This essay takes a look at the history of trail development and hiking in Bowron Lake Provincial Park and specifically in that part of the Park that is referred to as the Backcountry, the Bowron Lake Canoe Chain or the Circuit. Should more hiking options be encouraged inside this wilderness canoeing destination that for the sake of this discussion I will often refer to simply as ‘the Bowron’?
In August 1826 HBC fur trader William Connolly, returning from Astoria to Fort St. James with trade goods speaks with First Nations people on the Fraser River at the mouth of the Cottonwood River, just upstream from the site of present-day Quesnel,. These people confirmed that “the numerous body of Indians who usually inhabit [the Fraser River] had retreated from the banks of the river towards Bear [Bowron] Lake and the sources of Quesnel’s River….to both those places salmon ascends and they will I hope be able to provide the means of subsistence for the ensuring winter”.
HBC Governor George Simpson’s 1828 report on First Nations of this area makes reference to the Nazkotin people of the Dakelh (Carrier) First Nation that is today centred on Reserve lands at Nazko, west of Quesnel B.C. These are most likely the same people referred to by William Connolly in his 1826 journal report. Simpson’s report definitely places these people as at least seasonal residents of the Bowron Lake area (at this point in time, Bowron Lake was known as Bear Lake).
The primary mode of transportation for these First Nations people was on foot. While the Dakelh also used dugout Cottonwood canoes, it would seem reasonable that these people hiked to, from and into the Bowron over well established trails. There would be no reason to suggest that their ancestors had not been doing the same thing for centuries before them.
Hiking was a hallmark of the 1850’s Cariboo Gold Rush. Some called it prospecting, but whatever it was called it was done on foot. Reading reports in local newspapers of the mid and late 19th and early 20th centuries (the Barkerville Cariboo Sentinel and the Quesnel Cariboo Observer), is like reading stories about an unfolding road trip. In the relentless search for gold, the prospectors moved further and further afield from what seemed to be the motherlode at Williams Creek and Barkerville,
Reports were sent back of trails leading to new creeks that showed signs of gold. There were descriptions of huge lakes and of unknown rivers. Slowly a description of the lay of the land unfolded. This is how reports of the Bowron slowly made their way back to Barkerville, sparking more and more exploration, all of it on foot.
The earliest non-First Nations explorers inside the Bowron were actually the hunters, fishers and trappers. Among them were the Swamp Angel Neil Wilson and fellow trapper Kenneth McLeod, making their way down a creek that was to become known as Antler Creek, finding that it flowed into a large lake that was to become Bear Lake and later named Bowron Lake. Very close to the spot where Antler Creek enters Bowron Lake, a medium sized river, originally the Bear River and now the lower Bowron River, flows to the northwest, eventually joining the Fraser River. Another access into the Bowron involved travelling upstream on what was called the Swamp River (now the Cariboo River). Soon prospectors had hiked and paddled the full circuit of what we now call the Bowron Chain.
They didn’t limit their exploration to the Bowron itself. To the north and east they discovered a well established First Nations route following a river that was to become known as the Goat River, that took them to the foot of huge Mount Robson, to the headwaters of the Fraser River and to a pass that would lead them to the east (Tête Jaune Pass). Many people have hiked and ridden horseback over the Goat River Trail, a route that took them right into the heart of what is now known as Bowron Lake Provincial Park. In 1933, Cliff Kopas and his new bride Ruth celebrated their honeymoon by riding horseback from central Alberta to the Pacific ocean at Bella Coola, in part over the Goat River Trail and through what was to become Bowron Lake Provincial Park. Their journey is documented in Cliff’s book Packhorses to the Pacific. This route (in slightly modified form) is still actively used today and is promoted and maintained by the Fraser River Headwater Alliance which is based in Dunster B.C.
During the winter of 1924/25, Thomas McCabe, a University of California ornithologist/professor and a part time resident at Indianpoint Lake in the Bowron undertook a journey around the Bowron on snowshoes. Pulling a bicycle wheel that acted as an odometer, he completed the very first detailed map of the Bowron Chain. This map shows that trappers and hunters had built cabins all around the Chain. It also shows some of the trails that had been developed and were being traversed throughout the Bowron.
The map shows the Goat River Trail running through what is now Bowron Lake Provincial Park. A substantial trail running from the location of the present-day Visitors’ Centre runs roughly along the first present day portage trail towards present day Kibbee Lake (at that point in time both present day Kibbee and Thompson Lakes were shown as being one lake called Beaver Lake). The trail branches in a northeasterly direction just before reaching present day Kibbee lake and circles around present-day Thompson Lake, past the Thompson brothers’ Pine Marten ‘ranch’. The trail continues east and crosses Indianpoint Creek just where this creek exits from Indianpoint Lake, This is the site of the McCabe’s (Thomas and his wife Elinor) luxurious two storey log home, complete with stone fireplace. There is unsubstantiated but recurring speculation that part of this route was a corduroy road and that it was possible to drive a Model T Ford from Bowron Lake to this point on the Bowron Chain. This trail then follows the northern shore of Indianpoint Lake, then the northern shore of the west arm of Isaac Lake to Wolverine Bay. Trapline cabins existed throughout this route, some connected by this trail network. At Wolverine Bay the trail turns north and after a steep climb soon enters Goat River country and the trail leading to the Fraser River, Mount Robson and the Tête Jaune Pass.
