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HomeNL-2014-09 Bowron Lakes

Canoeing Bowron Lakes
July, 2014
by Ken Anderson

I’ve spent summer months in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State for the last few years and lucky enough to meet interesting people. One of them, a replanted Californian and active canoeist, suggested a canoe trip into Canada. The Olympics is known for sea kayaking rather than canoeing but this fellow is a certified whitewater canoe instructor and even did a trip with Bob Foote through the Grand Canyon. He told me he’s always looking for someone to canoe with. Late last year he suggested a canoeing trip to the Bowron Lakes of British Columbia. I warned him I might not be up to his standards (you know, Bob Foote and all) but he said he was flexible. So we did it!

Canoeing Bowron Lakes involves paddling in a provincial park of that name in the Cariboo Mountains (not a misspelling; it’s spelled “Cariboo” and not “Caribou”). Bowron Lakes is a popular canoeing site with part of its reputation arising from the beauty of deep glacial lakes,great fishing, black and brown bears, and a large contingent of moose. It’s challenging in that one paddles to a portage, portages, and paddles again. The normal paddling/portaging is a clockwise circuit of 72 miles through several lakes and takes from 7 to 10 days depending on your state of mind. The portages can exceed 2 miles going up and down hills.


Portaging here isn’t the Boundary Waters sort of portaging. Bowron Lakes portaging involves a cart onto which a canoe is placed and into which everything is loaded. Other than the canoe, water, first aid kit, and rain tarp each cart cannot carry more than 60 pounds because heavier loads may damage the trails; the weight limit is enforced through a weigh-in.

Weigh-in station   Ranger checks weight   Canoe cart 

We portaged each day. Sometimes we portaged two or three times although one day we didn’t portage at all. Even the initial put-in and final take-out involved a portage… there simply is no escape. One of our two carts broke so we made do with the remaining cart; that is, two canoes and one cart equaled two separate portages each time. I tried portaging Boundary Waters style but the Clipper canoe I used needed a yoke; we didn’t have a yoke. In a sense the yoke was on us because the yoke wasn’t with us.


The park is limited to 50 canoes a day. Groups of 6 or more are required to make reservations in advance; the park strongly suggests any group of less than 6 should make a reservation since failing to make a reservation places paddlers on a “standby” list.



Each campsite is clearly marked and, without exception, paddlers are expected to stay in designated campsites. Groups of 6 or more must stay in campsites specifically designated for groups of that size. Regardless of group size you’re expected to move on each day (no base camping) since there’s paddlers behind you looking for a campsite. My paddling buddy referred to their system as a conveyor belt.

Each campsite is assigned a specific number marked by poles easily viewed from the water with designated spots within each site for tents and campfires. Combining those poles with a map it’s easy to know where you are. Wood is available at designated spots by poles easily seen from the lake and marked with a “W”. Although wood is available at those “W” sites you’ll usually find wood at each campsite; Boy Scouts are active here and I suspect they leave chopped wood at most campsites as part of their training. I might add each site has one or more a bear boxes.

Ken in campsite   Firewood

We met several groups of Swiss and Germans plus an interesting family from Portland. We started calling the Portland family “Portland” because we took turns passing one another each day and talking with one another long enough that a running conversation developed. Both of the high-school aged sons seemed ambivalent about the trip until they found out an English group of 30+ females their age were scheduled to be at the park the next week. That’s when they lobbied their parents for one more week in the park but, sadly for them, their lobbying fell on parental ears. My source on this, by the way, is their mother.
Speaking of the mother, she proudly told she personally killed 100 mosquitoes one morning while paddling. Which brings me to the reason why an 8 to 10 day trip was cut to seven. Hoards of mosquitoes were present at each campsite forcing me to lather up with Deet and wear a mosquito screen over my hat. It didn’t bother my paddling buddy but it bothered me. Mosquitoes are allegedly gone by late August but knowing that is of little help in July.

        "The Portlanders"   Cecil

There are rapids. One set of Class II was easy although you’d better line up your run accurately due to strainers; we did well, ferrying and pulling in behind rocks before jumping back into the current. It was a welcome break from lake paddling but didn’t last long. We portaged around several sets of waterfalls.

We saw fresh bear scat on the portages (supposedly black bear but I didn’t run into the woods to verify that interpretation) along with several moose. Beaver dams are everywhere and, tipping my hat to them, they’re quite clever in building dams with spillways.

Beaver dam     Beaver dam     Moose

The park rangers are very friendly (well, they are Canadians). I met rangers walking portage trails looking for trees that could fall; they cut them down within a few days to protect portaging folks like me. They also check permits by casually glancing in each canoe; the permit is attached to a specific spot in each canoe.

So, if you go, think late August or September.


The author, Ken Anderson