Iron Horse 100k – Race Report

The race is named after the train line that ran through this area of Northern Alberta, the Lakeland. The tracks have long been pulled up and the remaining line a multi use trail for ATVs and snowmobiles. Much of the race sticks to the Iron Horse. While sections are ideal compact dirt, keep in mind that large portions of the track are soft gravel that will suck a good deal of power from a runner. Still, it is a relatively fast course compared to other ultras.

I ran leg 1 of this race (~20k) for a last minute team that was thrown together by the race organizers. They paired the 5 of us together when we individually reached out to ask if there were teams that needed someone. The race organizers get 5 stars. They were super accommodating, friendly, easy going and all around excellent. I only saw leg 1 of the course but I’m confident in saying that the entire race provides some fantastic views. This would be the ideal first 100k or 100mi race. For the veterans out there, this would be a fast course through stunning countryside with just enough variability to make it interesting. Their website does a good job of describing the various legs.

The race comes with a great feature, 100 milers can choose to drop to the 100 kilometer distance at the third aid station (approximately 60k in). The 100 mile distance has been on my mind ever since I took up ultras. Should I ever get to that point I think this would be a great race to make the attempt.

Backstory

This was my first race since 2018. By the end of 2018 I was suffering from back issues. 2019 was a series of battles with my back that culminated in 2 surgeries, the last on December 18th. By March 2020 I was slowly getting back to running. The pandemic had me working from home and this made it possible to run every lunch hour. By the end of the summer I’d lost 20+ pounds and was tackling 10,000+ foot peaks in Utah every weekend. I was on track to marathon level endurance and potentially ultras. Then, at the beginning of 2021, I moved to northern Alberta and took a job that demands 60+ hours a week behind a desk or a steering wheel. I gained all or more of that 20 pounds back. I’ve been struggling to find a routine that will help me rebuild.

The last time I ran this distance was mid-may 2021. I ran a 15k on the Monday before just to see how I’d feel. My runs have really only been around 7-10k, when I’ve been getting out. I felt pretty good with the 15k. So I went into this race with reasonable confidence that I wouldn’t let our mashed up team down.

The Gear

I was dressed like a solo runner wearing ancient gear. My Ultimate Direction ultra bag (2014) has seen hard times. The elastics that hold the water bottles to my chest have both given up. There are rips and tears in the bag itself but all-in-all its still functional. My shorts hail from 2013 and fit a little more snuggly than they once did. As I approached the registration desk in the morning I went to retrieve the little punch card that acts like a baton between race members, (they punch your laminated card at every aid station). The card was in a little pocket on the back of my shorts. As I attempted to unzip the pocket the zipper fell apart in my hands. It felt like it simply disintegrated. I managed to force the zipper open anyway. It may be time for new shorts.

My shirt came from a sprint triathlon that I won (for my age category) in 2013 at the University of Sharjah. The lettering is fading and it has lost much of its elasticity. In my pack, rolled tight, is my blue Northface rain jacket. It long ago stopped repelling water. It has a number of small cuts on the front that have been patched by duct tape from the inside. It is still masterful at cutting the wind and keeping one warm. Also in the pack, My prescription sunglasses (I’d be running east into the rising sun), a couple granola bars, airpods (which I probably wouldn’t use), and half a dozen zip ties that have been in there since about 2016 – one day they’ll come in handy. My phone tucks nicely in a side pocket.

I’d start the race in a light pullover because I am weak. It’s freaking cold in Northern Alberta in October. I stuffed it in my bag (on the run) at the 1k mark before I could start sweating. My hat I stole from my son-in-law who got it free from a company he once worked for. It’s a great running hat. It washes easily, keeps the sweat out of my eyes, and fits well.

Start line of the Iron Horse 100. You can see the broken elastics for the water bottles.

Shoes. I debated between the two pairs of runners I own. When I moved to Alberta at the beginning of 2021 I bought runners best suited for running on the road. Of course, I still have a pair of Saucony trail runners. I bought them the day before the 2015 Canadian Death Race and wore them for the first time at that race. They’ve seen 1000s of miles.

2015 Saucony trail running shoes.

I chose to wear my road running Nike shoes. The first 7k of leg 1 loops around St. Paul on paved roads. It then moves onto the Iron Horse trail (much like a gravel road). The final 5k of the leg moves into single track through fields and poplar groves. I wonder now if I could not have gotten 1 more race out of them. I feel a strange gratitude for these shoes and a little sorrow in their retirement. Yes, I am weird.

It felt a bit strange to be geared up for this run as I was. Long past are the days that I could head out the door with nothing but a light shirt, shorts, runners, and (maybe) a bottle of water in hand.

The Race

The race began at Reunion Station in St. Paul Alberta at 7am. They let the 100 mile solo runners and teams go at 6:45am. I stayed warm wrapped in a blanket at the start line. It really wasn’t that cold. At 7am as the race began the sky was just beginning to take on a grey light. We followed the Iron Horse trail west for a couple kilometers before heading south through St. Paul to Thérien Lake. I’ve lived here twice, for a cumulative 5 years, and have never been to this lake. I appreciated the opportunity to run along the shore line for several kilometers. The paths are well maintained and there is a couple kilometers of wood boardwalk.

Thérien Lake in St. Paul with boardwalk. I returned in the evening at the end of the race to get this picture.

The loop around and through St. Paul was a little more than 7k before turning southeast on the Iron Horse trail. I ran about a kilometer with a couple 100k solo runners, Amro Alansari and Stephen Mater. Amro is an experienced ultra runner and it appears that he finished in 11th place with a time of 14:54:49.8. Well done Amro! We would leap frog each other a few times toward the end of leg 1. This was Stephen’s first ultra. He did very well coming in 15th with a time of 16:08:01.2.

I held myself back the first 10k. That is a hard thing for me to do. I didn’t do any research on this race beyond a casual look at the map and a skim of the website. I wondered if I could pull off a negative split. At kilometer 10 I left Amro and Stephen hoping to finish around the 2 hour mark. Over the next 5k I picked off 6-12 runners as I ran the Iron Horse trail. The trail is gravel soft and I fought to find harder ground as too much energy was getting sucked up by the trail.

At about the 15k mark race volunteers in a side-by-side directed us off the Iron Horse onto single track straight up a high bank. Cresting the bank we ran through grass and low scrub in a choppy landscape. We dodged cow patties and struggled to stay upright on the slick flattened grass. I didn’t last long before my legs went out from under me and I came down on my side. It’s okay. I’m not far from the ground. I did a quick push-up and didn’t lose much momentum.

The single track took us up a number of steep hills. These hills revealed my limits quickly. My heart rate shot up to the high 170s low 180s. I was light headed at points. It seems that not long ago I could have done these kind of hills all day long. No one runs these things. I appreciated the scenery though, the falling yellow leaves, the cows lulling in their pastures, the misty morning sky that occluded the sun and kept us all cool and my sunglasses in my pack.

The single track, at times, became just a line of pink flags through woods, low scrub, and crowded stands of aspens. Up and down we went. Many times in the last 2k I hoped “this” was the last hill. I could hear the cheers of spectators at the aid station for a good kilometer before I’d reach them. That last big down hill came. It was just shy of a steepness that would have people sliding on butts instead of feet. Halfway I went down hard on my back. My arm came around quickly to protect myself and the jarring was severe enough in my shoulder that I felt grateful that it took the blow and not my lower back. In the end, no great damage was done.

I came in to the aid station as quickly as I could. my teammate found me by my bib number and we managed a speedy transition. Those hills destroyed my negative split and my 2 hour goal. I was about 2 hours and 15 minutes. Before the race I told myself I’d be happy with anything less than 2.5 hours and I managed that. Lisa was there with the jeep, wrapped in a blanket for warmth. We chatted for a few moments with another member of my team, Vic. Then we were off home. We were home before 10am and I enjoyed a leisure afternoon keeping up with the progress of the race via texts from the team and Zone4.ca.

The Results

I’ll admit I was sore after this run. However, I did not feel the need for drugs, pain killers or anti-inflammatories. I didn’t take any as I wanted a good sense of how my body was actually doing. It is the next day and I could probably comfortably go for a 5k run. I’ll likely go for a good walk.

I met all my teammates for the first time at the end of the race when we drove back up to St. Paul to be there to greet our last runner, Victoria. It was an interesting conclusion. We saw the first 100k solo runner come in, a local, Doug Howson with a time of 11:12:29.4. He was the 8th place finisher in last year’s Canadian Death Race. Impressive.

Leg 5: Victoria, Leg 4: Pam, Leg 3: Vic, Leg 2: Sandra, Leg 1: Me (Lisa said nothing when i left the house dressed this way – just saying).

