Cowichan Lake in Soft Focus

Wildfire smoke and morning fog soften the stark clear-cut patches surrounding Cowichan Lake, allowing us to focus on the more scenic attributes: a dramatic bluff, island clusters, and sandy beaches. About 34 kilometres long, with a perimeter of 110 kilometres, this warm-water lake on southern Vancouver Island is perfect for a week of lazy canoe-touring – a local, low-cost trip.

Gordon Bay on Cowichan Lake

“You are brave,” says the fisherman, as he watches us load our canoe for a one-week trip around Cowichan Lake. “You know about the wind, right?” Like many lakes, Cowichan can be a windy place. The wind likes to start suddenly, then rapidly build to a nasty level, but it’s manageable, especially at our relaxed pace of paddling – an average of fifteen kilometres per day.

Maple Grove

A raccoon and park operator Cloe welcome us to Maple Grove Recreation Site. “I’ve never seen anyone arrive by canoe,” says Cloe. A few cyclists, a few hikers, yes, but most campers arrive in pickup trucks or RVs, having travelled the gravel road maintained by the timber companies that hold the land surrounding the lake. Having paddled in, we think we are special until the next day when we see an arrival at Heather Campground’s site 13D – by helicopter.

Heather is a large campground at the west end of the lake. Twenty years ago we hiked a rough trail from Heather to Kissinger Lake, so we plan an extra day for this. We can’t find the trail, and the new park operator has never heard of it.

Empty logging trucks clang, loaded logging trucks rumble, reminding Cathy of a saying from her childhood: empty wagons make the most noise. With active logging in this working forest, we don’t fancy walking the logging road to Kissinger Lake, so we spend the day in our Helinox chairs on Heather’s gravel beach. We watch two mergansers, a kingfisher, a brown rabbit, and a Chocolate Lab enjoy the lake in species-appropriate ways.

Friday is our most adventurous day. We paddle past a mama elk and her two calves. For three hours we cautiously ride the steep waves in a following sea. Caycuse Recreation Site is not where it’s shown on the tourist map, but eventually we find it. We land in the surf and grab the last unreserved beachfront campsite. The campground host tracks campers’ addresses, and we are surprised to learn that campers come from afar (the Lower Mainland, even Europe) to this backroad location.

Car-campers and canoe-campers have different schedules. To beat the wind, paddlers are early risers. On a Friday night, car campers arrive late and spend time getting settled. They would like to sleep in, but how can they, when our Dragonfly stove (aka the blast furnace) revs up at 7am?

From Caycuse it’s an easy ten-kilometre paddle to Gordon Bay Provincial Park, our take-out point. Gordon Bay campground has flush toilets, showers, drinking water, and campsites with sharp, coarse gravel; bring a tent footprint and some spikes, because normal tent stakes won’t work.

We have a rental car, and Doug wants to use it, so we drive along Youbou Road, where a hulking bull elk is casually munching grass. On the way home, we stop at the popular Cobble Hill Mountain Regional Recreation Area. The Squirrel-Frog-Turtle Trails Loop is an easy two-hour hike, with an ocean view at the summit.

Our 17-foot PakCanoe is showing signs of age, but it performed well on this trip. Pakboats are folding boats that store in a duffle bag, and they are tougher than they look. In its younger years, ours saw a lot of action: it was dropped from a floatplane into the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, lifted over logjams on the Nation Lakes canoe route, lowered over the side of the MV Uchuck into Nootka Sound, and it froze on winter mornings on the Colorado River in Texas. In recent years our PakCanoe has led a quiet life, being rolled across the street to paddle the Gorge Waterway or Victoria’s Inner Harbour. We think it appreciated this week’s freshwater expedition.

Heather campground

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