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The Bowron Lakes canoeing circuit is a camping trip that I have wanted to do for quite some time now. So when my friend Marcello asked if I wanted to do the trip, I said sure. We ended with six people in total. Me, Marcello, Cam (my and Marcello’s friend and co-worker), Gerardo (Marcello’s friend), David (Cam’s friend), and Alex (David’s friend).
The Bowron Lakes are located about 30 km outside of Wells, BC in the Cariboo part of British Columbia. The circuit is 115km of adjoining lakes that form a rectangle. There is also about 10km of portages between various lakes. It is very similar to the West Coast Trail in terms of the style of camping. You have to pack everything in and pack everything out. All the water must be filtered and the only luxury available is pit toilets. It is truly roughing it.
We left early Saturday morning and after lunch in Cache Creek and a brief stop in Williams lake, we found our way to Beckers Lodge on Bowron Lake about 5pm. We had reserved three cabins for our first night and last night of comfort for a while. The cabins were great. Big, clean and comfy with lots of hot water for the crisp morning. It wasn’t cheap but you do get what you pay for. The owner is definitely a character, so take him with a grain of salt.
Day 1, Sunday, Aug 28th
Campsite – #8
Weather – Absolutely Gorgeous!
In the morning, we rented some dry bags and dry containers for the trip from Beckers. I’m glad we did as it made things easier for packing the food and keeping it dry and safe from curious bears. We then weighed everything and loaded the truck to drive to the park’s registration office. The registration is very well organized, and after a brief outdated orientation video and short speech from the park ranger, we were ready for the official weigh in. We couldn’t have more than 28 kilos in the canoes for the portages. After some more re-organizing, we were ready to get going.
Our first section of the trip was one of the longest portages of the whole circuit: 2.4 km of hilly trail to get to Kibbee Lake. I have to say that the portages were a lot harder than I had anticipated. I wasn’t expecting the steepness of the trails and the canoes proved heavier than I thought to push/pull. This could very well be because we didn’t quite balance the load in the canoe to optimal trim or I was just a wuss. And this was just the start!! We were rewarded however at the end of the first portage with a moose spotting. Just as we put our canoes down, we spotted a beautiful female moose wading in the shallow water. After a few photos, the moose wandered off and we were left to putting our canoes in the water for our maiden voyage.
After crossing the smallish Kibbee Lake, we had our second portage. This one was slightly shorter but still difficult as we still were getting accustomed to pushing and pulling the canoes up and down the trails. At the end of the portage, we ended up at Indianpoint Lake, the final lake of the day. After 6.4km of relatively easy paddling we arrived at our first campsite. We realized after we landed that it only had two tent spots and a shelter, and we had three tents. The majority of us were quite tired and this was it for tonight. So David and Alex decided to sleep in the shelter and I bunked in Cam’s tent. I soon realized that I need a new thermorest as mine is too small. After finally falling asleep to music to drown out Cam’s snoring, I was woken up by Cam to tell me that he was hearing something outside and it sounded big. After laying awake for several minutes listening, I heard what Cam was talking about. I whispered “I hear something too” only to be met with silence as Cam was already asleep leaving me to wonder alone what was foraging through the camp.
Day 2, Monday, Aug 29th
Indianpoint Lake to Isaac Lake
Campsite – #21A
Weather – Crappy
I woke up tired to the sound of rain on the tent. It had gone from a gorgeous day to a crappy one overnight. No sense in waiting around, we had a long way to go. After packing up a wet camp we loaded the canoes and after a short portage, we set off across Isaac Lake. At 38km, it was the biggest lake on the circuit and it would take us two days to navigate it. The weather flip flopped all day as the rains came and went as did the sun. We stopped at campsite #16 for lunch and to warm up a bit. It was a beautiful campsite that overlooked a small rocky beach with rocks like potato chips. After skipping a few chips and a quick lunch, we hopped in the canoes and continued our journey along Isaac Lake. It was a hard day’s paddle as we did almost 20km of paddling in inclement weather, and by the time we pulled into campsite #21a, most of us were quite content on setting up camp. There was a brief discussion on whether we should continue on but in the end, we called it a day. The campsite was nice but no shelter to help dry out our stuff. We set up camp and boiled water for our dehydrated dinners. After cleaning up and filtering water for the next day, we all turned in to try and get a good night’s sleep.