Yes, I don’t know any of their last names. There was a real chance that our team would make the podium. We were in third place leaving the last transition. Ultimately, we ended in 4th place with solid runs from every member of the team. Our final time was 11:32:56.5.

Final thoughts

I highly recommend this race. There are decent accommodations in the area (literally walking distance from the start) for those coming from out of town. The race organizers are excellent and the atmosphere congenial. The finish line ought to have a band and a couple local food trucks for spectators. Commitments kept me away from the breakfast on Sunday morning. I imagine that was pretty great. Those that could not attend the breakfast could get their medals the night before. The medals are nice, hand crafted by local artisan Stray Cat Designs. I’d like to be in shape to tackle the 100k next year. How I do that remains to be seen but plans are formulating. I suspect I’ll be involved with the race at some level going forward. Thanks for a great race.

Iron Horse Ultra finisher’s medal

Bowron Chain – 2022 Day 6

Day 6 #highlights – August 6

Cariboo Falls.

The weather today was the best it could possibly be. The skies were generally overcast but the ceiling high. It was warm but not stifling.

Morning on Lanezi Lake

We paddled through Lanezi and Sandy Lakes with calm waters. We stopped in at every campsite along the way foraging for firewood but found very little. It was a peaceful paddle with much laying about.

Thomas takes a nap on the back of the Mullet

Coming into the Cariboo River the sun punctured it’s veil of thin clouds and prompted the rolling up of sleeves and pant legs. It was glorious. Of course, we’d all been getting more sun during the day than we realized and would later find, sitting around the campsite, that faces and arms and legs were feeling the initial itching of light burns.

We strung up a tarp at the campsite on Rum Lake. It turns out that there was plenty of firewood here. Steven and Jaron occupied themselves with splitting the firewood. Soon Anna and even Lilli were involved. Ted gave a master class in firewood splitting and I was reminded of his seemingly natural ability to teach others.

We did some axe throwing. I think we threw against the same fir tree we used 10 years ago for the same purpose. Ted and I were at it for a while before Jaron and Steven noticed and joined in. Dave too made a few throws. Matt would throw later with Ted when the Chattertons, Andrew, Jaron and I went out to the falls. Not everyone was keen on the hike to the falls. For many this was the hardest day of paddling yet. It was certainly the farthest uninterrupted paddle.

Throwing axes at Rum Lake

We were greeted at the trailhead by a hand written note on the entrance sign. Visitors earlier that day had encountered a hornets nest at the bottom of the falls and were stung repeatedly. The sign encouraged a visit but cautioned getting too close. We pressed on grateful for the forewarning.

The falls were impressive, of course. It was fun to hear Jaron’s exclamation of surprise when he saw them. That’s a lot of water going over that drop. It makes you consider just how much water we’ve been paddling through. That gasp of surprise is such a motivator to take these trips. I have found over the years that the most stunning views, the hardest won victories, the discovery of the most magical scenes are worth every effort but while experiencing them alone might take your breath away, experiencing these things with others, especially those you love, far outweighs any solitary experience.

James and his boys Jaron and Andrew

We didn’t get right down to the bottom of the falls out of caution for the hornets. But we got fairly close and took several pictures. The hike through the blueberry field was not as fruitful as hoped as the blueberries were not in season. There were huckleberries though. The Chattertons filled a small tupperware for their morning pancakes.

The sun was failing by the time we were headed back. It made for a stunning scene.
We arrived back at camp to discover they had a small scare with a bear. The camp next door scared it off with an air horn but might have sent it toward our camp. They made a mad dash to get everything put away and into a defensive position. The bear never materialized though.

Dark clouds were blowing in as the light failed. Yet it was warm and I went to bed hopeful for blue skies in the morning. It would be very welcome to have multiple swimming opportunities on our last full day. It is a Sunday tomorrow. I think the Lord is pleased with this whole adventure. We’ve grown closer as family and friends. We’ve learned about each other and overcome some small challenges together (rough portages, cold and rainy weather, long paddles). It feels like a spiritual binding together. I’m grateful to have made the effort to bring this trip together. One more full day before the close.

Una Lake at sunset.

Bowron Chain – 2022 Day 5

Day 5 – August 5

A broken canoe.

