Bowron Umiak–Thanksgiving 2017

The children passed the time playing with small stuffed replicas of the animals that are part of their everyday world, cuddling one of the puppies, playing string games or just sleeping. When they became hungry, their mothers cut off a piece of caribou meat for them to chew on. The sled dogs curled up wherever there was room, and occasionally there would be growling sounds as old enemies eyed each other across the four foot width of the umiak.

Slowly the large watercraft was making its way along the shoreline., the fickle October weather, with alternating rain, sleet and snowfall along with biting winds was a clear signal that it was now the time to make this annual pilgrimage.   Signs of freezing and winter were evident, the dwindling hours of daylight were just one more indication that this journey was necessary.

The 30 foot long craft consisted of an ingenious framework made of driftwood and animal bone, all skilfully pegged together and covered by the hides of 8 square flipper seals, sewn together by the women who were now rowing this heavy vessel. The bedlam associated with this umiak crammed with children, sled dogs, heavy stone quilliqs, driftwood tent poles and caribou hides to cover tent frames…..all items that this small group of families would require to survive the pending winter, was palpable. However this annual move from the summer caribou hunting grounds to the winter sealing waters was also well organized. They were carrying only what was immediately necessary, the winter hunting and trapping tools consisting of the heavy komatik, dog harness and seal hunting and fur trapping gear would be right where they had stashed them when they made this journey in reverse last spring.The women worked hard rowing this heavy load. Occasionally, if the wind co-operated, it was possible to raise a sail. The men were paddling their kayaks, loaded with their personal hunting tools, looking very much like outriders as this little flotilla made its way towards their winter destination.

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Our umiak has a name….Wannabe. This 26 foot voyageur canoe was now heavily loaded, large drybags rose above the gunnels. It carried much of the necessary equipment and supplies to support a group of three families plus friends over an October long weekend, at what has become a gathering place for celebrating Thanksgiving.   Actually, we loaded up three canoes, the 26 ft. Wannabe, the 20ft. Mackenzie and a 17 foot tandem with 9 adults and 7 children, all of the camping gear, the Big Easy turkey cooker along with a 10 lb. propane bottle that actually weighed 26 pounds and of course the 16 lb. turkey.

Our Saturday destination was Pat’s Point, located right at the bridge of ‘the spectacles’ (Spectacle Lakes) on the West Side of the Bowron Chain. Our drive to the put-in on Bowron Lake on Saturday morning, started out in Quesnel with a grey sky, some drizzle and as we gained elevation, by the time we reached Troll Ski Resort it had become a heavy snowfall. We stopped to use the washrooms and the children took the opportunity to build a life-sized snowman.  I didn’t have my snow tires on the truck so using 4 wheel drive and keeping speed under 80 kph got us safely to Wells where the snow was letting up….there is a marked loss of elevation between Wells and Bowron and by the time we got to the put-in there was no trace of snow on the ground however the tops of the surrounding hills had an icing sugar coating that suggested snow had been falling overnight. The threatening sky strongly indicated that it would be a good idea to put on rain gear before hitting the water.

We put-in at about 12:00 noon. It did rain off and on. we stopped for a 1 hour lunch break at the Pavich cabin on the Bowron River and arrived at Pat’s Point about 5:00 p.m.  We were thrilled to meet up with more friends, four adults and one grandson who had also paddled out that morning, they must have passed by us while we were at the cabin. Our immediate task was to get tents up before darkness (and heavy rain) fell, then to set up house inside the Pat’s Point cooking shelter and to prepare supper.  As the weekend progressed, eventually the whole shelter was closed in with tarpaulins and we were quite cozy inside.  Sunday saw two more friends arrive…our group was complete, 15 adults and 8 children…a total of 23 eager campers.

