I should have known something was wrong when I couldn’t bring myself to eat anything. I skipped breakfast and I knew that was a mistake. Adventures like these require fuel for the body, a steady supply, and I was starting out on the wrong foot. Brenton pulled up to my place a little after 7am and we loaded up our sleds for the 3 hour ride to the Bowron Lake Chain. The sleds contained everything we’d need for the 5-6 day round trip of this chain of lakes and rivers nestled in the Cariboo mountains. When we made this trip 2 years ago we had a third man, Greg, and our sleds averaged about 80 pounds a piece. This year it would just be the two of us and our sleds both came in at about 70 pounds. We wondered aloud what we might have forgotten. Nothing really, experience tends to lighten the burden of any adventure.
It was a little after 10am when we pulled into Bear River Mercantile. We stopped and chatted with the always friendly proprietor, Sandy. Last time we staged our adventure from here. We spent the night in one of their rustic cabins before heading out on the chain early the next morning. This time we’d go straight at it. We knew this would bring us into the distant, 24 kilometres distance to be exact, Moxley Creek trapper’s cabin a little after dark but we know the terrain well enough that the dark is easily cured by headlamps. Besides, the moon would be a waning full and reflecting off the untouched white canvas lakes. The dark wouldn’t be a problem.
We parked the truck at Bear River Mercantile having dropped our gear a few hundred meters up the road where the provincial park begins and the snowplows end. Giddy with excitement for the adventure ahead we pulled on our snow shoes and clipped into our sleds. 120 kilometres of lakes, rivers, and trails lay ahead of us filled with the familiar and the unknown. Sunsets that fill a man with awe, starry skies that roll out across the heavens as if a painter brushed them into existence, pounding waterfalls that throw clouds of freezing mist hundreds of feet into the air, and misty mornings filled with stillness awaited us. All we needed to do was walk into it.
We begin with a 2.4 kilometre portage trail with a gradual climb that ends with a slight drop into Kibee lake. The trees, heavy with snow, groan under the pressure of their loads and create a tunnel of sorts beneath their bows. Brenton easily outpaced me. “I should not have skipped breakfast” I thought. Yet, the thought of food made me a little queasy. As we pulled up to Kibee lake I forced myself to eat a little cheese. No matter how I felt I would need the fuel to push through the next 22 kilometres.
Kibee lake is also 2.4 kilometres long and begins with a few hundred meters of reedy wet land. In the spring and summer this area is a good place to spot a moose as you snake your way through the reeds in a canoe. That is, if you arrive early enough. The stream of campers making their way onto the chain tends to push them away from this place. Today it is just us though and a heavy blanket of snow that brings a pronounced calmness with it. Kicking off our snowshoes and sliding into skis is a welcome change. The snow is thick but someone has been out this far on the chain before us and a faint track has already been laid out, slightly easing the burden of blazing a fresh trail.
We stopped in at the trappers cabin at campsite number 1 on the north shore of Kibee lake. The dozen or so times I’ve been through here and I had no idea there was a cabin there. I thought I had memorized the park maps but clearly I’d overlooked the cabin marker on this lake every time. How could I pass by this place so many times and never notice this little gem? It is less than 5 kilometres from the trail head and would be a perfect winter get away with the kids or my wife. For some reason they tend to bulk when I suggest winter retreats with 10-12 kilometres of hiking or up mountains.
The 2 kilometre portage from Kibee to Indianpoint was another winter wonderland. This trail begins with a long climb away from Kibee and then a quick drop to Indianpoint Lake. Again I felt a little lethargic and was unable to keep pace with Brenton. I forced down some almonds. I was in a fuel deficit and I knew I was not eating enough to climb out of it but I figured I could have a heavy meal that night and a good night’s rest.
Indianpoint Lake was excellent skiing. A couple years back the lake was a solid sheet of ice with a thin layer of snow on top. Those conditions meant a very speedy crossing. This year there was several feet of snow and we were breaking trail. Still good skiing conditions but requiring substantially more effort with our sleds in tow. This lake is 6.8 kilometres long with a trapper’s cabin sitting on a knoll over looking the lake on the north shore at about kilometre 6. Brenton stopped in at the cabin to find it was well stocked with firewood. if you’ve been keeping track we’ve come about 12-13 kilometres but our goal lay at twice that distance.
