Monday, August 24, 2015

Paddling and Camping on the Columbia River with Kids

We try to do one backcountry paddling trip each summer and wanted to do a river trip this year. We knew we definitely didn't want to do a lake circuit with multiple portages (hard when you use kayaks) and we wanted something casual, fun, and safe for young kids - which meant no glacial mountain lakes! Finding an easy river float was therefore the best option for us and if we chose something that had at least a small current, we wouldn't have to paddle as much.

Easy Paddling on the Columbia River (and yes, the whole trip was this calm!)

I know many families shy away from rivers but we love the Columbia River and once you see the photos in this story, you'll understand why we chose this paddle for a very EASY overnight trip. I shouldn't admit it, but at one point I was floating down the river on a stand up paddleboard, with no PFD on, and while drinking a beer. (stop reading now if this bothers you because we were pretty relaxed with the whole trip.)

Easy relaxed paddling on the Columbia  River (yep, I did an overnight trip on my SUP board!)

Introduction to the Columbia River


The Columbia River is the largest river in the Pacific NW part of North America and starts its journey in Canada at Columbia Lake near the town of Invermere, BC.  From there it flows gently for approximately 300km to Golden and beyond to Kinbasket Lake before it turns south into Washington and Oregon, finishing its journey at the Pacific Ocean.

What families will want to know is that from the river's exit out of Lake Windermere in Invermere to the town of Golden, (a traveling distance of 120km by road) the river is perfectly calm, benign, and rapid-free.  There is not a single riffle that I've ever seen and the water is swimming pool warm.

Is it a lake or is it a river?  Hard to tell on the Columbia!



Why to Choose the Columbia River for a Family Paddling Trip


1.  Warmth of water.  While you still have to take water seriously at all times (and our kids were always in PFDs,) it's easier to relax a bit when you know that a wet exit from one's boat isn't going to be dangerous in this river. At the very most, somebody floats up beside you and plucks you back into a boat.  No danger of hypothermia, no danger of freezing to death while you sit in your boat shivering in wet clothes, and no danger of heart failure when you hit the water and suddenly go numb.

Our kids spent a lot of time in the water and that's a priority for us when we choose a river trip.

The Columbia River is Swimming Pool Warm

2.  Calmness of the River.  The question one will likely ask at several points in a trip down the Columbia is this:  "Are we really on a river?"  Along with:  "Are we moving at all??"

There are no rapids, no riffles, no waves, and no obstacles.  No sweepers or strainers, no sand bars to steer around... - nothing!  I've done several trips on the Columbia River now and I've never found a single challenge on any of our paddles.

Families still need to be aware while paddling on the Columbia River and I wouldn't take off down the river for an overnight trip with zero knowledge of how to paddle, steer, or navigate on the water. This is still a river!! And there is always danger on a river.  However, by choosing the Columbia River, the danger is significantly reduced as compared to other rivers.  Novice paddlers will feel comfortable on this river if traveling with another experienced family.

Family-friendly paddling on the Columbia River

3.  Opportunities to play, camp, and relax.  While I aspire to do more technical rivers, there's just something alluring about a river where you can relax, take it easy, and not have to always be concentrating on the next set of rapids ahead.

We stopped at sand bars to play in the mud, camped on a gorgeous little island, swam in the river, and even used my paddleboard as a jumping raft at one point.

Relaxed paddling (let me see you do this while running rapids!)

The kids could have stayed at this sand bar ALL day!!
This little guy was pretty chill on the trip.

Our Route that we Chose and Where we Camped

 

We started in the town of Radium Hot Springs and paddled just past the next town, Edgewater, on our first day.  We paddled for maybe 4-5 hours (hard to keep track with rest stops) at a very leisurely pace!

We camped on an island about an hour past Edgewater and then continued on to the next town, Brisco, on our second day.  This is where we took out and had a second vehicle waiting for us.