Day 3, Tuesday, Aug 30th
Isaac Lake to Isaac River
Campsite – #28
Weather – Mixed Bag
After another uncomfortable sleep and not enough of it, we packed up to paddle the rest of Isaac Lake. The weather was a mixed bag but the rain stayed away for the most part. The winds picked up a bit but we were fortunate that it was a tail wind that helped us along. Today was a shorter day as we had got ahead of schedule the first two days. We uneventfully pulled into campsite #28 relatively early and set up camp. Campsite #28 is at the end Isaac Lake where it transforms into the Isaac river and the famous “chute” and “rollercoaster”. It is a large campsite that borders a group campsite and has a public shelter as well. It was full up by the late afternoon so we were glad that we got there early to get the good spots be the fire. A debate on whether to attempt the chute or portage around it dominated the evening conversation. The chute is a narrow part of the river with rapids that quickly turns 90 degrees downstream. At the end of the chute the currents swirl together to form strong eddies that try to have their way with the canoe. After the chute the river straightens out and the rollercoaster begins. More rapids but at least these are of the straight variety and all you have to do is keep the canoe straight (in theory). In the evening we were lucky that we got to watch a few members of the large group campsite try the chute. We watched to guage whether we wanted to attempt it ourselves. They made it look pretty easy and the debate continued…
Day 4, Wednesday, Aug 31st
Isaac River to Lanezi Lake
Campsite – #34
Weather – Mixed Bag
In the morning, Cam and David decided to try their luck with the chute. After a bit of practice on the lake, they were on their way around the corner and easing into the chute. Between the rocks and into the current, they paddled. Everything was looking quite good. They turned out of the current at the right time and started to head to shore. Just as they had finished their turn, things got unbalanced and in they went. It happened so fast, there was no real warning and we are still trying to figure out what they did wrong. So with everyone watching they struggled with the current and Cam actually got caught up in it; and even though he was attempting to swim out of it, he actually wasn’t going anywhere. It was at this point that I waded in to try and help out, and many people went to get ropes to throw out to help. David was actually fine and went after Cam while I corralled the canoe. We managed to get Cam and the canoe back to shore with no harm done. Cam and David were now wet and cold and needed to get into some dry clothes. That was a lot of excitement and it was not even 8am yet! Cam and David’s dunking affected the group differently. Marcello and Gerardo decided to play it safe and portaged around the chute and rollercoaster. They didn’t want to risk getting the canoe caught up on the rocks and end up paying for a broken canoe. Alex and I actually saw it as a challenge and decided to give it a go as well. I was already wet so it didn’t matter to me if I got a little more wet. So before we changed our minds, Alex and I emptied the canoe of anything loose and set out. We did a little practice on the lake and then headed for the chute. I was feeling confident after seeing both a successful and unsuccessful attempt. We headed between the rocks and into the rapids. I kept the canoe straight and as it spit us out I told Alex to sweep hard on the outside of the canoe to turn us back into shore. I put my paddle in the water on the left to brake us and help us turn. We turned alright – the wrong way! I think we exited the rapids too late and the strong eddy pushed us right despite all our attempts to turn us left. So we started to head downriver which we wanted to do eventually but not right now! We managed to get the canoe turned around and after several bumps with rocks, we made it awkwardly back to shore. The funny thing is Cam and Dave looked like they did everything right and tipped, while Alex and I probably should have dumped about eight different times but didn’t.
