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Bowron Lakes Canoe Trip

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Rachel·Scott

Bowron Lakes Canoe Trip

August 28th, 2008  · stk

Day Three - Bowron Lakes Campsite #31 (McLeary Lake Cabin)
Friday, August 15, 2008
15.3 Km (paddling pros) + Approx. 1.8km (2 portages)

Wow, what a day! This is one for the memory books!

It started this morning at 7 AM. We woke after a restful sleep, which started the day off on the right foot. We packed up our tent and had a hot drink, while we sat on the beach, enjoying the serenity of Isaac Lake. Our fellow campers were also moving, but because they were up on the hill behind us, we didn't see much of each other. As a matter or fact, we never even got to know them. The only time we ever exchanged words was during their arrival and then after, when we passed through their camp to use the outhouse or stash gear in the camp bear box.

We pushed away from shore at 8:30 AM. Once again, the lake was on her best behavior - there wasn't so much as a ripple on the surface. The cloud cover appeared overcast, which made for a cooler morning and superb paddling conditions. We continued paddling down the lake, but then remembered that the guide book mentioned that there were nice waterfalls on the west side. We crossed to the other side and enjoyed the scenery. We weren't disappointed.

Isaac Lake has an interesting shoreline. In many places, the lake is rimmed by small boulders, right at the water's edge. It so cleanly defines the shoreline that one is under the impression they were laid there as a landscaping feature. In the water, there is a shelf that borders the lake. The shelf varies in width but is usually about 10-15 feet wide. After that, the shoreline plunges deeply and though the water is crystal clear, you can no longer see the bottom. It drops quickly out of sight and all you can see is the distinctive green-blue color of deep water. It was interesting to paddle along the break point of the shelf and look into the water. On the right of the canoe, toward shore, we could see logs, fish, rocks and underwater plants - clear as day. On the left of the canoe, bottom was lost to the inscrutable blue-green depths of cold, deep water.

We had a very enjoyable paddle, following the west shore of Isaac Lake, watching the debris on the bottom of the lake pass under us. The shoreline is varied enough to keep it interesting, and there were numerous submerged logs and a wide variety of underwater plant life. We stopped at a waterfall for our morning break, then continued along, enjoying the beautiful scenery.

The only draw back of paddling the west side of the lake is that it's hard to tell when one is passing a campground (nearly all are on the opposite shore). With little else as a landmark, it was difficult to know where we were on the map. While we were able to spot a couple camp markers (posts at the water's edge with a small, colored patch), we were quite surprised when we came around a point and saw that we were nearing the end of the lake. We took one last short break on the western shore of Isaac Lake, before paddling across to Campsite #29, the group campsite that overlooks the much anticipated Lake Isaac "chute".

This chute is a short section of rapids at the outlet of Isaac Lake. The rapids are only about 30 meters long, but there is a 90-degree right-hand turn, at their base. It's not riding the rapids that's difficult, it's executing the 90-degree bend, without getting your canoe broadside to the turbulent water, that is key. The guidebook provides ample warning that should you get turned sideways, you are sure to capsize and end up in rapidly flowing water! "Canoeists should not overestimate their skills and inexperienced paddlers should portage at least their gear, if not their gear and canoes."

We hadn't discussed our plans regarding the chute. Should we run it or portage around it? We decided to have a look, so we walked past the cook shelter at Campsite #29, where there is a nice spot that overlooks the chute, 90-degree bend and obvious back-eddies. It didn't look so bad, so we figured we'd give it a go!

"But, what about our gear?" we asked ourselves.

The thought of hoofing our gear a kilometer or so down a trail, in order to traipse back and run with an empty canoe was not appealing. Paddling an empty canoe might prove to be problematic as well. We hemmed and hawed for 30 seconds, but then quickly concluded that we would run with our gear. We took a few minutes to put our cameras into the dry bags, tie everything together - if we dumped the canoe, at least our stuff would be one big blob and not scatter everywhere - and to line Rachel's backpack with a large garbage bag to provide some degree of water protection. Soon, we were nervously "prepared", with some semblance of a paddling "game plan" (Run the rapids, with Rachel drawing the bow into the turn and Scott prying the stern, then executing our 90-degree turn in less turbulent water).

We pushed away from shore and headed over towards the "event horizon" above the chute. As we approached the top of the chute, we back paddled for a few seconds, hanging there in order to better position ourselves and steady our nerves.

