The trials of Guyness 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY G.D. MAXWELL
  • Photo by G.D. Maxwell

It either took an extraordinary mental sense of spatial topography or the advent of the airplane to comprehend, but seemingly lost to history is the name or names of the first people to wonder at the geological oddity that has become Bowron Lake Provincial Park.

While the area had been home to First Nations peoples who must have lived fat off the abundant wildlife and fish in the chain's deep, cold lakes, it was that uniquely Euro-centric drive to get away from it all or discover golden riches that brought settlers who eventually understood the need to curb their — and others — insatiable lust for meat and pelts, gold and other minerals.

In the early part of the last century, several of them understood the only way to conserve what they valued most was to create a conservation area where no one could hunt and the rapidly dwindling population of moose, bear, beaver, marten and other fur bearers could live and reproduce without being disturbed.

Yet reading the histories of early settlers, there is still no clue as to who might have had that eureka moment, the glimmer of understanding that this unusual geological parallelogram of lakes was, if not unique, certainly very rare. But whoever was responsible, I am forever in their debt.

It's an easy drive from Whistler, even easier from Smilin' Dog, and I'm well into it for the fourth, but undoubtedly not the last, time.

I'd heard about Bowron when I lived in Onterrible. It was spoken of in reverent tones by people who were nonetheless pretty sure there was nothing better than to wet a canoe in Algonquin or Temagami. "There's this place in B.C., 115-kilometre canoe circuit with only 10 kilometres or less of portages and the most rugged mountains you've ever seen."

So when the first opportunity arose, I jumped. That was in the mid-1990s and although I was an experienced canoeist, I was still a Guy and therefore frequently stupid as only a Guy can be. That stupidity manifested itself in one terrible decision and several missed opportunities.

"We're going to rent wheels for the canoe so we don't have to portage it on our backs," said Mean Dan Greene, who'd offered the idea of doing the circuit.

"You pussy," I believe I replied. I mean, seriously, what kind of Guy pushes a canoe over a portage trail on wheels? The voyageurs would laugh at us from their graves. We'd be spitting on the very essence of Canadian heritage. Wheels? Pffft!

Being more experienced and a bit older, Dan had already wrestled his Guyness to the ground. He rented wheels. I laughed at him and kept making clucking chicken noises.

Until the high point of the second portage.

Bowron frontloads its portage trails. Before you even wet your canoe, after you've checked in at the ranger station and had your canoe load (?) weighed, gotten the skinny on the latest grizzly sightings and been reminded to pack it out if you packed it in, there's a 2.4km portage... half of which is uphill.

Somewhere before that hill is crested, I noticed what looked like a very high hitching post. It didn't take long to figure out it was a canoe rest for Guys stupid enough to carry their canoes on their backs. I was sweating, wobbly-legged, and winded. Dan was whistling.

"You need a rest?"

"Just adjusting the load," I lied.

At the end of the portage, Dan and the delightful Ele easily unstrapped the wheels and loaded their canoe for the short paddle across Kibbee Lake. I didn't see that happen because I was schlepping back across the portage to get my pack, which I couldn't take because I had the canoe and a smaller food pack. Dan and Ele had their food packs — and up to 60 pounds of stuff! — riding comfortably in their canoe. The rest of their gear was on their backs. They weren't even sweating.

"Pussys," I grumbled as I came back, only to discover they'd had a nice snack and were pushing off from shore.

But somewhere on the portage from Kibbee to Indian Point Lake, the second longest at two kilometres, mired in a mud pit, struggling to stay upright, cursing when the bow of my canoe tangled in a low-hanging branch and nearly ripped my shoulders off, my Guyness began to melt away. Damn, I wanted wheels (insert whimpering noise here).

The rest of the portages were mercifully short and days apart. But in the meantime, I scrabbled around on the ground, looking for, if not comfortable, at least not debilitating seating. Dan and Ele had nice, comfy beach chairs, which I'd naturally laughed at and kidded them about.

But I've learned. I've grown. I've left that part of my Guyness behind.

The last Bowron trip and this one I'm in the middle of are what I like to think of as luxury camping. Wheels? Absolutely. Full-size lawn chairs? Laugh if you will but I'll be sitting pretty, sipping afternoon cocktails while you paddle by hoping there's an empty tent pad at the campsite I set up earlier in the day.

Freeze-dried kibble? Not on your life.

While it still remains a mystery to me why dry ice is such an unknown commodity in Canada, I'm gratified to find out that not only does Praxair — apparently the only purveyor in B.C. — sell it but there's one in Williams Lake, right on the road to Bowron. If you're unfamiliar with it, dry ice is the solid state of carbon dioxide. It's much colder than water ice, it sublimates from its solid state directly to a gas, hence no water in the bottom of your cooler, and if you have enough of it your food stays frozen for, perhaps, 10 days.

So on this trip, the kibble of Guyness has given way to steak, chops, prepared and frozen stew, chili, butter chicken and other entrees. While called wilderness, Bowron is wilderness-lite as far as the amenities of camping go.

But the landscape, the meeting of disparate mountains created by the geologic forces of the Quesnel Highlands in the west and the Cariboo mountains in the east, is rugged and wild. Peaks rise over 2,000 metres directly from the shores of long — 38 km — and narrow Issac Lake, giving it a fjord-like appearance and feel. Further south and east, the mountains of the Quesnel Highlands are broader and more rounded, offering a distinctly different experience.

And this time of year, it's an experience I get to share with only a few. The throngs of summer are gone and they've taken the mosquitoes with them. The nights are cold and just maybe there'll be a light skiff of snow one morning.

Listen closely and you can hear the song of the paddle.



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