Canoeing the Bowron was like nothing I've ever done before. My usual major canoe trips are 9 day, 100 mile or so, trips into the Quetico in summer. My wife Ginny and I and our paddling friend Linda entered Bowron on 9/20/05 and exited on 9/25/05. I'd describe it (at that time of year) as an intermediate paddling experience in an intensively managed paddling park. It was an experience of contrasts. There was the feel of solitude in magnificent scenery when traveling, but there was also a very real social aspect of staying in designated campsites that are shared at the end of each day. Although 90% of the trip is flat water, without a doubt the most challenging part of the trip is the several mile stretch on the snag infested Cariboo River. These snags apparently change position during periods of high water and there is always a new supply of them coming into the river from the avalanche areas. In the height of the summer season 54 people a day head out going the same direction on the same circuit. Our orientation group was 7 people for the day so we experienced far fewer folks out on the trail.
We were allowed to camp in the trappers cabins with wood stoves, picnic shelters with wood stoves, at any established small campsite, or at any group camp for our late September trip. All campsites had outhouses, a fire ring, and bear lockers. Most had built up sand/gravel level tent pads. On our trip we spent the first 3 nights at trappers cabins shared with other folks, night four in the tent at a small campsite by ourselves, and night 5 with the tent set up inside a picnic shelter with other folks. There were 4 radio phone stations set up along the way if you got into serious trouble. The park had power boats stationed at the upper and lower end of each lake to shuttle out emergencies and there were several helipads located along the way. At the farthest away point in the park, they indicated their response time to a radio phone call should be about 4 hours. The park ranger asked to see an axe before they allowed us in the park. Those with a hatchet had to rent another hatchet to be able to use one as a wedge. Being able to build a fire in any conditions at that time of year was critical. Wood lots were scattered along the way marked with a post and a red W, and I quickly learned to carry a couple seasoned pieces of wood along in the canoe at all times - enough to get a fire started and begin drying out the wet or punky wood that was the usual in the lots. Most wood had been cut into 12" to 14" long billets and split in half or quarters. Toward the end of the day we would load up enough wood in the canoe to hold us for the evening and next morning - even if it meant portaging it.
Left our motel in Quesnel about 6:40 AM and arrived at Bowron Lake Outfitters about 8:15 to check in for our previously arranged rentals of a kayak, kayak portage cart, a canoe portage cart. The outfitter shuttled our rental stuff to the weigh in area at the Park HQ about 10 AM after orientation. We got weighed in and issued a boat ID tag which stated what gear could be in the boat on the portages. This could be checked by trail rangers and if in violation you would be subject to fine. The limit is 60 lbs of gear in the boat and the rest goes on your back. We headed down the 1.5 mile portage to Kibbee Lake at 10:30AM. Using a portage cart was a different experience with its own challenges - especially holding back on the down hills. The portages were graveled paths about 3 to 4 feet wide. I took the Minnesota 3 on this trip and there were a few spots on the portages where I had trouble getting the long canoe through. Once I had a tip over - but overall my cart with 4"x16" tires was well behaved once I found the right balance point. We wore bear bells on the portages because this is grizzly country, but the canoe paddles and other gear rattling in the cart are louder noise than the bells. Paddled across Kibbee and had lunch before we did the 1.2 mile portage (long uphill grade) into Indianpoint Lake. Drizzle and light rain the whole day. Decided to stay at the trappers cabin in Indianpoint Lake for the night at mile 8. Shared the cabin with a mother / daughter tandem from Seattle. Slept on a bench off the floor. Periods of heavy rain that night. Got up twice during the night to stoke the wood stove.
Started about 8:45AM into lifting fog and some drizzle. Took 1 mile portage into Isaac Lake, longest lake on the circuit at 23.6 miles long. The paddle down Isaac, was amazing mountain scenery with vistas that would open up as you paddle by the draws and avalanche paths. The avalanche paths were lined with aspens that were gold in peak fall color. Lots of glacial melt water cascading down in waterfalls. The snow line was about 1000 feet above us. The lake color was intense dark blue. Had a morning break about 11AM, then we paddled until 1:30 and had a late lunch at another trapper cabin at mile 21. Decided to camp there for the night with the same two folks we stayed with the night before. Set up the dry fly for an outdoor cooking area. Slept on the cabin floor. The cabin mice were restless that night.