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The umiak was slowly making its way to the winter sealing grounds. At the end of an exhausting day, the leader indicated that they go to shore and camp for the night. It had been a long and cold journey. Fortunately their caribou hide clothing kept them both warm and dry, but as it rained, these garments became heavier and less comfortable. The children too were wearing caribou hide clothing and seemed to be amazingly warm. There were two infants in this group, and throughout the day each slept soundly in a small pouch located at the back of their mother’s amauti. One was just a newborn and this child was kept warm and dry as its mother was able to move the child to her breast, without having to expose it to the cold wind and rain.

Setting up camp for the night was a priority, particularly as the days were becoming shorter and shorter. The driftwood poles were erected in a manner that provided a framework over which the caribou hides were quickly draped and then secured with large rocks around their outer edge, offering a dry place to keep warm and for sleeping. More dry caribou hides were placed on the cold ground and the quilliq was brought into the tent and skilfully lit to provide heat for warmth and to boil water for both cooking and making tea. There were small dwarf willow trees growing in the area, but the conditions were too wet to easily build a fire using these green twigs. The problem sled dogs were tied to rocks to prevent their looting and fighting. It was the dogs’ lucky day, there was food, each dog was thrown a fish and remnants of a caribou stomach and intestines. Once ready for the night, it was time for everyone to eat, pieces of raw fish and the last of the caribou along with lots of hot tea laced with sugar. These food staples had been traded from the Reveillon Frères trading post located four days travel from where they had spent the summer and where they had taken last winter’s catch of silver fox pelts.

As the parents were pre-occupied with all of the tasks associated with making camp, the children amused themselves. Some were playing with miniature versions of their parents’ everyday tools and utensils, toys their parents had made for them. With these they acted out hunting expeditions in imitation of their parents. It was wonderful to see these children so happy and content.

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Sunday proved to be a pleasant day, we had a fair bit of sunshine although it was down vest and maybe even down jacket weather. The children played and laughed, there were scavenger hunts and treasure hunts and lots of exploring. The parents had wisely packed both cold weather and wet weather clothing so the children were quite comfortable. These outfits were very important to ensure that the children enjoyed themselves. Toaster Suits and Newtsuits, essentially winter snowsuits as well as child-sized waterproof versions of adult coveralls. Some of the children had cold hands and wore mittens however most of them seemed to be quite comfortable with bare hands.  During the day the adults enjoyed visiting and ‘catching up’, collecting and splitting firewood, watching and playing with the children, resting, sharing stories about past trips on the Bowron and of course getting ready for supper which was to be served at 5:00 p.m. precisely.

It was a wonderful turkey dinner, hauling out the Big Easy was definitely worthwhile.  We started with apples at 4:00 p.m., about 6 different kinds; then we moved on to the roast turkey, complete with stuffing and gravy, mashed potatoes and three other vegetables, cranberry sauce made from wild cranberries and at least 5 different deserts which included pumpkin cheesecake, carrot cake, muffins and of course more than one pumpkin pie, all served with whipped cream.  We set up the cooking shelter with the tables in a semi-circle, there were table cloths and centre pieces…it was very special and everyone, children and adults, enjoyed the feast.

We knew that another 8 adults were on their way to also spend the night at Pat’s Point…this was a group of very fit friends who annually try to paddle the Chain faster than they did the year before, although they admit that they might be slowing down just a bit. When they arrived, they were on schedule to complete the circuit in 3 days and as coincidence would have it, they pulled in exactly when the meal was ready. While not actually part of our party, we were friends with several members of this group. They were wet from the rain, talked about some adventures on the Cariboo River and were anxious to get settled for the night.  It was getting dark and they went to set up their tents and to make their own supper.  Visiting took place later in the evening around a campfire ring outside the cooking shelter and underneath a giant tarpaulin that reflected the heat from the fire ring back on to those gathered underneath it. In the darkness, it was impossible to know that it was a cold and rainy October night.

Ours was a fabulous meal and everyone was truly thankful, not just for this great dinner, but for the opportunity of sharing this experience together in this very special place.  We were especially thrilled to see just how much the children were enjoying themselves…there was no crying, no whining, just lots of running and chasing and laughing.