McCabe’s map also shows a reasonably well developed roadway following the Bowron River flowing out of Bowron Lake and heading north west towards the Fraser River. A number of early-day Bowron Lake residents chose to live along the Bowron River. To the west, the roadway on McCabe’s map connects with Barkerville (Wells had not yet been developed).
In the early decades of the 20th century, the area now known as Bowron Lake Provincial Park became well known as a big game hunter’s paradise. Several established big game hunters/outfitters with names like Kibbee, Wendle, Cochran, Thompson, deWitte Reed along with many others, guided wealthy (largely American) hunters, both by boat and on foot throughout this area where moose, bears, caribou and goats were plentiful. Each of these outfitters established remote camps with cabins as well as rugged trail networks throughout what is now the Bowron Chain.
It soon became evident that overhunting was a threat and several of the established residents, including environmentalists like the McCabes, government officials like B.C. Fish Commissioner J.P. Babcock and even the big game outfitters themselves joined forces and lobbied the government to establish the area located within the Bowron’s quadrangle of lakes as a wildlife preserve where there would be no hunting and trapping. This initiative was successful and in 1928 a 240 square mile wildlife preserve officially known as the Barkerville (not Bowron) Game Reserve was established.
Hunting and trapping still continued outside the quadrangle, (one of the established big game outfitters Wolverine Mountain Outfitters is still based at Kruger Lake). Until establishment of Bowron Lake Provincial Park in 1961, these outfitters continued to use and establish trails in the area outside the Game Reserve, trails that were used on foot and horseback. Once the Provincial Park was established, compensation was negotiated and paid to those with ‘assets’ and tenure that existed within the boundaries of the new Bowron Lake Provincial Park, and hunting and trapping within the Park was no longer permitted. When the boundaries of Bowron Lake Provincial Park were expanded in 2002 however, those with existing tenure within this expanded area were permitted to continue existing hunting, trapping and guiding operations within the expanded Park boundaries.
Wells was established as a major hard rock gold mining centre in the 1930’s. At its peak the population swelled to 5,000 individuals. This huge influx of people marked the start of what could be called the Bowron’s ‘Wells era’. The Bowron was still not a provincial park, the interior of the quadrangle was a Game Reserve. The well paid miners (an anomaly during the Great Depression) looked to the Bowron as a place for leisure and recreation, a paradise located right on their doorstep.
The establishment of the Wells Rod and Reel Club facilitated the construction of a number of cabins around the Chain. Several of these were built by log builder Harold Rask, a few of his cabins are still standing around the Bowron, including the present day shelter cabins at Lynx Creek and on the Upper Bowron River. In what was a precursor to the present-day network of portage trails on the Bowron, and to facilitate travel around the Bowron, the Rod and Reel Club placed motor boats for the use of club members, at both ends of access trails running between lakes.
In 1958, the Ministry of Forests encouraged the Wells miners to construct portage trails (utilizing wheeled ore carts travelling on wooden tracks) between Spectacle and Skoi Lakes and also between Skoi and Babcock Lakes. This was actually an upgrade of the original ‘railroad’ that had been built in the 1930’s by Forest Service officers Jim Kew and Sid Susag. Further, also in 1958, the government agreed that the Wells miners could dynamite a canal between Spectacle and Skoi Lakes which they felt would be useful to gain access in the event of a forest fire in the Game Reserve. It seems that the canal was actually a bit of a failure. While it did see some use, the loose sandy soil led to significant sloughing and eventually it was abandoned.
A retreat for the Wells miners and their families was Grizzly Lake, now known as Unna Lake, along with adjacent Rum Lake. Here the miners built what they called ‘shake shelters’ consisting of a wooden framework made of locally harvested pine or spruce. These frameworks were then covered with cedar shakes cut from the huge cedar trees harvested from the north shore of nearby Sandy Lake. A good shake roof completed the construction.
