Bowron Lakes 2018 Trip Report
The Bowron Lakes is a 70 mile circuit of lakes located in central British Columbia, Canada. It is truly an amazing place with lakes, rivers, forests, marshes, and wildlife - a true wilderness experience. As with anywhere in the pacific northwest, weather can be unpredictable, but those who choose to brave the elements will be rewarded with one of the best experiences of their lives. Despite the challenges, it's sort of addicting - I've done it 6 times now, and my dad has done it almost every year for the last decade and a half - 11 times in total.
Some of the lakes are connected by rivers or other passages, but some are not connected by water, and must be 'Portaged' by placing the canoe on a cart and pulling it along a trail. How difficult these portages are largely depends on how much gear you have. You're only allowed to place 60lbs. of gear in the canoe while it's on the cart (this is to prevent damage to the trails by the cart wheels), everything else must be carried. We tend to pack light, so the portages aren't typically too challenging for us, but we've seen people with coolers, plastic totes, cast iron cookware, and barrels full of gear.
Sunday, September 2nd
All of my personal gear - a 50L dry back and 25L backpack
Loading the canoe at the Ranger Station at the beginning of the Circuit
We started our day at a hotel in nearby Quesnel, BC. We ate a quick breakfast and headed out westward towards Bowron Lake Provincial Park - about 2 hours away. We were scheduled for a noon start, so we had plenty of time. After arriving we got checked in at Becker's for our canoe rental. Then we checked in with the park service, had our gear weighed (since you can only put 60lbs. in the canoe while on the cart). It had started raining by the time we were ready to start, so we put on our rain gear and began pushing the canoe along the trail. About halfway through the portage it stopped raining and the sun actually came out, which was a pleasant surprise! As a kid I always remembered this first portage seemingly going on forever (it is the longest), but after about 30 minutes we had reached the end - not too bad!
We had a quick break and a bite to eat then got the canoe off the cart and into the water. It had become cloudy by the time we pushed off, but it hadn't started raining. Kibbie lake starts out with a small marshy section before reaching the lake proper, from there you shoot straight across the middle of the lake towards the second portage.
End of Kibbee, beginning of the second portage
The second portage has traditionally been the worst one. It is consistently rutted throughout, plus the first 1/3 is almost all uphill. We had to stop a number of times to readjust the cart because the force from the ruts was causing the cart to slip back on the canoe. Eventually we made it to the end and reached the second lake: Indianpoint.
Soon after we started paddling, the winds picked up, and we were now fighting a strong headwind as we made our way across the lake. We decided to pull into the next campsite (#4) and assess the situation. We had wanted to go further, as it was still only 3 o'clock, but next decent (and likely empty) campsites were at least 90 minutes away. With the winds it would be much longer. We spent a long time deliberating, but eventually decided that we would camp here for the night. The weather didn't improve much later on, with one big gust of wind almost knocking down our kitchen tarp. We realized that we had made the right decision in staying put. We had hot dogs for dinner and got to see a rainbow along the other side of the lake right before going to bed.
Monday, September 3rd
We awoke at 6am and started packing and preparing breakfast. It was about 7:30 when we started paddling. We planned to finish Indianpoint and stay somewhere on Isaac - exactly where would depend on the conditions.
After about an hour we had reached the end Indianpoint, passing through some very shallow spots in the marshy area just before the portage. The rangers had told us that most people had reported that this portage - between Indianpoint and Isaac - had been the worst. We encountered a few ruts, and some very small uphill sections. It wasn't bad until near the end where the ruts became very big - huge muddy pits actually. There's also a small bridge you have to cross, with a muddy pit on either end. Overall I wouldn't say it's any worse than the second portage - and this one has fewer hills to boot.
End of the third portage, beginning of Isaac
We got the canoe in the water and were off. Isaac is the longest lake by far, stretching approximately 30 miles. It is characterized by tall mountains on either side with clear water, gravelly beaches, and typically a lot of rain. We encountered a family of Loons just before reaching the elbow where the lake turns south. We tried to get close, but they dove underwater as we began to approach. We ended up having lunch on a beach just past campsite #17. We had made amazing progress in only about 3 hours. But it was still quite cold. We had some hot drinks with lunch and kept moving.
The winds never did pick up, except for a small tailwind for about an hour. Other than that the waters were smooth as glass all day long. We continued to make excellent progress and ended up camping all the way down at campsite #25 - the second-to-last site on Isaac! It was a long day on almost non-stop paddling, but we had more than made up for our shorter day yesterday, finishing nearly one-third of the entire circuit in one day.
It rained on our camp just before dinner, but once it stopped we got a nice little cooking are set up on the beach and were able to look out over the water while we enjoyed our dinner. One cool thing about almost all the beaches on Issac is that they are covered in these small, flat, rocks. They are the perfect stones for skipping over the water. But both of us were out of practice and we only got 3 or 4 skips.
