Bro’s on Bowron….2019
The third portage on the Bowron Chain, starts from a quiet sheltered lagoon at the end of Indianpoint Lake, and rises over a rough rocky trail to the height of land, then levels out about half a kilometre from Isaac Lake. This is the point where all the water from the Chain starts running into the Quesnel River watershed. We know that once we complete this trail there will be no more portages for about 24 hours.
Once on Isaac Lake, the amazing Inland Temperate Rainforest stretches before us, running north and south the length of this large, remote, cold and very beautiful 45 kilometre long lake, then well beyond into the northern parts of the States of Washington, Idaho and Montana. Mount Cochrane and Wolverine Mountain loom in front of us. To our left at Wolverine Bay are signs of the creek that links with the Goat River Trail which runs to the Fraser River. There once was an actual foot trail running beside the creek, built by Youth Crews in the 1960’s during the Bowron’s early days as a Provincial Park. When the Park boundaries were extended into this area in 1970, a firm decision was made to prevent all access to the Park other than through the main Park entrance. Now this trail is grown over, but there is a revival of interest in the Goat River trail, which now does have a trailhead not far from the main entrance to the Park.
I had been anxious to see, feel and to just be absorbed by the Inland Temperate Rainforest once again, especially since recently reading the beautifully illustrated book Caribou Rainforest—From Heartbreak to Hope, by David Moskowitz. He writes about “The Caribou Rainforest: A Forest Like No Other” of which the Inland Temperate Rainforest running through this part of the Cariboo Mountains and the area known as the Quesnel Highlands, is but a small part. This book clearly shows how all of B.C.’s Mountain Caribou including the very small local Quesnel Highlands population, are threatened with extirpation.
I have never seen a caribou inside the Chain, only footprints on a sandy beach right at Isaac Lake’s ‘elbow’. Only one member of our 2019 group, which collectively have paddled the Circuit just over 200 times has ever seen caribou inside the Park, two animals once swam across Isaac Lake in front of his canoe. It is hard to believe that this area, which was named (but misspelled by the early hunters, trappers and gold miners) the Cariboo because of the preponderance of these animals, is now almost devoid of them.
Twenty four. That’s how many consecutive years this group of men has paddled the Bowron Canoe Chain, and always on this same May long weekend. Over the years we have adopted the moniker ‘Bro’s’, as in ‘Bro’s on Bowron’. Of the group who will paddle the Chain in 2019, some have made it on every trip, some are newbies. For the very first time there are three generations of the same family taking part. Members of the group range in age from 28 to 82, Since the start, over a hundred different men have been part of this group, this year there are 17 of us. Every man genuinely wants to be here, together. This is an exceptional group of experienced wilderness paddlers .
Each year we have been among the first to complete the Circuit, some years we are the first. It’s always like launching off into a new and wild frontier, the whole place is ours to explore and enjoy, and finding campsites isn’t a problem. In actual fact the Park Contractors had been around before us and had cut out those winter blowdowns that were blocking portage trails or which may have come down in some campsites. But they are only a few days ahead of us, and there has not been time for them to cut firewood in the woodlots. We have learned to pick up any dry firewood as we approach planned camping spots. This year there were nine canoes, we generally travelled together, there was usually enough room for a night’s worth of firewood spread among the canoes.
The conditions were great, thankfully not the almost continual rain that had been in the forecast. This is no-doubt one of the reasons why we made exceptional time during this year’s trip. We were on the water for part of five days, set up camp for four nights and were on the road home by mid afternoon on the fifth day. Day four was a wet one, we wore rain gear almost all day, but that day we had the benefit of both the Turner Creek (in the morning) and the Pats Point (in the evening) cooking shelters. There were virtually no winds, certainly no headwinds. The conditions on Lanezi Lake were excellent, the proverbial ‘as smooth as glass’.
We had all arrived in good time for the check-in at the Park Registration Centre. The Park contractor knew we were coming and actually had most of the paperwork ready for us to complete. We all watched the orientation video at 9:00 a.m. precisely (only one fellow had not seen it before, some of us had seen it in its various incarnations 24 times, and yes the video still shows that if you get into trouble you should put your orange garbage bag over the end of your paddle and wave it in the air).
