Taking Flight: Kiteboarding on Nitinat Lake

On the west of Vancouver Island, Nitinat Lake attracts thousands of kiters looking to fly like the wind

Credit: Susan Hollis

A kiteboarder prepares his equipment in the morning winds on Nitinat Lake

Wind has long been viewed as an abundant and simple fuel for transportation – anyone with a sail can make use of it and at Vancouver Island’s Nitinat Lake, dedicated kiteboarders and windsurfers do just that. I am trying to become one of them

For a few months each summer when the sun gets hot enough to rouse the region’s steady thermal winds, a bloom of tents and wing-shaped inflatable kites scatter along Nitinat’s shores.

On a morning in early July my red Ocean Rodeo sail was among them, though I was slightly trepidatious about launching it from land.

After a bad first experience in Squamish five years ago I was a bit tense at the thought of being strapped to a seven-meter kite in windy conditions, but everyone in the kiting community had assured me that Nitinat was the place to regain my confidence.

Safe Kiteboarding

My boyfriend Alex, an experienced kiteboarder whose enthusiasm for the sport has everything to do with my willingness to give it another shot, talked me through the setup and double-checked my efforts.

Properly attaching a kite to its lines, the lines to the bar, and bar to the harness is key to a safe kiting experience – sloppy execution at this stage can create malfunctions in the quick release function designed to de-power a kite instantly when trouble occurs, which is what happened to me five years ago. I asked him to recheck it and we sat back to wait.

Like clockwork, the sun’s slow ascent kicked the air into high gear at 11 a.m. and the quiet morning breeze was replaced by steady 20-knot winds. The 55 or so kiteboarders who had been sipping coffee in lawn chairs along the shoreline simultaneously immersed themselves in their gear, choosing kite sizes according to wind speeds and pumping them up with vigor.

Wind Junkies

A few minutes later the lake was dotted with kites doing figure eights over their accelerated, yahooing commanders. After launching mine, Alex held the loop on the back of my harness and we waded into the lake. By keeping the kite between the lightly powered 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock positions directly above me I was able to body drag a safe distance from land, Alex instructing from behind. When we were about fifty feet from shore, he let go of my harness and gave the go ahead to dip the kite lower into the wind – a fully powered position that pulls the kiteboarder up and out of the water.

After a few timid attempts I dropped the kite into the power zone and popped up and out of the water. I only stayed up for a short 10-metre ride, but with Alex cheering from the water behind me, I managed to do it a few more times before reaching the end of the downwind journey and, lacking the skills to kite back upwind, landed my kite and walked back up the beach to my start position.

Ditidaht First Nations at Nitinat Lake

Tucked just offshore, a local First Nations carver named Russell watched our antics from the fat cedar totem pole he had been working on for the past few weeks. We had met him the day before after asking permission to take photos of the carvings on his house on the main road to the lake. He had invited us to see the totem, tucked into the brush about two kilometres down the beach from our tent and discernable by the sweet smell of cedar coming from the carve spot.

Nitinat Lake is the traditional home of the Ditidaht First Nations, who have long used the saltwater fjord for hunting, fishing and crabbing. Today they also run the local campsite, general store, motel and gas station, and like to poke gentle fun at the influx of sunburned summer wind junkies who flock to the region.

A few years ago kiteboarding was still a fringe sport, something for adrenaline junkies or hardcore windsurfers who had grown bored with their pastime. Kiting spots were well-kept secrets for those-in-the-know and equipment was often jury-rigged to make it go.

Now, places like Nitinat – with abundant winds, a kite school and safe launch beaches – attract thousands of kiters. The draw could be that kiteboarding offers athletes the speed of waterskiing or wakeboarding combined with the weightlessness of paragliding.

For me it’s the promise of flight over magnificent bodies of water both in my home province and abroad. Though the learning curve is steep, it’s not long and with a few days of proper coaching on the water most folks are hooked and gunning for more.

After an emergency-free experience on Nitinat that morning, I can finally say I am one of them.

See more photos of kiteboarders at Nitinat Lake