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Sanctuary: Bowron Lakes, British Columbia

Bowron Lakes, British Columbia

History
The Bowron Lakes are located in the northern Rocky Mountains 120 kms east of Quesnel in British Columbia. Originally, hunters and trappers with several cabins and lodges residing on the shores of the lakes frequented the Bowron Lakes and the surrounding forests and mountains.
By Jody Dymond

The park covers an area of approximately 149,207 hectares and within its boundaries are a set of 11 lakes connected by portages and rivers. In total the rectangular circuit covers 116kms of some of the world’s finest backcountry canoeing. The main lake was formerly known as Bear Lake, but was established as Bowron Lake in 1961 and was named for John Bowron, the first Gold Commissioner of nearby Barkeville. Due to the increased number of moose and other big game in the early 1900s, there was interest from hunters in the area and soon hunting outfitters set up shop. Frank Kibbee ran the largest game-hunting outfitter in the area and in 1921 Kibbee Lake was named after him. In 1961, the recreational reserve was purchased by the British Columbian Government and designated a Provincial Park.

Bowron Lakes, British Columbia

Trip
As we knew we were going to be paddling as a group and since the Bowron Lake Circuit is a world-renowned paddling destination, we booked our departure date in the park and paid park fees in March 2013. While this seems really early, good dates book up quickly, especially long weekends and it is imperative that you have your departure date booked before you or your group book flights, as was the case for us.

After picking up the group from Calgary International Airport (YYC) on August 24, 2013 we made a quick pit stop at Mountain Equipment Co-op to pick up any last minute personal trip items then headed to our first campground, Tunnel Mountain in Banff National Park.

The next morning we decided to get up and leave as early as possible, knowing that the drive would be quite lengthy. From here on our journey takes us north up through the Rocky Mountains, passing by the Columbia Icefield, Athabasca Falls, Jasper, Grande Cache, McBride, and the northern most point of the trip, Prince George. From Prince George we had a three-hour drive south to the Bowron Lake Provincial Park. This part of the trip takes you through a lot of forest and some gravel roads. Just before arriving at Becker’s Lodge (the outfitters whom we hired boats from) we had a lynx run across the road in front of us. This was the first wild cat I’ve encountered, which is always a lovely way to start a trip. Because we arrived at Becker’s Lodge after hours, we had to stay in the campground as opposed to the Lodge, which was a two-minute drive towards the lake.

Bowron Lakes, British Columbia

The following morning, we again got up about 0600 to get ready and to get up to Becker’s Lodge to organize equipment to ensure we were ready for the 0900 orientation at the Bowron Lakes Provincial Park registration hut.

The briefing that everyone has before you’re allowed on the circuit lasts for approximately 30-minutes, 20 minutes of which is a video plus 10 minutes of main bullet points a ranger addresses. These points are about safety, attracting attention, storing food in a bear cache, and remembering to pack out what you pack in. This is a favoured saying by park authorities in backcountry settings to ensure that people don’t litter or leave food wastes allowing others to equally enjoy a pristine wilderness. This very much reminds me of a saying back in the UK, “Take only memories, leave only footprints”.

If paddling as a group, the rangers are supposed to go over campsites with you prior to departure. The ranger at our orientation was new and unfortunately didn’t go over the importance of designated campsites. After the brief, every boat has the combined kit weighed to prevent over erosion of the portage paths. This weight cannot exceed 60kg per boat. Now the real journey begins…

Bowron Lakes, British Columbia

The circuit itself is 116.4 km in total length with a portage total of 10.8 km. From the registration centre, the initial walk into Kibbee Lake is an arduous 2.4 km. This trail is rough under foot and very steep. This is a great initial warm up for your muscles and sets the standard for what’s ahead. After about 45 minutes we reached Kibbee Lake. After a brief rest, we got on the water and paddled up through the slough and reeds, opening to the main lake itself. Kibbee Lake is quite small in relation to the other lakes of the circuit but is very scenic none the less. This is a good place to spot beavers and waterfowl in the summer.

After a short paddle across the lake, we arrived at campsite 2, which is a group campsite, and the egress for the second portage, the campsites are all numbered 1-53 with a designation of either an individual campsite or a group campsite. If you are paddling individually (a non- registered group of seven people or less) you are entitled to stay at any of the campsites, but if you choose to stay at a group site and a group turns up, you will be asked to move on to the next available site.

