Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit June 2019
Panpsychism is a doctrine or belief that everything material, however small, has an element of individual consciousness. I learned this term only recently and I gotta be perfectly honest, I like it a lot. I learned the word and it’s definition from a podcast on my way to Bowron Lakes Provincial Park in BC. As crazy as the concept sounds, it didn’t take much reflection on my part to conclude that this may actually be the truth of everything. Or at least a reasonable way to consider what consciousness might mean in this vast universe. Now that I have completed my second canoe circuit on Bowron Lakes, it feels like a really good time to share the experience of this backcountry wonder of the world. It is a space that makes you feel truly connected to the universe indeed.
My husband Ken and I decided we would like to go to Bowron Lakes again this year because our last trip two years ago had been challenging due to the thick smoke from the BC forest fires that September. At around the same time as we were making these plans, our talented neighbour was just completing construction of his own cedar strip canoe, so we asked him and his girlfriend to join us. S & A agreed and it was decided to book the trip together and head out in mid June to travel the circuit as a group of 4.
The Bowron Lakes circuit is roughly 116 km long, connecting eleven lakes, portages and rivers in a circular configuration in a provincial wilderness park of 121,600 sq km. No roads, no electricity, no phones, no connection to the outside world. All permit holders must attend an orientation before starting out on the circuit. The information you learn at the orientation is intended to keep you safe and the wilderness as pristine as possible. There are rules about how much weight you can carry in your boat in order to protect the portage routes. Some of the toughest portages are right at the beginning of your trip. The circuit starts with a 2.4 km portage and you roll your boat on a canoe cart (wheels) and carry any extra gear on your back. Early June is much less busy with permit holders than the summer months so we often went 8 hours without spotting another canoe on this trip. We planned to spend 7 nights and 8 days on the circuit with our friends. 12 days before the trip, I fractured my tailbone. I decided to go anyhow and my husband fashioned me a foam coccyx seat for the boat. In the end this injury was the least of my worries.
The Night Before
Our friends S & A had rented a cabin at Becker’s Lodge on Bowron Lake, just outside of the circuit. We met up with them there after a 12-hour car ride from Calgary. It was apparent immediately that the mosquitos were going to be a problem because we were being eaten alive when we arrived at Becker’s. Ken and I had purchased $9.00 bug hat nets from MEC, which turned out to be the best purchase for this trip! There was a bit of tension as we all tried to sort our gear and eliminate extra weight from our packs. Trust me on this, you don’t want to have to carry too much weight so you should go as lean as possible.
We got up naturally at 7:00 am or so and enjoyed some coffee and breakfast at the cabin before heading to the orientation seminar at the ranger station. I don’t know about everyone else, but I slept horribly with some crazy anxiety dreams so I must have been quite anxious about the trip ahead. Early June means the water is higher and running faster so I know I was worried about tipping the canoe in the chute or on the Cariboo River. Mostly subconscious worry though as I was pretty excited to get going! So excited in fact, that we arrived an hour before the noon orientation. Ken and I got our boat weighed and inspected by the conservation officer and then we managed to convince her to start our orientation a bit early so we could get going. While this seemed like a great idea to us, it put some extra stress on S & A to get everything sorted and weighed really quickly. Definitely our mistake as they felt rushed. Orientation went well, we barely listened to the bear sightings report. I recommend writing down the locations that other canoeists have reported bear sightings, for your information later.
The first portage is a rude wake up call on your cardiovascular system. I promise you, moving a heavy canoe on an uneven surface, up hills and over obstacles for 2.4 km is equivalent to a really tough cross fit class. Then you load everything back in the canoe, paddle another lake, unload it all and do it all again. We slowed down on the first lake so Ken could do a little fishing and he caught a nice size trout immediately. We didn’t keep it as of course; you assume there will be plenty of fish caught in a day. I am a new semi-vegetarian (flexitarian) who is currently pondering the possibility that I should not be eating any meat. I did not encourage Ken to keep and kill any of the fish he caught this trip. Ha-ha! He caught many fish but the entire trip was catch & releases much to his chagrin. Everything went off without a hitch on day one of the trip. The weather was warm and lovely but the mosquitoes were so bad we had to continually spray DEET repellent on our clothing and skin plus wear our bug hats in order to feel comfortable. I’m the sort of person who scratches her bug bites until they scar. I have a lot of new scars from the first day.
We stopped paddling and set up camp on our first night (Sunday night) at the end of Indian Point Lake (#8). There was already another canoe with two people at the site but they said they intended to stay in the cabin that night so we could take the other two tent pads. You must use the tent pads as provided in order to minimize damage to the sites. We were all pretty tired from the paddling and portaging that day so we decided to stay at this site. Not every site has a cabin on the circuit. In fact most don’t. The cabins are old log structures with little light, all the mosquitos and plenty of mice. Full disclosure. I knew all of these facts before we decided to stay at this site and effectively force these two canoeists to stay in the cabin all night. I did ask, “how are the mice?” but then I quickly changed the subject and didn’t encourage my husband and our friends to push on to another camp so that those two guys could have a choice later in the night if it became unbearable. I knew all of this and as I relate what happens later in the trip, I fully expect you to laugh at my own misfortune as payback.