"Let's go!" Scott shouted above the din of the water.

Once we started paddling, we took off like a rocket. The current gripped our canoe and swept us downstream. We took the short set of undulating rapids right down the middle, where the flow was the greatest. The bow lifted over the first crest then plunged deeply into the hollow behind. Water swept over the bow and Rachel got doused with with a lap full of water, but the bow then rose again and we were whooping with excitement! Half way down, Scott told Rachel to start drawing to the right. With all of her might, Rachel started to pull the canoe, but Scott only hollered, "Harder!"

The riverbank was approaching quickly, but no matter how hard Rachel pulled, she wasn't able to bring the bow around. At the last second, Scott was able to pry us to the left and it looked like we were going to be swept into the swirling back eddy. Slowly, the canoe began to drift backwards! down stream. Without an alternative, we decided to "go with it"! We started to back-paddle, navigating past a big rock and through a short patch of rushing water, before making our way into the smooth - but still fast moving - current of the river between the chute and the next obstacle - "the roller coaster". It was during this brief stretch that we swung the canoe around. We gave each other sheepish grins. We'd negotiated the chute without toppling over, but our style was hugely unconventional. (8.5 points out of 10.0 for execution, but only 3.2 for style).

The roller coaster was fun, but nothing compared to the chute. It was really just a stretch of fast running deep rapids with no exposed rocks or obstacles to navigate around. We took on a splash of water and managed to keep the nose of the canoe pointed in the correct direction.

With these exhilarating obstacles behind us, we had a half kilometer stretch of river to run before we had to pull out above the cascades (mandatory portage). Big signs indicated where to pull-out and, as we approached, we slid into some slower moving, shallow water on the right hand side. It startled us to see, standing in the shallows, a moose cow, face in the water, enjoying her lunch.

"Crap," we whispered, "our cameras are both in dry bags." This was quickly followed with, "Crap ... which one?"

Scott successfully extracted Rachel's camera and we - as quietly as possible - took a few back-paddle strokes, pulling further to the right and out of the current. We were able to linger long enough to get a few photos. The cow however, thought that we were lingering too long and getting too close (we drifted to within 20 feet of the moose). She then took some slow steps - RIGHT TOWARD US - while staring at Rachel's eyes. Rachel pulled back, visibly concerned, wondering if the moose was going to charge; the water was shallow and she could have been upon us in three steps. (Scott admitted later that he had also been taken aback by the move). The cow took another step or two towards us, but then changed her course, turning to cross the river at a trot, right in front of us. We were sorry to see her go, but more than a little relieved that her intentions were to run, not fight.

After she left, we pulled back into the current and continued on down the river for another 100 meters, pulling into a calm section on the other side, heading toward the signed pull-out.

"Whoa!" said Scott, pointing back over his left shoulder, "Look!"

Rachel followed his gaze and spotted a large bull moose standing in the vegetation, just beyond the shallows. Scott was quick with the camera and managed to get a couple of photos of him, while Rachel was trying to dig Scott's camera - which has a better zoom - out of one of the dry containers. Unfortunately, before he could put it to use, the bull had disappeared into the bush. We figured that the reason the cow was intent on crossing the river, was that she knew "her bull" was as on the side.

What a thrill! Within a kilometer we'd successfully negotiated "the chute", "the roller coaster", fully laden with gear and then see - not one - but two moose, each within 20 feet of us! Wow, it doesn't get much better than that!

On top of the world, we landed at the pull-out, but we were soon faced with the next obstacle. Getting the canoe out of the water at the mandatory portage was not terribly easy. The shore was steep and had been built up with wooden ties, making over-sized "steps". On both sides, the path was muddy, steep and too narrow for the canoe wheels. How were we going to get the canoe up this obstacle?

We ended up pulling out the backpack (which contains the heavy items) and then lifting the bow of the canoe onto the first step. Once there we were able to pull/push and the canoe along the ties, sliding her upward on the lip of each of the steps. At the top step, we were finally able to get the wheels underneath the canoe and begin the portage.

The pull out should have been a warning - the portage wasn't easy. The trail was rough, with lots of muddy holes and large rocks. Pushing the canoe along, on wheels, was difficult. In a few spots, Rachel had to help pull the bow of the canoe, while Scott pushed the stern. Eventually, we made our way down the trail, to the next put-in.