We had a later start this morning. I don’t think we all left the shelter until 11:30 or later. There was quite the logistics to sort out with strapping things into canoes and deciding what we’d all do. Matt and Vivian left first and portaged around the chute followed shortly by Jaron and Steven. Several groups went through the chute and one canoe rolled over. They managed to collect all their gear and no one was harmed.

The chute. High water made the 90 degree turn and rapids relatively gentle but still a fun challenge.

Robyn and Ted opted to go through with all their gear. They managed to get everything packed away in dry sacs and felt pretty confident. Alison and Dave also took the kids through, though they walked their backpacks down in advance.

Alison had some trepidation about taking the kids down the chute with their gear. I helped her get things tied down and reassured her it was safe to take her kids through the chute. The Mullet is nearly 4 feet wide and deadly hard to tip. I once had 8 boys in that canoe and made many attempts to paddle up the chute. Sure enough, they went down unharmed in the end. Robyn and Ted followed and also came through fine. Robyn apparently got a lap full of water multiple times through the roller coaster when the front of the canoe submerged.

The portage trail from the chute takeout to Isaac River was as bad as last September, muddy, roots, and rocks.

Lilli dodges the mud on a rough portage.

The Isaac River was navigable with one set of rapids. i foresaw It would be a challenge getting in and out of the river with so many canoes so the party separated with the Woods, Fishers, and Boys upfront, and Chattertons, Butlers, and us at the back. We all met up at the end of McCleary Lake watching a moose eat. The water was very high making the intake from the lake to the river nothing of consequence. We spent the float down the river largely with the Fishers. The sun was shining. My knees would end up with a slight sunburn.

Entering Lanezi Lake

As we emerged from the river onto Lanezi Lake we separated but soon the Fishers and us spotted something odd in the water. The Fishers reached it first. It turned out to be a broken and sunk Prospector canoe. It looks like it set out from Becker’s Lodge on July 26 registered to a Warrick. It would be interesting to learn the story there. The canoe was completely cracked in half and either end sticking out of the water – the middle weighed down with mud.

The sunk canoe.

We were soon all formed up around the crash site. Ted and I tried lifting it out but it wouldn’t give. We then tried lining up all the canoes and paddling in a line to see if we could drag it free.

Our canoe train working to pull free the damaged canoe.

When that failed (not surprisingly) I was ready to give up but Robyn had her mind set. She decided to get in the water. I’d have joined her but Lilli and Lisa were solidly against it. Kirsten was soon in the water to help and she was shortly followed by Steven.

They worked on the canoe for a good half hour or more. The water wasn’t deep, rarely over their heads. They managed to get the mud off and the canoe turned over and drug to shore. They plugged a few holes with tree branches and got it mostly straightened out.

Robyn working to free the canoe.

The canoe is a nice one though I think beyond repair. Though maybe not. I suspect Ted will tow it back and see about whether it can be repaired. The whole experience made for a great adventure in the day.

Canoe finally free.

When all was setup with the canoe Lisa and I raced ahead to get a fire going for our wet friends. Turns out they didn’t really need one. They were all fine. The blue sky, scattered as they were with billowing clouds, was warm enough to keep everyone in good spirits.

Campsite 33 is in perpetual shade. It is a nice site but it really could use a bridge over Turner Creek to the shelter. The water is high and the beach minimal. With a bigger beach it would have been nice to get out in the sun. Still, we were comfortable here. We played another couple games of nail and hammer. Matt won in two turns on the first game – it was very impressive (regardless of the soft wood). We changed the rules up a bit for the second game. You sink your nail and then work on a centre nail for the win. Ted LLP sunk his nail, then the centre nail before any of the rest of us could sink two thirds of our own nails. Punk.

Lisa actually captured a Live Photo of his winning strike. It was awesome.
Darkness falls on campsite 33.

Bowron Chain 2022 – Day 4

Day 4 #highlights – August 4

Sail away.

It rained most of the night. When we were ready to get going it stopped. So we set out about 10:30, once again having packed up without battling the rain.

We had to cobble together some rain gear with things being wet. Jaron looked great in his poncho dress.

Jaron curtsies in his poncho rain gear.

The sky was overcast for our paddle but didn’t drop more than a sprinkle. The wind was strong but in our favour. This led to many a makeshift sail.

