Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Looping the Loop By Canoe in Canada

The key to enjoying a canoe trip in the backwoods of western Canada is, like the Boy Scout motto says, Be Prepared.

Be prepared for rain -- on a week-long trip we had continuous rain for 72 hours, by which time water had seeped through every crack and cranny of even the best waterproof clothing.

Be prepared for sun -- at the 950-meter altitude of the Bowron Lakes chain, there is little atmosphere to filter the rays, and the day it stopped raining we all burned. Be prepared for cold -- on our mid-August trip we saw fresh snow on the hills less than 100 meters above one campsite.

Be prepared to get a workout -- the Bowron chain stretches for 116 kilometers, including 10 kilometers of portages, where instead of your canoe carrying you, you have to carry your canoe and a pack weighing up to 45 kilograms.

But mostly, be prepared to spend a week to 10 days in some of the planet's most gorgeous, serene woodland, full of wildlife and almost empty of people.

The Bowron Lakes -- with the handy feature for canoeists of forming a ring ending up within a kilometer or so of where it starts -- are situated roughly in the middle of British Columbia, Canada's westernmost province. British Columbia's terrain is dominated by a series of mountain ranges rising out of the Pacific in the west and culminating in the Rockies in the east. Bowron Lakes Provincial Park is located in the Cariboo, the timber and cattle-ranching country of the central plateau.

The scenery is similar to the more famous Rocky Mountain parks of Banff and Jasper, but with the advantage of having a lot fewer people around.

To ensure you won't be crowded once you are on the lakes, there is a daily maximum of 55 people per day allowed to enter the circuit. Although some places are held open for "walk-ups," reservations are really a must for those visiting from abroad.

The Bowron chain itself is composed of distinct parts. The first is a series of small, "pothole" lakes with portages between each. They provide a good break-in period for learning whether your packs are balanced, the best way to load your canoe for stability, and to get your paddling coordinated.

A major trip like this is not the right place to learn how to handle a canoe, so at least one person in each canoe should be familiar with small craft. Inexperienced paddlers, however, can make the best of this stretch to get comfortable.

The second stretch of water is Isaac Lake, part of the aptly named Clearwater River system. This can be a long, hard paddle if the wind is in your face, and the waves can reach a meter in height.

It is also the stretch with the most spectacular scenery, with the lake sitting at the bottom of a sharply V-shaped valley, with snow-topped mountains unfolding on either side as you make your way between them. An afternoon hike up one of the mountains -- pick one, any one -- is a chance to limber up your legs instead of your arms, and provides a scenic view from the heights.

At the end of Isaac Lake is a small rapids (easily hiked around if you don't feel up to a little whitewater adventure) and the longest portage on the trip. The lakes are just inland from the temperate rain forest of the Coast Range mountains, and this portage through the heaviest bush of the trip gives a good feel for the lushness of the coastal greenery.

After the portage, the next piece of river is a lazy man's heaven -- a five-kilometer-long drift down the Cariboo river as it loops lazily through a wide, flattening valley and eventually spawns a series of shallow lakes. The terrain lends itself to moose and aquatic animals. We tailed a pair of otters for about a kilometer and unless we got closer than four or five meters in our canoes, they didn't seem to mind too much, powering swiftly along underwater at a surprisingly good clip.

Waterfowl also nest along the Cariboo, and we surprised a pair of Canada geese on their riverside nest when we came around one bend, then watched them turn from heavy, waddling birds on shore to graceful, powerful flyers as they lifted off, wingtips splashing with every stroke.

The great advantage of touring by canoe is that the boats are almost soundless and so do not spook wildlife unless you get too close. Because motorized craft are not allowed, you have the chance to enjoy silence broken only by the wind in the trees and the lap of the water. After five or so days, even the most city-abused ears can pick up the sound of a bird flapping its wings as it passes 10 meters overhead. But be warned -- you may need earplugs to filter out some of the city's background noise when you first return.