The portage trails were generally in good condition. There was a bit of snow and water to deal with, but it didn’t slow us down. Trail #2 from Kibbee to Indianpoint was significantly upgraded last fall and it is in very good shape. All but one fellow were paddling tandem, and the guy paddling solo had a heavy load in a 16 foot canoe so others gave him a bit of a boost by occasionally paddling tandem with him in his canoe or offering to paddle his canoe solo while he paddled tandem with someone else.
Without exception we were on the water by 7:30 each morning. As suggested previously, everyone had good canoe tripping skills and things like meal preparation and making and breaking camp went without a hitch. Fellows tended to cook in groups of two or four, meals were generally of the ‘two pot’ variety, easy to cook or heat up on a single burner stove. That’s not to say however that the meals weren’t full of flavour and the smell of curry containing spices like coriander, ginger and especially cumin wafted through the cooking shelters. One father and son readily shared their Hungry Man’s Chicken Pie and light fluffy bannock with all takers. There was also lots of sharing of the goodies that had been prepared by the wife back home (did I just write that?).
We found that we had time to do some extra things like paddle into Unna Lake for lunch and a relaxing time to take some photos. From the late 1930’s to the early 1960’s, Unna Lake was the centre of the action on the Bowron during what I call the ‘Wells Era’ of the Bowron. Gold miners from Wells, during the haydays of both the Cariboo Gold Quartz and the Island Mountain mines would travel out to Unna Lake after work, a place where they had established a small community of what they called ‘shake shelters’, and here they would spend days off and weekends when weather permitted. There is another very small lake connected to Unna Lake by a small waterway. One of those Wells miners, George Gilbert, got the idea to build a shelter on this lake. It was a ‘guys only’ hangout, these places were known in the day as ‘ram’s pastures’. This little lake is now known as Rum Lake. You can guess what these fellows were doing when they were ‘hanging out’ there.
In those days travel on the Bowron was by motor boat, the Bowron did not become a Park until 1961. The Wells Rod and Reel Club was a dominant force in the ‘shaping’ of the Bowron during this period, building cabins throughout the Chain, placing motorboats at the portage headwaters, maintaining a small wooden-tracked ‘railroad’ consisting of one ore car, on the portages between Spectacle, Skoi and Babcock Lakes and even (at the request of the government for fire safety purposes), dynamiting a canal that ran between Spectacle and Skoi Lakes. All of these amenities for the use of the Rod and Reel Club members.
Most of our group also took the time to hike into the site of the McCabe homestead that overlooks Indianpoint Creek. Thomas and Elinor McCabe were Americans although interestingly, Thomas, who was a biology professor had a very close affinity with both Canada and the Bowron. He fought as a member of the Canadian army during WWI, he experienced tragedy on Canada’s Peace River when his first wife drowned on their honeymoon. His second wife Elinor laid claim to land at Indianpoint Lake as a homestead, eventually obtaining title, she did the same thing regarding 100 acres on the south shore of Bowron Lake. The McCabes built homes in both locations. The Indianpoint home was a two storey log structure with a massive stone fireplace and french doors overlooking Indianpoint Creek. It is said that the walls were lined with books and that the logs were so large, McCabe had drawers built into them, a place where Thomas kept his ornithology supplies. The ballusters supporting the stair railing leading to the second level were said to have the heads of the large Bowron Lake mammals carved into them.
Both Thomas and Elinor were keenly interested in the wildlife and natural beauty of the Bowron. They were instrumental in lobbying (along with others) to create what was initially termed the Barkerville Game Reserve in 1925. Thomas completed the first detailed map of the Chain that same year. At some point their visits to the Bowron became less frequent (their primary residence was in Berkley California where Thomas was teaching at the university) and in 1934 they stopped coming all together. Today only that stone fireplace remains, along with some scattered debris. I have often thought that this would be an excellent practicum site for a group of archaeological students to come and rediscover just what life was like on the Bowron during the 1920’s and 30’s.
It is amazing how being out with a group on the Bowron always triggers almost endless talk about what else……? Other trips on the Bowron. All of the old experiences from journeys past are rehashed. There is talk regarding Bowron history including debates about whether it is McLeary or McLary Lake, and whether or not the Park should make a special effort to stabilize and safeguard the 1926 Joe Wendle Cabin that is in danger of sliding into the Upper Bowron River. Talk of Bowron geography…. are Thompson and Kibbee really two separate lakes or just one? Just where does Spectacle Lakes end and Swan Lake begin? We also talk about contemporary issues like….did they build the new Ranger cabins as duplexes to segregate men and women or Park Rangers and Park Contractors, or are they really planning on renting out cabin space for wealthy would-be voyageurs who don’t like camping?