K&A and the boys were first out on the water. We were the last (Lisa, Lilli, and I). The Fishers were with us. The boys and K&A crossed the lake and we weren’t sure if they were in our party and couldn’t find the boys at all – we thought they may be way ahead of us. It soon became apparent as this white canoe came cruising closer with a tent fly as a sail that it was in fact K&A and Jaron and Steven were with them. They had lashed themselves together and were making decent progress down the lake. We caught up to them and lashed ourselves 3 abreast. I was impressed at the speed we were getting when the wind was strong. We kept up fairly well with the other 3 canoes in our group. We had lots of fun singing songs and generally being merry.

When the wind died we broke up and forged ahead. In the remaining 300 meters we found ourselves in a race to the shore against the Fishers. They won handily. Later Ted and I took a canoe to the wood lot. We were happy to find wood this time but they sure don’t like to stack it or put it under a tree where it won’t rot or get water logged. We managed to get a good haul. It was a different experience paddling with Ted and an empty canoe. We flew across the water.

Tent fly sail.

K&A, Jaron and Steven, and Matt all opted to try the chute today. They all did well with a little coaching. Matt took Ted through. The water in the chute is high making it relatively gentle. The rollercoaster proved more challenging but they all made it. In fact, Dave took Steven and Tommy too. Jaron steered when the two boys went. I was proud of him.

The shelter was a nice reprieve from the rain and the tarps. We all did well to dry out wet things and get prepped for further adventuring.

Shelter from the rain and a wood stove.

We finished our terribly long game of Phase Ten. I believe Steven won with no end of hi-jinx from Andrew. Poor Jaron was several phases behind and he and I finished with the highest score counts. This was not our game.

We met a couple families in the shelter. I did my good turn of the day and gave them a pack of cards. The cards app I downloaded does not work offline which is a shame.

There was some heavy rain after we got through with playing in the chute. So far, we have managed to hit the best part of the weather we’ve been given everyday. I am anxious for the river with everyone tomorrow. I’ll be happy when that section is over and hope we all come through unscathed. Tommy loved the chute. He told me many times.

Bowron Chain – 2022

Day 3 #highlights – August 3

RAIN.

We were all on the water by about 10:40am. Jaron and Steven and Matt and Vivian were out first. They went looking for wood at the wood lot just past campsite 19. They wouldn’t find any. It was a good thing we brought most of the wood we had left over from the day before. The morning was overcast but we managed to pack up and get going before the rain came.

We had an hour on the water before the rain started. It began with a little shower and I hoped we might escape with just that. Then it really got going. Soon we were all pretty wet. My feet could not stay dry forever. Kirsten and Andrew slowly fell behind. This had me worried for them but it seemed prudent to press on and get camp setup than to double back for them.

Kirsten and Andrew. Kirsten paddling backwards so they could talk… perhaps an indication of why they were always behind.

Robyn and Ted were first to arrive at campsite 21. They got a fire going immediately. When we hit the beach next we got our tarp strung up right away. Matt arrived to setup his tarp with Ted over the fire pit. K&A rolled in sopping wet and cold. It was quite the lesson for these kids. Getting them to keep working and keep moving is not an easy task.

Lilli’s gear was suboptimal. She got chilled but she kept moving and when all was setup she had the grit to throw on her bathing suit and go swimming with me. The water wasn’t too bad. I was able to go under a half dozen times.

Lilli is always making faces for the camera. I’m pretty sure this translates as “WTH- Rain?”

We got K&A situated with their tent and a tarp over that. They squirrelled away in the tent for an hour or so before they rallied and joined the rest of us. The tarps were handy and we all got a warm meal. Several crashed out early but a number of us including Jaron, Steven, K&A, and Matt managed to stay up till the fading light and body heat made it too difficult to continue our game of Phase Ten.

Playing Phase Ten at campsite 21 in the rain.

Bowron Chain 2022 – Day 2

Day 2 #highlights – August 2

Better wheels and bears.

We had a casual morning. I think it was close to 9am before I drug myself out of bed. Robyn spotted a bear about 30 yards from the outhouse while she was doing her morning ritual. Ted stormed over with his knife, Matt with his bear-spray, and the rest of us made a bunch of noise. The bear did not stick around. It was 10:30 by the time we were on the water. Jaron and Steven were first off the shore. I told them to go scout things out while the rest of us got moving.

Matt found a frog sleeping in his hat in the morning. Jaron picked it up and it promptly peed on him. Steven enjoyed showing the frog off.

Steven brushing his teeth and showing off his new friend.