One of the favourite pastimes for these Wells residents was hiking in the many mountains that surrounded the lakes located in the western part of the Bowron. One of these Wells shake-shelter dwellers was Jean Speare, now in her 90’s and a resident of Quesnel. In her classic 1983 book Bowron Chain of Lakes , Jean describes the Chain leaving Lanezi Lake and heading west….”On the inside shore of the lake, just past the cliff where a man in passing painted his name and the date, a trail commences which takes one into the high alpine meadows below the peak of Kaza.” [Note: This now-fading inscription is actually carved into the rock and reads “Morris Ohio 1926 Reed” which this writer believes is the testament of an American hunter named Morris from Ohio who was being guided by Floyd deWitte Reed (who is turn was working for Frank Kibbee) in 1926, two years before the area was declared a Game Reserve. The inscription is on the inside of the Bowron quadrangle which in 1928 would place that area inside the Game Reserve and was located fairly close to the location of a small outpost cabin which appears as belonging to outfitter Frank Kibbee on McCabe’s 1925 map].
Another of these shake shelter people and the man responsible for naming Rum Lake (with its infamous Ram’s Pasture), was the late George Gilbert. In his very entertaining book Kicked by a Dead Moose, George describes many alpine hikes into the mountains located east of Isaac Lake. A particularly interesting hike follows the old access trail developed by McLeary Lake trapper Freddie Becker into the headwaters of the Cariboo River where he had a line cabin on his trapline.
The Bowron as we now know it began to take shape in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. This was a period of significant provincial park development in the province of British Columbia, largely driven by the demand for more recreational opportunities due to the construction of major roadways and the surge of interest in car camping and sight seeing. Ironically, and at essentially the same time (1961), the BC government liquidated 98% of the 2.4 million acre Hamber Provincial Park, turning this huge area over to logging and dam construction with the related creation of the huge Kinbasket reservoir. Many believe that the creation of Bowron Lake Provincial Park (only 1/10th the size of Hamber Park) was one way that the government hoped the population would overlook the significant loss of provincial parkland that was the result of the demise of virtually all of Hamber Provincial Park.
For a thirty year period during this time-frame, the Parks Branch maintained Youth Crews in various provincial parks. Former members of The Bowron Youth Crew recount building trails, posting trail signage and generally working on Park infrastructure and maintenance. One trail was specifically developed from the group campsite at Wolverine Bay to link with the Goat River trail that ran high above the Wolverine Bay campsite. This was the period of time when Parks were developed and maintained by Parks employees as opposed to contractors. Throughout many of B.C.’s provincial parks, bunk houses with staffed kitchens were established to allow Parks employees to actually reside on site. It is theorized that conflict between established adult Park employees and summer Youth Crew workers led to the abandonment of the Youth Crew program.
During the late 1960’s and early 70’s, permanent campsites with ‘amenities’ such as tent pads, bear caches, fire rings and outhouses were developed around the Bowron. These early campsites were somewhat rustic and have all since been significantly upgraded, along with the establishment of four dedicated cooking shelters. As this area became an established Provincial Park following 1961, those with private property interests within the established Park boundaries had these interests expropriated, compensation was negotiated and paid. Before the Bowron became a Provincial Park, a number of residential lots had been developed in the Park’s Forecountry, along the south, west and northern shoreline of Bowron Lake. In turn a number of summer cabins, year-round residences and three lodges had been built on these properties. As B.C. Parks assumed full control, they destroyed the built infrastructure that was in place in the Backcountry that did not ‘fit’ with their planning for the Park. A number of the then existing trapping cabins were burned, most of them probably quite derelict, but some worth maintaining. Unfortunately the provenance of these structures has not been well documented.
This is also when the series of portage ‘routes’ that had been developed by the Wells Rod and Reel Club were upgraded, as well as the construction of a few hiking trails such as the (now overgrown) Wolverine Bay connector with the Goat River Trail mentioned above.
Today, outside of the established portage trails, the only developed hiking trails that are inside the Bowron consist of the well-defined trail from the south end of Unna Lake to a lookout overlooking Cariboo Falls on the Cariboo River. This trail was first established in the 1930’s by George Gilbert, and its popularity simply guaranteed that it would remain well defined and well used. The devastation of the 1980’s/90’s Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic has dictated that for safety reasons all of the dead pine trees in this area be cut down. As new growth is evident, this area is a late summer blueberry picker’s paradise. A second trail runs from the south shore of Sandy Lake uphill through the spectacular Interior Rainforest to small Hunter Lake, an excellent fishing lake. A third (and newer) interpretive trail called the Osprey Trail runs in the Foreshore area of the Park, from the registration office along the eastern shore of Bowron Lake to the mouth of Kibbee Creek.
It should not be overlooked however that the established portage trails are in fact also hiking trails. Paddlers recognize that portaging is an integral part of the paddling trip. Famous paddler Bill Mason reportedly once said that “anyone who says that they enjoy portaging is either crazy or a liar”. However portaging should be a positive part of the whole paddling experience. Breaking up the actual on-the-water paddling experience with on-the-portage trail hiking experiences offers the complete ‘package’. Many paddlers will purposely take two or more trips to complete a particular portage, just so they can enjoy the experience of the surrounding flora and fauna. On the Bowron this is particularly true as the route travels through four very distinct biogeoclimatic zones, including the world’s only inland rain forest or the Interior Cedar Hemlock Zone.
