Esquimalt explores way around obstacle to waterways loop for paddlers

For years, kayakers and other paddlers have been working to create a safe marine trail that would allow them to circumnavigate Esquimalt and Vic West from Victoria Harbour to Esquimalt Harbour and along the Gorge Waterway.

They’ve made significant progress on the Victoria Waterways Loop in recent years, notably the completion of the Portage Trail that allows paddlers to portage one kilometre from Esquimalt Harbour to Portage Inlet.

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But one significant obstacle remains: tidal rapids underneath the Gorge Bridge that can prove treacherous for inexperienced paddlers.

Now, Esquimalt is investigating whether it can remove that barrier by creating a landing beach and pathway that would allow paddlers to portage past the rapids and link to Gorge Park.

On Monday, the township’s council unanimously passed a motion by Coun. Ken Armourcalling on staff to explore a possible fix and report back with options and costs.

Armour said the project, if approved, would improve paddler safety, promote tourism, and provide opportunities to highlight Indigenous history in the area and showcase Esquimalt’s beauty.

“But, honestly, my interest in putting this forward isn’t just to promote Esquimalt,” he said in an interview. “It’s frankly to promote a healthy waterway and recreational opportunity for the whole region.

“We’ve got the [Galloping] Goose and Lochside [trail] for walkers and cyclists. In some ways, this is like a paddling route equivalent to a biking route.”

Armour’s motion has already received considerable support from community and business groups, including the Esquimalt Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Victoria.

“The loop creates a new reason for people to experience a lesser-travelled side of our destination, leading to more customers for retailers, restaurants and cafés along the loop,” Paul Nursey, chief executive officer of Tourism Victoria, wrote in a letter to council.

The South Island Sea Kayaking Association offered its backing as well, noting that the tidal rapids pose a significant risk to paddlers.

“A safe portage route around Tillicum Narrows, for use particularly at those times when tidal currents oppose the direction of travel, would significantly improve safety for boaters and further promote the use of the Waterways Loop,” wrote president Alan Campbell.

People who live near the Tillicum Narrows, however, have raised concerns about noise and parties in the area if the township creates a new beach, noting similar problems have emerged at a nearby dock.

“It’s just not been a pleasant situation,” one woman told council Monday night. “So I guess I have fear for what would happen for a beach down there. I don’t want the same thing to occur, having to call 911, people drinking, getting in the water, having parties, and, quite frankly, keeping me up and my neighbours up.”

Coun. Lynda Hundleby acknowledged those concerns, but said she was willing to hear from staff on possible options before making a decision.

“This may be a longer term project than what we might think,” she said.

Armour said he was inspired to act on the issue by View Royal Coun. John Rogers, who made a presentation to Esquimalt council last month.

A driving force behind the Victoria Waterways Loop, Rogers said in an interview that work on the 15.5-kilometre marine trail began back in 2015.

Since then, View Royal has spent more than $180,000 to complete the Portage Trail, build the Shoreline access ramp and put up signage along the route, he said.

Tillicum Narrows remains the final hurdle. A walkway existed on the Saanich side until it was removed in the 1960s, and creating a new route past the rapids would be a significant breakthrough for the loop’s suppporters, Rogers said.

“It would mean that paddlers would now have the same convenience that they had 100 years ago and be able to enjoy the Gorge in a much greater fashion.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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