And if you are lucky, as we were, when the cool twilight settles in the evenings you may be graced with the haunting, throaty call of loons across the water; a sound distinct to the northern woods and a sound that once heard is never forgotten.

The largest animals you are likely to meet are bears. Even a small black bear can ruin a trip if it gets into your pack. Plus, bears that learn to associate people and packs with food usually have to be killed, so it is in both parties' interests to use at all times the bear caches built into trees around the circuits.

Our camp was raided one evening by a small black bear -- perhaps a meter high on all fours and weighing 50 or 60 kilograms. It was circling through the camp looking for food and one of our party was circling with a camera looking for a photo. When they met nose-to-nose coming around a bush, the results were hilarious -- the bear ran for the hills without supper and our intrepid cameraman ran for the ladder to the cache with no picture.

But bears are not to be trifled with, especially grizzlies or sows with cubs. The trunks of the cache trees are wrapped in roofing metal to keep animals from climbing them, and we saw a good reminder of how dangerous bears can be on one such trunk. A grizzly had scratched at the metal, leaving claw marks starting at about four meters off the ground and running downward for half a meter or so -- right through the metal and into the bark.

To avoid conflicts, the registration center has a "Bear Aware" video as well as a general video on what to expect en route.

The park also provides a mail-out video to help prospective campers prepare, and this kind of aid makes the Bowron an excellent first backwoods trip for people who have done a little camping and a little boating. But this is a wilderness area -- outside of the portages, there are just two established hiking trails, and beyond the campsites, a few scattered cooking shelters and cabins, there is no help at hand if you get into trouble.

Hence the advice at the start: Be Prepared.

Preparation pays off the most in terms of food. It's astounding how much more than usual average, desk-bound people eat when they are paddling a canoe, lugging a pack, or for that matter, just generating body heat to cope with a cold night in a sleeping bag. You can't pack too much food on this trip -- as long as you can lift it. That means plenty of freeze-dried, dehydrated food.

And if you're like us, after six to 10 days of dehydrated food, you'll be ready for a beefsteak. Fortunately, in the heart of Cariboo's cattle country they're not hard to find.

The Season

The lakes are generally ice-free by late May or early June. Phone BC Parks (604-398-4414) for early- or late-season conditions. The park is open for canoeing from May 15 (depending on the weather) until Sept. 30. Reservations are being accepted now for 1996. For weekends in the mid-summer peak season, it's a good idea to book as soon as possible. The circuit reservation office is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pacific time Monday to Friday at 604-992-3111, with a $43 fee for a two-person canoe.

Getting There

You can expect to pay around $1,300 return from Moscow to Vancouver on either KLM or Lufthansa. Air BC offers three flights daily ($185) from Vancouver to the nearest airport, at Quesnel, 120 kilometers from the lake. If you need to buy a lot of supplies and equipment, you should consider stopping in Vancouver and driving up -- the Fraser Canyon highway is a spectacular mountain road. Either way, you'll need a car -- rentals are about $290 per week.

BC Rail also offers dayliner service Sunday, Wednesday and Friday from North Vancouver to Quesnel ($210 return). It's a 12-hour trip that leaves at 7 a.m. It returns to Vancouver on Monday, Tuesday and Saturday mornings.

At the lakehead, Becker's Lodge (604-992-8864, fax 604-992-2662) offers rentals from a fleet of 100 boats, from family-sized freight canoes to one-person kayaks ($110 for a standard two-person canoe for one "circuit" -- up to 10 days).

Overnight camping in the park before and after the circuit is Cdn$9.50 per group per night.

If you prefer, Becker's also has campsites or a full range of accommodation, starting with double-occupancy "trapper's cabins" -- no indoor plumbing -- at $40 and working up to fully-equipped chalets (from $110 per night). They can also arrange to pick you up in Quesnel.

The tourist bureaus for Quesnel (604-992-8716) and Williams Lake/Cariboo region (604-392-2226) are both very helpful.

And save a day to tour Barkerville -- a restored 1860s gold rush town just a few kilometers from the lakes.