So after all of the morning adventures, Cam, David, Marcello and Gerardo decided to portage the chute and the rollercoaster. Alex and I decided to tempt fate one more time and try and navigate the rollercoaster. I wasn’t feeling as confident this time but wanted to at least try it. This time though we had all our gear with us. Any mistakes and everything was getting wet. We ended up waiting quite a while as we let the other canoeists go ahead us so we could watch what we needed to do. Alas, it was our turn. We had to navigate the end of the chute with the strong eddy and then find our way down the river and into the rollercoaster. So off we pushed, and the eddy immediately took us into the rocks where we became stuck. I didn’t know what to do and Alex was waiting for my directions. My confidence was sinking rapidly. I decided to abandon ship. The water was still very shallow so I got out and literally pulled Alex and the canoe back around the eddy and on to shore. If you look at the pictures of the chute, you might wonder what the big deal is, but I’m telling you the current was very strong and you should really have a better idea of what you are doing than we did. So now it was approaching 10am and the others have long gone. We unpacked the canoe, loaded it onto the cart and then repacked it for the portage. I no longer wanted any part of the chute or the rollercoaster. Hopefully another time, I will get a crack at it again when I have some more experience. It actually was quite a short portage, and had I realized that it was so short, I might have opted for it in the first place. Big thanks to the group canoeists for all their advice and for coming back to make sure we were all right. Thanks David, for scaring the crap out of us about having to canoe the cascades which we actually had to portage around anyway.
So finally, we all met up at the end of the portage and after a short break for photos, we were ready to continue on. We now had to navigate the Cariboo River, which is not a fast river but presented a different challenge. Littered throughout the river and on the banks were many deadheads and sweepers, or in laymans terms – dead trees sticking in and out of the water. The Cariboo River is a winding river that is just too fast, making it a challenge to navigate around the corners and any obstacles we could see. I would describe the canoeing down the Cariboo River as a tense experience. There is a reason why I’ve never seen photos of the journey down the river. We were to busy trying to avoid logs and not run aground. We eventually snaked our way out of the river and into Lanezi Lake.
Lanezi Lake is the second largest lake on the circuit, and the scenery changed from silty waters with deadheads to majestic mountains and pine forests. We dipped our fishing lines in the water in hopes of catching our dinner but the fish were elusive as the sun was at this point. After an exciting day, we paddled our way to campsite #34 at the mouth of Turner Creek. This was a great site situated on a rocky beach with a great view of the mountains. The creek was a refreshing change and made it easy to refill our water jugs. After a great dinner of pasta and tomato sauce, we hit the sack for the night.
Day 5, Thursday, Sept 1
Lanezi Lake to Unna Lake
Campsite – #40
Weather – Started ok, ended up crappy
We got up to a cloudy day and it didn’t look like it was going to brighten up. We crossed the rest of Lanezi Lake and over a small sand bar into Sandy Lake. Sandy Lake is quite shallow and as its name implies, has several sandy beaches and a short optional hike on the opposite side of the lake. Marcello and Gerardo opted to do the hike while the rest of us stopped for a short lunch at campsite #37a. It was a little chilly standing still and we were eager to get going again to warm up. We pressed on along Sandy Lake until it emptied into the Cariboo River again. We meandered along the river and just before the 24m Cariboo Falls, we turned into Unna Lake and campsite #40. This was a large campsite with several sites, and we were the first ones there so had first pick. The winds were really picking up and we could see the rain coming so we hurriedly set up camp. We managed to get a fire going and just in the nick of time as it started to pour. Marcello and Gerardo soon arrived and it turned out that they didn’t have much of a hike. They saw a bear cub in a tree at the beginning of their hike and decided to turn around and head back as they didn’t know where the mum was. It was the first significant animal sighting since the first day!
We waited out the rain for a couple of hours and when there seemed to be a break, Marcello, Gerardo and I decided to take one canoe and cross the lake to hike to the Cariboo Falls. It was only about a 30min hike to the falls and it was well worth it. The falls were impressive; it was just too bad that the rain had returned. It was nearing 7pm when we arrived back at camp and made a quick dinner before turning in for the night. If the others were going to see the falls, it was going to be in the morning.