On water about 9AM. Isaac was calm, it was partly sunny, and the scenery was grand. Had lunch at noon at mile 30. Made it to the lower end of Issac about 1:15PM. Watched a woodland caribou running and swimming there. Decided to push on and take the 1.7 mile portage toward McLeary Lake. The end of the portage took us back to the Isaac River and we immediately were faced with a long chute with 16" standing waves. In another canoe I would have run the chute on the left. But we decided not to run it with the canoe we had. So we carried our stuff over the bedrock on the left side of the river to get around the chute. A short distance downstream was another portage that bypassed a massive log jam and a falls. We were now half way around the circuit mile 35 and stayed in a very nice trappers cabin - shared with the same folks as the previous 2 nights. McLeary Lake scenery was awesome. Saw a cow moose there.
Very foggy morning so we had pancakes while we waited to be able to see where we were going. On water at 9:45AM and we knew would be facing the most challenging part of the trip for the next 3 miles on the Cariboo River. All gear was tied in with rope. At the bottom of McLeary Lake we joined the Cariboo River. Very fast current, glacial melt water aqua in color, with numerous sweepers scattered all over; out from the banks as well as stuck in the main channel. We did fine for the first mile or so including back paddling/maneuvering with the 20 foot canoe to get around a very nasty place. But at about 1.25 miles on the river we rounded the corner and I knew we were in trouble - too many snags too close together for the big canoe. So I headed for the inside bank - had a brief second where I possibly could have hopped out but wasn't sure I could also stop the canoe; so just rode along hoping to get through this maze somehow. The current took us into the 2nd sweeper and we went through one of those slow motion end to end canoe spins ending with a gentle tipping us out toward the bank. If it had to happen it was a good place for it. Didn't even loose the firewood that was in the canoe. Our gear and food stayed dry thanks to good packing. Got back in the canoe and went by a couple more snags and the current lessened. The worst was over. The last mile of the river was pretty benign. Once we got paddling again I warmed up - especially with the sun out occasionally and I pretty much dried off. The lake that the river emptied into (Lanezi Lake) was amazing scenery and water color aqua marine. Mountains were right next to the water. Calm water reflections of the mountains on the water. We stopped for a long lunch at a picnic shelter and started the woodstove to warm up and finish drying off. Went another 8 miles or so in the afternoon before we camped at campsite #37a on Sandy Lake mile 48. Tented it that night and set up the dry fly with a fire in front. Actually was pretty darn nice for a chilly evening.
On the water at 9AM. Took the side trip down to Unna Lake and the 1 mile hike to Cariboo Falls. It was worth it - 70 foot drop with the massive amount of water flowing in the Cariboo River. Back to the boats about 11:30 so we snacked before heading out. Did the .75 mile portage into Babcock Lake; had lunch, paddled across Babcock; then two short portages into Spectacle Lake. We'd left the mountain scenery behind at Sandy Lake and now were traveling through foothills and lakes with strange sand spits that would extend most of the way across the lake basins. Spent the last night half way up Spectacle Lake mile 60 at the picnic shelter. Pitched the tent right on the cement and used the tarp across the front of the shelter to cut the wind. The other half of the shelter was shared with a couple from southern BC, their first big trip in their new Necky Looksha kayaks.
Signs of rain so we broke camp quickly and were on the water at 8:30. At the upper end of Spectacle Lake we were heading downstream in the Bowron River. It was an interesting, gentle, crooked stream lined with marshes. Lots of waterfowl. Got to Bowron Lake and the wind was picking up quartering from behind. We headed to a dog leg on the right shore of the lake and got out of the wind. Easy paddle the rest of the way in and made it to the Park dock at 11:30 AM mile 72.
We did the 72 mile circuit in 6 days with some of the days pretty short. But we were able to move every day. From what I understand most folks do the circuit in 7 to 10 days. We couldn't complain about the weather we got - rain and drizzle only the first day and a half; cloudy to partly cloudy after that. But weather could be a real factor on this trip and wind could easily pin you down on the large lakes. High temp for the trip was 58F and the low was 34F, so it was a cool weather trip but we stayed warm. We saw more open canoes than kayaks but with the park set up for portage cart use, this is a lake to lake trip that kayakers can do. I appreciated the speed of having a Wenonah lake cruiser on the circuit, but if I do the circuit again it will be with my Royalex Spirit II or a rental prospector style canoe because of the need for more maneuverability to safely navigate the Cariboo River.
Overall this was quite an experience.
Partial outfitting: a kayak, a kayak portage cart, and a canoe portage cart. Self outfitted for everthing else
In 2005 there was a registration fee of $36 (Can) plus a flat fee of $60 (Can) per person to do the circuit.
About an hour and a half drive east of Quesnel on provincial road 26. Turn left on access road about 3 miles past the small town of Wells - about 20 minutes. Used outfitter located on Bowron Lake.
The essential map is one which the Park hands out free. This map will show all campsites, picnic shelters, trappers cabins, wood lots, and radio phone locations. The next best map is the Becker's Lodge map on waterproof paper that you can buy at their place on Bowron Lake