BRO’S ON BOWRON 2016
Twenty one consecutive years and always on this same May holiday weekend, Queen Victoria’s birthday. That’s how long and when members of our group have been paddling around the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit together. Oh there have been a couple of years that we didn’t make it all the way around, always getting stopped by the still-frozen Isaac Lake, but those years we managed to have a great time on the parts of the Chain that we could paddle.
We did some figuring and over those 21 years there have been just under 90 different men (and one woman) who have been part of this group. This year we even gave ourselves a name: Bro’s On Bowron. We wanted to celebrate not just the Bowron, but also our accomplishment … after all, 21 years is something to celebrate (actually we thought we were celebrating 20 years but then one of the smarter group members did the math and it was 21 years: 1996 – 2016).
The core members of the group are, or used to be, from Central BC – the Quesnel area. Fellows have come from all over Canada though to be part of this annual ritual, and not just Canada, but Europe, Africa and Australia too. Fathers and sons, brothers, high school buddies, guys from work, mill workers, forest- ers, doctors, retailers, students, engineers, paramedics, counsellors, teachers, retirees, administrators, carpenters, log builders, cowboys, ranchers, electricians and a few dead beats. Since things have started, three members of this group have passed away.
It used to take us under 4 days to complete the Circuit; now it takes the better part of 5. In the ‘old’ days we would hit Wolverine Bay on the first night, the end
of Isaac on night #2, Pat’s Point at the end of day #3 and we’d be on the road home by 2:00 pm on day 4 … but as I said, that was in the ‘old’ days. Now we take it a little slower, it just might have something to do with our age. This year the ages of the group members ranged from 30 to 79. But age really is meaningless on this trip, everyone helps each other, the portages are communal affairs, and on the water everyone looks out for each other. The closeness that is part of this group is one of the things that makes this trip so spe- cial. But that’s not to say that those who are just a bit older don’t feel more than just a bit of personal pride knowing that they can still cut it. And then of course there is the great equalizer: Vitamin I. Every evening and in the morning the call goes out from the pushers in the group, “does anyone need any Ibuprophen?”
Our destination for the first night was a string of three separate, yet loosely connected campsites located at Kruger Bay on Indianpoint Lake. One of the advan- tages of paddling this early in the season is that there are relatively few people/groups out on the Chain. This means that there just isn’t the same type of competition for campsites that exists during the ‘high’ season. We essentially have the reassurance that we are able to camp pretty much where we want.
As trips around the Chain go, we had a pretty pain- less start. For the first time in 21 years, we were not required to watch the orientation video. Could it be that most of us have it memorized? There were two other small groups starting with us, but it wasn’t long before we were all strung out along the first portage trail leading to Kibbee Lake, the spot where the boats meet the water for the first time and the site of a true comedy of errors … if only Kibbee Lake could talk, but I’ll have to share what happened.
One of the other groups consisting of three jovial young fellows using a rented canoe and kayak, confid- ed that they hadn’t paddled a canoe or kayak before. This was to be their baptism, and indeed it was. When the kayaker recovered after he overturned on his first attempt to get into the kayak, one of our group offered to give him a quick lesson on just how it was done; he gladly accepted. The other two fellows in the canoe were carving a zig-zag route across little Kibbee Lake, often paddling on the same side of the canoe, with both paddlers changing sides almost with every stroke. The Park brochure says the Bowron is a wilderness paddling destination “for the intermediate and experienced level paddler”. A friend once told me that he could tell if two paddlers were in love, just by the way they paddled together. These two were not in love and they were in for a long, long trip. We saw them paddling past several hours later after we had established our first night’s camp. The next morning we had a chat and they reassured us that “we have worked out our problems.” We didn’t see them again.
Isaac Lake is actually a height of land or divide on the Chain. This means that the first three portages are up- hill, and this is also the part of the trip where loads are the heaviest. The famous paddler Bill Mason report- edly said that “anyone who says they enjoy portages is either crazy or a liar”. After this year’s trip I am pre- pared to stand up and officially state that I don’t enjoy portages. This year it was a grunt, despite the fact that my partner and I really did try to lighten our load and we used wheels with our very lightweight canoe.
That first night’s campsite, like all the others to follow, was great! There were 15 of us, paddling in 8 boats and sleeping in 10 tents. When the camp was set up
it looked, and was, fabulous. A large tarp was set up over a fire ring, we used chairs, PFD’s, seat pads and tree stumps to make ourselves comfortable. The tarp was a precaution in the event of rain, and it had the added advantage of reflecting heat from the campfire back down on to the group … we were very comfort- able. We were in bed by 9:30 pm, up by 5:30 and on the water as early as 7:30, but always by 8:30. This was a group of experienced canoe trippers, but even with all of our experience, we were able to learn from one another on this trip.