The portage wasn't easy, but the need for it, was appreciated. The trail passed by the cascades, which we could see, between the trees. The river thundered over lots of boulders and white water filled the view. No matter how lucky we had been on the chute, there was no way we could imagine a canoe making it down the cascades successfully.

After about a kilometer or so we were able to put the canoe back in the water again. We stopped on the bank of the river for lunch and Scott took a quick swim to cool off. The sky had cleared and the hot sun was now beating down on us.

The paddle down to the next portage, at the Isaac River waterfall, was short. Before we knew it, we were approaching the signed pull-out. The graphic sign warned off the danger of waterfalls ahead and was appropriately decorated with the remains of many smashed up canoe pieces. We took a quick photo, before loading the canoe onto the wheels again, for the last portage of the day.

So far, we hadn't encountered any other canoeists, all day. A far cry from the past couple of days, where it seemed that we were playing "leap-frog" with several other canoes and groups.

The waterfall portage started off steeply, heading away from the river bank and onto a traversing ledge through a thick stand of trees and a moss-covered terrain. It was very beautiful: the moss was thick and lush and majestic trees lined both sides of the trail. It reminded us of some sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, in northern Washington.

Half way along the portage trail, we stopped and took a small side trail over to the falls. They were impressive. A wall of white water crashed down for 11 meters, then continued over a cascade of boulders. Without a doubt, the falls would be a death trap for any canoeist (and we wondered how many visitors had voluntarily weeded themselves out of the gene-pool, by missing the sign and going over the falls). Portages may be tedious, but we were thankful for them.

The trail ended with a steep decent to McLeary lake. Rachel held the bow, as Scott steered from the rear and held onto the stern rope. Slowly, we made it down the hill and when we were nearing the end and the grade of the trail slacked off Rachel let go of the bow rope. Scott went on ahead and - just before reaching flat ground - he hit a rock and the whole canoe tipped over on its side. What a fitting end to the portage!

Campsite #30, at the end of the portage, is comprised of a large, open flat area. Despite the constant din of the thundering water from the waterfall, it was a nice (currently empty) campsite and we briefly contemplated staying there. Thinking the roar of the water might bother us, we carried on to Campsite #31, on nearby McLeary Lake. As we rounded the turn in the creek, pulling into McLeary Lake, we could see the campsite across from us. In addition to the trapper's cabin, we also saw a beached canoe and a tent, beside the cabin. (Rats!)

We paddled over to the small beach and pulled out, introducing ourselves to the two canoeists - Dave and Gord. They were the two guys who had the canoe rigged with the sail, whom we had seen the day before. There wasn't much room around the cabin for a second tent and the two guys seemed very quiet and reserved. We milled around, considering our camping options. Staying inside the cabin wasn't appealing - it was stinky and sure to be overrun with mice. It seemed that the only suitable tent site was right where Gord had set up his tripod. After a few minutes, he offered to move it so that we could pitch our tent and we quickly decided to stay.

Beyond the cabin, a little further down the shore, is a marshy area. McLeary Lake is quite shallow and it is known for attracting moose. (We found out later that Gord and Dave had made this their day's - short - destination, precisely for this reason. Gord wanted to get some good shots of moose with his digital SLR camera and super long zoom lens.)

Shortly after we set up our tent and got some of our gear sorted, we decided to go for a short paddle on the lake (in part to head back towards running water, at the inlet of the lake, to fill up our 4-liter water bag). As long as we were out, we thought we'd explore the lake a bit and headed toward the grassy area. As we approached, we heard a "rushing" sound. As we neared the marshy shore, a moose cow strolled out into the water. She was grazing - dipping her head into the water and coming up with a mouthful of mucky vegetation. She didn't seem to be alarmed by our presence and she didn't pay us much attention. We ceased paddling and allowed ourselves to slowly drift by her, coming within about fifty feet. She was slowly working her way down the lake, sticking her head into the water, up to her ears and raising her head moments later with a dripping mouthful of vegetation. Each time she raised her head, she would lazily check to see where we were and then drop her head back into the water for another mouthful.

