FROM THE COCKPIT of a Jet Ranger B3 helicopter hovering at 4,000 metres altitude, Vancouver Island, B.C.'s Insular Mountain range looks simultaneously small and immense. Thin veins of snow mark the rock faces, looking like you could pinch them between your fingers, and the terrain's proud pines resemble a field of green bristles. But when you raise your eyes to the skyline, taking in the churning grey waters of the Pacific Ocean and the endless crags and peaks of the range, you realize just how expansive the landscape is.
This is the vantage point from which Bastian Fleury sees the world. Fleury's been a helicopter pilot with 49North Helicopters for eight years. During that time, he's taken adventure-seekers heli-skiing, assisted film crews with aerial video shoots, performed surveying work, fought fires and trained other pilots.
But over the last four years, 49North Helicopters, which is based out of Campbell River, B.C., has tapped into a new market: heli-paddleboarding. In the spring, when the snow and ice melt, they create channels and lakes of luminescent blue glacial water that form on the plateaus of B.C.'s mountains, deep enough to take a paddle board or kayak on.
Above: Paddleboarders are taken by helicopter to some incredible places in B.C.
The snow melting on top of the ice is what creates the tropical blue colouring, Fleury says. The colour only lasts for about two months, but it marks the beginning of the heli-paddleboarding season.
The season’s length varies depending on how much snow B.C. gets over the winter and how long it takes to melt. "Usually we're able to start in mid-May and go until winter, which is when everything starts freezing again; I'd say around mid-October," Fleury says. "Our busy season is June to end of September."
As part of the service, 49North Helicopters picks you up in Campbell River, or from your resort, Bastian adds, and flies you up into the mountain ranges of Vancouver Island or mainland B.C. With the paddleboards and kayaks strapped to racks along the sides of the helicopter, the flight can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on which high-altitude lake you’re flying to.
James Headrick, a certified Paddle Canada guide, is the one who leads most of the heli-paddleboarding tours. He runs Island Life Expeditions, a guided tour company that partnered with 49North Helicopters in 2018 to provide the service. Headrick says that he and a 49North Helicopters pilot will fly around the mountain range days before a heli-paddleboarding tour scouting desirable locations.
Above: Enthusiasts find themselves gliding on glacial rivers the likes of which they've never seen.
The main criteria for a good location is that it should be visually stunning and safe to land, Headrick says. He particularly likes when a lake spills over the side of the plateau creating a waterfall, or when there’s a glacier on the mountain. “Some of the ice shelves are 60 feet (18m) high,” he says.
The paddleboarding session can last as long as three hours. Headrick typically starts by going over some paddleboarding techniques and safety tips before guiding guests out onto the lake where they'll have the opportunity to traverse floating glaciers and ice caves.
If you happen to fall in, prepare for an ice bath. The water is cold, but not dangerously so. If guests are up for it, Headrick typically talks them into trying a quick polar bear dip. But paddling around for three hours can become repetitive. If you’re looking for a change, and the guide says conditions are safe, there is an opportunity to hike around the area.
Blackcomb Helicopters, a Whistler-based company, also offers heli-paddleboarding, and its service includes a catered picnic prepared by chefs at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. You can dine on fresh fruits and veggies, wraps, a selection of prepared meats, and maybe even a bottle of champagne, all while lounging lakeside enjoying the mountain view.
Above: The thrill of heli-paddleboarding doesn't come cheap with enthusiasts paying as much as $2,600 a trip.
In terms of numbers, both Blackcomb Helicopters and 49North Helicopters can accommodate around four guests, plus a guide. Typically, it’s couples or families booking, says Nicola Horsfall, the marketing specialist for Blackcomb Helicopters. But the company has done corporate events in the past, flying multiple helicopters up to the mountain lakes. "I think the biggest one we've done has been about 10 people," Horsfall says.
While heli-paddleboarding is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, some guests may feel guilty about the indulgence. We do live in a climate emergency after all, one where the carbon produced by helicopter tourism can seem imprudent, pushing us closer to catastrophe. But this guilt is something that’s also rankled Blackcomb Helicopters. That’s why the company introduced a carbon offset program in 2018. The company calculates the greenhouse gasses emitted during each flight, as well as its day-to-day operations, and then purchases an equivalent amount in carbon offset money that goes towards supporting conservation efforts in B.C.
"A carbon offset represents a one tonne reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. These emission reductions are validated and verified by third-party auditors to ensure that they are real and would not have taken place without the funding provided by carbon offsets," Blackcomb Helicopters' website reads.
The carbon offsets purchased by the company go towards funding the Darkwoods Forest Carbon Project, a forest management project run by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which works towards improving the planet’s climate through biodiversity and ecosystem initiatives.
With your conscience soothed, the only other barrier to grapple with is price. Paddling among the clouds isn’t cheap. With the catered lunch, Blackcomb Helicopters will run you $2,465 for a group of two, with each additional person costing an extra $270, and 49North Helicopters charges $1,590 per person.
But Horsfall says the experience is worth the price tag. Beyond the stunning lake views, her favourite part is the remoteness; how quiet the mountains are. "It's quite busy in Whistler, so it's nice to have an escape; somewhere completely to yourself."