We were encouraged to see significantly more bird and animal life this trip than we did last year. We saw lots and lots of moose sign. At every stop the red osier dogwood bushes (which one forester in the group informed us is like ‘moose ice cream’) had been well chewed and there were moose droppings everywhere. We saw three moose, including one obliging cow along the Upper Bowron River who provided lots of head-on as well as side profile views for all of the photographers. The beavers were there, as well as the eagles. The harlequin ducks in the Isaac River Chute were gorgeous. We learned that they actually migrate from the coast to the fast moving waters of this part of the Isaac River to nest and raise their young. We saw one swan and several geese, while last year we had seen none. There were ducks (too distant to identify) rafting up on the lakes, possibly resting and in transit further north. We saw grebes, mergansers and loons (all diving birds), there were buffleheads and mallards.
Perhaps the most encouraging sighting was of the swallows at Pat’s Point. Up until recently they had always been plentiful at that spot but in recent years their numbers have plummeted, last year there were none. Song birds seemed to be everywhere, there were definitely warblers, it would have been great to have some more knowledgeable birders along to help identify the ‘little birds’ that were in all of the bushes at our campsites. While we didn’t see or hear them, we did hear from others about a grizzly bear as well as howling wolves.
It was distressing to see many if not most of the cedar trees with brown rather than green foliage (needles?). Recent news releases from the Coast have talked about dying yellow cedar trees due to summer drought along with extreme cold winter weather episodes which has damaged the shallow root systems that are typical of cedar trees. The cedars in the Inland Temperate Rainforest however are red cedars. The foresters in our group (and there were four of them) felt that this discolouration was not a serious problem and that these trees would regain their green foliage with the help of some good rainfall.
Maybe it was because we paddled together, and because we tended to follow the shorelines of the lakes, this trip seemed to be more relaxing than most. There is something almost hypnotic about watching the shoreline pass by as your canoe moves swiftly and silently through the calm water. This also gave lots of opportunity to ‘visit’ and to swap stories with each other as we moved along together; the time seemed to go by quickly.
We are always in awe of the beauty of this place. The deeper that we travel ‘into’ the heart of the Chain, the more spectacular it becomes. It is difficult for those of us who live in Quesnel, just a 1.5 hour drive away, to fully appreciate that this spectacular world renowned beauty is right on our doorstep. This year the water levels were reasonably high, but definitely not as high as last year. The campsites were not flooded, there was very little ice and snow in the chutes along both Isaac and Lanezi Lakes. There was however lots of snow higher in the mountains and perhaps the melt and the runoff was just starting, high water in the Cariboo/Quesnel Rivers is usually at the end of June.
We came to the chute at the end of Isaac Lake. We did stop to grab a snack, to admire the Harlequin Ducks and to scout the water, but relatively quickly we were all in our boats ready to paddle. This is the first time that every canoe in our group chose to paddle through the chute rather than to use the portage trail. Ours was the first canoe and we eddied out just below the chute, taking the position as one of the safety boats. We were in excellent position to watch as each canoe passed through the chute without hesitation. It was thrilling to look downstream as all nine boats were navigating the Roller Coaster section of the river as if in formation, en route to the take-out for the next portage.
Two members of our group had been at this very spot just two months earlier. During a brutal cold snap in March, they had decided that they were going to walk around the Chain using winter boots and snowshoes rather than skis, and pulling two small pulkas with their gear. The extreme cold meant that there would be little chance of having to deal with the dreaded overflow that can often sabotage winter trips on the Chain. When they cleared the Isaac River portage trails and got to McLeary/McLary Lake however, they found the Cariboo River wide open. While it would be possible for them to bushwack along the river shore having to contend with deep snow in the process, they came up with another plan. It should be mentioned that these fellows were not strangers to the Bowron in the winter, they had completed this trip before and on that occasion they had pulled a canoe on a small sled, a canoe that they used when there was any open water.