The second day was a bit shorter with maybe 3 hours of paddling.  This allowed us to wrap up our shuttle and get back to our campsite in Kootenay National Park for the evening.

Mud!!!
Beach Camping at its finest!!
Cooking dinner on the beach
Sunset over the Columbia River

Wilderness Camping Guidelines for Paddle Trips


Doing an overnight trip on a river is similar to backpacking into a backcountry campground. The biggest difference is that you don't have to carry anything!  Follow these rules below and read the document on Leave No Trace Camping at the end.
  • Pack out everything you bring in with you!! Nobody is coming to your island or sand bar to collect garbage and clean up after you! 
  • Bring bio-degradable soap for washing dishes and do not wash them directly in the river.
  • Dig a pit to use as a communal bathroom.  Put a bit of sand over your contribution to the pit each time you use it, and then cover it well before you leave. Pack out your toilet paper!
  • Bring a water filter and use it for all water you'll drink from the river. 
  • Use a small backcountry stove to cook your food.
  • Hang your food up in a tree or do as we did and pull it out into the river for the night. (we had a great spot in the river to hang our food - see photo below.)
  • Don't need a fire?  Don't light one!   If you must have a fire, consider how you will get wood for it, is there a fire ban, is there an established fire ring or pit, and how will you put it out to ensure you won't start a forest fire?
For more tips on "No Trace Camping" please check out this story:  The Leave No Trace 7 Principals 


This was our campsite and we paddled our food out to the logs behind us for the night


Other Suggestions for Overnight Paddle Trips


Pack as you would for backpacking but protect things like cell phones, keys and cameras with dry bags.  I even wrap my keys and phone in a ziplock bag first.  Also, wrap anything that should not get wet in big heavy-duty garbage bags.  (think, sleeping bags and mattresses.)

Depending on whether you are using a kayak or a canoe, you may also want to pack your gear in several small bags Vs. one or two big ones.  Small bags stuff more easily into the front and back of the kayak.

By the end of the trip, we were pulling our food in our toy kayak. (should have packed differently!)

Finally, start early and plan to arrive at camp by mid afternoon (4pm at the latest.)  It's important to allow for lots of time to get to camp in case you underestimate the distance that you'll be traveling, can't find a campsite and have to travel an hour or two further to find one, or (god forbid) there's only one beach along your section of river and it's already claimed by another big group.  (This could happen!)

There was only one good  beach along our section of river and if it had already been claimed, we would have needed a plan B, which in this case, would have been finishing both the first and second day of paddling all in one day. (before dark.) Hence, start early so that you don't find yourself still hours from a campsite with darkness approaching.

It's easy to take one too many rest stops and find yourself rushing to find a site late in the day
Floating the Columbia River


Day Trip Options for the Columbia River


Want to float the Columbia River as a day trip?  Start in Invermere at the bridge that crosses over the river as you enter town (referred to as the Athalmer) and float your way down stream to the next town of Radium Hot Springs.  Known as the "lazy river paddle" in the valley, you can rent boats from the Columbia River Paddle Company for this easy 4 hour tour.  You can choose from guided tours to self-guided tours and the company will pick you up if you need in Radium Hot Springs.

To see our photos from paddling between Invermere and Radium Hot Springs, check out this story:  Exploring the Columbia Valley Wetlands - by Boat, Hike, and Bike.

Lazy Kayaking down the Columbia River

Other Activities to do While in the Columbia Valley


Check out my last story:  The Best of the Columbia Valley - From Radium Hot Springs to Invermere (and beyond) for more information on what to do, where to stay, and how to spend a week in the valley.

Family-friendly canoeing on the Columbia River
As serene as it gets on the Columbia River

Disclaimer and Safety Notes


First, this story was not sponsored by anybody and I included a link to the Columbia River Paddling Company as helpful information for my readers.  It isn't an official endorsement for the company and we have never actually used their services.