Our portage went remarkably smooth. This despite the awkward exit points on either end. They put a dock at the exit from Indianpoint. The entrance to Isaac Lake is mud holes and tricky wood bridges barely wide enough for a cart. Matt and Vivian had a much better time with the new wheels. I am very glad that got sorted.

The weather was great as we took our time down the western arm of Isaac Lake. The wood lot was again empty. Jaron and Steven scouted it for us. Robyn and Ted kept us entertained with a small orange ball we’d throw out in front of the canoes and race for it. Ted made a great throw that skipped across the water and right into the back of the Chatterton’s canoe.

It was about 3:30 when we pulled into site 14. This gave us plenty of time to setup, carve little paddles, and go swimming, Ted and Matt paddled over to the ranger’s cabin to swipe some wood. They didn’t have any either. It turned out that there is a wood lot 200 meters from our camp (not marked on the map) and there is a pile of wood just past the outhouse at camp here.

We roasted marshmallows and played games around the fire. We moved back and forth between the shelter of a tarp and the fire a few times as the rain would start up and then stop. We played the nail and pin hammer game. Ted won the first round, followed by Matt.

At 3am Lisa woke me up to say there was a bear behind the tent. At least, that is what I heard. I was half asleep and apparently she was just asking if I heard what sounded to her like a bear. All I heard was “there is a bear.” So I was up yelling at a bear… Matt and Ted were soon by my side. I never saw a bear nor any sign of it. It was likely a false alarm. I’m sure our yelling and stomping around helped everyone sleep soundly…

Kirsten drew an impressive landscape with a long stick she burned in the fire. Lisa preserved it from the rain we had most of the morning by storing it under a bench before going to bed.

Kirsten drawing with a stick fresh from the fire. Photo credit: Matt Wood.
Kirsten’s charcoal landscape

Bowron Chain 2022 – Day 1

Day 1 #highlights from my personal journal – August 1

This is a big family trip. My whole family (6), my sister Alison’s whole family (5), My sister Robyn and her husband Ted, My brother-in-law Matt and his daughter (my niece) Vivian. A total of 15 people ranging in age from 5 to 50, in 6 canoes and seven tents. The trip will take 7 nights and 7 and a half days to cover 116 kilometres (14k portaging).

Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit – Provincial Park Map. Start is located in upper left with the portage to Kibee lake

The morning began at 6:30 with a text from Matt. His truck did, in fact, decide not to start. The morning was full of problem solving. Matt was able to get a truck last minute. They could take the trailer of canoes but not the big Mullet. Alison and Dave had to drive out to PG from Quesnel to pickup the canoe.

Matt was all rigged up the day before. The “Mullet” is too large for the canoe trailer at 44 inches wide at its center. Photo credit: Matt Wood.

We headed out to the registration office at the trail head to let them know we were running late. In the end, our 9am departure turned into 1pm. Everyone took it in good stride. In our wait for the Chattertons Ted took charge in replacing a tube on one of the canoe cart’s wheels, one of the Boy Scout carts. The Chattertons brought two homemade PVC carts. Ours broke about 500 meters down the trail. It was clear to me (and Lisa before me) that the other wouldn’t make it much longer. 50 meters down the trail carrying the broken cart I heard a wheel pop. I didn’t bother to find out whose wheel popped I just went back to the registration desk and rented 3 sets of wheels. Sure enough, 100 meters back up the trail I met Jaron with the remnants of his PVC canoe cart (it essentially exploded).

Jaron supervising me, Matt, and Ted fixing the first flat tire. Photo credit: Lisa MacDonald.

I arrived back to our stalled canoes to discover that not one but two of Robin and Ted’s tires exploded. The plastic rim on one basically disintegrated. Things got moving much more quickly after we got these new wheels. All save for Matt. His canoe cart wheels were just not up to the task. Skinny little no-flat tires that made pushing the canoe feel like you were moving through mud.

We didn’t reach Kibee Lake until after 3pm. It was after 6:30pm when we reached Indianpoint Lake. Camp itself was another two hours off. Jaron went for a swim as soon as we arrived. I was impressed with how long he stayed in the water. Apparently it was quite warm. I thought a few times of swimming but never did. My back hates me and it wasn’t long before I was super stiff.

Vivian and Matt day 1 in Matt’s 17’ Clipper Ranger.