Just after 8:00 p.m., the rain started in earnest…and it continued hard all night…but we all remained quite dry.  I was impressed with just what experienced campers and very good paddlers the members of our group proved to be….everyone was well prepared.  A young woman from the Netherlands is living with one of the families and working  as an au pair….she is very eager to do all things ‘Canadian’ and was thrilled to be part of our camping trip. Her host family saw to it that she had the right clothing and gear and while she had never done anything quite like this before, she survived the cool nights and the snow and rain with a smile on her face…she was obviously loving it.  She wanted to experience everything from splitting firewood with the axe, tending the fires and setting up her own tent (with a little help) She interacted closely with all of the children, who all obviously felt very comfortable with her.  There were four little girls as part of the entourage and before too long, she was brushing and braiding their hair, I believe that both she and the children loved the experience.

Monday morning the 8 ‘racers’ joined us in the shelter for breakfast, it was a time to visit, but by 8:00 a.m. they were off.  Some of our group left about 9:30 a.m., the rest of us finally got under way around 11:00 a.m…..it rained most of the day.

Our outbound trip was both relaxing and challenging. The first ‘leg’ of the trip took us to the campsite at Birch Bay (the Birches) where we stopped for 1.5 hours.  We didn’t want this trip to end, and for some members of this group, this is a particularly special place. About 10 years ago a family group along with friends made a trip to the Birches to plant a very special tree in memory of a much loved infant who very sadly died just three weeks after birth. Each time we stop here we visit the tree, it is a dwarf birch that will never grow to be very large but which will continue to flourish. We were thrilled to see it thriving! In the midst of the golden backdrop of autumn birch leaves, this tree had not yet lost any of its dark green foliage. Over the years we have come to learn that ‘the Bowron’ holds many special memories for families and that there are memorials of different types in place around the whole circuit.

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The journey to the sealing grounds took five days, the heavily loaded umiak was slow but dependable. Everyone rejoiced when the hill upon which the rock cairn that held winter supplies and upon which the komatik was placed came into view. This was going to be home for the winter, and soon a small community would develop.  The umiak would be placed upside down on some rocks and would serve as a shelter for valued possessions. Already there had been some snowfall, but not yet enough for building a warm igloo, the caribou hide tents would be home for a few more weeks. This area was very close to a polynya, an area of water that stays open throughout the arctic winter. The polynya is very attractive to arctic sea mammals which in turn attracts polar bears, making winter hunting that much easier. The Inuit are a hunter gathering people, such a lifestyle necessitates that they are nomads, but for the next 6 months this place will be home.

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The paddle homeward on the Upper Bowron river is always fun. The downstream current is a welcome helpmate, and we made good time. It is a challenge for paddlers to try and navigate the twists and turns in this river just by leaning at the corners….easier said than done. When we reached Bowron Lake it became quite evident that the high river banks had been shielding us from the all-too-common east wind that blows down the lake. At least it was at our back, but it was also creating some pretty big waves. We were in the tandem canoe and speeded up to join the big voyageur that looked very much like a cross between a container ship and a dormitory as it cut through the swells. I asked if there was any interest in trying to put up a sail (which I had with me) and was greeted by some parents placing their fingers up to their lips. The reason soon became obvious, of the five children in the Wannabe, all of them were sound asleep. The two year old was sleeping on his mother’s knee, and still she didn’t miss a paddle stroke, not unlike her sisters rowing the loaded umiak.

We didn’t hoist a sail but rather made our way towards the right hand (northern) shore, cutting diagonally across the swells with the wind blowing over our left shoulders. We kept fairly close together, it was exciting, everyone knew just what their job was. Soon we were close enough to shore that the wind was no longer an issue, we rafted up to talk and then the wind seemed to disappear, offering an opportunity to cross the lake and make straight for the take-out.   We were back to our vehicles  by about 4:00 p.m. and were home in Quesnel just before 6:00 p.m.  As luck would have it, we drove home just ahead of another (really big) snowfall and for us the roads remained dry.

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