experience and requires some paddling endurance. Here, risks associated with tidal currents and the ever-cold water (55-63 degrees Fahrenheit) are real, but can be negotiated safely when the weather is right. (Maine Island Kayak Company suggests that paddlers weigh at least 90 pounds.)

You'll launch from the fishing port of Stonington, then wind among small islands and their white-shell beaches, and, if conditions allow, paddle far beneath the rugged cliffs of the little-known Isle au Haut. If you climb the steep, one-mile trail to the top of Duck Harbor Mountain, you'll be rewarded with a smashing view of booming surf, some 300 feet below.

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