Thirty hours and eight minutes. That is how long it took Brenton and me to circumnavigate the Bowron Lake circuit last weekend. We should have finished in about 22 and a half hours but when we reached the mouth of the Bowron River (more of a snaking lake) it was nearing 1am and we talked ourselves out of the final 11k to the finish and into a tent. It was dark and I was nervous about the possibility of upsetting in the river (however remote that possibility was). It would be one thing to swim into shore from the lake but the Bowron River is a tangle of brush and swamp that could prove a great hazard in the dark and in our fatigued condition than I think we could handle. We’d been paddling for more than 19 hours at that point and a chunk of that directly into a strong head wind that churned up waves just high enough to cap white as they crested and fell.
It was dark but not nearly as dark as it could have been. In February I found myself with two friends (including Brenton) circumnavigating this same lake circuit but on skis. That trip took about 6 days and several of those consisted of travel that took us into the dark of night. A vivid memory of stars glittering in profusion across an inky black sky is still emblazoned on my mind. This night, though nearly as clear, was framed in the soft light of a full moon. It rose resplendent directly behind us as we raced toward the sinking sun. In the last rays of twilight bats hunted insects around our gliding double kayak. We were crossing the well named Spectacle lake at that point and I couldn’t help but recall the scene a few months back on that same lake. There was about an inch of water covering the ice that looked nearly like a mirror. The red purple sky and the ashen winter greens of the surrounding hills reflected from it as we slipped across its surface. The words are inadequate but perhaps they convey a sense of why I keep going back to this place?
Brenton and I left for the chain at about 2pm Friday evening. The chain is about a 3 hour drive from Prince George. We rented a cabin at Bear River Mercantile just a kilometre from the trail head. We stayed there the night before our winter ski adventure too. It isn’t the Ritz but it is clean, warm and comfortable and the hosts are lovely. I slept soundly. That sound sleep is a reflection of some gained maturity, I hope. In the last couple years I’ve found that I can sleep soundly before races or adventures of all sorts. I used to toss and turn brimming with anticipation and excitement. The anticipation and the excitement remain but they are tempered somehow, by experience perhaps?
Having checked in with the park Friday evening we were up at 3:30am on Saturday to be on the trail before 4:30am if possible. We learned during checkin that there were two other vessels attempting an under 24 hour circuit that day. One of them, a husband and wife team, we understood would be on the trail by 3:00am. The other, a soloist, left Friday evening at 9pm and we later learned had finished before noon on Saturday. Apparently, the fastest tandem time is 11 hrs, 47 mins and 27 seconds (if I’ve remembered correctly). The soloist had the right idea. By leaving at 9pm the sun was setting at his back as he travelled east. By the time the sun was cresting the eastern horizon in the morning he was heading west and racing it to the finish. We on the other were travelling with the sun in our eyes on the way in and out.
The bulk of the circuit’s portage trails are completed in the first 30 kilometres as you walk into Kibee Lake, then on to Indian Point and finally into the western arm of Isaac Lake. The morning cloud and fog on Indian Point Lake was incredible. A thin cloud, a deep blue colour I’ve never seen, snaked through the spruce trees to our left but directly ahead was the scene of some sort of theophany. The fog lifted from the lake in wispy tendrils reaching up to embrace the low dark clouds and blended together as if the lake were pouring itself into the sky. Through it all the sun burst every crack and thin veil to drive beams of light onto the rippling waters which reflected them like frosted glass. We paddled into the light.
At the marshy end of Indian Point we spotted our first moose, a bull. We’d see 8 moose this trip. Though there have been plenty of bear sightings on the circuit this year (both black and grizzly) to our disappointment we saw none. We did get a good look at a young buck and a fat beaver along with a myriad of birds including, of course, several beautiful birds of prey.
