It’s a remarkably blue British Columbia day, t-shirt weather in early May, as I paddle through coastal islands. Our little group of five people in three kayaks is pondering petroglyphs, guessing at the meaning of the red drawings.

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“Have you ever seen barnacles feed?” asks our leader, naturalist Emily Grubb. We scoot right up to where water meets rock and lean so far I fear we’ll tip over, concentrating on barnacles below. It takes a while to focus our eyes just right, but then we see it — little fanlike protrusions sticking up through the barnacles’ holes, combing the water for tasty microorganisms.

Related: Cruise through the Galapagos on a wildlife expedition

It’s this sort of small micro-moment where we slow down and really look at our surroundings that a trip with Maple Leaf Adventures is all about. In my five days of cruising Desolation Sound, I felt like I had my own fanlike protrusions out, quietly taking in all the scenery and wildlife at a slow pace.

Maple Leaf Adventures

Maple Leaf Adventures is based in Victoria, British Columbia. The company has three distinctive boats that cruise coastal British Columbia and Alaska. I was on the posh 138-foot catamaran Cascadia, a spacious vessel with 12 staterooms the size of hotel rooms, a hot tub, a large lounge and plenty of places around the boat to hang out and take in the scenery.

Maple Leaf’s other two vessels are historic maritime artifacts — much more interesting than Cascadia, but also more cramped. Their classic schooner Maple Leaf was built in Vancouver in 1904 and is British Columbia’s biggest tall ship. I got a chance to tour it while it was docked in Campbell River on Vancouver Island and boy, is it compact! The Maple Leaf can accommodate up to eight passengers, who all sleep in bunks in the hold behind curtains. Start the cruise as strangers, come home as family.

Swell, the third vessel, is a classic tugboat built in 1912. It accommodates up to 12 guests. While the cabins are small, it does have a hot tub.

Prospective passengers tend to identify with one boat or another as soon as they look on the website, Greg Shea told me. Shea was our expedition leader. He also captains the Maple Leaf.

“All the Maple Leaf guests come on and they’ll say, ‘There was no choice. We were definitely coming on the Maple Leaf.’ And then other people are like, ‘Oh, that tug is just so beautiful. I had to go on that one.’”

The nationality of passengers varies depending on the itinerary. There were only 12 passengers on my cruise to Desolation Sound — nine Canadians and three Americans. Shea said Canadians tend to predominate on voyages around Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. The latter is an archipelago off Canada’s northern Pacific coast, which is important to First Nations cultural history.

“Partly with the whole energy behind the First Nations and Canadians trying to basically come to grips with reconciliation and what that might mean,” Shea said. “And just trying to gather more sense of what exactly First Nations culture and history is. I think going to Haida Gwaii is a really great opportunity to have a bit of a look into that lens.” The Great Bear Rainforest trip draws European visitors keen on seeing a white spirit bear, while Americans fill the Alaska cruises.

The Canadian government has commended Maple Leaf as a leader in responsible tourism. The company supports organizations working for positive change on the British Columbia coast, and recently committed $100,000 over 10 years to Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Great Bear Rainforest. 

Cascadia activities

I’ve been on a half dozen cruises before, and was used to boats covering more miles, often traveling at night so we’d wake up at a new destination. Instead, the Cascadia poked along in slow motion. We might motor up a scenic inlet for a couple of hours, marveling at waterfalls and snowy peaks. Then we’d drop anchor and spend all afternoon puttering around in tenders, the smaller boats that would ferry us into places too shallow or narrow for Cascadia. There were beach walks and short hikes in forests. One of the passengers went off fishing with the captain.

The tenders were perfect for looking for pictographs on cliff faces and searching for wildlife. We were a bit early for migrating humpback whales, so unfortunately didn’t see them. But we saw lots of seals and sea lions and two black bears. I got so excited I made the amateur mistake of yelling, “Look, a bear!” when I spotted the first one from the tender. Oh, yeah, they have ears, too, and it loped off into the forest. The second one we watched through binoculars as it ate barnacles off a big stick like it was street food. One day a pod of Dahl’s porpoises played in the Cascadia’s wake, their sleek bodies arcing in and out of the water. And there were lots and lots of seabirds.

Visiting Mitlenatch Island

One day we visited Mitlenatch Island, one of the most important nesting sites for seabirds in the Georgia Strait, the body of water between Vancouver and mainland British Columbia. Mitlenatch is in a rain shadow and First Nations people have historically burned the island to cultivate camas for its edible bulb. So instead of forest cover, Mitlenatch abounds in spring wildflowers and is dry enough for cactus to grow. Which is a bit of a shock this far north.

Volunteer Heidi Tonn greeted us as we landed on the island. She and her partner have spent at least a week here every summer for 30 years as part of a volunteer warden program to protect nesting seabirds. We walk up narrow paths lined with chocolate lilies, pink sea blush and yellow monkey flowers to a small blind where we can watch glaucous-winged gulls. There’s nobody on the island except our group, four volunteers and a mysterious taciturn kayaker. Mitlenatch is only accessible by boat, and then only if the weather is favorable. You can see why the gulls, black oystercatchers and other seabirds would like nesting here.

Inner workings of the Cascadia

We had the chance to get behind-the-scenes looks at parts of the Cascadia. The bridge is always open, so I watched things from the captain’s viewpoint a couple of times. Almost all the passengers jumped at the chance to tour the engine room and the galley. Chef Collin Robertson showed us around his compact domain where he prepares all the food for guests and crew. The wines and seafood are all local.

“Once we start heading up to Haida Gwaii, we’re going to start getting foraged mushrooms from certain drop-offs. We’ll be getting sea asparagus, just to keep it local and kind of make it a little bit more flashy,” he said.

I was the only vegan onboard, but there was also a pescatarian. Robertson made sure we had food that was just as abundant and beautifully plated as everyone else’s.

Our last night was warm enough to eat dinner on the aft deck. We were anchored by a spot called Shark Spit, which disappeared as the tide came in. The wine flowed and the courses kept coming as we sat at two long tables and watched the sunset. It kind of makes me wonder about the point of moving fast when instead you can sit in one place and take it all in.

Photography by Teresa Bergen

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