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The heli adventure tour that moves at a glacial pace

Compass Heli Tours takes guests to kayak through glacial lakes in a remote area of British Columbia

Posted: Jun 28, 2020 3:20 PM
Updated: Jun 28, 2020 3:20 PM

As the helicopter swoops over the landing site, the clouds part to reveal a bluebird day. From the distance, it's all jagged peaks, crackling ice and snow-covered glacial fields as far as the eye can see.

But then after the 30-minute flight over dense forests and canyons draped with waterfalls, the showstopper appears: a brilliantly blue crescent-shaped lake.

This remote section of British Columbia's backcountry would be the group's playground for the next four hours. A dreamy scene, indeed, and exactly what Virginia-based Ryan George and his five buddies, from Virginia and California, had been anticipating for the past 14 months.

That's how far ahead they planned the dream excursion with Compass Heli Tours, an adventure outfitter based in Abbotsford, near Vancouver.

Now that it's finally a reality, George feels a bit like James Bond arriving at a secret base camp to prep for a clandestine mission.

"You can't help but swagger when you get out of a helicopter in a place so epic," he says.

This area is so remote, in fact, that most of the lakes don't have names.

Nick Drader, CEO of Compass Heli Tours, simply calls it paradise. And it's easy to see why. There's astounding beauty in all directions and not a soul in sight. The nearest road is miles away.

Soon after arriving (George and three friends in one chopper and two more friends in another chopper), Drader unloads the gear and gives a quick safety briefing. With that, the kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding begins. The six friends immediately set out to explore the lake, captivated by the floating ice.

For a while they delight in batting practice, using their paddles to hit snowballs onto the riverbank.

"The texture of the submerged ice reminded me of submerged portions of Antarctic icebergs, only with clearer, brighter water," George says. "The bottom of the lake looms midnight blue in cracks, and the gradients of blue in between make irreproducible art."

The water is about seven feet deep in most sections, but where the ice presses up from the deeper part of the glacier it is about 40 feet deep. So as their glacier kayaking wraps up, several of them strip down to their undies and plunge into the frigid water.

Because, why not?

Transformed into five-year-olds, the 40-somethings are soaking up every facet surrounding them.

"One of my buddies said this was more epic than any of the days his kids were born," George recalls.

Post-kayaking, they chopper over to another lake at a lower elevation. Here, they lunch at a sandbar, guarded on three sides by vertical mountains, and swap adventure stories.

Dream job

It's all thanks to Drader, the brains behind Compass Heli Tours. Besides being the CEO, he also serves as the pilot, chief photographer and lead guide.

"Most of my career has been spent in the mountains, and it's where I feel most at home flying," he says.

Prior to launching this company, Drader worked solely on supporting sustainable forest practices and wildfire suppression for nine years. When the reforestation budget was cut, though, he was forced to leave the industry. In 2017, he launched Compass Heli Tours so he could show people the grand sights he'd been treated to for so many years.

His work days are now spent kayaking on pristine lakes straight out of a tourism brochure, photographing people having the time of their lives and flying by waterfalls, which appear to flow directly from the clouds thanks to the dramatic weather conditions.

Drader even arranges elopements where the bride chooses the destination on a map, ensuring no two ceremony locations are the same. Add to that the chance of spotting mountain goats, bears and wolverines, and you have a pretty epic work life on your hands.

"It's quite possible I have the greatest job in the world," he says. "These remote locations have only been visited by a handful of adventure enthusiasts."

The exclusivity is a huge part of the appeal.

"It's so quiet up there," says George. "You can feel stress melt off you. Your heart returns to a primal quietness."

Untouched wilderness

For Brisbane-based Lisa Michele Burns, who took the tour in late May 2018, the main draw was being able to capture the beauty on camera. As photographer and editor of "The Wandering Lens" blog, it was a long-time dream to document meltwater lakes, which are created when temperatures start to rise and the ice thaws.

"The colors up there are so stare-worthy, it's really hard to take your eyes away from the brilliant blue streams that wind their way around the lake," she says. "Nick also took our group on a short snowy hike, allowing us to see it from up higher while also having spectacular views across to surrounding peaks."

With no man-made noises around, the sound of crackling ice was music to her ears. Paddling at her own pace, peering down into the frozen depths below, she floated slowly over bubbles and pockets. Much of her time was spent leaning over the kayak with her underwater camera snapping split shots with blue skies above, as well as the otherworldly shapes below.

"It's definitely an expensive day trip, but it is, without a doubt, one of the best days I've ever spent in the outdoors," she says.

Best time to go

Planning ahead for this trip is key. Each year, as the snow starts to melt from late May to early July, is when the lake turns a lovely shade of aquamarine. The ice begins to break up around that time. And come August, icebergs fill the river-like crescent. By September, the lake is mostly ice-free, and it freezes over again at the end of the month.

"August is my favorite time at this lake because you can actually see the glacier," Drader says. "In June there's still three meters of snow covering the glacier, so guests have no idea it's there. August is also wildflower season, and there's plenty of those hiding in the harsh rocky environment exposed by the receding ice."

"I couldn't inhale the wonder and beauty and good fortune enough," George says. "It's not necessarily what you're doing as much as where you're doing it and how you got there. Throughout the millennia of human existence and the billions of people on the planet, we represented a pinprick of humanity to stand and walk and float where we were."

Check it out yourself

Best part is, anyone of most abilities can do this: No previous kayaking or paddleboarding experience is necessary. You set your own pace and kayak as much or as little as you'd like.

A 4-person heli-kayaking excursion costs $5,250 CAD ($3,821) and lasts four hours. Tours run from June to September.

Canada's border is still closed through at least July 21, so right now these tours are only available to Canadians. International travelers may make reservations for future trips, however.

Compass Heli Tours, 1255 Townline Rd, Unit 102, Abbotsford, BC, V2T6E1; +1 (778) 242-1145

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