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Bear caches
From campsite 2, we loaded the boats back up with the allocated kit and had remaining kit in 90L rucksack drybags, which everyone carried. This 2km portage begins with a long but relatively easy incline and finishes with a decline onto Indian Point Lake. This is where you get your first true glimpse of the scale of the larger lakes on the circuit. After a 30-minute stop and some homemade jerky and trail mix, we got the boats ready and paddled towards campsite 7, our first pit stop of the circuit.

All of the campsites are equipped with a pit toilet and steel bear caches. The bear caches themselves are for storing all smelly items such as food, soap, toothpaste and sun cream when you aren’t using them. Bear caches are there to be used and it is very prudent for you to use them. After setting up camp (Pete, Ash, and myself in hammocks with Clive and Susie, and John and Tracy in tents) I prepared the first group meal, a tuna pasta. My wife, Nicole, took time to try dehydrating food for the trip as there is no access to refrigeration and she wanted creative and tasty meals. It should be noted that if you dehydrate tuna it needs to start rehydrating at lunch, not five minutes before dinner as we discovered. Saying that, the meal was still edible and much needed sustenance to give us energy for the days ahead.

Bowron Lakes, British Columbia

After dinner, a few of us tried our hands at fishing. Although we didn’t catch anything, it was still a good laugh. That’s what it’s all about anyways, right? As it got dark, we had a hot chocolate and good natter around the campfire before turning in for a good night’s sleep. We all fell asleep to the howling of wolves in the area.

The following morning we got up early to get a good head start. It was decided the night before that we’d try to get as much paddling done as possible to make the tail end of our trip a bit less strenuous. From campsite 7 we paddled the remainder of Indian Point Lake. Just beyond campsite 8 there is a small stream, which runs northeast and will take you up to campsite 9, the egress for the third portage. This 1.6km portage between Indian Point Lake and Isaac Lake is significantly more difficult than the previous two. Paddling later on in the season meant that the water line was lower. From water’s edge to the start of the portage trail is a muddy embankment that you need to get all of your kit and boat sorted on. The portage is probably the worst out of all of the portages we did, with narrow, undulating track, and steep inclines but it becomes rewarding when you reach the access of Isaac Lake.

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Although our group didn’t see a moose, this lake’s edge was covered in fresh tracks. I can only assume this is because we were crossing at mid-day and moose tend to be spotted more in early morning or twilight. Isaac Lake is heavily exposed to the elements and for the majority of our paddle we had the wind in our faces, making for tougher paddling. Although notoriously windy, the snow-capped mountains and glaciers make for an amazing backdrop and great photo opportunities. We paddled about 18km from the start of Isaac Lake to campsite 21.

This was our original planned group site, but on arrival, there was already a registered group camped here, forcing us to move on to campsite 22, another 2km down the lake. We arrived when it was getting dark, so we had to be pretty swift at setting up camp. Luckily there was already a father/son team with a fire started so we could cook dinner straight away. After a quick dinner, we were all quite exhausted so we had our hot chocolate and hit the hay.

Day three we started bright and early with a quick breakfast of porridge and hot tea. The three of us in hammocks decided to get going to secure a campsite for the night while the other four had a more leisurely pack down. Whilst paddling towards campsite 28, I decided to try my hand at fishing while paddling, dragging a spinner behind my boat. To my surprise I hooked quite a few fish. To my disappointment, I didn’t get any in the boat as they kept falling off the hook.

Bowron Lakes, British Columbia

I’m saying this is because you aren’t allowed to use barbed hooks, and not my fishing skills. Campsite 28 is pretty much the halfway point of the circuit. This campsite has a group shelter that is purpose built open sided log hut with a wood burner and picnic tables inside. This is a great place to air or dry out kit and relax with a cup of tea, both of which we took full advantage. There is also an emergency phone located here that is linked to the ranger cabins and is strictly for emergency use as listed on the instructions located on the phone. There is an emergency phone in every group campsite, and there are ranger cabins dotted throughout the circuit.

This campsite is adjacent to one of the moving water sections of the circuit called ‘the chute’. Paddlers have the option of running the chute or portaging around it. The chute is class 2 with two large eddies on river left and river right. The following morning, we had a later cooked breakfast and then decided that the whole group would run the chute. Pete, Ash, and myself provided safety for the other four members. Everyone paddled it successfully. A kilometre past the chute, you reach another portage. This portage takes you around Isaac Falls, an impressive 11 m waterfall and leads you onto McLeary Lake.