We decided to push on from Indianpoint. Like the beginning of Kibee the end of Indianpoint is a reedy marsh land and the sanctuary of waterfowl and ungulates. These are my favourite places in canoes. On skis or snowshoes they tend to be choked with willows and other brush that seem to wilfully reach out to snare your feet or hook up your sled. Nonetheless we made a quick passage through the area and the start of the Indianpoint portage trail over to Isaac Lake. This portage is a quick mile but still as stunning as the others. As much as I love to slip on the skis after each stint in the snowshoes I am equally as happy to slip on the snowshoes after a few hours of skiing. Change really is as good as a rest.
About this time I began to notice that my heart rate was tracking a little higher than usual. I was also completely out of water. At the start of this portage the water is generally accessible. There must be a small spring here feeding the lake and keeping the ice at bay. the area is muddy and the ice thin but I could get close enough to the edge to reach out and scoop up enough fresh water I could treat with iodine tablets. At least that was the plan. I wedged my feet into the snow pack at the edge and reached out only to have both feet kick forward and onto the thin crust of ice at the water edge. Both feet easily punched through the ice and drove down into thick cold mud. I threw myself backward but it was too late the water rushed up over my boots and seeped in at the seams. The suction of the mud held me fast as I struggled to inch my way free. Curse words in this lovely spot reverberate like immorality in the walls of a church. The trees don’t get angry but there is a sense of offence floating in the air.
I managed to get my water but I paid a heavy price. Brenton suggested a possible retreat to Indianpoint’s cabin but I knew once we got moving my feet would warm the water around them and all would be well.
Issac Lake is formidable at the best of times. Its north western arm is about 6 kilometres long when it makes a sharp southern bend and runs an additional 32 kilometres. Moxley Creek and its accompanying trappers’ cabin is on the eastern shore of that southern arm about 9 kilometres from the end of the portage trail connecting Isaac and Indianpoint. By the time I hit Isaac Lake I was feeling the edges of a runner’s wall ahead. This is nothing new to me. I understand how to scale these types of walls. It wasn’t surprising either given how I had fuelled throughout the day. Though, there was an added element I was not used to, a heart rate that seemed unusually high. I’d been taking short video clips all along the route and as I review them now I can spot my decline but am also impressed with the clear joy I am experiencing right up to the end.
3 kilometers onto Isaac Lake the sun was rapidly sinking and casting an intense glow over everything. I record a video here trying to capture what I am seeing but the camera is unable to do it justice. This is a sunset without the typical reds and purples that compel the most amateur photographers to stop and snap a thousand photos. Anyplace else this would be an unremarkable sunset but here. Here, I was skiing through a celestial hue incapable of being captured by a photo or a thousand words.
My skis passed through an area of slush on the lake that instantly froze to their waxed bottoms. That ice gathered snow and soon I was walking my skis across the lake all glide gone. I pounded and shook and stomped to break them free but to no avail. Finally I stopped and pulled the skis free of my feet. I broke the ice away and applied some glide wax. Soon all would be right again. I carried on for another kilometre or so when again my skis became unusable as they passed through slush. The ice built up on my sled too and suddenly it felt as though it weighed two hundred pounds. I was hitting that wall I could feel the edges of earlier and hitting it hard. I sat down on my sled and pulled off my skis. There was no sense in cleaning them again the conditions were no longer ideal for the skis. The water in my boots was beginning to freeze and with it my feet.
I decided it was time for a change of footwear. Large chunks of ice had formed around my pant legs where I’d soaked them in the lake and the velcro straps holding on my boots were frozen solid. With bare hands I worked the material to rid it of ice and extricate my feet. I could not get the straps all the way open but, I thought, maybe just enough. Ski boots zip up. Those zippers were frozen solid too. I used the tip of my ski pole back and forth across the zipper until I could zip them about half way down. I was locked in these boots. With some serious effort I pried my feet free.
