The swish of the paddle, the call of the loon, the crackle of the campfire (until the axe breaks), the snap of a moose munching beside your tent at midnight, the hush of two bears walking softly along the beach, the roar of a hard rain. Oh, the comforts, discomforts, and joys of wilderness canoe-camping! After a year of guided kayak day-tours in exotic tropical places, it was time to get back to our canoe roots. Where better than Murtle Lake, the largest canoe-only lake in North America, with over 100 kilometres of shoreline.
The North Arm
Ospreys and bald eagles in aerial combat, kingfishers chirping and diving, dragonflies hovering in search of the season’s last mosquito, two dozen loons herding a school of bite-size kokanee – all this action we witnessed in our first two hours on Murtle Lake, as we paddled from the canoe launch to Strait Creek, the largest of the marine campsites on the 18-km North Arm.
Murtle Lake’s North Arm extends fjord-like deep into the Cariboo Mountains. This Arm feels rugged and remote, and the water is deep and glacier-fed cold. This translates into fewer visitors, except for Strait Creek, which attracts fishermen and hikers.
Would we be able to manage the Wavy Alpine hike? In 2003 we found this climb ambitious. Twelve years older and one heart attack later, we made it once again!
Our reward for this 1,000-metre, four-hour, relentless ascent was a top-of-the-world view of Murtle Lake, Strait Lake, and Wavy Crest Peak. Alpine meadows beckoned, so we walked beyond the trail’s official seven-km end for an hour or so before tackling the downward trek, which took 2.5 hours.
A tailwind followed us to Murtle Beach, a windy campsite at the lake’s inlet. The view is grand, and wet clothes dry quickly in the wind, but our sleep was interrupted by a moose browsing on branches right outside the tent.
Sunshine Cove – a campsite that gets no sun – was where we experienced a hail storm and where our axe broke. With nighttime temperatures below freezing and daytime not much warmer, an evening campfire was almost a necessity. Fortunately, driftwood was available, and Doug had already split a small pile of cedar kindling, which we were able to ration for the remainder of the ten-day trip.
The West Arm
The West Arm has warmer shallow water, sandy beaches, little islands and coves to explore, and five easy hiking trails. In the summer the West Arm is a popular place, especially for families, but in September it’s even possible to have an island campsite (ours was Smoker Island, for three nights) to yourself.
McDougall Falls is the most popular day-trip for West Arm campers. From the lake’s outlet, there’s an easy-to-follow five-km trail along Murtle River to the first of its seven waterfalls. It’s a fourteen-metre drop, so don’t get to close to the brink of the falls! Our Anderson Lake hike was aborted due to a broken bridge, so we washed our hair instead.
Sandy Point was our final campsite, and we were on our own here, too, enjoying some cold-weather beach time. It rained non-stop as we paddled back to the canoe launch, but the rain brought us good luck. The park rangers sympathized when they saw our soggy state, and they transported our gear to the parking lot in their ATV, saving us the 2.5 km portage.
After this year’s kayak trips in Borneo, Tonga, Cuba, and other warm places, we had forgotten how cold Canada can be. Our swimming suits did not get worn at Murtle Lake, but in every other way this was an outstanding trip. Kayaks outnumber canoes on most waterways, but here canoes rule. What a comfort to get back to our boat of choice – the canoe – with its classic good looks and its single-bladed paddles.
Murtle Lake (map) is a lava-dammed lake located in Wells Gray Provincial Park, east-central British Columbia. Widely known as the largest canoe-only lake in North America (motorboats have been banned since 1968), Murtle Lake is a must-do for canoeists from British Columbia and beyond.
Blue River, a little town midway between Vancouver and Edmonton, is the staging point for Murtle Lake trips. From Blue River, Murtle Lake road is 27 km of steep, often single-lane gravel that requires one hour of slow driving if you have a Mini Cooper Clubman. From the parking lot, a 2.5 km portage trail leads to the canoe launch.
Murtle Lake is a semi-wilderness canoe area. There are nineteen marine campsites, each having a pit toilet, bear-proof food cache, and a shared fire ring. Rangers patrol the lake and supply a limited quantity of firewood.
Weather is the major hazard for canoeists on Murtle Lake. In a matter of minutes, sudden winds can transform the lake from dead calm to a rolling sea, and the wind can change direction 180 degrees before your eyes; we shuttered as we watched novice paddlers head across the lake at its widest (4-5 km) in unsettled weather. Dangers and annoyances? Bears are present, but not aggressive. Biting insects are not an issue in September. Watch out for leeches in muddy areas, mice who are keen to explore the inside of your tent, and a porcupine that steals shoes at Strait Creek.