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Kayaking with Karla

The sea looks calm in Snug Cove but a little later, and on the other side of the island, it is a different story.

The sea looks calm in Snug Cove but a little later, and on the other side of the island, it is a different story. Karla Everitt has agreed to explain the basics of kayaking and she is now and then casting a nervous glance at the waves that grow choppier by the minute.

First, there are the pedals to adjust. Still safely on the beach, I ease into the kayak and pull the straps until it feels right (or does it?). Then come the tips for holding the paddles (hands shoulder-width and knuckles lined up with the blades), followed by instructions on how to paddle (in an even motion and not too deep). On dry land, it all makes sense. The sun and the sky are inviting but the water is not. Karla senses my unease and laughs, "You'll be fine. We can always turn around when it gets too rough." I notice her word choice: "when" - not "if".

In goes my kayak (with the camera on board) and I follow while mentally replaying Karla's instructions in my head, "Pressure from the left foot makes you turn left with the help of paddling on the right." Too focused on going into the right direction, I forget the warning about dipping the paddle with too much force. I'm too preoccupied with the steering and don't even notice the wobble of the kayak but Karla has a moment of worry. Then she is in her kayak and catches up fast, smiling her dazzling smile.

"Hey, I've taught you everything I know," she says while we circle around the few boats moored in Tunstall Bay. I know she means to reassure me and I smile back even though I do not believe a word. Karla has been working at Bowen Island Sea Kayaking ( for 13 years, or 13 summers, to be more precise. "I'm pretty much there every day," she says. She remembers the days when she was 16 - she would go down to the dock at 9 a.m. and not come back up until 2 that afternoon.

Business during the last three summers hasn't been so great because the weather was cold, wet and unpredictable but Karla has high hopes for this season. She started as an assistant, then moved on to become senior guide. A few years ago, it was just Martin Clarke, her and another assistant who were responsible for everything. Organizing tours, answering phones, running the kayak rental, teaching the kids' camps and fetching the boats from the other side of the island. Now, there is additional staff and Karla's responsibilities have changed to managing the kayak shop.

Karla must have given that kind of a kayak lessons a thousand of times and, as she paddles alongside me, it looks as if this were her most natural mode of transportation.

Looking at her ease and confidence, I can imagine why people feel safe with her and she often goes out with the kids' camps (with Bowen youth or kids from West Van). Both my daughters have gone paddling with Karla and have nothing but the highest praise for her (not only does she know her stuff, she's also a lot of fun to be with).

"Getting kids to paddle is a great thing," Karla says. "I'd like to have more Bowen kids sign up." The programs also entice adults to come out, Karla says and adds with a smile, "especially on days like today, after work. Paddling is a great de-stressor."

I'm not quite sure I agree as the waves lap at the side of my kayak. I try to stay on a parallel course to Karla's but don't have the right touch. Karla is telling me about the Round Bowen Kayak Race and I can just imagine zig-zagging back and forth and covering many more miles in an effort to stay on course.

The Round Bowen Kayaking Race was canceled this year but usually it is a big event. "It's cool," Karla says. "It's the longest one-day paddle race in North America and it's grown a lot since the first time it happened." Karla said the race attracts competitors from all over B.C. as well as California and not only kayakers but also stand-up paddlers and surf skiers complete the race.

The average time for kayakers to go around Bowen is about four hours but it's not an easy race and Karla vividly remembers her first time. "I was 16," she said. "And I was the last paddler to come in. When I approached Snug Cove, I had a tear of victory in my eyes because I had completed the challenge. I was so stiff, I had to paddle with my arms held straight. Now I do it every year, it is so much fun."

Karla has already gone around the island a few times this year and has competed in the race nine or 10 times. She sees it as a real community event, from the people manning the safety boats to the paddlers and the party on the pier afterwards.

The growing numbers of kayakers in the race reflect a bigger trend, Karla thinks. "Ten years ago, only a few people kayaked, now it's more mainstream," she says. And Bowen Island Sea Kayaking can definitely benefit from the popularity. "There is a list of kayaking shops and rentals in Vancouver but with most of them it's urban paddling. You have to maneuver around the little tug boats and power boats," she says. "Here, we are less than an hour away from downtown but we could be anywhere in B.C." Karla gestures toward the open channel that stretches behind Paisley Island with the vague outline of Vancouver Island in the background. A seal splashes in the water, not close enough to reach for the camera but noticeable, especially when it splashes again.

"And the mountains in Howe Sound are so spectacular," Karla said. "I used to guide in Belize in the winter and everything there is so flat. When I came back, it felt like I saw the mountains for the first time, how they rise straight out of the water. Now I'm aware of them every time I'm on water."

The first time Karla went kayaking was on a school trip with Island Pacific School (IPS), a Bowen Island middle school that takes its students on a kayak trip every year. "I kayaked with IPS in Grade 7 and Martin [Clarke] said I was a natural," Karla recalls. From that time on, she wanted to work at the kayak shop. When she was 16, she was told that Clarke was looking for staff. She was hired and the job hasn't lost its lustre of appeal. "It's cool," Karla says, adding that Clarke has owned the kayak shop for 16 years, making it one of the longest running businesses on Bowen Island with one owner. "Everything else keeps changing hands," Karla says. "And Martin is the best person I've ever worked for. Kayaking is super cool but if you have a lame boss, it's not really worth it."

Karla usually leaves in the middle of October to work in warmer climes before coming back in April. "Everyone goes away in the winter and in the summer, the 'familia' is reunited," she says, adding that it makes sense for her to find a way to do what she is passionate about all year round. "With this lifestyle, I have a bit of travel and adventure and stability in the summer." Karla says that some of her friends envy her. "For me, this beats working in a cubicle, I'm not raking in millions of dollars every year but have a lot of adventures. I think it would get more complicated if you want to have kids and family but I plan to keep that lifestyle going for as long as it works for me."

We're heading towards the point when Karla suggests, "You know what? Let's head back and go out another day when it's calmer." She adds that it's OK to paddle but having a chat and taking photos might be challenging.

When we come up to the beach, an eagle circles overhead before veering off towards the cape. Karla is right, it's nice to have a challenge sometimes but on other occasions, an easy ride is called for. And I can look forward to spending a bit more time with her.