The Big Float

A few years ago, Catherine, our friend Linda, and I paddled the West Side of the Bowron Lakes Circuit. I enjoyed it and hankered for a chance to paddle the complete loop.

The Bowron Lakes Circuit is a 120 km long canoe/kayak route in NE BC. It connects ten or eleven mountain lakes (depending on how you count) arranged roughly in a rectangle. About 10 km of the route is well-graded portage trails that allow paddlers to cart their boats rather than carry them. Served by over fifty campsites, it’s rated as one of the top ten canoe routes in the world and is justly popular, attracting thousands of visitors each year.

Anyway, my chance came this summer when Catherine was invited to a family reunion in nearby Quesnel. I booked a slot at the 10 am orientation, dropped Catherine at her sister’s and drove up the gravel road to the park.

A typical BC scene. The entrance to a beautiful mountain park blighted by logging slash and disused work camp trailers.

The mandatory parks orientation is a grainy video about park regulations and safety, followed by a weigh-in. This is where it can get tense. The park only allows paddlers to portage 28 kg in each boat (to protect portage trails from rutting) and the rest of your load has to go on your back. So parks officials weigh your gear and affix a laminated tag to each boat specifying what gear can be portaged in the boat. Many paddlers find they didn’t estimate 28 kg that well or don’t have enough bags to backpack the excess gear. I even met a lad n’ dad team attempting to complete the circuit using Pelican kayaks. I don’t even know how they managed to tote the kayak carts while paddling.

Fortunately, I had carefully trimmed my kayak load and digitally weighed it at home so I knew I was under 20 kg. And as it happened, they simply wave kayaks through. So by 10:30 I had my tag and was trotting down the trail. The canoeists were still lined up. I never saw them again.

Bowron Lakes Info Centre parking lot. Boats all ready for the crucial weigh-in. My kayak in foreground.

I spent four and a half days on the circuit, covering 120 km, including 10 km of portage (using the cart pictured above). I planned the trip using GPS data and downloaded maps which I then laminated. And I tracked every inch of my trip via GPS, to give me a sense of  my speed and the distance to my next destination. But the route and campsites are so well-marked, you could almost complete the circuit without  any maps whatsoever.

Waterproof mapping GPS, secure floating mount, back-up compass, and a high-resolution laminated map. All visible from the cockpit.

It rained most of one night and half of the next day but the weather was otherwise pretty good. And with a good rain jacket and a spray shirt, kayaking in a downpour isn’t that much different from kayaking in sunshine.

Isaac Lake, 35 km long. I paddled most of it in the rain.

In fact, I’d say that even though many Bowron paddlers worry most about bear attacks or lightning strikes or wind-induced waves on the bigger lakes or swamping on the Caribou River – all of which would be very bad things – these events are relatively rare. While the rangers report an average one rescue a week (up to the time I arrived) on the Caribou, the river can easily be navigated by even novice paddlers.  But many parties apparently let their guard down and  are swept into deadheads or sweepers, capsizing or  even breaking the canoe and often  spilling their gear into the  muddy waters if they haven’t acquired the habit of tying gear down. And the paddlers find themselves  on the shore, wet, with no canoe or gear and  45 kilometers from the road. Their only option is to await another passing boat who can trigger a rescue via radio telephone. A bit of practice and caution would  solve this problem.

A wrapped canoe on the banks of the Caribou

When I reached the Caribou, I maintained my vigilance and kept waiting for the “hard bit” only to discover I had already passed it when I spotted the river’s exit onto the next lake.

What is common and unavoidable on the Bowron is rain. This is, after all, the west side of the Rockies, and the dense rain forest testifies to the prevalence of precipitation. And many parties seem curiously unequipped and unprepared for wet weather. But a tarp or two can keep gear dry and off the wet ground. Even a cheap Canadian Tire tent can be rendered watertight. And you needn’t buy expensive Goretex: MEC sells perfectly adequate  rain shells and pants for much less.

A happy kayaker paddling in the rain. Hey, Ross, thanks for the rainshell!

But when rain threatens, people cluster in  the many well-appointed cook shelters (or even pitch their tents inside!) and postpone  their day’s travel until the late morning in the hopes the rain will clear. This is a bad move for many reasons. The wind is usually better in the morning, afternoons are better for drying gear, and an early start gives you a choice of campsites. Arriving  at a camp at six or even ten pm  really gives you few options and probably  starts the cycle for a late start the next day.

The Tarptent Moment. Always pitch a tarp over your cooking area on the Bowron.

Generally, I found the park to be very maintained. Four of the circuit’s 52 campsites now boast new post-and-beam cook shelters this summer, but a few of the portages are quite rutted. In all, I found the paddling easier than expected and the portaging  sometimes frustrating, especially when the mosquitoes are about, which is always.

Typical portage trail.

In all, the parks do a pretty good job of maintaining the portage trails, but they’re fighting a constant battle against rain, mud, thoughtless canoeists who overload their boats and the high cost of ferrying wood, gravel, etc., to a remote park.

One of the worst portages starts on the route. The cribbing to the left obviously involved a lot of money and labour, even though most of the fill has now been washed away. But how did they expect anyone to wheel or lift a loaded canoe weighing 100kg or more up those steps? Consequently, paddlers have employed the muddy and slippery trench to the right, nearest the sign.

Overall, I really enjoyed the Bowron and would do it again. There’s a reason why it’s  rated one of the top ten canoe routes worldwide. But a warning: the circuit is justly popular and typically attracts up to 5000 visitor  annually, and that crowd descends on the park during  a very short summer season (May through September).

Consequently, the parks staff impose some modest conditions (mostly designed to reduce canoists conflicting with each other, protect campsites and other facilities, and  guard the environment.) And they rely  solely on the honour system to ensure compliance. Nonetheless, this drives some paddlers to fury.

One of the new cook shelters, well thought out and generously appointed.

So don’t come to Bowron if you don’t like “The Man” telling you what to do. Incredibly, paddlers actually abuse parks staff over the over the weight of their gear. There are many rivers and lakes in Canada where the hand of government control does not reach, but Bowron is not one of them. Bowron Park is “wilderness” in the sense that you must be competent, properly equipped, and self-reliant, but it isn’t wilderness in the sense that  you can  do whatever you want without seeing another person.

Nor should you visit Bowron if you don’t like to follow rules. I heard people boasting of pitching tents inside cabins, of lying about group size when registering, of deliberating overloading canoes on portages and of large groups crashing campsites reserved for groups numbering under seven, and so on.

But none of that detracts from the beauty of this place. I may go back.

A glorious evening at Pat’s Point.
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