Paddle and portage in the Canadian Rockies
The Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit in British Columbia has long been considered by paddlers as one of the top-10 canoe trips in the world. We were fortunate enough to experience the beauty of this area last summer on a unique, weeklong journey by canoe and connecting portages.
If you've ever driven the road from Banff to Jasper, you know how beautiful the Canadian Rockies are. The Bowron Lakes are just one ridge west of Jasper, so they're in a spectacular mountain setting. The circuit is composed of 10 natural lakes that form a loose rectangle. Throw in eight short portages between the lakes, and you can link them all together for a combination of 6.5 miles of hiking and 70 miles of paddling.
Last spring, our good rafting buddies, Jeff and Jane Broten, decided they were up for a new adventure. My husband, Eric Ronemus, and I were fortunate enough to have paddled the Bowron Lakes about six years ago, so we suggested a canoe trip might be an interesting alternative. Although the four of us have rafted many rivers together, this would be our first time on a canoe trip. It's a different mind-set from rafting: on a raft trip, we can pretty much take whatever we feel like. Weight and bulk are usually not an issue. This canoe trip, however, is probably best described as floating backpacking.
The Bowron Lakes are a Canadian Provincial Park, and people come from all over the world to paddle the circuit. As with any beautiful spot, regulations are in effect so the place doesn't get loved to death. A limited number of people are allowed to start each day. After a mandatory safety briefing, and before departure, the cargo for each canoe has to be weighed. The vast majority of people opt to use a wheeled cart for the portages, so a limit of 60 pounds in the canoe helps reduce damage to trails. A park warden attaches a tag to each canoe stating what baggage is allowed to remain in the boat during portages. Anything above the permitted weight has to be carried by hand or in a pack.
After our safety briefing and weigh-in, the four of us set out. Naturally, it starts with one of the most difficult sections: the longest, uphill (at first), muddy and bumpy portage! We couldn't get to the first lake soon enough, but it eventually came in view. The first time we put our boats in the water was a bit of a let-down in some ways. It was marshy and buggy with no mountains in sight. I think the Brotens wondered what we'd gotten them into! There also was a German couple sitting on the bank trying to decide whether this was even the correct place to start paddling. As with others at our appointed safety briefing, we would see this German couple off and on for the next week.
However, getting away from the shoreline and into the middle of the lake meant getting away from bugs. And, as is so true in many beautiful places in the world, you have to pay the price of admission. In this case, donating some blood to mosquitoes and sweating a little on the uphill portions of the portages really wasn't too bad.
The first lake was a short one, which meant we got to practice beaching the canoes, organizing gear and then strapping the wheeled canoe carts to the bottom of the boats. There was a bit of a learning curve to getting the carts in just the right spot on the boat, centered and balanced for weight. It really wasn't that difficult, but swatting a few mosquitoes while swearing at the carts made for a few interesting moments.
By mid-afternoon, we were ready to look for a camp. Each of the designated campsites is marked by a numbered sign at the shoreline. That corresponds with a Provincial Park map that tells how many tent spots are available at that site. The tent spots are quite luxurious; they have been leveled and had their outside borders marked with logs. Each site also is equipped with a fire ring and a bear-proof cache; all items with any odor, whether it's food or suntan lotion, are required to be put inside the cache at night. Knowing we were in grizzly country, it didn't take any convincing on the park's part to make this sound like a good idea to us!
Woodlots, with cut logs, are also clearly marked around all of the lakes. This just means that you can pull over with your canoe, grab what you need for the night's fire and take it to your campsite. It's a great way for the park to get dead and downed trees cleared out by a daily stream of paddlers.
The second day brought us to Isaac Lake, one of the great jewels of the circuit. The Brotens began to understand why Eric and I had raved about the Bowron Lakes. Isaac Lake is about 23 miles long and has a 90-degree bend in it, creating two arms. The west arm is a short four miles, but as you turn the corner toward the main arm, an incredible panorama unfolds before you. It's the Canadian Rockies at their best, starting with a blue lake and going up to green, tree-covered slopes that give way to snowy mountains and glaciers. There is something very special about quietly gliding along in a canoe among these majestic surroundings, and just due to the size of Isaac Lake, we spent the following two days paddling these idyllic waters.
While we paddled, we kept an eye out for wildlife on shore. This area is known for its bears, moose, beavers and eagles, as well as good fishing in several of the lakes. We were fortunate enough to see quite a few animals; some were a distance away, but one beaver came up almost underneath our canoe. It startled the dickens out of us!
There is only one minor class II "chute" on the whole circuit, at the south end of Lake Isaac. The Cariboo River comes next, and it has a great deal of glacial silt, making it difficult to see logs lurking just below the surface. Otherwise, the paddling is easy, the portages aren't really that bad, and the setting is amazing. While the majority of the lakes are worthy of being on the cover of a magazine, there's another big plus: many of the lakes have beautiful sandy beaches and are warm enough for swimming in the summer.
All in all, paddling the Bowron Lakes is a uniquely magnificent wilderness adventure. Most people never get to spend a week with a canoe as their main form of transportation, so we're just glad we had a chance to share this experience with good friends. We know we'll have stories to laugh about for years to come.
Oregon Outdoors reader Anne Uzzell lives in Central Point.