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Travel Story - The Bowron Lakes

Scenery the world comes to B.C. to see

By G.D. Maxwell

Bowron Lakes Provincial Park is a perfect canoe experience for anyone who likes to eat their wilderness with a heaping side of safety, convenience and camaraderie. In a province full of mountains and lakes, the two have teamed up to create a nearly geometric parallelogram of 12 lakes linked by a handful of meandering rivers. Covering 115 km from start to finish, the route has a mercifully short 9 km of portages. Unmercifully, fully 2.5 of them are schlepped before you ever wet a paddle.

Tucked into a geological curiosity in the Cariboo mountains, 115 km east of Quesnel; 800 km north of Vancouver; nine hours drivin’ time from Whistler; 30 km from Wells, a town worth mentioning since it’s the first place outside the park to pick up any selection of cold beer, Bowron is a destination canoeing experience. It’s known around the world as evidenced by the scope of languages you hear on the circuit. Every other canoe is coupled by people from Germany, Sweden, Austria or Switzerland. Conversations around oft-shared campfires sound like plenary sessions of the UN for cripesakes.

About those portages. The good news is the portage trails are, for the most part, highway smooth and largely traversed by people pushing and pulling their canoes on carts. Carts can be rented at either Becker’s Lodge or Bowron Lake Lodge just outside the park entrance. If they still have old carts and "better" carts, spring for a good one or be sure you have bailing wire and duct tape – and a tire patch kit – handy.

I’ve used a cart and not used a cart. Use a cart. If you need convincing, consider this. Cart = 1 trip on each portage trail. No cart = 3 trips. You can roll up to 35 pounds of gear inside your canoe according to park rules. That’s 35 pounds you don’t have to carry on your back. In Max Terms, that’s a cooler full of steak and lobster on dry ice, a couple of lexan bottles of cab sav and two full-size lawn chairs. Ah, Wilderness.

Prior to humping that first portage, you have to check in and attend an "orientation" session at either 9 a.m. or noon. It’s a basic don’t feed the bears and how to signal for help pep talk but they’re sticklers and won’t let you set out until you’ve been oriented.

Paddlers doing the full circuit travel clockwise, putting their boats in on Kibbee Lake for a short paddle to, ironically, the second longest portage on the circuit. At the end of Kibbee and the beginning of the next lake, Indianpoint, there are campsites. Camping in Bowron is a very controlled affair. You have to use established sites and you’d better be meticulous. Each site is equipped with a metal-grated fire ring, a steel-doored food cache and a pit toilet somewhere nearby. A sprinkling of a dozen or so cabins and shelters provide wet and cold paddlers a place to warm up and dry out and encourage a few brave souls to do the route on cross-country skis each year, but unless you like sleeping with mice, don’t sleep in the cabins.

The food caches speak for themselves. They are at every campsite and at the beginning and end of every portage. Bowron is full of bears, some of the grizzly variety, all hungry, many knowledgeable about humans and their inherent laziness. Leave your food pack lying at a portage instead of in a cache and you just might go hungry or go home.

With the rugged Cariboos as backdrop and crystal waters with a healthy resident population of rainbow, Kamloops and lake trout, Dolly Varden and Kokanee, you can do worse than troll a line and meander gently along the southern shore of Indianpoint. Streams from the McCabe Ridge provide feeding stations for hungry fish.

Dan Greene, with whom I made my first traverse of Bowron, told me about a guy from Pemberton who claimed to have done the circuit in just under 24 hours. He didn’t tell me why but I suspect it had something to do with the lingering effects of a blow to the head. This isn’t one of those places where you want to power your way to a new world’s record. Two weeks isn’t nearly enough time… but it’s twice as long as you probably need if you don’t dally. Dally.

The third portage, from Indianpoint to Isaac Lake is, as you might guess, the third longest and last portage of any length. It’s also the last walk you’re likely to take for a few days. Issac Lake goes on and on and on. It forms an inverted "L" with the first leg 6.5 km and the long, northwest to southeast leg just over 31 km. Long and narrow, Isaac is, nonetheless, treacherous if a wind comes up – and I’ve seen microbursts come up with virtually no warning and whip the waters from glassy to maelstrom in less than three minutes. Hug a shore.

The south end of Issac is developed with numerous campsites, a shelter with a wood stove and, generally, lots of people. It also marks the beginning of some river stretches, including a roller-coaster of a chute you might be tempted to run to save a 300 metre portage. Give in to temptation… but portage your gear; you’re as far from the start as you are from the end, too far to go without food.

All portages in Bowron – and all channels, woodlots, obvious and latent dangers – are well-marked. Necessary map and compass skills consist mostly of not losing either. This is comforting to paddlers whose knuckles turn white when the water starts to flow. But go with it. During early summer, the water moves more swiftly but rarely faster than a riffle. In late summer and early fall, you’ll probably ground yourself in shallow, braided passages.

The southern lakes, Lanezi, Sandy and Unna, are all short paddles. A 20-minute hike from the south end of Unna takes you to the 24 metre high Cariboo Falls, just downstream of the big, yellow warning signs you see on the Cariboo River if you paddle the wrong way. The cool mist and slick rocks are worth the side trip through easy forest.

You used to have to line your canoe up Babcock Creek to start the last leg of the trip but Parks have recently constructed a portage to keep people out of spawning stretches of the creek. The fish are happier but there was something very African Queen about dragging your canoe up a shallow creek the portage just can’t match.

The Spectacle and Swan, connected lakes with a sandbar transition, bring you to the final river to paddle, Bowron. Signs warn paddlers not to proceed upstream. Upstream there be griz. In autumn, they’re gorging themselves on spawners and errant canoeists who ignore signs.

The meandering oxbows of Bowron River are crowded with moose so plentiful they almost pose navigation hazards. Beaver, otter and muskrat swim by on missions of engineering. Waterfowl nest and preen and swim lazily.

While there are really no bad times to paddle Bowron, the best time of all is late September. The crowds of summer are gone, you can go without a reservation – a must during mid-June to early September – and the fishing’s much better. Of course, you can wake up to snow falling but hey, bonus.

The three most important things to bring to Bowron – other than basics like canoe and food – are a full-size axe to split the rounds of firewood available at convenient woodlots, a tarp for the inevitable rains and an unhurried schedule. There’s no technical water to speak of, you can’t get lost if you try, and the scenery is, well, it’s the kind of thing that makes you remember why you live in B.C. and why many of the people you meet on the circuit have come from the other side of the world to be here.

More Info@

BC Parks:

Becker’s Lodge:

Bowron Lake Lodge: