The day breaks grey and muted. My mind instinctively turns to rain and for a moment I cringe and slink deeper into the warmth and comfort of my sleeping bag. I had not really expected rain this season. No, not rain. The tent walls are dry except for a light misting of condensation; the birds are singing, and I can hear the sounds of the first eager paddlers pulling out of campsites. Not rain, smoke. It is 2018 and British Columbia is experiencing the worst forest fire season in recorded history. For months almost the entire province, and most of the Western seaboard, has been blanketed in a thick, toxic haze. The smoke will eventually reach as far as Ireland and by the time the Fall rains arrive 1.35 million hectares will have gone up in the conflagration.
The night before, I had watched the sunset from the passenger window as the van bumped its way down the long dirt road leading to Bowron Lake Provincial Park where I had agreed to help my friend John guide a group of 4 on a 6-day paddle across the Park’s namesake canoe circuit. The sun – burning preternaturally red in the Western sky – melted into the light from a nearby burn. The anxiety grew in the pit of my stomach. This trip already promised trials and tribulations without the added consideration of trying to outrun a charging wildfire.
At the best of times I’m an introvert. When stressed, tired or mentally preoccupied, I have a tendency to transform into a full-blown hermit. My preference has always been to be alone or with a small group of close friends or family and this pattern has followed me into the backcountry. Spending 8 days travelling and paddling with 4 complete strangers was nothing short of terrifying. But the lure of a week in the Cariboo wilderness was too good to pass up. And so here I was lying flat on my back listening to the early morning rhythms. John and I discuss the day ahead. It is a deceptively easy route. Eleven kilometers with two portages to a campsite halfway up Indianpoint Lake. We figure we’ll be setting up the tents by mid-afternoon – plenty of time to review logistics for camp management after that. Everything else has been planned to a tee – the campsites booked months in advance, the gear cataloged, sorted and organized, enough food has been bought and packed carefully away to feed a small army. We even have a bucket of extra waders should any of the group forget their wellies.
We check in with Dick and Sandy Philips, owners of Bear River Mercantile, the area’s outfitter store and local museum – and on who’s front lawn we had pitched our tents. Over a breakfast of eggs, sausage, cereal, and hot black coffee they relay the latest: officials were saying that the nearest burn will likely be contained within a few days, but there will be no letup in the smoke. We are advised to prepare for emergency evacuation and make a contingency plan. No worries, just a little more planning. With that, we recheck the extra batteries for the satellite phones, leave our itinerary with Dick and Sandy and start the short drive to the trailhead.
Over Hill and Dale
The Bowron Circuit is unusual in that rather than seeing trippers launch off into some awaiting body of water, would-be paddlers must portage their loaded canoes 2.4 kilometers before reaching the first put-in at Kibbee Lake. With a properly weighted canoe cart, this would not be too onerous a task, except that years of underfunding of the park system and overuse by eager tourists (like us) have left the trails rooted, rutted and miserably muddy in wet weather. BC Parks has instituted a 60 lb cargo limit to try to reduce the impacts. Anything above that has to be carried by backpack over the rough terrain. John and I have over 150 pounds of gear in our boat, so most of our load is strapped to our backs. It is a grueling way to start any journey but first-day excitement carries us through and we reach Kibbee anxious to get our feet wet in the first of the Circuit’s dozen lakes.
Over the course of the morning the smoke has thickened. Everything is tinged with an orange haze that obscures the rounded hills of the Cariboo Mountains ahead of us. It feels like dusk at 11am. The water is glass calm as we slip the fully loaded boats through the marshy inlet and out into the small northern lake. Few birds sing, but we catch sight of a kingfisher darting among the bushes and low trees at the shoreline. It is the first of dozens that we will see over the next week, and will be joined by countless loons, bald eagles, ospreys and mergansers. Every single one reminds me that wilderness is not yet totally lost, at least not in this protected space.
The route from Kibbee Lake to Indianpoint Lake is shorter than the first tromp, roughly 2 kilometers, rising over a small, but substantial knoll. To put it mildly, the trail is rough. It would become known by our little group simply as #2 and would be the standard by which all other difficulties over the next 5 days would be judged. Starting on sand, it rises sharply in an uneven mixture of roots, rocks, deep ruts and the occasional puddle on its way to becoming a small pond. Nowhere is the footbed flat and we strain to keep the canoes upright as the cart-wheels dip in and over obstacles. We are brought to sudden, jolting halts every few paces, which we must follow by heaving the full weight of our bodies forward to get our load over whatever prominence has stopped our motion.
John and I reach the portage’s apex and settle our boat next to a weathered canoe rack left over from a time before carts became ubiquitous. It’s a reminder of the area’s rich history, first as a fecund hunting and fishing ground for the local First Nations and later as a place of trap-lines, cabins and recreational opportunity for non-native settlers. Having little in the way of mineral stores, the area around Bowron Lake escaped the ravages that met the hillsides of nearby Barkerville, the center of the Cariboo region’s 1860s gold boom. The place did, however, have its own set of struggles. By the early 20th century sport hunting was quickly replacing mining as the centrepiece of the area’s economy and wilderness guides, like Frank Kibbee, came to fame shepherding would-be big game hunters through the quadrangle of lakes. Pressure on the local populations of grizzly and black bears, moose, beaver, otter and marten (as well as a range of feathered beasts) became so great that by the early 1920s conservationists began calling for the creation of a provincial game reserve in the area. In sharp contrast to the modern notions of environmentalism, the aim was to create a refuge where commercially important wildlife could breed unhindered and so ensure a constant supply of resources outside the boundaries of the protected zone. And so, in 1925 the Bowron Lake Game Reserve was created to protect the land that lay on the inside of the outer banks of the chain of lakes turning the area into a nursery for game large and small. It was subsequently expanded outside of the lakes in 1961 and granted Class A park status.
Portage #2 is no better on the descent. Steep drops now join the gaggle of cruel obstacles in a seemingly ceaseless effort to wrench our muscles, try our patience and wreak havoc on our shins and hips.
Little is said when we reach our campsite midway up Indianpoint Lake. Moving slowly we haul tents, tarps, stoves, tables, chairs, propane tanks and various personal items to their respective homes for the night. The amount of gear is somewhat appalling to my ultralight sensibilities – though after a few days in the bush I would come to appreciate the small luxuries of cooking over a proper kitchen and eating with something other than a spork.
“Have you seen the pots?” John asks quietly, tapping me on the shoulder.
“Pots? No. Maybe they are in one of the bags.”
“No, they’re too big for bags. They were in the van. Did you unload them?”
“Not that I remember. Are you sure?”
John looks at me, crestfallen. The pots aren’t there. Three large, restaurant sized stainless steel pots – not something we can MacGyver for another 5 days with even a small group.
“S*&t.” I think to myself, “Did we forget them in Vancouver?” The thought guts me and I can see John asking himself the same question. But, with a resolve born of decades guiding, he turns to the assembled quartet and flashes a big goofy smile. “Well folks, looks like it’s antipasti tonight. Robin and I just need to head back to the van to pick up the pots. It’s no problem; just an unplanned jaunt. You all know what you’re doing out here, right?” Flash of brilliant white teeth. Twinkle in the eye.
I’m already loading our canoe with a first aid kit, a sat phone and whatever else we might need should we get stuck out late into the night. It’s already 5pm; it took us 6 hours of meandering paddling to get here. We now have to repeat the journey twice. It promises to be an interesting evening.
A quarter of an hour later we set off with a significantly lighter boat. In the stern John doubles his stroke using the emergency kayak paddle, while I grit my teeth to keep up. We are flying down the lake. The smoke-filled sky has reduced our view to a few hundred meters and we quickly lose sight of the campsite where we left our brood with heaping mounds of gourmet cheese, charcuterie and crackers that would put the best gourmand to shame. They are all experienced trippers and we know they will weather an evening alone better than a week with dry and cold food.
“So, do you really think they’re in the van?” I venture gingerly after a while.
“They’re in the van.” John says dryly. “They’re in the van.” I know him well enough not to press, but I do anyway.
“And if they aren’t?”
“They’re in the van.” I feel his strokes increase.