The thirty two kilometre eastern arm of Isaac lake is without a doubt one of the more mentally challenging parts of this circuit. Its not as if there is nothing to look at. The water is an aqua marine colour that along the shore is clear all the way to the bottom. Every now and then a gushing white water spills from the steep shoreline into the lake and you are heading directly toward 4 snow capped craggy peaks. You are quite literally paddling across a Bob Ross painting. The problem is you feel trapped in that painting. The lake just goes on and on. We covered the distance in about 5 hours with only two brief stops. The first of which was a Brenton emergency to straighten his poor back. Thankfully a quick stretch seemed to fix him up for the rest of the trip. I know this circuit pretty well now but Isaac lake always tricks me. “The end is just around this point,” I’ll say only to follow it up with “oh I mean this next point or maybe this next point.” Stepping out at the end of the lake and the head of the Isaac River is always accompanied with a sense of gratitude.
The Isaac river is squeezed out of the lake between a rocky shore line to make a 90 degree right turn. They call it “The Chute.” You have the option of portaging around it but, really! Brenton and I debated whether we’d run the kayak through the chute or make the portage. I didn’t press too hard because I knew something he didn’t. From the shore the chute looks rather gentle. Certainly, the right turn is wide and the water though rolling and breaking gives the impression of gentle power. We pulled into shore and I headed over to inspect the chute. When I came back I said “before we unload maybe just stretch your legs and have a look at the river.” Brenton knew what I was doing but he went anyway. It took him moments to be seduced by the river. “Okay, let’s do it!”
The first time I paddled the chute I was with Lisa. We portaged our gear around it to walk back and take our empty canoe down the water. A practical precaution. If you roll over its nice not to send all your gear over the Isaac falls. That first run down the river was a success but not before spinning us around in a complete 360 and graciously spitting us out the other side a little wet but still floating. My skills have improved remarkably since then but my experience in a kayak is next to nothing. As you approach the chute from the lake and feel the immense power of the water push you along you realize the deception of the shoreline view too late to turn back. You sit much lower in a kayak than you do in a canoe. My adrenaline rose rapidly as the chute pulled us in and I waited for the right moment to burry the rudder and my paddle. “Here we go!” My paddle dug in at the bottom of a rolling wave and its crest swamped the back of the kayak. The skirt kept the majority of the water out but the weight of the water gave me a moment of terror that we would roll as we came to what felt like a dead stop. “Pull hard Brenton, pull!” With increased strength and determination he drove us free of the gripping force of the water and down stream. A few hundred meters down the river you run through what they call the “roller coaster.” Its a narrowing of the river that creates a series of rolling waves. Having successfully navigated the chute I had a flash of anger when I thought we were about to be driven against a rock at the edge of the roller coaster. It was a fleeting feeling as the river swept us safely beyond. The nose of the kayak took a bit of a dive and it was Brenton’s turn to have the river attempt to pull him down. he had forgotten to fully zip up his kayak skirt and ended up with a few gallons of water in his lap. In the end we made it safely down the river full of adrenaline and recovered from the gross monotony of Isaac’s 32 kilometres.
A couple portages and a small stretch of river later we passed the deafening roar of the Isaac falls into McCleary Lake. This is my favourite place on the entire chain. It’s a small lake in a small valley. The Isaac falls crashes down just out of view from the lake but the dull roar of it can be heard echoing off the mountains that enclose it. A small trappers’ cabin lies lopsided like a beached boat on its eastern bank. Spruce, cedar and fir trees rise powerfully from the steep hillsides surrounding it. The shore line is reedy and swampy drawing moose to the feed. Those snowcapped peaks seen from Issac lake tower above it all and at their base gently rolls the Cariboo River. There is something restorative about the place that I can’t describe. Its about the half way point on the circuit and thus about the most remote, hemmed in as it is by the Isaac and Cariboo rivers. Should the zombie apocalypse bring modern society to a crashing halt you can find me on McCleary Lake fishing.
In no time we were leaving this little paradise and entering the Cariboo River. The contrast of this trip’s 30 minute ride down the 5 kilometres of the Cariboo and the slog we made in February was palpable. This last winter was a warm one and the river was open when we reached it in February. In snowshoes and drawing our 80 pound sleds we were forced to traverse the rough shoreline down to Lanezi Lake. It took us ten hours to make those 5 kilometres. The river is powerful but not much of a danger if you pay attention. The remnants of the occasional wrecked canoe along the shore are a good reminder to stay vigilant.