Second, I can not stress enough the importance of getting an early start on the river if camping overnight and having a back up plan in place.  We were lucky to find a place to camp on a beach, but really had no information on good spots to camp when we started.  We went into the trip blind and were definitely getting a bit nervous as dinner time approached (and we still hadn't found a place to camp yet!)

I referenced "beer" in one of the first paragraphs.  I do not endorse or encourage drinking while paddling.  We ran into another group on the river who were very generous with their beer stash and wanted to make sure we had some to enjoy.  I considered the idea of drinking on a paddle board to be "novel" and took some sips of my beer while floating down the river.  Never would I have done this on a serious stretch of water. 

We took this trip with a very relaxed approach because we are all experienced paddlers, have taken lessons, and have done this sort of trip before.  For our abilities, the Columbia River is a "walk in the park."  If you have never done a paddle trip before, have never been on a river, or have never done an overnight river trip before, you will want to go with an experienced group to ensure your family's safety.  (especially with young kids.)

Finally, of a more "how to make the trip fun" nature - I highly recommend a wide assortment of boats for the trip.   The kids enjoyed taking turns riding in the canoe, kayak, on the toy kayak, and on the stand up paddle board. If I were to pick a vessel that brought the most overall enjoyment to the group, it would be the stand up paddle board that got shared around a lot.

The Stand Up Paddleboard was a lot of fun on the trip

For more tips on How to Plan an Overnight Paddling Trip with Kids, please read my newest story for River Sport Magazine.


Friday, August 21, 2015

No More Hot Dogs! How to Plan a Camp Feast

Hamburgers and hot dogs are ok for the first night on a camping trip but then what do you do to shake things up? You can’t live on hot dogs and marshmallows for the whole week long summer vacation camping trip. We’ve gotten creative over the last few years and have created a bunch of fun theme meals that can be prepared while camping with your family. Camp with a group of families and you can make the meals even bigger as you collaborate to create a giant outdoor feast!

Fajitas for Mexican Fiesta Night at Camp

This is our favourite camping theme meal:  Mexican Fiesta Night! This is our go to group camping meal because options are endless with this theme. We also love this fun camp feast because it pairs well with a plastic tub of cold Coronas or camp margaritas if you have the ability to use a blender at your campsite. Without a blender, be prepared to bring a large knife for crushing ice or buy crushed ice ahead of time. To take the feast one step further, buy a piƱata and fill it with candy for the kids. Hang it from a tree at the campsite and you’ll have the best camping feast ever!

Want to find out what we typically serve at camp for our Mexican Fiesta Night?  Check out my latest story for Campers Village:  Beyond Burgers and Hot Dogs: Planning a Camping Feast

If you read the story above, you'll also find out about  7 more theme meals I recommend for creating the ultimate Camp Feast!

Italian Night at Camp with Fresh BBQ Pizza!

Take a read and plan something fun for your upcoming September long weekend camping trip.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Best of the Columbia Valley (Radium Hot Springs to Invermere - and beyond)

The Town of Radium Hot Springs is easily reached in a three hour drive from Calgary.  It's close enough for a weekend jaunt, or just far enough away to justify spending a full week.  It's also a good jumping off point for exploring the Columbia Valley and the towns of Invermere or Fairmont Hot Springs to the south.

We love exploring this sunny valley to the west of us in British Columbia and usually visit in spring or autumn when days are getting cooler here in the Rockies.  This summer though we decided to spend a full week camping in Radium Hot Springs. We've been exploring the valley now for the past 10+ years and I'm starting to feel like it is my second home.

The Columbia Valley and our Second Home

 

Where to Camp in the Columbia Valley


I'm not even going to touch the subject of hotels and motels because we always stay at a friend's condo or else we camp. Most people I know do the same and rent a condo in the off-season, or camp in the summer.

While there are many private campgrounds to choose from, we always stay at Red Streak, the Kootenay National Park campground in Radium Hotsprings for several reasons.

