Friday, April 06, 2012

Dog Mushing Around the Bowron Lake Chain
Two weekends ago, the second last weekend of March, our good friend Sylvia Feder travelled all the way from Seattle along with her two young [and quite wonderful] Candian Eskimo [Inuit] Dogs. We had planned to take a day trip out onto the Bowron Lake Chain with our dogs if the weather would allow it. The weather on the Bowron can be quite fickle and unforgiving, but we lucked out! Based on several Bowron trips over the past 20 years, I would have to say that the conditions could not have been better. We had a fantastic day! What about this area and its dog mushing history?

The Bowron is actually Bowron Lake Provincial Park and in addition to the main campground and park headquarters, it consists of 10 major lakes connected by a series of portage trails, rivers, and creeks, all in the shape of a quadrangle and set in the midst of the spectacular Cariboo mountains. It is a world class and very unique summer canoe/kayak route in that even though you travel over 116 kilometres, you start and end at the same place, without having to back-track. This interconnected network is known as a circuit or chain of lakes. There are amenities for paddlers consisting of approximately 50 developed campsites, all with pit toilets, fire rings, tent pads and bear caches. There are also 7 rustic, but very usable cabins [with wood heaters], and 4 open-sided cooking shelters, also with wood heaters. While the Chain gets heavy use in the summer, the number of winter visitors probably numbers fewer than 15 or 20 different individuals or groups.

The Bowron is part of the traditional land of Ndazkoh people who are part of the Dakelh or Carrier First Nation. There is little remaining evidence of these people having habited this area with the exception of a few midden sites comprised chiefly of freshwater clamshells and some stone artifacts. It is said that the remains of First Nations pit houses which lined Kibbee Creek all disappeared at the time of the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964. There are a few references to these people in the fur trade literature and of the fact that they frequented the Bowron lake area. Why wouldn’t they, it is a beautiful setting that is teeming with freshwater fish, it is also the site of the longest salmon run in North America, these salmon migrate up the Fraser River, then up the Bowron River, through Bowron Lake and then up to the extreme end of the Upper Bowron River.

Two developments conspired to drive the Ndazkoh people from this part of their territory. In the 1860’s, thousands of gold seekers flooded into this area in seach of gold along Williams Creek…this was the Cariboo Gold Rush, and their presence had the effect of pushing the First Nations people out of this area. At about the same time, First Nations people throughout all of western North America were decimated by various epidemics [measles, smallpox, influenza], wiping out over 75% of the population. Today the Ndazko people reside on reserve land that is west of the Fraser River.

There is no tradition of the use of sled dogs among the Ndazkoh people. They had smaller “fox like” dogs that were used for hunting but these dogs were not used for pulling. The snowfall throughout this area is significant, making the use of dogs in the winter extremely difficult. The primary dietary staple of these people was salmon that were caught and dried in huge numbers to last throughout the winters. These people tended to “hunker down” for the winter in their pit houses, travelling on snowshoes if needed, but not wandering too far in the deep snow.

When the miners arrived in this country, they travelled on foot or with horses. There is sparse evidence that sled dogs were used during the Cariboo Gold Rush. It is true that some individual miners established dog teams to get about once they were settled on their claims. Some entrepreneurs used sled dogs to travel the 20 or so miles from Barkerville [the hub of the gold country] to Bowron Lake in order to catch the big lake trout which would fetch a handsome price when delivered to Barkerville for sale. There is also a history of individual trappers and outfitters using sled dogs on the Bowron Chain. Dean Cochran and his wife Lutie homesteaded on Indianpoint Creek [which flows out of Indianpoint Lake which is part of the Bowron Chain] in 1912, and while he used horses, he also used sled dogs in the winter [you can read about their life on the Indianpoint in Lutie’s book The Wilderness Told Me, printed by Spartan Printing of Quesnel in 1970). Another outfitter/trapper who used both horses and sled dogs on the Chain was Tim Cushman, who had his main cabin at Kruger Lake and whose father’s trapline actually ran inside the boundaries of the park. Ernie Holmes was a conservation officer inside the park, and he patrolled parts of the Chain by dog team. No-doubt there were others, but very few people have used sled dogs in this area.

The weather and ice conditions on the Chain are constantly changing, even several times in the same day, and dog mushers know that travelling on lakes can be both a blessing and a curse. The weight of the very heavy snowfall has the effect of pushing the ice downward, which causes the water to rise up on to the ice, causing horrible overflow conditions. There are springs running into some of the lakes and this can cause the lakes to be wide open in sections, even in the middle of winter. The overwintering Trumpeter Swans love it, but for skiers and dog mushers it can be very frightening. There are three rivers that comprise part of the Chain, the Cariboo, Bowron and Isaac, and it takes very cold weather to freeze these rivers up tight.

I know of no example of anyone who has succeeded in travelling around the Bowron Chain in the winter by dog team. There are those who have skied and snowshoed around the Chain and who have had a dog along with them, but to my knowledge, no dog team has ever made it all the way around the Chain. Last year some local mushers made a valiant effort to become the first mushers to complete the circuit, but they became quite bogged down on Isaac Lake after an incredibly tough slog to that point. This trip is documented in the Winter 2011 edition of Explore Magazine [#172] and it contains one ominous quote. As the exhausted expeditioners were regrouping at the Moxley Creek cabin at the end of a gut wrenching slog of a day, one of them muses, with a bleak and hollow tone to his voice…..”I went to some dark places today”.

To the contrary, Sylvia and I had a great day! There had been some ski and snowshoe traffic out on the Chain during the weeks prior to our trip and this had the effect of packing the snow on the portage sections of the route. I had spoken with the park contractor and he said that he had been out to Isaac Lake on snowshoes…judging by the sawdust on the trail, he also had his chainsaw with him, for the blowdown had been cut out of the portage trails. Out on the lakes, the conditions were ideal, there was essentially no open water and only a couple of inches of wind packed snow covered every lake….the dogs could go anywhere.

If ever there was a need for a good gee haw leader this was it….there were vestiges of the old ski/snowshoe trails on the lakes, and the dogs did follow these when they appeared… but generally the dogs were asked to follow the shoreline of the lakes. We were in no hurry and had no real destination, it wasn’t unlike a traditional Inuit journey. When the Inuit travelled with their dogs, virtually everything they owned was on their komatik [sled] wherever they were and however fast they were travelling was just fine…and today that is the way it was with both of us.

We knew that some folks had skied/snowshoed out the day before us to overnight in the cabin at Kibbee Lake…we arrived on their doorstep just before 10:00 a.m…..they were already out of bed. I naively thought that we might stop for coffee, but the dogs had very different ideas, they were wired and were screaming when we put the hook in at the cabin….it was a very short visit. From the cabin we went around Thompson Lake, then down Kibbee Lake, over the portage to Indianpoint Lake and down almost to the end of Indianpoint before having lunch and turning around…we knew that the trail had been broken over the next portage to Isaac Lake, but opted to return home at this point. Had we covered the 2 km. portage to Isaac Lake, it would have opened up 40 km. of clear sailing right down to the end of Isaac Lake, passing two cabins and two shelters on the way…..maybe next year.


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