Paddling Paradise in the Kootenays: Cranbrook, BC Offers Lakes and River Runs for All Abilities

Following an unplanned disembarkation from a standup paddleboard into Jimsmith Lake, south of Cranbrook, British Columbia, I found myself sitting, shivering, on the dock of a local resident I’ve never met.

“Want a cookie?” one of my paddling companions, a considerably more proficient SUPer, asks. “The owner of this dock leaves this plastic tub of cookies out for the paddlers. And,” she smiles, gesturing toward a plastic keg that looks like a naval mine, “there’s beer too.”

I just met my fellow paddlers, part of an informal weekly paddling meetup that cycles through the Cranbrook area’s dozens of lakes, but I already felt like one of the tribe even though I’m an unseasoned SUPer and two of the group are professional paddlers. Then, in what I come to realize is typical Cranbrook fashion, even the pros are modest about the city’s many paddling accolades.

Set within a broad valley in the rainshadow of the Kootenay Rockies, at the halfway point between Spokane and Calgary, Cranbrook always served as a transportation hub for trains, planes, fur traders and fruit growers. Today, Cranbrook has transitioned from way station to destination. The city is leveraging its central location on the Powder Highway, and its status as the sunshine capitol of British Columbia, to attract recreationists year-round for golf, cycling and skiing at nearby Kimberley and Fernie Alpine Resorts.

Photo of paddleboarder by Aaron Theisen.
Photo: Aaron Theisen

In paddling circles, the Cranbrook area is quietly revered for its world-class whitewater; many of the sport’s top professionals train here. But it’s not entirely experts-only recreation. On the contrary, the common phrase I heard used to describe Cranbrook’s paddling and other outdoor activities during my visits there was “something for everyone.”

Just Liquid Sports is the paddling hub for everyone, beginner to badass. (The shop recently moved to a larger location in downtown Cranbrook in April.) Owner Rob Porter, the professional kayaker who watched my wet exit from the SUP, is the local paddling proselytizer. Although he can claim numerous first descents on East Kootenay waterfalls, including Bull River Falls and Moyie Falls, he’s just as eager to connect with first-timers.

The shop hosts Whitewater Tuesdays every week on the Bull River halfway between Cranbrook and Elko. Beginners probably won’t get bucked on this 3k class II/III stretch of the rarely raging Bull, but proficient paddlers can get in multiple runs.

The Wednesday Community Lake Paddle Nights are more of a happy-hour affair, with participants pairing a nearby lake with its closest après-paddle spot, such as Fisher Peak Brewing in downtown Cranbrook. In addition to Jimsmith Lake, St. Mary’s Lake and the St. Mary River, near Kimberley, are also popular Paddle Night destinations. No matter the location, strangers and locals alike, are apt to find a cold beer (whether stored safely on a dock or stashed in a dry bag) and a welcoming community. //

Aaron is a regular contributor to numerous outdoor and lifestyle magazines including Out There Monthly, NW Travel, and Washington Trails.


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