Camping at Red Streak Campground, Kootenay National Park


Highlights of Camping at Red Streak
Hike from Red Streak to the hotsprings and back on the Redstreak Campground Trail (2.7km one way from the top corner of the H Loop.)

Hike the Juniper Trail from Redstreak (7.4km loop with the Redstreak Campground Trail and Sinclair Canyon.  Stop at the hotsprings along the way.)

Hike the Redstreak Loop Trail from camp (2.2km loop - great for that time right before bed when you want to tire the kids out!)

Hiking in Kootenay National Park from Red Streak Campground

Bike towards the golf course from the E Loop. (The trail starts behind site E5.)  Bike downhill to the fence and then bike back up on the gravel road to the day use/overflow parking area at Redstreak. Loop is less than 3km.

Proximity to the Radium Hot Springs Pool!  And there is a cold pool complete with slide and diving board!!

Proximity to the Town of Radium Hot Springs with restaurants, coffee shops, mini-golf, ice-cream, and one of the best bike parks in the valley.

Some loops have power which means NO generators!! I'd pay extra for a power site just to get away from the annoying things!

The view from our campsite in the E loop

Playgrounds!  Many/most national park campgrounds don't have playgrounds so this is a treat.  We love the E loop which has both a playground AND power sites.

Comfort Camping is an option for families who would rather sleep in an oTENTik cabin than a tent.

Views from the Red Streak Campground Trail down to Sinclair Canyon near the Hot Springs

Best Hikes in the Valley  


We certainly haven't done all of the hikes in the valley (something we'll be working on over the next many years) but we've definitely found a few family favourites between Radium Hot Springs and Fairmont Hot Springs.

1.  Mt. Swansea (Invermere) - This is one of the only mountains where you can drive most of the way to the summit! (high clearance vehicle recommended)  The upper parking lot takes you to within 500 metres distance of the summit with only 100 metres of height to climb.

Read the full story of our hike here with photos at Exploring the Columbia Valley Wetlands by Boat, Bike, and Hike.

Views from the summit of Mt. Swansea

2.  Findlay Falls (Fairmont Hot Springs) - This cute little hike takes you to a lovely set of waterfalls and is only 2km round trip with minimal elevation gain/loss.  It is located near the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort so plan a trip to the pool while you are in the area.

More photos can be seen in my story:  Want Spring?  Go West to the Columbia Valley.

Findlay Falls near Fairmont Hot Springs

3.   The Old Toby Road (Invermere) - This was one heck of an adventure when we last did it!  The drive alone was fun (high clearance vehicle recommended) and then we started out on an old road (on bikes for the first kilometre or so) until we reached a washed out section.  We proceeded on foot until we reached the end of the trail, and a canyon!  Getting up the other side required scaling a sketchy ladder bolted to the side of the cliff.  We opted not to climb the ladder but made it to within half a kilometre of the trail's end at an old bridge site.  I can't recommend this hike enough for a true adventure and a fun little jaunt on an easy trail that has little to no elevation gain.  It is 3km to the old bridge site and the first section can be biked.

To read about our adventure, check out this story: Autumn Mountain Biking in the Columbia Valley.

Biking the easy section on the Old Toby Road


4.  Pedley Pass and Bumpy Meadows (Invermere) - This is another great hike that requires a high clearance vehicle.  It's a short 1km walk to Bumpy Meadows (suitably named for the round bumps found throughout the meadow) and then it's another 0.9km to Pedley Pass from where you can either hike along the ridge or hike to a lovely tarn.  We chose to visit the tarn on our last visit but want to explore the ridge next time.

Tarn on the Pedley Pass Hike

5.   The Hoodoos Trail (Fairmont Hot Springs) - We love this early season hike to the top of a cliff lined with giant hoodoo rock formations.  It's an easy 2.9km hike to the end of the trail and much of it is chariot-friendly as you'll start off on a double track road.

