KIDS ON THE BOWRON 2020
It has been a very different spring and summer on the Bowron, and now it is autumn. 2020, the year of the Covid 19 Pandemic, everyone was (and is) trying to adjust but it’s difficult because no-one really knows just what is coming next. What is known as a fact is that around the world people are becoming very ill because of this deadly virus; thousands are dying. Our daily life has been turned upside down. Terms like lockdown, isolate, social distance, sanitize are constantly being repeated. People are working from their homes, schools prematurely closed for the summer months. There is a ‘learn as you go’ atmosphere as we all want to do the right thing without feeling confident that we know just what that right thing is.
I mentioned the Bowron, I am referring to the Bowron Chain of Lakes in the Cariboo mountains, in British Columbia’s Cariboo region. This place is in a Provincial Park that encompasses this world class paddling destination. Each year, hundreds of paddlers from all over the world paddle this unique quadrangle of lakes with connecting streams and trails. A 116 kilometre multi-day journey that will end exactly where it starts. During this 2020 season however things never really did get started. 2019 had seen a very wet fall with an early winter and a heavier-than-usual snowpack in the mountains. Those lakes on the Chain that are at a higher elevation had actually started to freeze in early October. These factors did not bode very well for the upcoming paddling season.
Normally it is reasonable to plan a trip around the Chain leaving in early May in what is called the shoulder season. A group of fellows from Quesnel, the ‘Bro’s On Bowron’, have paddled the Chain on the exact same May long weekend for the past 29 years and in only one of those years had it been impossible to complete the Circuit because of freezing conditions. This year, along with the spring thaw (which was late), came heavy, continuous, incessant rainfall. Water levels rose dramatically, eventually the whole Bowron Chain was under water, campsites and portage trails were inundated, one shelter cabin was moved off of its foundation, and the water kept rising. This certainly kept the Bro’s off of the Bowron in 2020, in fact it kept everyone off of the Bowron. The first scheduled group to paddle around the Bowron Chain in the summer of 2020 did not begin their trip until August 14th, and even then there were concerns that the water might once again begin rising. Water levels remained unusually high throughout the whole summer season.
The story of just how we, as a society, and really as a world got through the summer of 2020 still has to be written. As this essay is being written in November 2020, every day brings with it more Covid news both positive and negative, every day looms full of yet more and more challenges and questions. As autumn arrived, one of the big questions for young families has been what to do about school. Should we send the kids to classes or have them stay at home and try to do something almost none of us have any experience with……home schooling? One of the earliest Covid jokes that made the rounds was that the ‘teacher’ (as in parent) who was home schooling their children got suspended during the first week of classes for excessive drinking and being drunk on the job.
This essay is about two families. More specifically it is about two fathers with a wealth of outdoor skills and experience and three of their children, two young brothers aged 7 and 9 and their school friend, a little girl aged 8. All of the children are registered in the French Immersion program at the local School District. One of the fathers is Francophone and is actually multi lingual, while the other father is Anglophone. For the sake of the pandemic, the two families are both in the same ‘bubble’, both adults and children are good friends and the two families (including spouses and even more younger children) have completed other outdoor adventures together.
School had been in session for about a week, the kids had met their teachers, had renewed contacts with friends they hadn’t seen all summer and had become somewhat used to the new way that school was happening, with all of the Covid rules and practices that were in place. However, with a small window of opportunity, at this point both families decided to try something just a little different. Let’s take the three older children and both daddies will organize a paddling trip around the Bowron Chain. The plan was to replace the classroom, not with home schooling but with outdoors canoe tripping-based education, French Immersion and all. The Park was still officially open although there were very few paddlers actually out on the Chain, almost all had given up for the season.
These fathers and their children were not exactly strangers to the Bowron. Between them the adults had registered multiple trips around the Chain. While they may not actually remember it, the two boys had travelled around the Chain with their parents when they were infants, one of them more than once. The lone female child had not travelled around the whole Chain but had participated in several weekend/overnight trips on the Chain, travelling on that part of the Chain known as the West Side. The children were all very familiar with the water and paddling, both on flat water and moving water. All of them were actually budding kayakers and one of them had really enjoyed participating in a childrens’ paddling camp in Quebec. The children have also participated in several overnight family whitewater rafting excursions.