Day 6, Friday, Sept 2
Unna Lake to Spectacle Lake
Campsite – #48
Weather – Started cloudy and chilly but ended up beautiful
After a night of rain, we woke up to a misty and chilly morning. David and Alex decided to trek to the falls in the morning which meant a leisurely morning for the rest of us. It gave me time to actually have a hot breakfast. Nothing fancy but hot oatmeal was very welcoming. Everything was still a little wet so hopefully the rain would stay away so we could dry out a little. After David and Alex returned from the falls, we packed up what was left of camp, loaded the canoes and headed out. We had three short portages today along with a couple of very small lakes before hitting Spectacle Lake. We had to first backtrack a little bit up the Cariboo River and then navigate the very small and reedy Babcock Creek. We came to our first portage of the morning which was 1.2km to Babcock Lake. It was flat and easy, and we quickly made our way to Babcock Lake. We made short work of Babcock Lake and hit our second portage of the day. 400m later, we were onto Skoi Lake. The terrain was marshy and reedy but despite that, we didn’t see any wildlife. Another short jaunt we were onto our final portage of the day, 400m to Spectacle Lake. The sun was finally out and it was warming up. We paddled across Spectacle Lake to where it joined Swan Lake by a narrow spit of sand. We pulled into campsite #48 and took over the warming shelter. We were the first ones there and as it turned out, the only campers to use campsite #48 that night. We made a fire in the woodstove in the shelter, hung all our wet gear to dry and relaxed a little bit. We had a bit of down time so Gerardo tried his hand at fishing again, and later Marcello and I did as well. None of us had any luck. We made pasta again instead of astronaut food because we had the time and a roof over our heads. We debated whether we wanted to finish the trip a day early or have a really short next day and just lounge at the last campsite. The weather was turning beautiful and looked like the next day was going to be gorgeous.
Day 7, Saturday, Sept 3
Spectacle Lake to Finish
Campsite – Beckers Lodge
Weather – Gorgeous
So after a dry night, we all decided or at least felt that we were ready for civilization and a hot shower. So the decision was made to paddle all the way back to Beckers Lodge. It was about 18km of paddling with no portages. We started out at the end of Spectacle Lake and crossed over to Swan Lake. The sun was shining, and it was a beautiful day as we paddled along Swan Lake and entered the Bowron River. After about 2 hrs, we stopped at would have been our campsite for the night and I am glad we were not staying as it looked marshy and a haven for bugs. We ate our last lunch on the circuit while we waited for Cam and David. They had apparently taken a wrong turn and we had lost sight of them. So we waited for a good half hour but no sign of them. We decided they must have gone around us and already entered the river. So headed off and snaked our way through the docile Bowron River. It was a maze of water channels through marshy reeds. We were wondering if we were ever going to make it to the lake. Eventually we emerged onto Bowron Lake, the final lake of our journey. Another hour and we would be back to civilization. We paddled hard as the red roofs of Beckers Lodge came into view. We glided into shore where we met Cam and David who had circumnavigated and finished ahead of us. We stretched our legs, unloaded the canoes and then washed them down to load onto the truck. We were soon in the cozy confines of the Frank Kibbee cabin lining up for showers and getting changed. Beckers was kind enough to swap our reservations although we only had two cabins instead of three. After cleaning up, we headed into Barkerville for dinner but it cost $15 each just to get in to Barkerville and all we wanted was dinner. So we decided to head into Wells instead and settled on the Bear’s Paw for dinner. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until after a couple of beers and an extra long wait for our order. The cafe was hopping, and I think they were just overwhelmed with the amount of people coming for dinner. The town of Wells is very small and there is only perhaps 3 or 4 choices to eat. When dinner finally did come, we all just about inhaled our food (which was pretty good). We ordered desert and was still left wanting. So some of us hit the fish and chip stand across the street for some savoury dessert. Our last day of the Bowron Lakes canoe circuit was now complete and the only thing left was the long drive home…