Hiking the Hoodoos Trail near Fairmont Hot Springs

For hikes in Radium Hot Springs, read the section on camping above where I've listed the best hikes available from the Red Streak Campground.

Hiking in Sinclair Canyon, Radium Hot Springs

Best Bike Rides in the Valley


This is the easiest section to write because I've already written several stories on this topic and they cover all of our favourite rides in the area.

Favourite Mountain Bike Trails in a Nutshell (with links to the full stories below):

 
Biking the Old Coach Trail between Dry Gulch and Radium Hot Springs


Information on all trails above:

Kids on Wheels - Biking the Columbia Valley

Autumn Mountain Biking in the Columbia Valley

Kids on Wheels - Nipika Mountain Resort

Autumn biking in Sinclair Creek, Radium Hot Springs


 Future Trails we hope to bike:

The Spirit Trail, Fairmont Hot Springs

The Valley Trail at Panorama Mountain Resort (paved)

The Delphine Trail to the Hale Hut, Panorama Mountain Resort

Biking the Junior Johnson at Lake Lillian, Invermere


Bike Parks, Skate Parks, and Pump Tracks

For more fun on bikes, check out the Radium Hot Springs Pump and Jump Bike Park in Sinclair Creek or the Mount Nelson Skatepark in Invermere with its own pump track. 

Biking on the Radium Hot Springs Pump and Jump in Sinclair Creek
Mount Nelson Skatepark in Invermere (great with bikes too)

 

Family Fun in the Valley


Below is my random list of the best of everything in the valley from ice-cream to coffee, restaurants, beaches, and other activities to keep the kids busy.

Best Beach - Kinsmen Public Beach in Invermere (splash park, playground, jumping rafts, slides in the lake.)  Don't expect much sand though as it's primarily a rocky beach.  The town does bring in piles of sand sometimes for the kids to play in.

Jumping Rafts at Kinsmen Beach
The slides at Kinsmen Beach are a lot of fun!

Best Ice-cream - Hopkins Harvest in Windermere (best ice-cream I've ever had!!) - try the lemon flavour (and next time we have to try the pizza!)

Best family-friendly pub - The Station Pub in Invermere (because who doesn't like a pub that takes kids!  The food is surprisingly good too.)

Best place to have lunch - The Blue Dog Cafe in Invermere (love this place!)

Best Coffee shop - Meet on Higher Ground in Radium Hot Springs (conveniently located just down the street from the trailhead for the Old Coach Trail.  We bike here at the end of our ride to wait for Dad to bike back for the truck at the trailhead.)

Best Cinnamon buns - The Smoking Waters Coffee Company in Fairmont Hot Springs (located behind the highway, it's a bit hidden but worth looking for! One cinnamon bun is big enough to feed a family!  For real!  Just go early.  They sell out by mid-morning if not earlier.)

Favourite upscale restaurant - The Hoodoo Lounge and Grill in Fairmont Hot Springs.  Try the dill pickle soup. (yes, really!)

Best picnic spot - Lake Lillian outside of Invermere on the way up to Panorama Mountain Resort.  There are few picnic tables with fire pits and the lake is small enough for paddling without the noise of motor boats found on the larger Windermere Lake. There are also mountain bike trails across the road.

Family paddling at Lake Lillian, Invermere
Swimming at Lake Lillian, Invermere

Best Playground - Radium Hot Springs Main Park Playground (located two blocks west of Main St. on St. Joseph St.)

Best "off the beaten path" place to spend the day - This goes to Lake Lillian  mentioned above under "picnic spots."  Go for the day with bikes, boats, a picnic, hot dogs, and marshmallows.

Our favourite place in the Columbia Valley:  Lake Lillian, Invermere

Best Hot Springs  - Lussier Hot Springs, Whiteswan Provincial Park.  Real authentic hot springs without any commercial properties. We love it here.  Unfortunately, so does everybody else so don't expect to get them to yourself. There are several pools of varying temperatures from glacial cold to scalding hot.  Kids will love climbing on the rocks between the pools.  It is a short 2 minute hike down to the pools and there are two out house bathrooms for changing in.

Lussier Hot Springs, Whiteswan Provincial Park
Off the beaten path at Lussier Hot Springs

Best way to explore the Columbia Valley Wetlands - Rent a canoe, a couple of kayaks, or stand up paddleboards from Columbia River Paddle in Invermere and explore the Columbia River between Invermere and Radium Hot Springs.  Shuttles can be arranged with the company and the paddle is very easy.  It's perfect for novice paddlers.

Family paddling on the Columbia River
Easy paddling on the Columbia River between Invermere and Radium Hot Springs

Best swimming pool - Radium Hot Springs (There is a hot pool and a swimming pool.   The pool even has a diving board and two slides.)

Playing in the Cold Pool at Radium Hot Springs

Other Suggestions from Local Families

Sinclair Canyon, Radium Hot Springs

"We love Kicking Horse Cafe and Fuze in Invermere as well the toy store has an awesome games section and super knowledgeable staff to help you find the perfect game. They also had family game night too on Thursdays." - Sharon

"We love to eat at the Greek place in Fairmont." - Heila

"The Fairmont Pizza and Ice Cream Parlour had lots of good flavours including Dairy Free options." - Candace

"Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park has a quiet and beautiful lake at the top. We enjoyed a picnic, threw stones and watched the fishing boats." - Candace

"We love Sinclair Creek in Radium Hot Springs for an easy hike for our kids.   It is especially cool when the wetlands are frozen in winter because you can explore and even snowshoe in places you can't access in summer." - Breffney 

"My kids' favourite hike is Mt Swansea because you can drive most of the way up, so for littles they get the thrill of reaching the summit without as much of the effort. Also, about 50 m down from the top parking lot there is an abandoned mine you can walk into the mine shaft. We didn't have the proper equipment so we only went maybe 50 ft in because without proper lights, etc. it wasn't very safe. But my 6yo still talks about how cool it was." - Breffney

"AG Valley Foods in Invermere is well stocked with their own baking, BC fruits and dairy, and many unique dry goods." - Candace

"Hopkins Harvest in Windermere is awesome!! They have smoked cheeses and meats (the place smells sooo good!), BC fruits and goods, and they sell all of the D Dutchman Dairy Ice Cream!! It's a must stop for us." - Candace

"Gerry's Gelati is our favourite for ice cream in Invermere." - Jill

"The little Mexican restaurant, Leo Burrito, in Radium is good." - Jill

"Baptiste Lake at Edgewater just north of Radium has beautiful mountain biking." - Chad

"One must stop in at Rolf's Home of a Thousand Faces in Radium. It's a very unique experience! Check out his woodcarvings, feed his goats that live up in the treehouse and the rooftop grassy meadow, 'carefully' open the doors in his outdoor fun area. It was featured on TV show Weird Homes. " - Crystal

"We like biking at Panorama Resort so adults can do lift-access mtn biking and there's a great swimming pool area for kids." - Crystal

"We like the 'blue hole' swim spot for cliff jumping, rope swing and a nice short hike.  Best to get directions and free map at the invermere info centre on the hwy that is just down from Tim Hortons. Its about a 10 min drive then 15 min hike. Turning in at the Giant bowling pin you see between invermere and Windermere." - Crystal 
 
Relaxing on Lake Lillian, Invermere


Additional Resources


Visiting this fall or in the winter?  Check out these stories:

For information on Wasa Lake Provincial Park (further south in the valley), read this story:  Camping Across British Columbia - Wasa Lake Provincial Park 

Wasa Lake Provincial Park, South of Invermere

Best Books on the Valley:
  
Disclaimer:  This story was not sponsored or endorsed by any of the companies or businesses mentioned.  All opinions are entirely my own.

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