Planning for the Bowron since it became a Provincial Park would seem to have discouraged rather than consistently encouraged the development of back country hiking opportunities. This doesn’t seem to be a Parks-wide policy however. Many Provincial Parks in British Columbia are touted for their wonderful and challenging backcountry hiking trails and panoramic viewscapes, and hiking is encouraged; but despite it’s mountain grandeur, not in the Bowron. None of the hiking/climbing routes utilized by early day Bowron ‘mountaineers’ are promoted for use. The Wolverine Bay trail linking with the Goat River Trail is now overgrown and is not indicated on present-day maps.
The Trans Canada Trail (now known simply as The Great Trail), is very well known and was officially completed in 2017 with significant fanfare. What is not as well known is that in 1969 an idea to create a ‘footpath’ across Canada was born. The National Trail Association of Canada was created, (now known as Hike Canada). A country-wide initiative to develop a second cross Canada hiking trail, a project known as the National Hiking Trail/Sentière Nationale was initiated.
In 1998 Hike Canada approached the Federation of Mountain clubs of BC to search out a route across B.C. and by 2000, a rough route was proposed from Bella Coola across to the Rockies where it would link up with the trail in Banff National Park. This route consisted of several existing heritage trails including the Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail (more commonly referred to as one of the Grease Trails), the 1868 Collins Overland Telegraph Trail (that ran from New Westminister through Quesnel before construction was halted near present day Kispiox following the successful laying of the Transatlantic Cable), the 1861 Gold Rush Pack Trail (running from Keithley Creek/Likely to Barkerville, really the ‘back door’ to Barkerville), and the Goat River Trail which originally ran in part through what is now Bowron Lake Provincial Park, linking Barkerville with Tête Jaune Pass.
Since 2000, a great deal of work has been done to develop and upgrade trails across the whole province of British Columbia. This work has been undertaken by various groups such as the Parks and Wilderness Society and the previously mentioned Fraser River Headwaters Alliance. In addition, local governments have endorsed the project, including Courtenay, Cumberland, Squamish, Quesnel, and Wells; and by the regional districts of Metro Vancouver, Sunshine Coast, and Cariboo; and by BC Parks through Cypress, Shannon Falls and Squamish Chief Provincial Parks. National Hiking Trail/Sentière Nationale trail markers were posted throughout these communities and areas.
About this time some of these National Hiking Trail/Sentière National trail markers appeared along Antler Creek, along the hiking trail running from the Park registration centre towards Kibbee Lake and branching off this trail turning northward just before the present day portage trail reaches Kibbee Lake and following the trail marked on McCabe’s 1925 map, past the site of the Thompson brothers’ Pine Marten ‘ranch’, turning east along the north shorelines of Thompson, Indianpoint and Isaac Lakes, eventually reaching the route of the trail that had been cleared from Wolverine Bay to connect with the Goat River Trail, essentially the route marked on McCabe’s 1925 map.
These trail markers appeared without any announcement, although this writer has since spoken with individuals who were aware of the fact that these trail makers were being erected. Similarly, they all disappeared without any public announcement; there would appear to be no question that the trail markers were removed by BC Parks, who had determined that they did not want the National Hiking Trail passing through Bowron Lake Provincial Park.
PARK MANAGEMENT PLAN
Since the area which includes the Bowron became Bowron Lake Provincial Park in 1961, there have been some important developments and changes that have had a significant impact on the Bowron. It will be helpful for this discussion to get a number of these points on the table. It will be particularly helpful to look at those routes/trails that would allow individuals to gain access to Bowron Lake Provincial Park in places other than established and “official” points of access.
These discussion points are listed below, but first it is of primary importance to acknowledge that following opportunities for public input, a very comprehensive Park Management Plan was adopted in 2002. The need to update this plan is now probably past due, however the existing Plan is comprehensive. This Plan actually refers to the three separate but certainly geographically connected parks, Bowron Lake Provincial Park, Cariboo Mountains Provincial Park and Cariboo River Provincial Park.
The following is extracted from the Official Park Management Plan, (with changed format.) Note: Full information about the Management Plan is available on the very detailed Bowron Lake Provincial Park website http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/bowron_lk/
- To manage the Bowron Lake canoe circuit as a safe, wilderness-oriented canoeing experience.
- To provide a destination, 6 – 10 day canoeing opportunity for intermediate canoeists and kayakers.
- To accommodate a 1 – 3 day canoeing opportunity for regional and local users.
- To minimize the impact of visitors on the natural values and wildlife of the park.
- To accommodate a minimal level of winter activities in the park.
- To maintain a level of infrastructure on the canoe circuit consistent with a wilderness experience.