Monday began with an announcement by our friends S & A that they would no longer be continuing with us on the trip. S told us that he felt completely wiped out and our fitness levels were incompatible for travelling together any longer. He was concerned about their fitness, the weather, the rapids and their inexperience so their new plan was to possibly travel one more portage to the next lake and then fish a day and return the way they came. We tried everything to convince them otherwise but in the end, Ken and I packed up and got away from camp at a reasonable 8:45 am and bid our friends farewell! It was a beautiful morning for canoeing and we were happy to be on the water and away from the mosquitoes. The next portage was downright disgusting. Yes, disgusting. Early June means it’s even wetter in the wetlands areas and this portage included hills with mosquitos, big potholes with mosquitos and finally a crazy 2x4 boardwalk over a swampy distance with mosquitos. Our fat tires on the canoe cart barely stayed on the makeshift boardwalk. Neither of us ever wants to go back there again.
It really was a gorgeous day though and the wind was at our back plus we knew rain was in the forecast so we made the decision to go as long as we could and as long as it was fun. Ken caught more fish and I encouraged him to return more fish to the lake and we paddled with the wind mostly at our back until we reached campsite #21a at Betty Wendle Creek. We had to stop there as a sudden storm front was approaching and it looked really ominous. We landed at this beautiful site and set up the tent. Both of us found the strong winds glorious as it meant there were no mosquitos! After setting up the tent and tarp we noticed the giant pile of fresh bear poo right beside the bear lockers. We walked round the campsite area yelling, “hey Bear” together for a while and then we moved our tent off the obvious animal trail and into the centre pad of the campsite. It’s not always easy to sleep when you know there is a bear nearby. All of the camps and portages have bear lockers so that you don’t keep any bear attractants like food or scented personal items out near your tent while sleeping. This simple innovation reduced the numbers of bears that the park had to kill from 10 per year to zero. The bears are everywhere as it’s a true wilderness. Both black bears and grizzly bears frequent the area.
We love our tent. A Sierra Designs tent that we have used for years and never lets us down. Until now. It rained all night and several seams in our tent failed so it dripped on us all night. Before we moved the tent, we had fixed a tarp over it for wind and rain protection but once we moved it to a safer non-bear route, there were no trees to tarp with. We never thought anything of it until it started dripping inside the tent during the night. We made a temporary fix at 3:00 am and both got some sleep for a few hours at least.
The weather was a bit unstable on Tuesday. No worries though, we still paddled hard, fished a bit, and had a really fun time. This was the day we were going to paddle the chute and the roller coaster. These rapids can be dangerous for inexperienced paddlers and they often choose to portage here. When Ken and I arrived we met Laura and Craig who were about to paddle the chute. Laura jokingly told us she scared off any bears for us along the route. I took a video of them on the chute to send later and set off along the path to “scout” the route. It honestly felt a bit like an unnecessary formality, as we were confident of our abilities but you know- better safe than sorry! So we walked the length of the portage together to look at the rapids and the pull out area, as there is a big killer rapid section after the roller coaster that EVERY boat must portage. We noticed a giant pile of fresh bear poop so we called out for a while- “hey Bear” to let any bears know we were in the area. And then I was moving through the air. It all happened so fast, I couldn’t say what was happening other than the fact that I knew my ankle was screaming out in a pain so large that I would do anything to stop it. Except I could see that my face was about to slam directly into the hard packed trail. I’m very lucky, as my natural instincts are good and Ken reports that I did a full shoulder roll before coming to stop again on the front of my body. I lay on the path for a good 6 minutes in extreme pain from my turned ankle. Eventually I tested it a bit and attempted to stand. It was already swelling but only minor swelling. Like a ping-pong ball size lump on the outside of my left ankle. I was pretty lucky to have been wearing my life vest at that time since I think that probably saved me from injury on my upper body. We investigated a bit and it looks like my Marks Work Warehouse rubber boots (with a little heel) slipped on a tiny finger size root in the path. Testing the root, it was indeed made of slick butter. There was a meter long skid mark from my right foot. Phew. We decided I would be fine as long as I didn’t turn it again and continued to the the portage to view it before heading back to the boat. I can’t emphasize enough how scary this particular fall was. I had a supersized adrenaline rush and now I was limping. No worries though. Maybe we were a bit lost in thought because we stopped making noise. Sure enough as we rounded the next corner on the path, a large black bear appeared in front of us. We did not have our bear spray. The path is situated between a deep drop off to the river rapids below and a steep uphill on the right. We bee-lined up the hill quickly together. Me with my freshly sprained ankle and both of us yelling at the Bear to stay away. We stood side-by-side on the slope about 20 feet away as the bear made his way down the portage path towards us. He gave us a long look over before galloping away in the direction we had just come from. This was a serious adrenaline rush. I had a feather weight stick and object in my hand that I had intended to throw if he followed us up that hill. I’m quite happy that he didn’t. I did not take a photo.