Why do we do this trip every year, always feeling at the end that we can’t wait to do it again? There are, of course, very personal reasons that are unique to each individual. But there are also shared reasons.
For virtually everyone there is the love of Wilderness Canoe Tripping in an incredible setting that is unique in the world. What’s not to like about this place! This is paddler’s heaven with snowcapped mountains and glaciers, lakes and rivers, waterfalls and streams, some are crystal clear while others are laden with glacial silt that scrubs the bottom of your canoe. Four different biogeoclimatic zones unfold before your eyes as you silently glide from one to the next and all of this with an infrastructure of campsites and portage trails, bear caches, tent pads, fire rings and outhouses, emergency shelter cabins and cooking shelters that both protect the environment and make the camping experience safe and attainable.
We are one with the wildlife that is all around us. Over the 21 years we have come to look for the same birds in the same places. This year the Harlequin ducks weren’t in the swift moving water on the Isaac River at the Chute. We all wondered why; they are always there. We only saw two moose this year, but then again this is when the cows are calving and they like to do that in secret. There was one bear eating on an early- greening avalanche chute on one of the mountains on Isaac Lake. Over the 21 years there seem to be fewer and fewer geese, but they were nesting as we went through this year and they only took flight when we got too close to their nests. We have come to appreci- ate that the water levels play a big part in determining the successes for the nesting waterfowl. If the ducks and geese build their nests and lay their eggs while the water is still rising, there is a chance that they will get flooded out and the chicks won’t hatch.
This year there was a very early spring, we saw rela- tively little snow on the mountains, the avalanche chutes were completely devoid of any ice or snow, it seemed that the water levels may have already peaked. We didn’t see the migrating ducks that in the past have been ‘rafting’ in large numbers on the bigger lakes, but then again this year the season was so advanced that it is possible that they had already passed through. There were the solitary pairs of loons on each lake, we saw resident mallards, buffleheads, mergansers and grebes, osprey and eagles. The song birds, particularly the warblers, were everywhere. There were very few swallows and we understand that this is one species where throughout the country, numbers have dropped precipitously.
There is something special about being part of this group of men. Many are year-round friends, living in the same community, but as others join the group for this paddle, a connection soon develops. Maybe it’s all about the fact that men tend to be task oriented and they look at canoeing the Chain as being a proj- ect. The fact is that the group very quickly gels: some of the best times are rafting up all of the canoes and kayaks in the middle of the lake and just laying back, talking and eating someone else’s Costco-sized cashew and almond trail mix as well as their chocolate covered jujubes.
This trip we had a campfire every night and we spent a couple of hours after the supper dishes were done, just sitting together and talking. Sure, we relate in a ‘guy’ kind of way with the expected put-downs and jibes that you come to expect from men who were socialized by their fathers, but it’s not malicious or hurtful and certainly not personal. There is a genuine feeling of caring about and for each other. There is lots of fun, constant laughter. Sexist talk simply isn’t part of the dialogue. There is the feeling that the oth- ers have got your back, that they will keep you safe and if needed, will have answers if there’s a problem.
Everyone likes this place, we want to keep it special. We have become somewhat protective; stewardship has become important to us. There is lots of talk about the history associated with the Bowron. The group shares a surprising amount of knowledge about the special places, the various cabins, the pioneers who played a role in the evolution of this place. We talk and speculate about just what it was like for First Na- tions people to be in this place during the fall Sockeye salmon run and just how and where they stored the fish that would keep them alive throughout the win- ter, about where and just how they lived. The names associated with many of the lakes and landmarks … Kibbee, Isaac, Babcock, McLeary (or is it McLary), Turner, Thompson, Wendle, Pavich, Reed, Cochrane, McCabe, all trigger conversation.
Our second night we camped just past Betty Wendle Creek which is a bit south of Lynx Creek on Isaac Lake. We found an old kettle half buried in a mossy patch of ground; it looked like something from the 1940’s or 50’s. Of course we speculated about its origins and its age, we set it up on display on top of the bear cache. Someone remembered a passage from George Gilbert’s book Kicked by a Dead Moose where George talks about building his own personal cabin at a spot south of Betty Wendle Creek at a place that he called Silvertip Point. Was this that place? The cabin was burned to the ground by the Park officials when Bowron was made a Provincial Park in the 1960’s. Actually, George hired a log builder named Erik Rask to do the bulk of the work on his cabin. Erik built a number of cabins on the Chain for the Wells Rod and Reel club. The Lynx Creek cabin is Erik’s work and so is the cabin on the Bowron River.
