It started as a few boats out at the Mount Gardner Dock in 1996. Today, it’s a bustling seasonal business overlooking Snug Cove from the end of the Bowen Island Marina (“Norma’s”) Dock.
Bowen Island Sea Kayaking celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, and welcomed visitors and locals alike to paddle their pandemic blues away.
Brent O’Malley bought the business from Martin Clarke back in 2014 after moving to Bowen from California. (Clarke had started out as a BISK employee but bought the business from founder Greg Phillips in 2000.)
“I bought a well-established business that was run well, and I think well respected in the community,” said O’Malley.
“I was able to just walk in and pick things up where they were and operated a completely normal first season. And then I’ve just been tweaking it ever since.”
From about 10 staff when he took over to about 15 at the peak of summer these days, O’Malley’s expanded the business. “I’ve pretty much expanded to the limits of my abilities [at the shop]. I don’t have more room for more boats,” he said.
BISK rents sea kayaks and stand up paddleboards and O’Malley is considering getting sit-on-top kayaks in the future. “Sit-on-tops are a lot safer, a lot easier to get back on top of if you flip over.”
There are group paddle options, Paddle Canada certified lessons and tours ranging from three hours to several days, sometimes with a twist (for example, last weekend there was a three-day kayak and yoga retreat).
Multi-day trips are an O’Malley era addition to BISK.
“There are really only two kayak shops in the Lower Mainland right now,” said O’Malley. “We are the only ones that are offering multi-day trips in an area that is stunningly gorgeous, right in people’s backyard.”
They take advantage of the Sea to Sky Marine Trail established as part of TransCanada Trail and the BC Marine Trails Network in 2015.
“So people don’t need to travel up into northern B.C. to go on a multi-day trip,” said O’Malley.
Kids camps have always been a part of the business, but for the first time this summer, O’Malley ran six weeks of kids camps and two weeks of junior skills camps.
The Round Bowen Challenge – the annual self-propelled boat race around the island – was one thing O’Malley couldn’t wrangle enthusiasm for. “I’m not a racer. It was always kind of hard for me to get behind. It was a ton of organizing. It was right leading up to my really busy season,” he said. “I tried my hardest for the first five years and then [stepped] away.”
O’Malley hosted the 18th annual challenge in 2018 and then left the race to other paddlers to organize – and a couple of Round Bowen Challenge-ish races have taken place in the years since.
To celebrate 25 years, BISK had a number of specials over the summer months as well as group paddles on Sunday evenings (“It’s such a beautiful time to be on the water I’m just trying to do just trying to encourage people to get out at that time of the day.”) BISK also donated a portion of proceeds from each tour to My Sea to Sky – an organization formed in 2014 to “defend, protect, and restore Átl’ḵa7tsem / Howe Sound.”
When asked if he’s found a favourite part of the sound, O’Malley points to the McNabb Creek area and the channel around the northern part of Gambier Island. “It’s just spectacular paddling up there.”
All in all?
“I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be able to run a small business in such a great community,” said O’Malley. “Every day, I feel pretty lucky to be here.
“My office is pretty amazing.”
BISK is now on fall hours – open Wednesday through Sunday.
Editor’s note: The Undercurrent spoke with O’Malley in July.