The plan was to make this as much of a learning experience as possible. The knowledge areas to be addressed included:
- Outdoor camping and survival skills, with the children becoming active participants in all aspects of the day-to-day wilderness camping experience.
- Developing an awareness of and sensitivity to the natural habitat and wildlife of this incredible part of British Columbia. Their route would take them right through the heart of the Interior Temperate Rainforest of British Columbia, one of British Columbia’s threatened old growth forests.
- To introduce the children in a very personal way to group paddling, paddling skills and paddling safety. All five were travelling in one 20 foot Kevlar Clipper Mackenzie canoe. This boat proved to be ideal. It was a great opportunity to introduce the children to the history and the subtleties of Voyageur paddling. The whole aspect of paddling together, of working together as a team, and of developing the awareness of only being as fast and efficient as the slowest paddler and of supporting one another.
- Sharing knowledge about the history of the Bowron was another goal for this trip. The children all came back from this trip able to recite the names of every major lake, creek and river as well as the significant campsites and landmarks.
- As if this wasn’t enough, a final goal was that this would all be accomplished speaking both French and English. Certain lakes were selected as being ‘French Only’ lakes, and everyone made a sincere effort to speak only French while travelling on these lakes. Of course, being voyageurs helped. It is impossible to get a voyageur canoe moving without the commands ‘Preparez’ and ‘En Avant’.
The put-in for the trip was booked for Thursday morning, September 17th, 2020. It wasn’t difficult to make a reservation, only two other groups (each consisting of two men) were starting their trips on that morning. As it turned out, no other paddlers were seen throughout the whole trip. The existence of the Covid 19 virus had necessitated some changes in just how the Park was doing business. For example, instead of watching the orientation video in the confined viewing area inside the registration building, the viewing screen had been mounted on an outside wall of the building and it became an outdoor viewing experience. Any questions were answered by the Park Contractor and everyone was underway by 10:00 a.m.
The first two portages were accomplished on Day 1, the goal was a campsite at Kruger Bay on Indianpoint Lake, a spot with a wonderful view of the McCabe Ridge. Each person (adults and children) carried their own pack on the portages, a set of wheels were used to transport the canoe and all of the lighter weight bulky items. The portages turned out to be a fun part of the whole trip. One of the other groups (two men who also just happened to be friends from Quesnel as well as Bro’s on Bowron alumni) camped at the campsite immediately adjacent to our group which had chosen to camp in a group campsite, having clarified in advance that there were no groups scheduled to use that site for that night.
The two fellows welcomed an evening visit from the three children.The two groups had passed each other on the day’s two portages and the children were quite familiar with these two fellows. During the visit, the children were in good spirits and were inquisitive about their gear and camp set-up and asked the fellows questions like “what is this for.” The children were all quite proud of their own new pocket knives and happily showed them off.
The children and their fathers were on a 5 day schedule to complete the trip while these two men had allowed 7 days for their trip. The last they saw of each other was the following morning as the children and their fathers were on the water by 8:30, a while before these two men were going to hit the water. As it turned out, as the trip unfolded, the two groups remained between three to five campsites apart.
On day #2 they turned the ‘corner’ of Isaac Lake, right into a strong head wind.
It should be mentioned that the overall weather conditions for this trip were not very good. Rain was a constant, the sky remained overcast and there were headwinds to contend with, especially on Isaac Lake, which is the largest lake on the Chain. The weather wasn’t a deterrent however as everyone remained warm, dry, comfortable and positive. No-doubt this was in large part due to the experience and pre-planning of both fathers. They knew exactly what all weather clothing their children would need to bring, they also had the knowledge and equipment to ensure very comfortable overnight camps.
They didn’t let the weather interfere with plans, and they stopped just past the Isaac Lake ‘elbow’ for a hike on an unmarked trail that took them up to a lovely water fall. While there are certainly lots of portage trails, there are not many other marked hiking opportunities in the Bowron. Parks officials have purposely limited hiking opportunities because of the potential for accidents.