- Trail Development
- Maintain the existing portage trails to the current standards.
- Do not develop destination trails around the Bowron Lake canoe circuit or to the interior of the park.
- The Wolverine/Goat River trail re-enters Bowron Lake Park north of Kibbee Lake near Thompson Lake. The old corduroy road may be upgraded to a passable trail. It is expected this trail will join the portage somewhere between the Registration Center and Kibbee Lake. Use of this trail will be managed very carefully to ensure no damage occurs to the sensitive ecosystems in the area. The trail will be closed if impacts are demonstrated.
- Permit the development of short trails to specific unique natural or cultural features around the Circuit.
- The Recreation Concept for Bowron Lake Park is:
- Focused on maintaining the wilderness nature of the canoe circuit.
- Daily use numbers will remain at status quo or be reduced slightly in order to minimize impacts on wildlife, facilities and other users.
- Facilities will be maintained and restored, with no new facilities constructed (with the exception of those related to safety and managing bear-human interactions).
- Winter use of the circuit will be permitted, with the circuit cabins made available for winter users.
- Small bypass trails may be marked which would enable areas of unsafe ice during the winter to be avoided.
4 . The actual use of the backcountry of Bowron will:
- Change very little from status quo.
- No new long trails would be constructed into the interior or periphery of the park, although
- Short interpretive trails to specific features (e.g. waterfalls or heritage cabins) will be considered.
- Bowron Lake itself would become more welcoming to local and regional users through the development of a small day use area, improved interpretation and signage, and the construction of one or more short interpretive trails.
5 . The Wolverine addition to Bowron will:
- Provide the access through the park to the Robson Valley for a summer hiking and horse trail and a potential winter snowmobile trail (Goat River Trail).
- No connections between this trail and the Bowron canoe circuit will be permitted.
- This potential snowmobile corridor will be the only motorized recreation allowed in this park.”
POINTS FOR DISCUSSION
Point #1 The Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit was established and developed as a wilderness paddling destination, which it truly is. It is very important that the Bowron remains as such. Right from the outset it was clearly stated by BC Parks that the Bowron was a paddling destination for those with at least intermediate level paddling skills. In the early years after the establishment of the Park (1960’s) however, it was still possible for canoeists, at least on the West Side of the Chain, to use motors on their canoes. This is no longer the case, motors are only permissible on Bowron lake itself, the Bowron is now essentially a true wilderness paddling destination that is unique in the world.
Over the years some compromises have been made to make the Bowron more accessible to a larger number of paddlers. Probably the most important and basic development was the establishment of dedicated strategically located campsites connected by a series of portage ‘trails’ (both land and water). This meant that the heavy use areas were contained or concentrated, thus protecting the Bowron from damage caused by haphazard camping. One of the most significant subsequent developments was the upgrading of the portage trails to enable the use of ‘wheels’ (canoe and kayak carts).
The establishment of four larger multi-campsite camping or staging areas (Wolverine Bay, South end of Isaac Lake, Turner Creek and Pat’s Point),
complete with cooking shelters and radio telephones was also an important strategic decision to afford those lesser experienced paddlers or those wanting a longer more leisurely paddling experience, an opportunity to rest and regroup.
The fact that nasty weather emergency shelter cabins have also been preserved and maintained around the Chain is also a good decision, these are well used in both summer and winter. Unfortunately the decision as to just which shelter cabins should be preserved has not been well thought through. Aging and deteriorating cabins (70+ years old) have been preserved while much newer potential shelter cabins (40 years old) have been cut up and burned, and questions about the provenance of these buildings remain.
Point #2 In the year 2000, the size of Bowron Lake Provincial Park was increased with the addition of land adjacent to Wolverine Bay on Isaac Lake, the huge Betty Wendle Creek valley that runs into Isaac Lake from the east and the addition of the area surrounding the headwaters of the Upper Cariboo River.
These extensions to Bowron Lake Provincial Park were also complemented by the creation of additional Provincial Parks that border on Bowron Lake Provincial Park, including Cariboo Mountains Provincial Park to the south which essentially ‘connects’ Bowron Lake Provincial Park with Wells Gray Provincial Park. Cariboo River Provincial Park to the south west, a Provincial Park running along the middle Cariboo River and serving as a winter moose preserve was also established. The end result is that Bowron Lake Provincial Park is now part of a huge area of connected Class “A” Provincial Parks, offering significantly increased protection for the Chain from any threats of unauthorized incursion, and providing significant protected wildlife habitat.
Point #3 In the early and mid 1980’s, the forest on the northern and western borders of Bowron Lake Provincial Park experienced a major Spruce Budworm infestation. This led to the creation of what was then referred to as “the largest clearcut in B.C.”, others said that “the clearcut was visible from space”. Not only diseased trees were harvested, but also healthy ones, in order to create a ‘buffer zone’ around the infected area. Harvesting took place right up to the borders of the Park, leaving a significant network of logging roads and other forms of development along the western and northern Park boundaries. A clearcut was clearly visible from the Wolverine Bay campsite at the elbow of Isaac Lake.