I am sure I chuckled a little to myself. Dry socks and warm boots. Heaven. Brenton had noticed my plight and was back tracking to give me some aid. I was feeling that wall again but there were just 4 kilometres to go. I didn’t bother with snowshoes, the track Brenton was creating was stable enough to make them unnecessary, I thought. I clipped back into my sled and soldiered on. My heart rate shot way up and my sled was an anchor at my waist. It’s just a wall, a wall I’d overcome countless times before. It’s just a wall. That wall broke but unlike anything I’d experienced in this type of situation before. The wall did not move aside to hidden stores of energy and clarity of thought it broke like a damn and expelled everything I had in a torrent of unmitigated disaster. The point of Issac Lake where the western arm turns sharply south was a kilometre off. I could see it in gloomy shadow at the outer edge of Wolverine Bay nestled beneath the snowy peak of Wolverine Mountain. In the bay, 3 kilometres on, was a shelter and an unoccupied ranger’s cabin and 4 kilometres away Moxley Creek Cabin but I had nothing left.
I was sweating profusely and my heart rate was uncontrollable. The world swam around me as I unclipped from my sled and stumbled forward. Brenton had turned around for me again. I was on my knees, broken and sick. “Brenton, I am dizzy” I said. “I think I am sick.” To his immeasurable credit Brenton did not hesitate. He did not try to bolster me with useless words. He did not prod me to get up, to shake it off, to just try harder. He saw my need and changed into his snowshoes. He clipped my sled to his and we reasoned we must press on to shelter. 140 pounds was the combined weight of our two sleds and Brenton pulled both. Surely there was ice built up beneath those sleds exacerbating the challenge but he pulled on and I followed shakily in their wake. We continued like that for a kilometre to that point of land connecting the western and souther arms of the Isaac where we stopped to counsel together, though I could not have been in my right mind.
Brenton ventured out around the point untethered from the sleds to assess the conditions on that long southern arm. The fog was rolling in and the wind was biting. It was clear that this would be as far as I could go. I have vague memories of helping to erect the tent. I pulled off my wet and sweaty clothes and climbed into dry replacements and my sleeping bag. I was floating in and out of consciousness. Brenton wrapped my sleeping bag in light tarps to help retain whatever heat I could generate. I could here the roar of the Whisper Light stove. Brenton handed me chicken soup and I drank it. Next came a mug of Neo Citron taken from my essentials bag. Then he handed me my water bottle full of heated water. I slipped it into my sleeping bag and felt the warmth spread through me. I lost consciousness, swallowed by peaceful oblivion.
The next day Brenton and I made the 3 kilometres to Moxley Creek’s cabin. Brenton broke trail the whole way. A few times along the route I contemplated abandoning my sled but I persevered. 3 kilometres. The little wood stoves in these cabins are perfect. Brenton got a fire going and headed out to find more wood. I took in as much fluid as I dared and fell asleep. I slept off and on the rest of the day. Brenton kept busy gathering wood and pondering his poor life choices. He is a good man. He made the most of being cooped up with an invalid while our plans of making our way around the chain drifted away. We should have been at Moxley Cabin the night before. That day we should have been pushing through a gruelling 28-29 kilometres of Isaac Lake and then down the Isaac River with a final hurdle over the mountain to McCleary lake and the trappers cabin on its shore.
McCleary Lake, pinned in by the Isaac River and Isaac Falls to its north and towering snow capped mountains to its south in whose shadow it pours its contents into the sweeping Cariboo River is my favourite place on the chain. It doesn’t get more remote than little McCleary lake. I wouldn’t sit on the porch of that cabin and watch the moon as it burst over the mountains. The next day, weary though we’d be, we would beat our way down the Cariboo River hugging as close as we could to the toe of the northern mountains. It would be gruelling pulling the sleds over and under logs and passing through stretches of deep snow. There would be frightening moments where our snowshoes would break through some weak part in the marsh land and we’d have to scramble to avoid soaking feet. There would be moments of anxiety as we raced against the setting sun to break away from the river and out onto Lanezi Lake. In the dark we’d likely trudge down Lanezi to the shelter at Turner Creek transfixed by a night sky completely free of the light pollution of our homes.