Tuesday, September 4
We got started paddling about the same time (7:30am). It took us about an hour to reach the end of Isaac from our campsite. There were still lots of people milling around at the shelter campsite when we got there. Once at the end of Issac, you have to option of the portage or 'The Chute.' The Chute is a small rapid section at the beginning of the Caribou River. It's not particularly dangerous, but does present some hazards. My parents did it on their first trip 30 years ago. I've never done it, and I'm content with just doing the portage. Besides, even if you opt to run The Chute, you still have to portage just after it anyway. The portage isn't too bad besides the usual ruts and roots. This one is pretty flat. Once at the end of the portage, you get in the canoes and travel about 1/2 mile downriver to the next portage. There are a few rocks and trees to watch out for, so this section can still be dangerous. The time of year makes a difference - in September, the water levels are low and the river doesn't move very fast.
The second portage on the river is shorter than the first, but tougher overall. It begins with a short uphill and ends with a long, steep downhill. It is easy to lose control of the canoe on the downhill and would be difficult with just one person per boat. We had lunch at the end of the portage and then were back in the water. Almost immediately after the portage, you pass through McLeary Lake, a small shallow lake with one campsite on it before you enter another river section. The river was slow moving this time of year, meaning less hazard, but more paddling (which is worse, I wonder?).
Once past this last section of river, you enter Lanezi Lake. On every trip I've done, Lanezi has always given us terrible storms, torrential rain, white caps, etc. (The shelter site on this lake is a worthwhile stop if you get stormed on). Fortunately, the water was calm and the skies clear this time around. In fact, before too long, we were getting overheated and I could feel my neck getting sunburnt. On top of that, our path went straight across the lake, and without having any kind of perspective, you feel like you're getting nowhere. All you can do is keep paddling...it's very tedious. We stopped at a campsite near the end of the lake to have some lunch and adjust our layers.
We finished Lanezi and continued on to Sandy Lake. This lake tends to be incredibly buggy in June when I've done it in the past, which is why we've never stayed here. But in September the bugs are typically gone and the lake becomes one of the best places to camp on the whole circuit. We stopped at site #39 to camp for the night. The sun was out and it was still warm-ish, so we dried some of our gear out, then went for a dip in the lake and had a quick shower with the solar shower. The lake is very shallow - I walked out at least 100 yards from shore and the water wasn't even knee-deep. The skies were clear as we enjoyed our dinner and went to bed.
Wednesday, September 5
Very cold morning
The next morning was cold. The clear skies of the night before had been replaced with fog. We awoke at our usual time (6am), put on all our layers on and stood at the entrance of our tents and decided that we should sleep for another hour and let it warm up a bit. So at 7am, we got out and started getting ready. It was still cold, but not as bad as before.
At the end of Sandy lake is the last section of the Caribou River, along with Unna lake and Babcock creek in the same general vicinity. We had plenty of time, so we decided to take a small detour and do the hike to Caribou Falls at the south end of Unna Lake. The trail to the falls has thousands of blueberry bushes on either side. Every so often we'd stop and pick a few handfuls before continuing on. The falls were cool to see up close, definitely worth the trip if you have the time.
Blueberries along the trail to Caribou Falls
Babcock creek was quite shallow, we had to get out and pull the canoe along as we walked through the creek. There's a small portage to bypass the rest of Babcock Creek, it's pretty flat and has very few ruts. You cross Babcock Lake and then have a shorter portage to Skoi Lake, and then an even shorter portage (you can see the other side of the portage from the edge of the water) onto Spectacle lake. Once on Spectacle lake, the portages are done! At this last portage we came across a young German couple (doing the west side) who - for some reason - weren't given a canoe cart by Becker's. They were having to carry all of their stuff from one end of the portage to the other. They offered to pay for ours (as we wouldn't need it anymore) and return it to Becker's themselves, but knowing how strict Becker's is with their equipment, decided we couldn't part with ours. We both felt bad for them though.
The final portage
We camped at a very nice campsite (site 46) on spectacle lake just across from the shelter campsite. The weather was nice and sunny, so we got some things dried out, then we relaxed for a bit before dinner. Just before going to bed, we went out to the beach to watch the sunset. We watched it for about 30 minutes and got some amazing photos.
Thursday, September 6
This was our last morning on the circuit, we gathered our equipment in preparation for the last push, with the promise of a hot shower only hours away. We began paddling at about 7:30am again, the waters yet again remained calm with just a few clouds overhead. We had heard that a mother and baby moose had recently been sighted on Pavich Island. We kept alert as we floated past it, but didn't see anything. We made one last stop at a campsite near the end of Swan Lake, our final break before we reached the end.
The Bowron River was slow moving, given the time of year, but we did see a number of huge salmon swimming upstream. Before too long we had reached the mouth of the river and the final lake: Bowron Lake. Bowron Lake tends to be a very tedious lake, because you can see the end from quite a way off, but it never seems to get any closer. Couple that with a headwind and it becomes very tedious indeed. Fortunately the lake was smooth and calm today. We reached the end at about 11am. Another circuit complete!
We returned our canoe and headed back to Quesnel. We stopped at McDonald's for some lunch and then checked in at a campground to spend the night. We each had our hot shower - which felt amazing after 5 days on the lakes - and then some chili and cornbread for dinner.
This was an amazing trip around the circuit, we had great weather and stayed at some amazing campsites. This was definitely the coldest trip I've had here (with it being September), but it was nice not to have to deal with mosquitoes. I only wish we had been able to see more wildlife.