These logging roads essentially offer unprecedented opportunities for access into the Park, particularly in the winter, when snowmobile travel over frozen, snow covered ground and marshland is relatively easy when compared with summer travel over wetlands and through bush. A similar situation exists on the southern boundary of Bowron Lake Provincial Park, again due to substantial logging, this time in the Cunningham Pass area. Clear cuts are visible from Pat’s Point on Spectacle Lakes, and one logging road makes it very possible to gain access to Hunter Lake which is connected by hiking trail with Sandy Lake.
The so-called ‘Bowron Clearcut” was only the beginning. Since the 1980’s, logging to the north and south of Bowron Lake Provincial Park has not abated and there are now a number of large clearcut areas. This logging is managed and planned, and silvaculture is an active and ongoing part of this plan. However the ‘tree farms’ will not replace the old growth forests which have never been logged, and are home to lichens, plants and animals that could otherwise not exist.
One of the biggest concerns about the ongoing clearcutting is the negative impact on wildlife habitat. At the same time this makes the protected areas within the three Parks (Bowron, Cariboo Mountains and Cariboo River) that much more valuable.
Point #4 There has been pressure from snowmobilers to gain access via the Goat River Trail to Bowron Lake Provincial Park which would in turn give them access from the north east, to the Cariboo Mountains Provincial Park that lies south of Bowron Lake Provincial Park.
To date there has been strong resistance to allowing snowmobiles access to Bowron Lake Provincial Park. Signs at the Park entrance indicate that fines will be levied if snowmobilers are caught within Park boundaries. Just over the Cariboo mountains to the north east of Bowron Lake Provincial Park are the Robson Valley communities of Valemont (located on highway #5) and McBride located on highway #16, where snowmobiling is a winter economic ‘bread and butter’ activity. Numerous trails have been developed into those mountains from the east, but so far none that would offer snowmobile access to Bowron Lake Provincial Park, even the Goat River Trail route which would be very isolated, dangerous and avalanche prone during the winter.
(Note: Management Plans for the development of trails on the east and south sides of the Cariboo Mountains have been developed and they do consider the fact that access into Bowron Lake Provincial Park is not allowed). At the same time, when the Wolverine addition was made to Bowron Lake Provincial Park in 2000, existing rights-of-way were honoured. Parts of the existing Goat River Trail does pass through what is now Provincial Park land, even though the trailhead has been moved to Littlefield Creek Road, which is outside the Park boundary. Should snowmobiles somehow manage to use this Goat River Trail right-of-way for winter travel, the Park Management Plan makes it very clear that no access to the Bowron (canoe route) would be permitted.)
Point #5 There are significant hazards, risks and liabilities associated with hiking and other forms of ‘trail travel’, either non motorized or motorized.
Hiking, especially alone, can be hazardous, this is particularly true in mountainous terrain. Accidents happen, hikers become lost, this raises the whole issue of search, rescue and if necessary evacuation. Even at the present time there are occasions when paddlers on the Bowron must be ‘rescued’ and evacuated, but these occasions are actually quite rare. If a mishap occurs somewhere on the paddling circuit when the Park is officially open, there are provisions for emergency communication, with two way radios (not cel phones) strategically located around the Chain. Further, Park Staff and contractors patrol the lakes and portages, there are four ‘ranger cabins’ located around the Chain that may/may not be staffed. Were someone to become injured/stranded/lost in an area that was away from the actual canoeing circuit however, it would be very difficult to communicate the need for assistance in any kind of timely manner.
Point #6 The Bowron is officially ‘open’ from May 15th to September 30th. That means that during this period, the Park is being monitored by Provincial Park Rangers, contract maintenance staff are in place throughout the Park, the safety two way radios are being monitored and individuals and groups wishing to paddle the paddling circuit must register, book a time when they will depart, and pay a fee. There is a heavy demand during this May – September period, the numbers of paddlers allowed on the Chain each day is restricted in order to ensure that there are no bottlenecks on the Chain. It is assumed that most paddlers will complete their journey around the Chain in 5+ days however the scheduling allows for parties to take up to 10 days for the journey.
What would be the impact on scheduling the use of the Park if unauthorized access was not monitored/restricted? The wilderness canoeing experience would no-doubt be ruined.
Point #7 Everyone assumes that there will always be lots of wildlife to see during any trip around the Bowron. Generally this is the case, although Woodland Caribou numbers have fallen dramatically, and sightings are rare. Informal observation over the past few years would suggest that this is also true for moose numbers. It is well known that the decline in numbers of Woodland Caribou is due to habitat loss associated with increased logging, other resource extraction activities, and increased predation, which is also associated with increased habitat loss. Multiple studies confirm that Woodland Caribou are threatened throughout Alberta and British Columbia, indeed across all of Canada.
