On a Thursday morning in November, four kayakers paddle against the current under Gorge Bridge.
“I’ll race you,” one says to another.
After clearing the east side of the bridge, and pulling out of the way of the eddies, they reach an earthy ledge of the shore.
“This is where we’d like a dock,” Brian Henry says.
Henry is part of a volunteer group of paddlers hoping to create a 15.5-kilometre “marine trail.” The Victoria Waterways Loop would pass through Colwood, View Royal, Saanich, Victoria and Esquimalt.
While the route already exists, the loop group is hoping to get proper signs, launch points and ramps completed that would make it safer and more clear for users to follow.
Henry likened it to a biking or hiking trail, passing through several regions and ecosystems. It is waterbound except for a one-kilometre portage between Esquimalt Harbour and Portage Inlet.
“You get to see so much. Bird-life changes, sea-life changes. It’s really a neat experience,” he said.
There are also about 15 pubs, heritage sites and other highlights along the way, such as Fort Rodd Hill, which has facilities for camping, and Esquimalt Harbour’s Cole Island, a historic ammunition depot.
Henry, owner of Ocean River Sports, has been leading kayak tours for 35 years. Creating a marine trail would be a natural step in the harbour’s revitalization, he said.
“We were the first people to think about going on a kayak tour of the harbour. That was when it was very industrial and it was a question back then: Will people even want to go out on the harbour? Because it’s not very clean,” Henry said.
Cleanups of the Inner Harbour and Gorge have meant oysters and eel grass are returning, while recreation is picking up. A marine trail would be another step in that direction, he said.
View Royal Coun. John Rogers said the trail was historically used by local First Nations.
“Basically, we call it a new and exciting paddle and portage experience, but in actual fact, the loop has been in existence way, way back,” said Rogers, who is part of the group.
“You could do it comfortably in a day. But you do need flexibility, because you’ll consider weather, tides, currents.”
The group doesn’t have a specific budget in mind for the whole project, but is looking for support from each municipal council. Challenges include getting support for new access points around Tillicum Narrows, which would allow less-experienced paddlers to portage around the rapids.
View Royal’s progress creating a rock and gravel ramp near Shoreline Community Middle School makes the portage doable, he said. The ramp is almost complete, so paddlers can bring their boats across to the E&N Rail Trail and through Portage Park to reach Esquimalt Harbour.
“We’re working to get the municipal buy-in and support. Once we’ve got that, indeed there could be some costs: Maybe we could talk about building more docks, creating kayak-friendly access beaches. We’re still assessing those options,” Rogers said.
The group is working on a brochure that would include information about what to bring, how to avoid environmentally sensitive areas and where to check weather, tides and navigation protocols for Victoria’s busy harbour.
It will also include ability ratings, from beginner to advanced, for different sections of the trail, Rogers said.
“One of the key aspects is informing the paddlers of details about best practices,” Rogers said.
Darrell Butler of the Victoria Canoe and Kayak Club said some members of the club are concerned that paddlers might get off track and end up in environmentally sensitive areas, such as the Colquitz River, where salmon spawn.
But Butler, who is also part of the loop group, said the point of the signs is to keep paddlers on the right path away from those areas.
“We’re trying to make it so there’s less of an impact, by creating a path people will stay on,” she said.
She said more convenient access points could even mean marine commutes.
“I think it would be great if people could even use their personal boats as a mode of transportation, if they’re going to work downtown or even visiting downtown on a weekend.”