At Indianpoint we radioed back to the trailhead to see if they could bring Matt out another set of wheels. They told us to do so if we had trouble as they were coming out later that day anyway. Turns out we missed them. No wheels – we’d suffer through. After setting up camp for the night (site 7) the power boat rolled up with a set of wheels for Matt. This group of contractors have been so great. They deserve a medal.

We’ve had the most brilliant weather possible. The temperature climbed to about 26. Hot enough to get you sweating but not so hot to be unbearable. The clouds cast shadows on the wooded hills making images to discover. It was idyllic. Around 10pm after cleaning up for the night and crawling into bed a storm rolled through. It lasted about 10 minutes. The lightning show was excellent even from inside the tent. All in all, despite all our issues things seemed to conspire to give us an excellent day.

Lilli stole my phone and took this disgruntled selfie. Her face says about everything you need to know about our rough start.

Backcountry Dinners

This could be a long post. So I’m cheating and I’ll share a video here on one method for cooking in the backwoods. This is my preferred method and it works for me. That said, one of the fun things about backcountry camping is figuring out what works. It is a series of little puzzles to apply your creative thinking to.

So what is your plan for cooking? Will you be a boiled water only cooker like me? Or will you wow everyone with gourmet dishes? Maybe I’ll do another video on something more elaborate…

Backcountry Tenting

Camping at the Bowron River

One of my favourite places is the Bowron Lake canoe circuit. I’ve done the circuit many times and in an array of company. This summer we’ll make the trip with 14 of us spread across 5 family units. Our skills and experience with camping, canoeing, and other outdoor adventures, greatly vary. These next few posts are for the benefit of the group as they prepare for this trip.

This trip consists of 7 nights in a tent. Being warm, dry, and out of the wind is essential to having an enjoyable trip. The first time I took a group of boys around the circuit we had 6 straight days of blue skies and hot weather. A few years later I was with a group of boys that had 6 days and nights of steady rain. A few storms pushed us off the lakes early. The point is, you must be prepared for the full range of weather.

As you will need to carry everything and stow it in the limited space of your canoe, weight and bulk are considerations. Choose a tent that packs relatively well and is light. You won’t be spending much time in your tent outside of sleeping so do not worry about having more space than necessary for that activity. Also keep in mind that there are designated tent pads and you don’t want a tent larger than these. Occasionally these tent pads are small decks that will keep your tent off wet ground. Most often they are simple flat dirt squares ringed by treated wood beams.

A dome tent with a removable fly is ideal. If it is particularly hot you can remove the fly for greater air flow while keeping the bugs at bay. I recommend a tent where the fly completely covers the tent. There are cheap dome tents that are single walled with a little fly that covers the top of the dome. These are not ideal. In very rainy conditions the tent will be quickly saturated. If this is all you have available it is essential to bring a good tarp that can be strung up to completely cover the tent. I bring such a tarp regardless of the quality of my tent.

The fly on this tent gives complete coverage to the mesh tent beneath it.

The ideal tent will have:

  • A ground sheet
  • The main tent
  • A full fly
  • Tent pegs/nails
  • Tarp (12’x12’) optional
  • Paracord 50’ optional

Your ground sheet protects your tent from the wet ground and will help keep the interior of the tent dry. Sleeping in a puddle is not ideal. If your tent does not have a ground sheet you can purchase a small tarp or light plastic for that purpose. Lumber wrap (Tyvek) is ideal for a lightweight ground sheet. The ground sheet should be completely covered by the tent above it. If the sheet extends out past the base of your tent the water shed by the fly will be collected by it. Ensure your ground sheet does not stick out past the fly else you may be building a pool to sleep in.

A dome tent with an entrance on both sides is helpful but not necessary. Look for something that includes mesh for air circulation. Some cheaper dome tents require that you feed your collapsible poles through a long sleeve. This can be terribly annoying when putting the tent up. It’s not a show stopper but I’d look for a tent where the main tent clips to the poles.

This tent clips to its poles rather than being threaded through a sleeve.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a full fly. When setting up your tent the fly should be tight and away from the main tent. Good air circulation between the tent and the fly will help keep water out. Even with a good fly you should consider a tarp and rope that you can string up over your tent. The Bowron Chain can get so much rain over many days that even the best tents can become saturated.

In September 2021 we had an intense downpour one night. We’d been camping at the chute and in the morning made our way down to McCleary Lake. The group ahead of us had set their tents up in front of the cabin. At about 4am they woke to find the water in the lake had risen so much it was inches from their tent. Quick action saved them from a bath. Even quicker action was needed to rescue one of their canoes which was floating away.

