Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I was fortunate to hike, camp and canoe in some of the most beautiful outdoor areas in the world. Many of my most adventurous trips were as a young Boy Scout on our annual 50 mile hikes. The Summer before my junior year of high school I was fortunate enough to experience and conquer the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit which was the most challenging and breathtaking canoe trip I ever attempted.
Located 641 miles North of Seattle almost in the middle of beautiful British Columbia, Canada, is Bowron Lakes Provincial Park. The canoe circuit has often been rated as one of the top ten canoe trips in the world. It is an 80 Mile chain of lakes with incredibly beautiful scenery, diverse wildlife, is completed without backtracking and ends up at the same spot from where you start. If you want to feel like Lewis and Clarke for a week or so, book a reservation and give this gem of an adventure a try. The Bowron Lakes Circuit is not a day trip nor is it for the inexperienced camper and canoer. Those successfully completing the Bowron Lakes Circuit will cherish unique memories from their experiences for the rest of their lives. Here are 12 of my mine.
1. The Beautiful Adventure
The canoe circuit is the gem of the park and is known for its rugged and mountainous terrain through the Cariboo Mountains. The week long circuit (we spent 8 days in) follows a breathtaking natural chain of lakes, rivers, and short portages between waterways (and around waterfalls) offering spectacular scenery every paddle of the way. The trip takes about a week to complete and those fortunate enough to book a reservation to enter the park will be treated to glaciated mountains, cold deep lakes, rushing waterfalls, and an abundant variety of wildlife. Canoers come from all over the world to experience this fabulous journey making the trip an international outdoors right of passage and filling evening campfires with cultural fellowship.
The full 80 mile Bowron Lakes Circuit is not one big lake. It is many lakes forming a natural circuit that starts and ends up at the same place. The lakes are not right next to each other and therefore you must hike from one lake to the next with your packs, hike back, and return with the canoes. This is called portaging and although it sounds like a pain, with the proper equipment and preparation is actually pretty easy. Even so, a 2 mile trail turned into a six mile portage to get everything from one lake to the next.
3. The bathing moose
The Bowron Lakes are full of wildlife to enjoy…and respect. One of my favorite moments from our trip was when we were paddling along Kibee Lake and spotted a bull moose on the shore. We stopped to watch him and the moose ignored us. He walked into the lake for a swim and swam out near our canoe without a worry and made for an impressive sight. Somewhere my dad has the photo of me in the canoe with a bull moose right behind me swimming past.
Something about hiking & canoeing 10 miles or more a day makes settling down to a campfire an absolute delight. Every campsite we enjoyed was on the water and we had to find dry wood to start and keep a warm fire going until bedtime. The light bouncing off the pine trees, the silence of tired and trail weary friends, the sounds of wind, water and wildlife all make for an incredible outdoor ambiance that can only be healthy for the soul.
5. Sailing Isaac Lake (the 20 mile lake)
Issac Lake is the largest of the Bowron Lakes Circuit. My dad hatched a plan after researching the lakes for us to sail the 20 mile stretch as much as possible to make fast time. With pine branches, rope and our ponchos, we made a sail to propel our three canoes lashed together while we paddled, fished and slept. Best part about the grand sail idea was that it worked. Twenty miles is a long distance and using the wind to our advantage was welcomed by all on what turned out to be our most adventurous day of the trip.
6. A boy and his coffee
What can you say. You grow up in Seattle you grow up on coffee and if you hike you learn to make fantastic trail coffee at a young age. We canoed the Bowron Lakes when Starbucks was a single shop in downtown Seattle sans lattes and mochas. My friend and canoe partner, John Keith, and I, packed a coffee making kit and of course ground beans for the journey. We would fire up our brew at any rest stop with military precision and swore that each cup was better than the last. Twenty miles in our caffeinated creations were the best in the world.
7. Cute cub…..and mama bear
Halfway down Isaac Lake and after a morning of smooth sailing we pulled over for lunch. John and I were not on lunch duty that day and immediately went to making our lunchtime coffee brew. Ten minutes later while enjoying a warm cup John pointed down the shore and a baby bear cub that just emerged from the bushes about 30 yards away. Cute huh? A brown, fuzzy, little, baby bear. Just then one of the dads came running down from the woods screaming “big bear.” I think it took the collective group a second or less to register that we had a mama and cub combo coming uninvited to lunch. Most times this would be a big issue. Fortunately for us we scooped the gear up fast, hopped into our canoes and shoved off onto the lake leaving mama and cub to watch us from the shore and enjoy some fine Seattle coffee grounds.