Turner Creek’s enclosed shelter can be difficult to heat but we’d make do. The trek across Lanezi would blend into Sandy Lake where we’d hug the short side of its kidney bean shape. From Sandy the Cariboo River picks up again and we’d follow it to the ranger’s cabin on its small tributary, Babcock Creek. Babcock marks the end of the southern arm of the Circuit where we’d take the last remaining portage trails through to Babcock Lake and then small Skoi Lake to emerge on the shallow and sandy Spectacle Lake. It would be evening there on our 4th day and the sun would now be falling in front of us. Perhaps like our last trip there’d be an inch of water over the icy lake creating a mirror effect so startling that you’d swear you were skiing across a brilliant pink and purple sunset.
The division between Spectacle Lake and Swan Lake is amorphous. There is a long sandbar stretching out into a bay. There you’ll find a little cabin at a place called Pat’s Point. That sandbar would be invisible under the ice and snow but in summer it is a favourite place to swim. With one group of young men we played a game of tackle soccer there. The water of the lake barely covered the ten foot wide sandy surface beneath our feet stretching a couple hundred meters into the bay. From a distance it might appear as if we played the game on top of the lake.
Pat’s Point would be our last stop before heading the final 18 kilometres across Swan Lake to the meandering Bowron River and on to Bowron Lake. These places have a softer beauty than the hard mountainous lines of the Chain’s eastern arm. We’d drink in the cool air and haul our sleds through the marshy Bowron water ways glad to be done with the journey but happy with the experience, weary in body but invigorated in mind. Each time I complete the circuit I look forward to these final kilometres. There is a deep sense of gratitude and peace that I can’t quite explain.
These were my thoughts as we left Moxley Cabin the next day back in the direction we’d just come. The distances and the stress of our planned adventure was too risky in my condition. What if Brenton fell ill? What if I could not physically handle the hardships or my sickness grew worse? We headed back toward the cabin at Indianpoint 12 kilometres away. I started strong that day but 12 kilometres was about all I could handle. No sooner was the fire lit and I changed into dry clothes did I lie down on the plywood shelf with my head on a drysack of winter gear and fell asleep.
When we arrived, the snow was falling thick and heavy and a bitter wind gave the air a bite. The scene was idyllic from the comfort of a small warm cabin. The temperature rose and the snow turned to rain. That night it rained hard. Rain on a tin roof is supposed to be soothing but the drumming was relentless. The rain turned the snow in the tall spruce surrounding the cabin into large ice balls which fell from the trees like ordinance from a bomber, bang! bang! they went against the roof. Best to stay inside. A little after midnight the rain seemed to stop and I could sleep. At 4:30am we were up to prepare for an early departure. I opened the cabin door to find that the rain had turned to snow and the temperature in just 4 hours had dropped to 10 below. The wind chill made it feel much cooler.
The wind and snow completely obliterated our previous path. We set out from the cabin a little after 6am in the dark. I followed Brenton, my headlamp illuminating just a few feet in front of me. The snow, driven by the wind, obscured our vision and froze to our faces. The darkness pressed in on us like a shroud mourning the loss of our adventure. We pushed on. Over dressed for the strenuous work we stopped to shed a layer or two in spite of the wind. I put down the head lamp to pull off my fleece and the glow of a near full moon pressed through a thinning overcast. The shoreline began to take shape.
We skied the 6 kilometres across Indianpoint in great conditions. We pressed through some slush but arrived largely unscathed at the portage trail. We’d complete the remainder of the journey on snowshoes. Kibee Lake was a ruin of slush that turned to large balls of ice under our feet and weighed us down severely but we were in good spirits. The sun was shining and the snow reflecting the light of a beautiful winter day.
Looking at a map of the Bowron Chain you might be inclined to believe there was an intelligence behind its making. Did God smile when he carved it out of the mountains? I like to think so. In spite of my evident mortality it sure felt like God was smiling when we drove away from the Bowron that day. It wasn’t the adventure we’d planned but what adventure goes to plan?
A few related stories from my adventure on the Bowron Chain: