What to Expect on a Paddling Trip on the Columbia River

Kayaking on the Columbia River comes with the bonus of great birdwatching.

The Columbia River near Invermere is a prime spot for paddling. Photograph by Mitch Winton.

Apparently, we encountered a heron, two hawks, an eagle and loads of songbirds over the course of paddling from Invermere to Radium Hot Springs. I know this only because it was reported to me by my friend and kayaking cohort, whom I correctly assumed was paying more attention than I to the ornithological sights along the Columbia Valley Bird Trail. Indeed, this tranquil section of the Columbia River is part of the eastern range of the 15,000-kilometre Pacific Flyway migratory route that stretches from Alaska to Patagonia; its wetlands (the source of the largest river flowing into the Pacific Ocean in North America) are an intensively used nesting, feeding and resting site for more than 260 species of birds every year. That said, if you’re preoccupied, as I was with lunch, snakes and lost sunglasses, the birds are easy to miss.

Paddling between mountain towns is among the most marvellous things to do in the Columbia Valley. Last summer, myself and the aforementioned friend did it with four adolescents in tow — six of us in three double-kayaks rented from Columbia River Paddle, whose gear shack sits mere metres from the put-in spot where Lake Windermere narrows into the Columbia River. The company offers a guided wetland tour, but we opted for the DIY-ish route that, most helpfully, comes with a map and a shuttle van back to the parking lot. After a round of instructions and safety tips from a staffer that included directions to stay right, paddle steady in turbulent waters, and watch for the single pull-out spot on the left bank if we needed a break, we set off into an overcast July afternoon.

Flanked by the Rocky and Purcell Mountain ranges, the Columbia Valley sits between Canal Flats and Golden; Invermere is the main hub, just under 20 km south of Radium. The short drive along B.C. Highway 93 between those two towns is nice but the view from a kayak is sublime. While some of us (my 12-year-old daughter. Also, me.) approached the afternoon with a little anxiety — would we tip? Take a wrong turn? Arrive at the designated pick-up area before dark? — our worries were entirely misguided. The paddling is easy as the current meanders through the wild wetlands, under bridges and, as promised, alongside a sandbar where I was looking forward to disembarking for lunch.

In hindsight, I realize I may have been expecting a patio and an Earls server to emerge from the bushes rather than a mucky shoreline and a couple of decrepit Adirondack chairs. I’d only enough time to stretch my legs and set down my sunglasses before my kid yelled “snake!” and I was back in the kayak shrieking at our crew to flee the area. I regret that. And I miss my glasses.

But time slips away in the wetlands. Sometime later (an hour? Maybe two?), we reluctantly reached the end of our journey at the well-marked pick-up spot. A handful of others had beat us there to meet the shuttle to Invermere, including a woman who’d paddleboarded with a cat named Killer strapped to her SUP in a mesh kennel. He, too, must have had some regrets about the birds.

Columbia River Paddle is open for rentals and guided tours from May through early October (weather permitting). For more information, visit columbiariverpaddle.com.

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This article appears in the May 2023 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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