Two adventures this month: one at a High-elevation mountainous park, the other a Mighty-pretty-but-Mighty-hard wilderness canoe trip. (map) A rugged, nearly-off-road ride brings us up almost 7,000 feet to Canada’s highest full-service hiking lodge, Cathedral Lakes. This quirky hodgepodge of buildings is our base camp for five days of alpine hiking, fine dining, and hobnobbing with celebrities and adventurers from around the world. Next is the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit, a world-class test with eight portages totalling eleven kilometres. We dub it Bowron: The Farewell Tour, because we may not tackle this circuit again. Those portages are a lot tougher than they were twenty years ago!
Cathedral Provincial Park
Journey to the top
The Unimog has suffered a breakdown, so our driver, Jack, loads us and two other guests into another four-by-four vehicle. After a one-hour crawl up a bumpy road with an eighteen percent grade, we are delivered to Quiniscoe Lake, elevation 6,800 feet. This alpine lake is surrounded by old growth forests and home to mule deer, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep.
Quiniscoe Lake has thirty tent sites spread out along the southern shore, but we splurge on an all-inclusive stay at Cathedral Lakes Lodge. We choose Lakeview Cabin number one, which has bunk beds, a wood-burning heater, and rustic toilet facilities.
We come for the hiking, but we remember the meals. Pastry Chef Karin quickly recognizes that Doug has a sweet tooth, so she brings him an extra brownie, a second piece of cake, two bowls of tiramisu. Karin packs lunches for our hiking days, and she knows how to create sandwiches that don’t get soggy.
Meals at the Lodge are buffet-style and provide an opportunity for conversation with other well-heeled travelers. Trail-tales, destinations, solar power, politics, and grandchildren are popular topics. The conversation continues around the huge fireplace, where tenters sneak in to toast their wet socks in front of the fire.
Marmots shriek, chipmunks skitter, and snow flies as we head out on the 60 km of well-maintained trails near the Lodge.
“I’d avoid the Rim today,” says the Lodge owner each morning, as he looks up at the new snow on the jagged peaks and checks the weather forecast (generated in Norway). A few hikers proceed up the must-do Rim Trail, but they are twenty-somethings, and they wear crampons and headlamps. We stick to the lower elevation trails that visit the various sapphire lakes: Quiniscoe, Ladyslipper, Scout, Pyramid, Glacier, Lake of the Woods, and Goat.
Diamond Trail winds up through flowers and bluffs and across a small rock glacier where the rocks are slowly moving. We move slowly, too, and when it starts to snow Cathy crawls across the rocks that might be slippery. Goat Lake is a good choice for snowy or poor weather. This five-hour trail stays in the valley bottom, following Lakeview Creek through wetlands.
Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit
The farewell tour
Twenty years ago we chose the world-renowned Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit as our first wilderness canoe trip. Our strongest memories? The tremendous diversity in topography and the many moods, from bright sunshine and calm lakes to angry white-capped waters and torrential rains.
Twenty years later, this unique circuit remains the perfect outdoor adventure: a 116-kilometre chain of eleven lakes, three rivers, and connecting portages, with stunning vistas throughout. The portages, which total eleven kilometres, seem a lot tougher than they were back in 1996, and some of our gear is showing signs of age: the tarp is sagging, the white-gas stove (which sounds like a jet engine) takes a lot of tinkering, and both cart-tires explode with a big bang (fortunately this occurs after the toughest portages have been accomplished).
Challenging and gruelling are words the Backroad Mapbook uses to describe the first two of the eight portages on this route. Canoe carts are permitted, but this doesn’t mean there is no work. Only 60 pounds (28 kg) of gear may be put into the canoe (to reduce damage to the trails), so there is some heavy lifting to do. Some people ignore the 60-pound limit, but, of course, that is not us.
We are more confident and relaxed these days, and we take the time to chat with other paddlers who have travelled from around the world to experience what Outside Magazine calls “one of the world’s Top Ten Canoe Trips.” We meet first-timers and veterans (one gentleman is making his 37th trip). We talk to couples, father-son and mother-daughter pairs, a well-guided group tour, a gospel group, and a reunion of young men who grew up together in Sudbury. The latter group kindly carries our food barrel and largest packs across the Babcock Creek portage, when they see that our cart has two flat tires.
We are not too old to make some novice mistakes: walking on water because we miss the main channel, leaving a tarp on a beach (requiring a five-km return paddle to retrieve it), and not bringing enough toilet paper (sudoku puzzle-pages work in a pinch).
On day five we paddle with dry hands for the first time. Yes, there are thunderstorms with hail, but the breaks in between are a relief after four days of relentless rain, which tested our spirits as well as our gear. When the sky clears, we can see all the waterfalls. A kingfisher leads us down Isaac Lake, and we have a tailwind; life is good.
Days six through nine are sunny, and we are on our favourite lakes: Lanezi, Sandy, and Spectacle. On Lanezi we call our campsite Glacier View, and we stay two nights. Sandy Lake is aptly named, and we have the gorgeous beach all to ourselves. Our Spectacle campsite (#45) is photogenic, so much so that a BC Parks photographer takes a photo of us on our lawn chairs.
The rain returns on day ten, so we pick up our paddling pace. Two days later we arrive back at Becker’s Landing, and we load our soggy gear into our mud-covered car.
See any big animals? Not this time, but that’s okay. We have seen moose in the wild, we prefer not to see bears, and we are happy with loons.
Musing on portaging
“No portage was ever too long for me,” boasts a retired voyageur to Alexander Ross, author of The Fur Hunters of the Far West (1855). Voyageurs were truly heroic men. They cheerfully sang fifty songs a day, so much did they enjoy portaging a 300-pound canoe or two 90-pound bales of fur.
“I might be getting too old for portaging,” mused Doug at age 70, after an eight-day trip in Killarney Provincial Park (one of the portages was through a field of grazing black bears).
“I’m pretty sure I’m too old for portaging,” sighed Doug at age 72, after we lugged two heavy rental canoes over twelve portages on the Turner Lake Canoe Circuit (our two grandsons were not yet strong enough to carry the 85-pound boats).
“I’m definitely finished with portaging,” says Doug after the first three of eight portages on the Bowron Circuit. At age 75, this is not unreasonable. Yes, portaging brings a sense of accomplishment – the sense that you are one of those legendary voyageurs. But remember: most voyageurs retired in their sixties – if they didn’t die earlier from a hernia.