Serendipitously, we returned to our boat at the exact same time that a park ranger had pulled up in his flat-bottomed boat (the only motor boats on the circuit belong to the wardens so that they can get around the circuit quickly in case of problems and also to enforce regulations). Warden Aaron listened to our tales, offered me a rescue because of my ankle (I declined) and regaled us with his own bear stories, which had us in stitches. We made a necessary visit to the outhouse, and then the park warden went out along the path to try and scare the bear away from the area while Ken and I ran the chute and roller coaster rapids in our canoe. I gotta say, the rapids were the least scary part of our day!
The late afternoon was very stormy with high winds and rain and a strong headwind. Ken and I are experienced canoeists and we have paddled in strong swells, rivers, rapids and even snow. We don’t worry too much about paddling in big winds and water. Staying close to shore helps cut the swells (and the drowning danger) and its extremely good exercise. It’s super exhausting to paddle a loaded canoe into the wind for 8 hours, but that is what we did. We paddled the rest of Isaac Lake, all the way to Lanezi Lake and settled on campsite #34 at Turner Creek in early evening. The campsite was spectacular with an amazing cooking shelter and an incredible view. Ken and I were alone in the site but found no evidence of bears so we really relaxed and enjoyed the evening. The tent was properly tarped and didn’t leak while it rained that night and we slept well before getting up around 7:00 am.
Miserable winds, rain and amazing views dominated this part of the trip. Despite my desire to go a long distance on this day, we ran out of gas and decided to stop in the early afternoon. We paddled onto Sandy Lake and set up camp on 37a with the intent of having a more relaxing afternoon so we could recharge. After setting up camp we tried to start a fire in the pit but we were not having much success with the wet wood. This is the part where we meet Roger and roger. These West Coast boys have mad campfire making skills. I know because I saw them canoeing past and I called out “are you good at making fires?” Roger said yes as a matter of fact he was and I am forever grateful for the roaring fantastic fire they made that evening. We all camped that night and tried not to think too much about bears. Roger and roger reported seeing our friends S & A the previous day, on their way to Wolverine Bay. We were happy to hear that they were still on the lakes. So far we had not seen any moose and we both really wanted to see one. We heard reports from the ranger that there were dozens of females with calves being spotted but I guess that cold weather kept them hiding from us.
By this point, Ken and I knew that we could easily and happily complete the entire circuit in just 5 nights rather than 7. So with that goal in mind, we paddled along the Cariboo River, ignoring Una lake (too buggy), through Babcock Lake, Skoi Lake, Spectacle Lakes and Swan Lake. Parts of the day were super difficult with high winds and we saw bear tracks and bear poop on our portage to Babcock Lake that day. We loved every minute of it. We saw two moose on this day along the Cariboo River near Pavich Island on Swan Lake. It was another really long day so we stopped for an actual hot lunch at Pat’s Point cooking shelter. Drying out our gear a bit and eating our homemade hot lunch was delicious and gave us enough energy to make it all the way to the campsite on Bowron River (#53) for our last night. We were pretty exhausted. Our plan included making hot coffee for the thermoses the night before so that we could get away before 5:00 am and take advantage of the sunrise to spot animals.
Our last morning on the circuit and the weather was amazing. We woke up naturally at first light and packed up, we were on the water by 5:00 am. Our campsite was directly beside the Bowron River, which is the way out on the final day. The sunrise was impressive and it was much warmer out than previous mornings, without any wind or rain. We floated down the river at a slow pace as I took photos and videos. We saw a few beavers who slapped their tales at us while getting busy on the banks of the river. We listened joyously to the sounds of the birds filling the morning air. It was beautiful in every possible way. No moose but that was ok. Our last paddle through Bowron Lake to the take-out dock was in calm water, clear skies on the most beautiful day yet. Ken caught his final catch and release Rainbow trout and we met up with Roger & roger on the water for the final push to the end of the circuit. Roger had planned to fish a little himself on this final part of the trip but never did. We talked a bit about panpsychism; consciousness; whether fish feel pain and the ethics of killing a fish for food when you have plenty of food already. I’m not pretending to have any answers but it’s possible you might see my fishing gear up for sale soon. Is it ethical to be very quiet so you don’t scare the fish, only to hook one the mouth and give it the scare of a lifetime?
This trip was really hard but it was fun and adventure filled. Bowron Lakes circuit June 2019 will go down as one of my favourite trips ever. I loved it. I’m recovering at home for a week trying to get my ankle healed so I can go backcountry hiking to Mount Assiniboine in two weeks. No problem.
We heard from S & A. They completed the circuit! They slowed down and did the full circuit in 7 nights. They report that their adventures were just as challenging as ours. A thunderstorm actually broke S’s fishing rod at Wolverine Bay, plus they smashed the boat into some rocks on a portage, which required some light repairs. They struggled, but persevered! Yes! Congratulations friends!