The Cariboo River spreads its silt across the entirety of the 14 kilometre Lanezi Lake. It’s a murky green. It is here that you shift from the cooler rougher ecosystem of the east side of the chain to a gentler warmer less mighty western side. By the time we’d traversed the majority of Lanezi we were going on our longest stretch in the kayak without a reprieve (even n the Issac we pulled off twice). We were therefore sore and tired when the wind began to push the lake back up the Cariboo River. We ducked in and out of every bend in the shoreline to escape the wind but it was a tremendous battle. There is a campsite at the end of Lanezi and we pulled in for a bio break and to boil water for dinner. The plan was to boil the water, fill up our freeze dried meals and get back in the kayak. One of us would paddle while the other ate and then we’d switch. The wind made this impossible. It taunted us rushing in in great powerful gusts to then go still for a minute or two before whipping back up. So we sat and ate and lingered spending nearly an hour in hopeful anticipation of a calming of the winds. The winds continued as we climbed back into the kayak and set its nose defiantly into it.
We paddled what remained of Lanezi into the wind and on into Sandy lake where we knew we’d find no protective inlets. We’d have to battle for every inch of that lake. In 2011 Brenton and I as youth leader drug a group of boys around the circuit. When we reached Sandy Lake on that trip we were met with similar winds but also with such torrential rain that it was difficult to tell where the lake ended and the sky began. The rain came with such ferocity that the large drops exploded into the lake sending water shrapnel back into the air. There were storm clouds in the sky on this day too but they were scattered and lacking the power they could have if they joined forces. The sun streamed into our faces with the wind and a fine mist of rain carried from a billowing storm cloud some distance to our right brought a little laughter to my heart. We pulled past the beach where in my minds eye I could see the half dozen canoes, carrying those boys of five years ago, into the sandy shore. The rain brought the boys over their bows like men storming the beaches in some 20th century battle. They fled for whatever cover they could find, (out houses, bear caches, trees) while their leaders pitched an impressive tarp fortress and miraculously built fires beneath them. How on earth did we ever get anything to burn there…? We must have carried the dry wood under tarps in the canoes from a distant wood lot.
One of my favourite pictures is from that youth trip. Its of me sitting in the back of a canoe wearing my favourite leather hat as the rain drips around me. I have the biggest grin on my face. Two of my young men are also sitting in the canoe but looking forlorn and cold. I haven’t seen those two in sometime and I wonder if they’ve yet learned to smile in-spite of the rain. It is true that I said a few silent prayers standing on the beach at the end of Lanezi Lake that the wind might abate and that we could carry on in calm waters. The winds kept on perhaps because that prayer would be answered in the form of strength to endure. You may argue that that hour rest and a good meal were the source of our strength to meet the wind after those first 80k and you’d likely be right but knowing how the miracle is accomplished does not make it any less miraculous to me. I know from whence my strength springs.
So through the wind we travelled down Sandy Lake and the next stretch of the Cariboo River before finding shelter in Babcock creek. We passed that couple that left at 3am on the shores of Spectacle Lake. They’d reached that point when the winds came up and opted to pitch their tent rather than fight that battle. We would meet them the next day at the mouth of the Bowron River and the final sprint to the finish. They passed us there like we were standing still. When we met them at the dock the secret of their speed was revealed in 12 ounce bent shaft paddles and a 25lb white water canoe. I could literally lift their canoe over my head easily with my left hand. I may still be a little green with envy. Brenton and I had to weigh the kayak after that… 98 pounds. The revelation that such equipment existed kept us talking all the way back to Prince George. I’m fairly certain we could complete the circuit in less than 16 hours given the right equipment. Any one out there want to sponsor us? Maybe some company marketing to rad dad weekend warriors… 🙂 we could be the spokesmen for some cool product middle-aged dads everywhere need.
If you’ve managed to read this far your endurance skills could likely take you around the Bowron too. It is perfectly acceptable to take 6-7 days though and completely and utterly worth the time.