So, in March of this year, one of them remembered that on a trip around the Chain the previous fall he had seen a damaged canoe beside the Isaac River portage trail. Despite five feet of snow they found the canoe, ‘shovelled’ it out with their snowshoes, and while the canoe was definitely damaged, it looked like it just might float; amazingly there was even a paddle in the canoe. They found a second usable paddle and were successful in paddling down the Cariboo River to a point just before Lanezi Lake where they cached the canoe and were able to once again resume their trek on snowshoes. As we went zooming down the Cariboo River on this trip, they stopped to look for the canoe they had cached in March. Without the snow, the lay of the land had changed significantly and after a quick but unsuccessful hunt, they decided to carry on with the rest of us. We made a bee-line for Turner Creek campsite on Lanezi Lake and for once there was no headwind.
The final four hour paddle from Pat’s Point to the takeout is never boring On this trip the conditions were exceptional and the paddling was generally quite relaxing, with one exception. As we approached Swan Lake (which no-doubt received its name because Trumpeter Swans overwinter here due to the fact that there is moving water passing through this area on a year-round basis) we decided to exit the lakes by what I call the ‘back door’. We stopped at the campsite known as the Birches and then paddled around the back side of Pavich Island and through a narrow channel that connects the lakes with the Upper Bowron River. As we approached the river we had to fight a very strong current as high water from the river was not only flowing into the Bowron Slough and eventually into Bowron Lake, but also flowing into the narrow channel in which we found ourselves.
Once again we had a ‘ring side’ seat as we pulled into an eddy on ‘channel left’ to sit and wait and watch. The experienced paddlers hugged the eddies on the right side of the channel, inching their way forward in the quiet water, using all of the ‘black water’ in the eddy before quickly cutting across the current to the quiet water on the other side of the channel. They made it look effortless. Once into the swiftly running waters of the Upper Bowron river it was a float as we relaxed and took in the scenery, including that very photogenic moose.
This is a very, very special area. The longest sockeye salmon run in North America passes right through these waters every fall. This would have been a logical place for First Nations to establish a fishery. No-doubt drying racks were erected along the shore line and clear evidence of ‘cache pits’ have also been found in this area. These holes were dug into the river bank, lined with birch bark and then filled with fish before being covered with more bark and soil. They would keep the fish from spoiling for up to a year. The Upper Bowron River might also be called a ‘mystery river’ with stories of mysterious caves and grizzly bears. It is officially off-limits to Bowron travellers because of the fact that the salmon do travel to the headwaters of the river to spawn and to die, and this does attract grizzly bears. With the recent moratorium on grizzly bear sport hunting, there may be reason to believe that grizzly numbers will only increase. As for the caves, they also exist and have been the site of some of the very few archaeological assessments that have ever taken place in the Bowron. The findings of these assessments were not significant.
Because of the high water we abandoned the posted markers of the river channel itself and paddled into the heart of the large Bowron Slough, something that is only possible at this time of year. We had entered a very special world, waterfowl were everywhere and it was clear sailing into Bowron Lake itself.
We hugged the right hand shore, stopping at one of the very few sandy spots on this side of the lake where a few of the fellows took one last swim. It was a short paddle to the take-out at the end of the lake, then up the steep hill to our waiting vehicles. Men don’t often hug each other, unless they happen to be on a Stanley Cup winning hockey team or when they make that impossible golf shot. Now the secret is out…..they also hug one another at the end of a canoe trip like this one.
Always enjoy your Bro conversations of Bowron Times! Have seen Caribou on the south side of Sandy, chased into the lake by wolves. Several years ago while camped at McClary and young German couple showed up and had been confronted by a Bull Caribou on the Isacc portage. Sounds like the Red cedar on Van.Island are also being stressed by drought.
Tree swallows here and some cliff swallows, not many bank swallows. Always loved the Bittern sounds at this time of year on the Bowron River and of course red winged black birds and Wilson snipe sounds.
I’m sure George Gilbert and old Freddie Becker salute you guys as you pass.
Yukon River lower than I have ever seen it this year…coming up slowly now.
Hello Jim, thanks for your comments and insights. We had a great trip, maybe the best yet. Lots of laughter and just plain old enjoyment. I’ve read that the Yukon River is really low…here’s hoping that the River Quest isn’t impacted. All good wishes, Jeff