The Bowron is so peaceful and relaxing. You can paddle for long stretches without even wanting to talk to your paddling partner, you are so absorbed by the shoreline, the reflections on the water and by the hyp- notic rhythmic movement and sounds associated with a simple stroke of the paddle. You feel like you are be- ing absorbed by the Bowron, especially as you become surrounded by the breathtaking mountains that line Isaac and Lanezi lakes. I like to think that I am going into the Bowron rather than simply going around the Bowron Chain.
At the same time it can be exciting and challenging. As we leave the Cariboo River and enter Lanezi Lake, a strong headwind hits us in the face. We should have expected it, this is not uncommon as afternoon unfolds. We’re heading for Turner Creek, we have to keep the bow of the boat at just the right angle to the very large waves and rogue rollers that the wind is whipping up, we keep fairly close together for safety reasons and as close to the shoreline as the angle we need to paddle will allow. Muscles start aching, even screaming, it’s hard to find a comfortable way to sit. But boy is this fun! Not only just fun, this is the adrenalin adventure that we have thought about for the many months throughout the year when we can’t paddle. Yes, it is a personal test that reaffirms that reassuring feeling of self reliance.
So rock me momma like a wagon wheel
Rock me momma any way you feel …
Rock me momma like the wind and the rain
Rock me momma like a south bound train
Hey momma rock me
Why have I just written the chorus of the song Wagon Wheel, made famous by the group Old Crow Medicine Show? The reality is, since this trip ended, I haven’t been able to get that tune out of my head.
On our third night, we camped at Turner Creek where there is a closed-in shelter. We had been meeting up with two young couples as we leap-frogged our way around the Chain. They had actually started their trip a day after us and were making very good time. When we arrived and ruined the neighbourhood, they chose to camp across the creek and we were alone and had the shelter as a home base. That night, after supper was over with, one of our group brought out his gui- tar, something that he had been treating like crystal as he made his way over the very rough Isaac River por- tages. We enjoyed the concert, it was something special and for us, unique. It was also at this time that I first heard the song Wagon Wheel. It’s a song about a fellow who is hitch-hiking his way from the cold weather of New England down the Atlantic Seaboard; his destina- tion is Raleigh North Carolina where he hopes to “see (his) baby tonight” and to take his place playing banjo in an old time string band. Just like the momma waves we had just paddled on Lanezi, there was something carefree about the melody and words. It struck me that this is yet another reason why we have made this trip on this weekend for the past twenty-one years. It’s a freeing break, not from reality but from routine … paddling can do that for you.
My consistent experience with Lanezi Lake has been that paddling west in the early morning, the aquama- rine silt laden water is like glass, and this year was no exception. Lanezi Lake used to be called Long Lake; it is indeed long and narrow with glacier topped moun- tains on both sides. The west end of the lake is guard- ed by Mount Ishpa and Mount Kaza, the two highest peaks on the Chain.
Three years ago our group experienced what could easily have been its first tragedy, right on this lake. To- day as we paddled past the spot in question, everyone’s mind was no-doubt on that experience. It was May of 2014, one of those years when Isaac Lake didn’t thaw until early June. We were aware of this and so our group decided to paddle out on the Chain’s West Side and set up camp at Sandy Lake. On the third day we decided to break into small groups, each group was going to pursue its own adventure. One group de- cided to look for the cedar forests that we knew wer on the northern shore at the N.E. end of Sandy Lake. A second group was going to circumnavigate Sandy Lake and then take the short hike on the trail from Sandy Lake’s southern shore into Hunter Lake. A third group decided that they would paddle eastward into Lanezi Lake, with Turner Creek as a destination. One member of this group was visiting from Ontario and his friends wanted him to see as much of the Chain as possible.
