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Bowron Lakes Provincial Park

Week long Paddling Adventure in British Columbia

Mountains rise above Isaac Lake

Bowron Lakes Provincial Park, located 300 miles north of the American border in British Columbia, was the setting for a seven night canoe camping trip featuring stunning scenery and an opportunity see a grizzly bear.

Now while planning a trip like this while here in Tennessee, the thought of encountering a grizzly bear is exciting and something to which I looked forward. However, when you are “out there” in the wild the thought of seeing a grizzly bear definitely has a downside, and the thought is more terrifying than exciting.

Tom, Anthony and Kristina just before leaving the ranger station

My compadres for this adventure were Miamian and fellow University of Tennessee graduate Tom Lauria, along with his two grown children Anthony and Kristina. Tom and I had been adventuring in the outdoors for the better part of two decades, so I knew his skill level. Anthony and Kristina were neophytes

Being a very highly-in-demand bankruptcy attorney Tom’s time was limited and his schedule tight (His running joke about being a bankruptcy attorney is this: If you are really broke then you can’t hire him).

Tom’s offspring Kristina, was a budding law student and Anthony was engaged in the real estate business. However, we were all on vacation except for me, because I can’t seem to decide when I am working and when I am not, since I do the same thing – outdoor adventuring – whether I am working or not working.

Relaxing after portage on Indianpoint Lake

Floating a stream between lakes

We intentionally sought out a destination where there was no cell phone service. This would give us all the opportunity to truly get back to nature on nature’s terms. And for Tom in particular it would free him of receiving dreaded business emergency phone call.

After renting canoes and a significant amount of our camping gear from an outfitter at a remote British Columbia outpost, the four of us set forth on a 85 mile paddling and portaging circuit in the Cariboo Mountains, which jutted skyward from string of lakes and rivers through which we would paddle. A collection of first-come, first-served designated waterside campsites and wood huts were scattered along the watery route.

What made this trip unique was not only the incredible mountains rising from the waters but also the means by which we portaged our canoes and gear. Bowron Lakes Provincial Park had made their portage trails wide enough for portage wheels to roll our canoes and gear between bodies of water. The boats strapped onto a frame above the portage wheels and we had to balance and hold the watercraft on each end, then push and pull the boats overland.

Johnny and Tom begin a portage using the portage wheels

Despite being groomed for the portage wheels, the portage trails were not easy. They were often muddy, rocky and or hilly, but at the same time superior to carrying the canoes and gear purely by manpower. Some of the portage trails were quite long, too, especially the first one — it stretched nearly 2 miles!

I started out in the back pushing the canoe while Tom pulled in the front of the canoe. It didn’t take long for us to realize it was much easier for the rear man than the front man. The front man had to pull and steer the canoe over the lumpy irregular track, while the back man merely had to push, which was much easier on the arms.

Our inexperience got to us and we crashed before reaching the first lake, though nothing was broken. I was ecstatic when we reached the water of Indianpoint Lake — spreading before us, bordered in deep evergreens. Above the spruce and firs barren rock peaks jutted for the sky, frosted with snow here and there, despite being August.

Taking a break

We paddled forth and found a campsite, regaling in the fact that our trip was truly underway. But trouble immediately arose. Tom’s water filter wasn’t working and I was the only one resolved drink the water straight out of the source. Therefore, we began a weeklong exercise in boiling drinking water for Tom, Anthony and Kristina. It is a hassle and boiled water never tastes as good as freshwater in my opinion.

Mountains rise from Isaac Lake

And then there was grizzly bear factor. They were here and were known to raid campsites in search of tasty human grub. Fortunately, repeated incidents had led the provincial park to install bear proof food lockers at campsites. It was a hassle to move our food in and out the metal storage lockers and lock them repeatedly, but it sure beat a grizzly bear (or black bear) raid.

Our traditional first night’s fare was steak. And if that didn’t attract bears what would? Tom cooked the odiferous meat anyway, along with grilled corn. Nevertheless, we had a peaceful night and the next morning ate grilled sausage and scrambled eggs, seemingly trying to tempt every bruin within sniffing range of our camp.

Sunset over the Cariboo Mountains

The four of us continued around the paddling circuit, at this point going lake to lake between portages. A storm brewed in the highlands, and drifted over Isaac Lake, sending us scuttling for a campsite. We quickly set up the tents and battened down the hatches. The rain came off and on, along with a punishingly cold wind. One thing — when you are this far north — if it rains the water is always chilling. A hot meal of hamburgers and beans warmed us from the inside out, along with steaming cups of coffee and hot chocolate.

Dawn not only brought fair weather, but a colorful sunrise cresting over the nearly 8,000 feet high peaks, many of them perennially covered in snow. The endless snowmelt load from the majestic mountains tumbled down over stone clefts, creating a wealth of waterfalls. These cataracts always caught our attention as their noisy descents echoed off the expansive lakes.

One of the many lakeside waterfalls at Bowron Lakes Provincial park

The scenery kept us enthralled. Eagles perched majestically over the shoreline, bordered with dense forests broken by stone outcroppings. We continually scanned the mountainsides for grizzlies, each of us hoping to see one — hopefully from a distance. The four of us were advised that seeing moose would be commonplace, though our particular group saw very few.

We did see other canoe campers. Bowron Lakes Provincial Park keeps a strict quota on how many parties can be in the backcountry on any given day. We had gotten a camping permit with a specific departure date. Visitor’s trips are limited to 10 nights by which they must have completed their circuit.

Despite this limitation, there was competition for the best campsites and sometimes we felt compelled to stop at better sites to avoid being stuck at a crummy site. A long day was drawing to a close and we longed to stop. Only two sites lay ahead. The first was quite muddy and the second was crowded – too crowded for our taste. We sought solitude but sucked it up and packed in with others who had paddled to Lake Lenezi. Once we settled in, the crowded camp wasn’t so bad.

Moose chomps some underwater vegetation

But no matter whether we were on the water on the land four of us determined to have a good time. Kristina talked of her upcoming law school challenges, while Anthony explained the finer points of Miami real estate business. Tom was truly on vacation. He and I kept up an endless parade of joking and laughing, often at one another’s expense, recalling previous camping and hiking outings. Some of the best moments of comradery occur in the great outdoors.

Toward the end of the trip we began to join more rivers than lakes. Some of these rivers were glacially fed, rolling cold, silty and swift that contrasted mightily with the translucent lakes. However, the river running allowed for more relaxation and enjoyment of the scenery.

Campsite overlooking the Cariboo Mountains

All too soon it was our last night. We were perched on a bluff overlooking Swan Lake, with the Cariboo Mountains rising in the distance. That night, Kristina heard a rustling in the woods and sought out her dad, making him sleep with her that night for protection. Whether it was the bogeyman or a bear we’ll never know. I never heard a thing myself.

Paddling a swampy creek

The final morning dawned clear and bright. We paddled through a low swamp before opening onto Bowron Lake, then ended out paddling adventure at Bowron Lakes Provincial Park. We never saw a vaunted grizzly, but maybe that was just as well. I highly recommend this place. It is one of the 10 best all time outdoor destinations I have ever visited.