McLeary Lake is one of the prettiest stretches of water on the circuit boasting many large fish and also has an old cabin called ‘Old Freddie Becker’s Trapper’s Cabin’, which can be camped in. Do remember that if you do decide to use the old trapper’s cabins to sleep or as shelter, they are very small and can be full of mice. This lake provides some of the best views of the Cariboo Mountains and its glaciers. It is also fantastic for spotting wildlife. After a short paddle McLeary Lake turns into Cariboo River where the water turns from crystal clear to cloudy and milky. This stretch of the circuit is moving water and due to the opacity, it can easily hide underwater objects like gravel banks and dead-heads. Paddlers be wary.

Bowron Lakes, British Columbia

As the group were comfortable on moving water, this stretch provided some much needed relaxation. We could have a laugh and enjoy each other’s company without feeling the need to just press on. Part way down the Cariboo River, we heard loud cracking and saw movement on the riverbank but to our dismay couldn’t see the cause of the ruckus. It could easily have been a moose or a bear. There are many Grizzlies and Black Bears within the area. As the Cariboo River starts to narrow, we paddled into Lanezi Lake which is one of the larger lakes with many evident avalanche chutes and glacier carved cirques running down the sides of Mount Ishpa and onto the lake’s edge.

This campsite is adjacent to one of the moving water sections of the circuit called ‘the chute’. Paddlers have the option of running the chute or portaging around it. The chute is class 2 with two large eddies on river left and right. The following morning, we had a later cooked breakfast and then decided that the whole group would run the chute. Pete, Ash, and myself provided safety for the other four members. Everyone paddled it successfully. A kilometre past the chute, you reach another portage. This portage takes you around Isaac Falls, an impressive 11 metre waterfall and leads you onto McLeary Lake.

McLeary Lake is one of the prettiest stretches of water on the circuit boasting many large fish and also has an old cabin called ‘Old Freddie Becker’s Trapper’s Cabin’, which can be camped in. Do remember that if you do decide to use the old trapper’s cabins to sleep or as shelter, they are very small and can be full of mice. This lake provides some of the best views of the Cariboo Mountains and its glaciers. It is also fantastic for spotting wildlife. After a short paddle McLeary Lake turns into Cariboo River where the water turns from crystal clear to cloudy and milky. This stretch of the circuit is moving water and due to the opacity, it can easily hide underwater objects like gravel banks and dead-heads. Paddlers be wary.

Bowron Lakes, British Columbia

As the group were comfortable on moving water, this stretch provided some much needed relaxation. We could have a laugh and enjoy each other’s company without feeling the need to just press on. Part way down the Cariboo River, we heard loud cracking and saw movement on the riverbank but to our dismay couldn’t see the cause of the ruckus. It could easily have been a moose or a bear. There are many Grizzlies and Black Bears within the area. As the Cariboo River starts to narrow, we paddled into Lanezi Lake which is one of the larger lakes with many evident avalanche chutes and glacier carved cirques running down the sides of Mount Ishpa and onto the lake’s edge.

Mount Ishpa is the First Nations Taakulli word for father and is the highest mountain in the whole of the park standing at approximately 8,000 feet. These huts are good places to look for grizzly and black bears feeding due to the high source of food types like wild berries and young vegetation which is highly nutritious. After a couple of hours of paddling we reached camp site 34. This is a group site with a group shelter. There is also a single camp site 33 adjacent to 34 but separated by Turner Creek. That evening many other paddlers arrived at this site proving it to be one of the busiest sites on the circuit. We all enjoyed an evening meal of hunters sauce with pasta, another of my wife’s dehydrated meals that went down well with all group members. That evening we all enjoyed a few games of cards and some hot chocolate before heading to hammocks and tents for a good night’s sleep.

The next morning after getting up, having some porridge and a coffee for breakfast we once again loaded boats and headed out onto Lanezi Lake. It started to rain after we started paddling, which was bearable but to paddlers coming here, this area is still designated a rainforest. Many of the group members, myself included, were rather jealous of Pete’s cag and shorts, which seem to be far more fitting than a pair of board shorts and a Gore-Tex jacket. The kit is very well suited to this kind of expedition paddling due to its small pack size, it keeps you warm even when wet and dries in no time at all.