On night #2 they camped at another group campsite located about 2/3 of the way down the long arm of Isaac Lake. This campsite is the only one located on the right hand shore of Isaac Lake as you paddle clockwise around the Chain, it has a fairly large sandy beach but it doesn’t get much in the way of warming morning sunshine and winter snow is slow to melt at this spot
The children were quite involved in setting up and taking down each overnight camp. They were completely responsible for their own personal gear including sleeping bag and sleeping pad. They each had their own backpack and were responsible for their own clothing, including their warm jacket, rain gear and wet weather boots. The children were involved in setting up and taking down the tents, they helped with meal preparation, they were involved in collecting and chopping firewood as well as monitoring the fire. These were all valuable ‘teachable moments’ for the fathers and ‘learning experiences’ for the children. The boys were quite proud to tell this writer just how to go about safely chopping a block of firewood with an axe.
The third day was full of adventure. They reached the end of Isaac Lake, which is also the source of the Isaac River. This very fast flowing river is definitely not totally navigable, necessitating at least two portages around fierce whitewater and for novice paddlers, three portages should be mandatory. It is a stretch of water where an error in judgement could prove fatal. This is also the area that the children spoke about with the most excitement in their voices. They talked about ‘the Chute’, ‘the Roller Coaster’, ‘the Cascades’ and ‘the Isaac Falls’. With such experienced paddlers as their two fathers, they had no difficulty with the Chute and Roller Coaster which leads to a take out on river left just above the dreaded Cascades and at the end of optional portage #1. The second portage trail starts at this point, it closely follows the river and it is quite exciting to watch the river as it roars by with frightening speed . The large jagged rocks in this waterway would tear any canoe to shreds. This experience left a vivid impression with the children. The canoes are then put in the water for a short paddle over a calm water section leading to the take out for portage #3. The Isaac River falls can be heard from far away and it is possible to walk right up to them on this portage.
After this last portage, the final put-in on day three was into beautiful McLeary Lake where a short paddle leads to the Cariboo River, which was moving right along because of all of the high water. In a voyageur canoe, both the bow paddler (the ‘avant’) and the stern paddler (the ‘gouvernail’) are involved in steering, and this section of the Cariboo River is noted for the number of tight corners, a larger than normal number of dangerous sweepers (tree branches extending into the water way) and strainers (knots of tree branches and roots in the water that can trap a canoe). Any of these hazards could easily capsize a canoe. The thrill of the moving water is heightened by the sight of the shoreline that is quickly left behind as the canoe speeds down the river. This is moving water paddling at its best.
Both fathers commented on just how much their childrens’ paddling skills improved during the course of this trip. The children themselves talked about this as well. They described how the rhythm of paddling became somewhat trance-like. The paddling became more or less effortless, it was not a chore. They said this wasn’t the case when the trip first started, but as time passed, the paddling became almost hypnotic.
Each child had their own preferred spot to sit in the canoe. One father was the avant in the bow while the other was the gouvernail in the stern. Two children sat side by side on a third bench seat while one child sat on a second bench seat. All of the gear was in waterproof drybags and each item had its place in the canoe so that if possible, nothing was above the gunnel. This writer has had the opportunity to view a short video of the group paddling along Spectacle Lakes towards Pat’s Point and their technique was remarkably good. The children were putting their paddles into the water straight up and down and pulling straight back to their hips using their back muscles and then repeating this same stroke over and over. It was powerful!
The night #3 campsite was at Turner Creek on Lanezi Lake. This spot is named for George Turner who was a game warden with a patrol cabin at this location in the 1920’s. In this writer’s opinion, this spot is the crème de la crème of all campsites on the Bowron, and the children agreed. There is a swift flowing creek running down the mountain side, emptying into Lanezi right at this spot. There are actually two campsites, one on each side of the creek as well as a beautiful timber frame cook shelter. The only negative about this spot is that it can become very cold at night. Lanezi Lake is gorgeous, it is lined with glacier-capped mountains, the silt laden lake water is a marine green colour, but when the wind blows over those glaciers right down to the lake shore, it can be very, very frigid. For this reason the shelter is closed in with plexiglass, and unlike the other similar shelters on the Chain it can be easily heated by the wood heater and it becomes much more like an elite mountain chalet or lodge than a simple cooking shelter. While sleeping inside the shelter is not officially allowed, it may be needless to say everyone was very comfortable at this spot. In most years, during the height of the paddling season, Turner Creek campsite is usually full to the brim if not overflowing with tents every night. For one thing, there aren’t a lot of other camping options on Lanezi Lake.