As this third group entered Lanezi Lake they hugged the steep, rocky, northern shore. It was a year when the avalanche chutes that ran down the steep moun- tainsides did have ice and snow in them and they paddled in close in order to get some good photos. They stopped to take the photo in front of one of these chutes just as they heard a sound as a huge piece of ice broke away and crashed into the lake in front of them. One of the canoes was sitting bow first, at right angles to the resulting wave, the other, the one with the photographer was sitting broadside. There was an initial wave of water, the canoe facing right into
the wave handled it well, the canoe that was sitting broadside began to rock and was at risk of capsizing. Then the huge piece of ice surfaced and there was a second tsunami-like wave which completely scuttled the broadside canoe, both men were in the freezing water, the canoe was full of water, there was gear everywhere. The second canoe remained upright, even when the second wave hit. Very quickly the paddlers in this second canoe swung into action and initiated and directed a canoe-over-canoe rescue of the capsized boat and paddlers. Once the men were safely back into their boat they made a beeline for a nearby campsite, one of only 4 on the whole lake. Very quickly a fire was blazing, hypothermia was avoided, dry clothing was found and these men eventually made it back to our campsite at Sandy Lake looking shaken and with a frightening story to share. This was one of those situa- tions where the men in this group really did have each others’ backs. The emotional support that was offered and accepted was very, very real.
Our destination for night #4 was Pat’s Point on Spec- tacle Lakes. (By the way, if you are interested in Bowron trivia, there is only one Spectacle Lake but it has always been pluralized and spelled with an ‘s’ on the end of Lake(s). Why is this?) It was en route to Pat’s Point that we experienced the only rain of our trip, about four hours of pretty steady drizzle. We arrived to find other parties at the main campground. This time it was our group that left the shelter for the two young couples who had obliged us at Turner Creek the night before and we paddled down to the group campsite at the end of the bay. Did I say group campsite? I meant to write GREAT group campsite! This was the best camp yet, it was like it was custom-made for us. Lots of room for our 10 tents, the tarp went up over the fire ring, we found some dry firewood and we were ex- cited, tonight was special … it was appy night.
Picture a group of unshaven, unwashed men bathed in 4 days worth of campfire smoke getting ready to have a party. We had initially wanted to have some kind of pot luck supper on our last night, someone suggested a Mexican theme. But there wasn’t consensus on this idea and the end result was we agreed that everyone would bring an appetizer to share with the group before we each prepared supper. I didn’t say anything at the time, but pictured an array of things like moose sausage and boxes of Tim Bits … how wrong I was. First a 17 foot canoe with a relatively flat bottom was overturned, brushed off and stabilized to form a table. Almost immediately the whole surface was covered with appetizers … some of them were even hot ap- petizers. This group of men had outdone themselves; they did take this seriously. There was sausage served with hot garlic sauce, corned moosemeat, ‘paddlers’ nachos’ with pringles potato chips replacing the usual corn chips, hot grilled halloumi cheese, gouda cheese with cranberries, salami with pickled asparagus, tradi- tional nachos with salsa, two types of smoked salmon, one with pepper jelly, crackers and guacamole, even a made-from-a mix cheesecake with a chocolate sauce.
Needless to say, after eating these appetizers there really wasn’t any room left for supper, but there was time for music and once again we gathered around the fire ring under the tarp, just to listen to music and to enjoy the last night of our trip. But we also had visitors.
It turns out that ours isn’t the only group that has journeyed out to the Bowron Chain on the May long weekend. A group of women from Wells have also had a tradition of travelling out to Pat’s Point to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday, but their efforts had languished over the past few years. Four women had planned to paddle out together this year, unfortunately two of the group had last minute commitments elsewhere, however the remaining two ladies made the trip. These women are friends of many of our group members and when they heard that we were camped just down the beach, they came to visit. Talk about two roses amongst a bunch of thorns – they arrived wearing clean clothes with well scrubbed faces, each carrying a wine glass, filled with red wine. They also arrived bearing at least half of an incredible choco- late cheesecake which was very quickly devoured by members of our group who ate with their fingers and wiped their mouths with their shirt sleeves.
Next morning we were on the water by 7:30 am; it was pristine. It’s about a four hour trip to the take-out at the Park dock, the paddling was great. The journey down Spectacle Lakes and then Swan Lake, which empties into the meandering upper Bowron River seems to be somewhat ‘sheltered’, is always relaxing, and is often the part of the trip where canoes paddle close together to facilitate a running conversation. (Once we get out of the Bowron Marsh however, if there is a headwind on Bowron Lake, that’s another story.) This is a great place to see wildlife and we weren’t disappointed. We stopped at the campsite we call The Birches, where there is a special memorial tree that looks out over all of the passing canoes and kayaks, the tree is located in the exact spot where two moose had been standing as we approached. The near-empty bag of Costco trail mix was passed around one last time, in another two hours we would be on our way home.
This journey is not quite over. If all goes well, look for the film/movie/video/ working title Bro’s On Bowron which hopefully will be in some kind of finished state by the late Spring of 2017.
Darius Rucker sings Wagon Wheel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hvKyBcCDOB4