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As we paddled along Lanezi Lake we spotted many fish jumping and swimming around the boats, a pair of osprey and a golden eagle. Pete spotted a bear passing across one of the avalanche chutes but unfortunately couldn’t get to the camera in time before the bear moved back off into the forest. Still he was very happy to see him even if it was only for a minute or so. We paddled for a little over one hour from east to west on Lanezi Lake before the Cariboo River starts to take form once again. This joins Lanezi Lake and Sandy Lake. Sandy Lake is shallow and has some of the best beaches on the circuit and if you decide to stay here there’s an optional portage to Hunters Lake, which is one of the best lakes to fish for trout.

Moose
This section of the Cariboo River leads to the access points for Unna Lake or the portage trail to Babcock Lake. If you decide to stay at Unna Lake there is an optional 1.2km hike into the Cariboo Falls, which is a 24 metre waterfall, and a great place to see Osprey, Eagles, Moose and the odd bear. We decided to head for camp 43 on the eastern edge of Babcock Lake and in my eyes it was the best camp site on the whole trip. This leg of the journey winds up with a paddle down the very narrow Babcock Creek past another ranger cabin and onto the shorter portage trail (1.2km) leading to Babcock Lake.

Many moose have been spotted grazing along the shores of Babcock Lake and we were lucky enough to have a cow moose graze on the shore for the majority of the evening and then again in the morning. Later that evening as we all sat around the fire Tracey spotted what was first thought to be a pine martin, but I later found out was in fact a fisher. This is a close relative to the pine martin and look very similar but the fisher is almost pure black in colour. Several of the trees surrounding the camp site had claw marks from bears. They mark the trees to show to other passing bears that this is their territory and how big they are by the height of the marks on the trees.

Bowron Lakes, British Columbia

Day six marks our last morning on the Lake Circuit. After breaking camp, getting on the water and waving goodbye to our friendly moose we headed up Babcock Lake. This half of the circuit right up to Unna Lake campgrounds can be done as a separate circuit with fewer and shorter portages and only has half of the precipitation of the eastern side. Families often frequent this half so understandably our group saw a lot more congestion on this last leg. From Babcock Lake to Spectacle Lake there are two short 0.4 km portages, which are separated by Ski Lake, the smallest lake you traverse on the whole circuit.

After paddling half way along Spectacle Lake we reached Pat’s point, where we stopped for a spot of lunch and a stretch. Here we were approached by Park Rangers and informed that we would need to paddle out of the circuit on this day as opposed to camping an additional night because of no available campsites. Even though we had intentions to camp another night at campsite 53, there were many rewards with paddling out early. These included a hot shower, beer, and a hot feast of leftover camping grub.

After leaving Pat’s Point we paddled the remainder of Spectacle Lake up to the northernmost point where the Bowron River begins. As we paddled downriver there were numerous Beaver lodges and tracks so this would be the best place to spot Canada’s national animal. The river itself winds quite narrowly for about 2km until you reach the opening of the Bowron Lake’s eastern shores. Once again we stopped for a quick snack of jerky and trail mix where we watched a Golden Eagle bring a fish down to the shore and eat only a few feet in front of us.

Once we regrouped, we set off on the last paddle of our trip. Crossing the Bowron Lake itself, we noticed many powerboats, which seemed to be fishing and water skiing. This is the only lake in the circuit that allows recreational power boats. After an hour we reached the north shore dock, where we were picked by Becker’s Lodge. Luckily, we managed to just get to the Lodge before they shut for the evening, saving us from having to camp on the shore. And so the journey ends…

Bowron Lakes, British Columbia

Author’s note:
There is a plethora of information available online regarding the circuit that is very helpful prior to planning your trip. I can also be contacted for any questions. I’d like to personally thank Hennessy Hammocks, Becker’s Lodge, Reed Chillcheater, BC Parks, and all the members of the group: Clive and Susie Doe, Pete Richardson, Ashley Davies, John Bowler, and Tracey Cox. A special thanks goes out to my wife, Nicole, for all of her help planning the trip and for all of the food preparation.

About thepaddlerezine (554 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler ezine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK and WindsurfingUK magazines

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