The camp at Turner Creek was a welcome highlight for everyone, but they were on the water the morning of day #4 by 8:30, headed for another special camping experience. Lanezi Lake used to be called simply Long Lake. It is indeed a long and narrow lake, but the name was changed to the Dakelh word ‘Lanezi’, which is translated to mean ‘long’. At the eastern end of this lake rise the two highest mountains on the Bowron Chain, Mount Kaza and Mount Ishpa. These mountains used to be called Needlepoint and Pyramid respectively, thank heaven for the name change. They stand like sentinels over Lanezi Lake, just like the two lions overlooking Burrard Inlet and the City of Vancouver. The whole place is simply breathtaking, and its beauty was not lost on the children on this trip. During the Wells era of the Bowron, it was not uncommon for locals to hike up these mountains to their favourite spots. Now such hiking is discouraged/not allowed by Park officials.
On day 4 they paddled to the end of Lanezi where the Cariboo
River (which actually flows right through Lanezi Lake) once again takes over, but very quickly flows into Sandy Lake, the shallowest lake on the Chain, but one that is surrounded by sandy beaches. The Cariboo River then flows out of Sandy Lake making a sharp left hand turn as it speeds toward the Cariboo falls. These falls were once considered to become the source of hydroelectric power for the then booming Cariboo Gold Quartz mine in Wells, preliminary studies were completed but the powerhouse was never built. Babcock Creek flows into the Cariboo River on river right and then there is an opening on river left. You have to look keenly to see it and it leads into another gorgeous lake, Unna Lake, a round jewel with sandy beaches, surrounded by mountains, with a spectacular view of Mount Kaza. This was to be the site of campsite #4.
One of the children described what must have been a breath-taking sight involving Mount Kaza, he called it a ‘sun burst’. When they arrived at Unna Lake it was clear that there had been a heavy snowfall up in the mountains. The sun was shining brightly and the reflection from the new fallen snow on mount Kaza was spectacular. The usual dirty grey colour of glacier ice was now gone, everything was pure white. During that night a strong wind had started to blow up on the mountain. By morning the wind had stopped, but the glacier was once again the familiar dirty grey colour, the new snow had all been blown away.
During the Wells Era of the Bowron, Unna Lake was the site of a number of summer ‘shake shelters’ that belonged to some of the families that worked at the Cariboo Quartz mine in Wells. These dwellings weren’t really what you could call cottages and they certainly weren’t for all season use, they were simply a framework made of dimensional lumber covered by shakes that were made from the very large cedar trees that grow on the north shore of nearby Sandy Lake. They were summer only dwellings. A small stream leads from Unna Lake to another very small lake now known as Rum Lake. The story of Rum Lake is well documented in George Gilbert’s hilarious memoir entitled ‘Kicked By A Dead Moose’. The children were able to relive some of this history as they paddled into Rum Lake and back to their campsite.
There is yet another bonus to camping at Unna Lake. The trailhead to the Cariboo Falls lookout is at the south end of the lake. The short trail to the falls meanders through what was once a lodgepole pine forest. The mountain pine beetle epidemic of about 10 years ago killed all of these trees. They became danger trees for any hikers travelling to the falls so a group of forestry fire fighters was given the task of cutting down all of the dead trees to protect the hikers. An unanticipated bonus was the outcome. At the right time of year (as in the autumn) this area is now a mecca for succulent blueberries and huckleberries. Everyone, fathers and children really cashed in as they hiked through this area on their way to and from their view of the falls.