Staying warm and dry is essential to an enjoyable trip.

Adam’s Peak

As we wound our way along a gravel mountain road I marvelled at the rolling acres of tea plantations. Women worked the land, gathering immense cloth bundles of tea leaves they would carry from the fields on their heads. Our driver informed us that tea plantations largely employed only women as they could be paid significantly less than men. A concept I found repugnant. Yet, I reminded myself, this was not my country and who was I to judge their social order. Besides, could we really ask western nations to suffer the indignity of a more expensive tea? (Yes, yes we can).

Our driver came to a stop in the middle of the mountain road. We strained to see what blocked our way. Stray dogs seem to be as numerous as people in Sri Lanka. It was a dog that now impeded our progression. More accurately, a puppy appeared to have chosen the middle of the narrow lane as the ideal place for a nap. The driver honked and the little thing raised its head sleepily but refused to move. No honking or aggressive posturing on our part made any impression upon the pup. This was his road and at the moment his bed.

One of many Sri Lankan puppies.

I stepped out of the car in order to persuade the little thing to move along. It ignored me as easily as it had the car. In the end I was forced to pick the little fellow up and move him to the side of the road. I was hesitant. Would he bite? Was he sick or injured? Still, I lifted him out of the way so we could continue our journey.

Our destination was a hotel? No, hostel perched above a mountain ravine on the pilgrimage road to Adam’s Peak. People come from across Sri Lanka, and perhaps further, certainly we came from much further, to make the pilgrimage to this singular mountain peak. The mountain rises a canonical tower over a forested and singular landscape. At its summit, it is said by some lies the footprint of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, depending on your faith tradition. Lisa and I thought it would be entertaining to climb the mountain and see for ourselves. I could not spend the whole of my time in Sri Lanka lounging on its beaches.

The pilgrimage begins early in the morning or late at night, depending on one’s perspective of 2am. The ascent is made by climbing a mixture of cement and stone steps. Thousands, upon thousands of steps go up, and up, and up. Upon those steps go thousands and thousands of people. Though there be so many, the climb is somehow peaceful. The sounds of frogs and other insects of the night are clearly heard among the soft footfalls of the mountain’s travellers. There is little talking out of reverence, perhaps, or more likely that in climbing the ascent requires one’s breathe for measured breathing not speaking.

The way is softly lit by electric lights and the glow from little tin roofed shops pressed together like standing dominoes on both sides of the path. The shops sell mostly teas and other light victuals. As well, they sell toys and trinkets to the families and foreigners pressing to the summit.

It took us some hours to make the climb. In the dark we joined a queue to take our turn passing through a humble concrete building overtop the famed footprint. My curiosity was peaked and my anticipation climbed as we neared the site. Then we were suddenly there and I was peering through a plate of protective glass to the rock with the famed footprint. What I saw was no footprint at all but a tacky cloth lotus flower spread out over the spot in, what I learned was, supposed protection of the sacred print. My dissatisfaction was evident I’m sure.

Nonetheless, the footprint was really only secondary to the purpose of our climb. We were informed that the sunrise from the peak was impressive and worth the climb, hence the two am departure. So, Lisa and I found a small patch of concrete so situated that there would be none of the thousands that climbed with us between us and the rising sun. There we waited.

We waited patiently with the many pilgrims to witness the birth of a new day; to watch the sun shoot forth its rays over a blue-black sky and the billowing clouds beneath us. We waited to see the shadow of the mountain curl out behind us on a land far below. We waited. Though I was disappointed in the claimed footprint of the first man I would not be disappointed in this. The sun rose, brilliant, and breathtaking. It was true, I thought, that I would not see the footprint of Adam but this certainly felt like I was witnessing the indelible fingerprints of God.

A wide angle shot from Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka.

Once the sun was fully in the sky and we were thoroughly inspired, Lisa and I ran down the mountain path, leaping from stairs like much younger versions of ourselves. We ran past the little shops, the shrines to Shiva and Buddha with their burning incense. I felt renewed and exhausted. We would pay for the journey and our speedy dissent soon after. Our calves would be as hard as the stone we climbed, for days. We didn’t mind, though, as it made those final days in Sri Lanka, lounging on the beach, that much sweeter.

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Lisa and I visited Sri Lanka in the spring of 2014.