Anecdotal personal observation would also suggest that there have been changes in the numbers of birds that are resident in the Bowron, particularly the numbers of nesting Canada Geese.
Over the years the Bowron has supported a healthy grizzly bear population. The Upper Bowron River and the Cariboo River are salmon spawning rivers, providing significant feed for these bears in the fall during the spawning season. This food source prepares these bears for winter hibernation. British Columbia’s program for managing its province-wide grizzly bear population has not worked. It is loss of habitat that is the animal’s biggest threat. It is logging, mining and oil and gas activity and an expansion of resource roads that increase opportunities for illegal hunting and human-bear conflicts. The very recent and very welcome provincial government decision to ban all grizzly bear hunting in the province, combined with the fact that resource extraction is not permitted within the boundaries of Class ‘A’ Provincial Parks will bode well for a continued healthy grizzly bear population in Bowron Lake Provincial Park (and Cariboo Mountains Provincial Park).
Point #7 There does seem to be an increase in the numbers of individuals/groups travelling around the Bowron when the Park is not closed to this activity but is not actually ‘officially’ open. Experienced paddlers are looking for ‘new experiences’ on the Bowron, and these come with different climatic/weather conditions. Shoulder season (April to early May and October,November) use of the Bowron is increasing. Climate change may be a factor and if so, the very definition of ‘shoulder season’ may change. Also, there are increasing (but still very small) numbers of individuals travelling in the Bowron during the winter months when the lakes are frozen. These folks tend to be very experienced and well-equipped outdoors people who have prepared careful plans for their trips.
Winter travel is on skis, snowshoes, using sled dogs (which of course are all tethered in harness, not running loose) and on foot. Some adventurers are even combining foot travel while pulling canoes loaded onto small sleds. Areas of the Bowron do remain ice free all winter. The name Swan Lake reflects the fact that Trumpeter Swans overwinter on that lake which remains open in the winter. The Cariboo River flows right through Sandy Lake, parts of which remain ice free all winter.
Winter travel on the Bowron is not easy, the conditions are always very fickle, one of the biggest concerns is overflow that plays havoc with skis and snowshoes, and also the presence of open water. On occasion, unusually deep snow is also an issue. While a small number of determined winter explorers do complete the whole circuit, it is much more common for adventurers to complete ‘out and back’ journeys, travelling either clockwise on the circuit starting at the Visitor’s Centre or counter-clockwise on the West Side. One of the advantages of this approach is that usually the out-going trail is still in place to make the return journey much easier. Hard core adventurers are even travelling in the winter across the interior of the Bowron. It is on all of these trips that the emergency shelter cabins really do prove their value.
Point #8 Bowron Lake Provincial Park is actually divided into both the Frontcountry, which consists of a 26 site serviced campground adjacent to the Park Visitors Centre as well as the Backcountry which comprises the overwhelming majority of the Park and is the area where the actual Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit is located. In recent years, significant developments/improvements in the Frontcountry have been made, including upgrading the campground and the creation of the Osprey hiking trail out and back from the Visitor’s Centre/Frontcountry Campground along the northeast shore of Bowron Lake to the mouth of Kibbee Creek. Going back to the development of the current (2002) Park Management Plan, there has also been expressed interest in developing day hike trails starting from the Forecountry campground.
There is talk of the Park acquiring even more of the private land along the shoreline of Bowron Lake to facilitate the creation of a more complete car camping experience for families. Given the proximity to Barkerville, the combination of the Barkerville Heritage Park experience along with the Foreshore camping experience of Bowron Lake Provincial Park could prove be a major family attraction.
There are a number of private dwellings located on the north, west and southern shores of Bowron Lake. Three lodges located on Bowron Lake offer canoe rentals, retail sales, various forms of rental accommodation and even a Bowron Lake Historical Museum. Motor boats are permitted on Bowron Lake itself.
TO HIKE OR NOT TO HIKE
All of this background information finally gets us to a place where we must look at those factors that will have a bearing on whether or not (1) increased hiking opportunities within the boundaries of the Bowron are needed, are a good thing and whether or not they should be encouraged. It is also time to consider (2) whether or not restricting access to Bowron Lake Provincial Park is advisable. As I researched this essay, my understanding of the issue certainly improved and my personal position on this matter became very clear.
I have said that the Bowron is unique in the world. This uniqueness is due to its configuration, it’s accessibility, its cultural history, it’s geography, it’s four bioclimatic zones, it’s built infrastructure, the quality of the paddling experience and the existing hiking opportunities.