We have to do it, there’s no escaping. We reach the end of Indianpoint Lake and jump out of the boat to start the slog back over #2. The going is exponentially easier without gear but dragging and lifting the rig the wrong way up the portage is taxing. I won’t feel it until later that night – for the moment I am moving on adrenaline.
Suddenly John stops and drops the front of the canoe. “Shhhhh.” He hisses at me to quiet the near continuous prattle emitting from my excited mind. He points ahead at a distant blurr. No, not distant, not a blurr. Thirty feed ahead of us a lynx sits passively staring down the trail as calmly as if it was the local tabby. The grey fur ripples as it flexes first its right legs then its left. I can just make out the tuffs of fur on its ears. I’m transfixed. After what feels like an eternity the animal stands and, with a graceful swager, walks sedately down the path, turning every few paces to look casually over its shoulder as we lumber on.
Our efforts at stealth are betrayed by the racket produced by every bump and jostle of the canoe. The cat is unfazed. Perhaps it has never left the protective confines of the park and is unaware of the threat humans can pose. More troubling, maybe it knows us too well and has become habituated. The thought crosses my mind and I silently pray for the former, otherwise it may not last through the season. We’ve established more than geographic lines for wildlife, but a psychological one as well.
We follow the lynx for a quarter of an hour, always 20 to 30 paces behind, moving in synchrony up the trail. At the crest of the climb, it pauses long enough to let us lessen the gap by half. Then, with a flick of its tail the cat leaps silently up the 6-foot bank and melts into the foliage the way only wild animals can. We are alone once again. I let out the breath we did not know I was holding.
Wild spaces often feel hollow these days as areas that once held wildlife are overrun by human hoards seeking “like-worthy” images for their Instagram feeds. In my lifetime – which is microscopic in the grand sweep of time – places where I could walk for days without seeing a single other person now have car parks overflowing to the point of hazard. Here in the Bowron, nature appears to be escaping the worst of the onslaught. A movement started nearly one hundred years ago to protect this nursery of the Cariboo has given at least some respite to wildlife. It is not nirvana though. The Park faces pressures from inside and out as more and more visitors clamber to secure camping spots or permits to complete the circuit. At the same time, cuts in government funding have hollowed out the staffing necessary to maintain infrastructure and ensure visitors comply with regulations. Along its boundaries the park is squeezed by the ever-present threats of resource extraction, unauthorized motorized use (particularly in the winter) and poaching that push inward on that invisible line.
John and I cannot stop to marvel at the experience too long and we surge down the portage with greater urgency. Down, down, down we go with the canoe bumping into our shins and making hamburger of our hips as we throw our body weight against the hull to stop it from careening wildly into the trees. The first tendrils of dusk are already creeping across the sky when we reach the far side of Kibbee Lake and, abandoning the boat, half-hobble, half-run down the last section of trail to rescue our forgotten cargo.
By the time we arrive back at the water, the smoke has eclipsed any remaining rays of sunlight and the shorelines have melted into smudges of navy blue. The water lays still under the thick soup of sky. The pots rattle in the bottom of the near empty canoe as we sweat up and over #2 for the final time. I scan the darkness for pin-prick eyes with a mixture of hope and fear. But the cat has not returned. That moment had passed, and we remain alone with the joyful clanging of stainless steel on fiberglass to carry us back across the water in the pitch of night.
We are exhausted as the boat slides up the bank with a gentle hiss. In the course of 10 hours we have traveled 35 kilometers, lugged the canoe up and down 465m and salvaged the culinary future of this trip. Without the strength to fuss or speak, we perch on the side of the bear box and gorged on the leftover brie and salami. I don’t taste a thing – my mind is too full of the wonder of this place.
Adventures rarely go as planned – even adventures bought and paid for in advance. We set off into wild spaces in part to escape the routines and predictability of urban life; to shake off the planning and see what happens when we do. Along the way gear breaks, trails disappear and, sometimes, if you’re lucky, you forget the pots and are forced to experience something uniquely yours. For John and I, our mishap led to a powerful and intimate encounter with this wild space and drove home the remarkable nature of this place. It pushed us to our physical edge but paid dividends to our spirits. I hope that everyone reading this someday gets to forget their own pots in a beautiful place like the Bowron.