8. “Walter” the lake trout
To save space and weight on long camping trips like the Bowron Lakes we carried a lot of freeze dried food which tastes bad at home but pretty epic and gourmet on the trail 3 days in. We always packed our fishing poles to try and catch some tasty trout for dinner. Most trout were 9-12 inches long and good enough to compliment a meal with some fresh food. After our encounter with the bear and five miles of adrenalin driven paddling we went back to sailing and finished our lunch on the water. My dad dropped his line in the water and let his lure trail us as we slowly paddled the rest of the 20 mile for that day. Suddenly his line started racing away from the boat at a rapid pace. He had a fish on and it was a runner. It took so much line out that we had to back paddle for 30 minutes just to keep up while he fought the fish. Thirty-five minutes after the fish took his lure a massive swirl of water appeared close to the canoes. It was a huge catch. We brought it in to the boat with woots and hollars. My dad had caught a 12 pound 36 inch lake trout on six pound test line. A trophy fish that would not be mounted. We named him “Walter” and shared our feast with three other groups we camped next to that evening. The REI spice wheel proved its worth that meal.
9. Shooting the Chute
At the very exit of Isaac Lake is a location where water rushes through creating standing waves, strong currents and large back eddies. This is the fastest water on the trip and can cause your canoe to tip if not navigated properly. Needless to say we were all a bit nervous about making the run but excited and the prospect of making it through. You can choose to run the Chute or you can portage around it. Most people paddle through it and being young we were not in the mood to play it safe and portage around. The trick was to hit the beginning fast and at the first and most difficult turn (a hard right that is where most of the tip overs occur) the person in back digs in to turn the canoe while the person in front keeps speed up by paddling. John and I being the oldest on the trip hit the Chute first and executed a perfect turn with much celebration before heading into the roller coaster. Everyone in our group made the turn as well and we headed down the river toward our next portage point. Here is a short clip of a pretty good run at the Chute.
10. Isaac River Falls (Honeymoon Falls)
Immediately after the Chute is a short stretch of Isaac River that leaves little time for celebration because you are looking for a small sign indicating where to exit the river and start portaging to the next entry point. No pressure except that if you miss the take-out your next stop is the violent 33 foot Isaac Falls. We were told the falls were nicknamed Honeymoon Falls after a couple in the early 20th Century who went over and perished while on their honeymoon. Canoe parts hang in the trees as a friendly reminder of what can happen if you miss the take-out before the falls.
11. Rum Lake (Leech Lake)
The strangest thing we encountered during our trip on the Bowron Lakes was one of the smallest bodies of water in the circuit called Rum Lake. Up until that point the water had been clear for the most part. Each lake had its own unique attributes so we thought nothing of the darker waters of Rum Lake. Nothing that is until one of our group members stepped in with bare feet to launch his canoe and pulled it out covered with 4-5 inch black leaches. Turns out the water was not black after all. Gross and memorable for sure!
12. Feeling like Lewis & Clarke
Trails change and get upgraded over time. I completed the Bowron Lakes Circuit in 1985 and one of my favorite parts of the trail at that point was the one mile water portage between Unna Lake to Babcock Lake. Paddlers were required to line their canoes (pull the canoe with a rope) through a small ice cold stream with sharp rocks on the bottom. We wore water sandles because after a few minutes in the water bare feet would become so numb paddlers would not feel the sharp rocks piercing their skin. This water portage made us feel a bit like Lewis and Clarke. Since then environmental and conservation concerns put an end to the practice and now there is a one mile portage trail. I am so happy I experienced that part of trail the old way. It was a blast.
The park is open to a limited number of canoes and kayaks from May 15 to the end of September and reservations are required. A park saying is “know before you go” which is solid advice for any outdoor adventure. Check out the British Columbia Parks website for pre-trip preparation, reservations, information, special regulations and safety tips.
One request from all Bowron Lakes Circuit Alums….please leave the park better than you found it.