When discussing whether or not the development of hiking trails in the Bowron’s Backcountry could/should be a focus, it is paramount to consider if such a development would in any way undermine the primary goal which is to maintain the Bowron as a wilderness paddling destination. While several other Provincial Parks are touted for their hiking opportunities, the Bowron is promoted because of its paddling opportunities. Various media articles have touted the paddling merits of the Bowron. It is known as being one of the “top ten” paddling destinations in the world.
The Bowron offers a 116 kilometre circle route that allows paddlers to both start and finish their journey at exactly at the same place. A route that follows a series of 11 major lakes along with parts of three major rivers as well as smaller lakes, creeks and developed portage trails, all in the shape of a quadrangle make this possible. There is no need for a time consuming and often complicated shuttle. Paddling ‘circle routes’ are always popular, none are better than the Bowron.
Those of us who have experienced this incredible ‘place’ would heartily agree. You don’t paddle on the Bowron or around the Bowron but rather you paddle into the Bowron. The Bowron has a way of enveloping you. When paddling in the Bowron it is like being royalty in your own private preserve. The Bowron is unique for a host of reasons, one of these is the feeling of pristine isolation that is experienced in this special place. I believe that the ongoing goal for management of the Bowron must be to maintain the richness of this wilderness paddling experience.
(1) As for the development of additional hiking trails within Bowron Lake Provincial Park, there may be justification in developing at least one day hiking trail (Sugarloaf Mountain or Devils Club Mountain have been suggested) in the Forecountry area of the Park. The main portage trail running between the Registration Office and Kibbee Lake is also a very special out and back day hike. This could prove to be yet another attraction for those ‘car campers’ wishing to spend time in the Forecountry campground or at one of the commercial campsites located on Bowron Lake.
There should be no development/promotion of additional hiking/climbing routes in the Backcountry, specifically around the Canoe Circuit. The existing portage trail network is in itself an excellent hiking route. The decision to upgrade the portage trails to facilitate the use of wheeled carts has no-doubt enabled thousands of paddlers to complete a trip around the circuit, who would not have been able to do so without the use of wheeled carts. Even the most hard-core of grizzled canoe trippers would probably accept that this ‘concession’ does not detract from the wilderness aspect of the Bowron paddling experience. If they do object, there is nothing stopping them from simply carrying their canoe or kayak and all their gear over all of the portages.
The developed trails into Cariboo Falls and Hunter Lake are safe hiking routes that offer a positive hiking experience with very specific destinations. There may be room for the development and promotion of a small number of additional, safe, ‘out and back’ hiking trails that would offer access to cultural or geographic points of interest. These would require a safe place to beach canoes or kayaks at the trailhead. One possible short hiking trail is located at the ‘elbow’ of Isaac Lake on the inside of the Circuit. This trail has actually been signed in the past and runs a short distance into a picturesque tiered waterfall.
The former hiking trail connecting Wolverine Bay with the Goat River Trail should remain in a completely deactivated state.
(2) There should continue to be strict control over access into Bowron Lake Provincial Park. At this point there is only one formal access point, the Bowron Lake Road running from Wells/Barkerville and entering the Forecountry of the Park at the site of the main parking lot and Visitor’s Centre.
Park officials were wise to insist that the Goat River Trail does not pass through that part of the Park known as the Backcountry Canoe Circuit and that the Trailhead remain outside the Park on the Littlefield Creek Road. The reality is that this route, for anything other than travel on foot or horseback, would be a very difficult and costly one to develop and safely maintain. In the winter, all travel, either on foot or motorized would be extremely dangerous due to avalanche hazard. In the past this route has actually been touted as a possible direct all weather roadway between McBride B.C. and Bowron Lake/Wells/Barkerville, but there is very little support for this proposal. During the days of the ‘Bowron Clearcut’ a direct route in the form of a logging road (Bowron River Road) was developed between Wells/Barkerville/ Bowron Lake and Purden Lake on highway #16, but this route has since been deactivated by removing one of the major bridges on this roadway.
It was the right decision to ensure that The National Hiking Trail/ Sentière Nationale does not pass through the Park. There are other routes for this hiking trail that are outside the Park boundaries.
Winter snowmobile access to the Park must be restricted. Monitoring this will be difficult due to the very nature of snowmobile travel, the recent history of the creation of access points due to forestry operations on the Park boundaries, and the fact that winter supervision by Parks staff is minimal. The present system of posting ‘warning’ signs/notices regarding financial penalties for offenders seems anaemic, but it is difficult to know what other practical control measures could be put in place. Winter travel within the Park by well-prepared individuals using skis, snowshoes, sleds, dog teams and on foot should not be discouraged, but access should be restricted to the portage trail system entering the Park through the main access point at the Visitor’s Centre or for those choosing to traverse the West Side of the Circuit, gaining access at the boat launch area located between Becker’s Resort and Bowron Lake Lodge on Bowron Lake. In the winter, there is no guarantee that these access points will be ploughed.
December 27, 2017