The group members all knew that day #5 was going to be a marathon. They were on the water by 8:00 a.m., completed three portages, paddled 3 lakes and made it to Pat’s Point on Spectacle Lakes by noon and were at the take out at Bowon Lake by 4:30 p.m. They accomplished an amazing feat, something that would be a very hard test for even the most experienced adult paddlers.
What about the teaching goals that had been set at the beginning of this trip? Were they met?
- Developing outdoor camping and survival skills….yes. The children are quite proud of the fact that they were intimately involved in the process of setting up and taking down the nightly camps, loading the canoe, collecting firewood, helping with the meal preparation chopping wood and tending the fires and generally keeping warm and dry. The fathers knew that on this five day trip there would be four suppers, so each had planned for two supper meals to be shared with everyone. The two boys gave a detailed description of preparing the first night’s supper which sounded like hamburgers, and they seemed particularly proud of their curried chicken supper. Lunches and breakfasts were the responsibility of each family.
- Developing an awareness of the natural habitat….probably. Mention has been made of the Interior Temperate Rainforest. When in the middle of this environment it’s beauty, diversity and grandeur simply becomes the norm, it is easy to take it for granted. It is only when you step out of this environment that you really appreciate just how special and valuable it is. The children report that they did not see any large mammals as in moose, deer, black bears, grizzly bears or caribou. They did see lots of geese (which must have been getting ready to migrate south) as well as some beavers who are year-round residents. It is quite possible that the song birds had already started their southward migrations. While the ecology within the protected boundaries of the Park has remained intact, the area outside of the Park boundaries has been impacted by logging and disease. It is quite possible that the habitat for large mammals has been impacted as well. There definitely does seem to have been a decline in the number of moose in this area, and the almost total absence of caribou, in an environment that is essentially ideal mountain caribou habitat, is concerning. It should also be mentioned that the Park Contractor provided some wonderful workbooks for children that addressed the Park’s natural habitat, both flora and fauna.
- Developing paddling skills…..absolutely! References to thishave been made throughout this essay. There is no question that as this trip progressed, the childrens’ paddling skills became stronger and stronger. At the same time, the children seemed to become more and more confident in their abilities.
- Gaining a better understanding of the Bowron and it’s history…..no question. They demonstrated a personal preference and an opinion about certain stopping points. Their involvement with the Chain was clearly becoming a very personal, more intimate one. The Bowron is rich in First Nations history and the children came back from this trip reciting First Nations (Dakelh) names like Kaza, Lanezi, Skoi, Unna, The Bowron also experienced the era of big game hunting and trapping, and people from that era have left their mark in the form of named landmarks around the Chain. Kibbee Creek, McLeary (or is it McLary?) Lake, Dewitte Reed Creek , Thompson Lake and Betty Wendle Creek. There were the naturalists who saw this area in all of its beauty and who also left their mark, people like Thomas and Elinor McCabe, the Beckers (who were lodge owners as well as big game outfitters), Turner and Babcock . There are also names such as Rum Lake and Rete and Jean Lakes associated with past residents of Wells, from what has been called the Wells Era of the Chain. These folks had an impact on the current ‘look/layout’ of the Chain as a paddling destination. The Cariboo Gold Rush era is also recognized around the Chain with names like Bowron and Isaac.
It was interesting to note that the children also returned from this trip knowing some of the Bowron stories (whether true or not) that have often been shared among the Bro’s on Bowron during their many trips around the Chain. The one about the Lynx Creek bear mauling and the victim’s valiant girlfriend who solo paddled a heavy tandem canoe back to the Ranger cabin at Wolverine Bay to seek help. The one about the fellow who intentionally went body surfing through the Cascades only to become impaled through the groin on a sharp tree branch.
- Speaking both French and English….yes! The group took this seriously. It was an important reason for undertaking this trip in the first place. The Francophone father reported that the French spoken by the children was ‘not too bad’ and that their comprehension was probably better than their spoken language. Even the Anglophone father took this seriously and tried his best.
This whole experience took just five days out of the lives of five very committed people. Was it worth it? Without a doubt. This trip will become an indelible memory for all involved, especially the children. It will also prove to be a stepping stone, a building block, a skill-building experience for three young lives and a source of great satisfaction for two very committed parents.