Fortunately, Scott had brought his camera and we sat and snapped off a number of pictures of her. We thought it ironic that Gord and Dave were wanting to get pictures of moose, yet they were back at camp, involved in a chess game. After a while, we peered back at camp and noticed that Dave and Gord had gotten into their canoe and were making their way over. We watched the moose for about 15 minutes before slowly padding away from her and back up the lake to collect some water to treat with Pristine. After we pulled away, Dave and Gord approached the moose but did not get as close as we had been. (Later, after Scott and Gord compared shots, Gord said that even with his telephoto lens, Scott's photos of the moose were closer and more detailed).

As we paddled back to camp, we saw that a second cow was now on the lake, approaching from the same opening in the reeds. The two moose (meese?) continued to graze in the vegetation in the shallow lake. One continued walking forward, finishing her feast in the very center of the lake. They remained on the lake for nearly an hour, before they both finally retreated back into the marsh. (We were surprised that they came to feed so early - it was 4:30 PM when they hit the lake. By dusk, a time one would think would be prime moose-watching time, they were long gone).

Back at the camp, Scott took his usual swim and Rachel rinsed herself off and cooled down in the shallows. We rinsed our sweaty clothes and laid them out to dry, while we tried to find shelter from the afternoon heat and humidity. We had an enjoyable evening in camp, chatting with Dave and Gord. They really loosened up as they got to know us better and they generously offered us a glass of red wine each to enjoy with our home-made spaghetti dinner! Delicious!

As is so often the case with campsites at cabins or cooking shelters, the site had a resident squirrel. Unlike the squirrel at Campsite #20, however, this one seemed to be very unassuming and happily contented himself eating lush green leaves, which surrounds the site. He was never far from sight, but he didn't try to raid our tents and make a pest of himself.

As we were preparing dinner, another canoe pulled onto the lake and slowly made their way toward camp. It was two members of the party of six with whom we had shared the last camp. They came ashore and checked out the cabin, admired one of the moose cows that was just finishing its grazing, but came to the conclusion that there wasn't enough room for the six of them. Eventually, they bid us good evening and headed back to the larger site beyond the river's bend.

Later, as we were chatting with Dave and Gord, we noticed a increased "roar" from the upstream river and waterfall. We puzzled about what it was, thinking it might be a log jamb breaking up. When nothing untoward happened during the next few minutes, we eventually put it from our minds. Then later, as we were preparing to head to bed, Dave noticed that the canoes were about to float away - the level of the lake had risen a good six inches! The small camp beach had shrunk to about two-thirds of its previous size. This made us think again about the roaring noise we'd heard earlier and we wondered if we were witnessing evidence of some upstream catastrophe. Even though McLeary Lake isn't big, compared to Isaac Lake, it's still 1.2km long and that the level of the lake could raise by 6 inches, in less than a couple of hours, was very unnerving. We pulled the canoes up higher on the beach and then retired to bed.

Nestled in our tents, we began to hear the loud rumbles of thunder and notice gradually approaching lightning. In the dimming twilight, the flashes of lightning were as bright as a camera's flash. The thunder rumbled and echoed off the mountains all around us. Some of the thunder seemed to rumble on forever and Scott commented that it was some of the longest rumbles he'd ever heard. Soon enough, rain began sprinkling the tent. Then it began coming down hard. We closed up our vestibules, despite the humid heat and desire for even the faintest of a breeze.

As Rachel typed the day's entry into the Jornada handheld computer, Scott leaned over and showed her a photo that he'd just taken through the small tent window. It showed the trees silhouetted in front of a fiery orange sky. Wow ... what a sunset! The sky was just one ball of fiery orange color - no gradations. It made it look like the forest were on fire on the other side of the mountain, painting the sky orange with the heat of its flames. We hoped that the lighting didn't spark any actual forest fires, as we watched the sky dim and gradually fade to black.

What a fantastic day! A beautiful paddle down the west shore of Isaac Lake, the adrenaline rush down the "chute" and "roller coaster", close encounters with three moose, great conversation with Dave and Gord, red wine with a delicious home-made dehydrated spaghetti dinner and now, a thunder and lightning show resplendant with beautiful orange sunset. Who could ask for more?

We later learned that runoff from rain water and increased melting of mountain glaciers, from the hot afternoon sun, causes the lake level (most notable in shallow McLeary lake) to fluctuate. Also, the increased "rushing" noise from Isaac River falls was likely caused from a change in the wind direction. Our imaginings of an up-river catastrophe were only (a dramatic), but improper conclusion.

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