The Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit
Canoeing the Bowron Lakes
The Bowron lakes are one of the most spectacular canoe circuits in Canada. In fact, they are rated on the top ten paddling trips in the world by Outside magazine, and are frequently rated by other resources as having this distinction. When you visit the area you will understand why it’s so popular.
The Bowron Lakes are a chain of lakes in north-central BC that envelop a the mountain chain containing McCabe ridge, McLeod peaks, Tediko peaks, the Mowdish range and the Needle point range. The lakes are beautiful, and the diversity of lakes is incredible. From small, dark blue, mountain lakes, to a long and spanning mountain lake, to a very small rapid called the “roller coaster” to some gorgeous waterfalls, to glacial-fed, silty lakes, to marshy, and sandy lakes, each lake is unique. You’ll experience winds, cool nights, hot days, beach days, great fishing, amazing views and beauty and remarkable silence. The campgrounds are well-maintained and scenic, and positioned in convenient locations. You always have a good choice of campsites.
How to book
To get on the circuit, you must book online with BC Parks. They allow 13 parties on the lake per day, and during the summer months these spots fill up fast and well in advance. However, they keep several slots open for people with no booking, so your odds of getting on are actually pretty good most times of year. Our favorite time of year to go is late summer or early fall. Much of the crowds are gone, the bugs are gone, and they days are still hot.
The nice thing with the internet booking system is that you can see how many spots are available each day. There are two start times: 9 am and 12 pm. Basically, getting your permit requires you to watch an old (and very outdated – though this video is about to be replaced, they shot a new one this summer) information video about the park. It doesn’t matter if you have been on the circuit before, you must watch this video. If you are using canoe carts, the gear that you are intending to wheel on the canoe must be weighed. This is to reduce the amount of trail impact from wheeling the canoe.
Cabins and shelters
The circuit has a few cabins along the way, in case you need to stay indoors if the weather is really bad. These cabins are on a first come, first served basis. Don’t rely on them though, it’s much better to camp. They are very dark and cold. On our first trip to Bowron lakes years ago we got stuck in a big wind and rainstorm on Isaac lake and had to spend two nights at one of the cabins on that lake. It was nice to be out of the rain and wind, but I wouldn’t want to stay in there if the weather was nice.
There are several cooking shelters along the way which were new for this summer. They are very nice, and really convenient for cooking and hanging out.
We started off with a safety briefing at 9 am, and shortly after that had our gear weighed and were on our way to the first lake. The first portage is the longest at 2.4 km to Kibee Lake. There are lots of rest stops on the portage trail in case you need a break, let others pass or where you may pass others. Kibee lake, which has really good fishing, is a quick 30 minute paddle to the next portage, which is 2 km. Next you have the slightly longer Indianpoint Lake at 6.4 kilometers followed by a 2 km portage.
Indianpoint Lake is long and narrow at the end, where you paddle through marsh. Here you will see lots of birds and waterfowl. It is a good spot to see moose as well, but didn’t see them there this time. Our third portage of the day was short and pretty easy, and then we ended up on the endless, 38 kilometer long Isaac lake.
There are plenty of campsites on the first three lakes, however, we passed through them as we wanted to camp our first night on Isaac lake. They are quite close and a short paddle. Isaac lake is long and many parties will spend several nights on it’s shores. When camping there you may have a campsite all to yourself, there are so many. We camped at the bend of the west arm, at Wolverine Bay, with a the newly built picnic shelter, next to the rangers station (site number 14). Wolverine Bay is located where the lake bends to the main arm, giving a view of the extended lake, which extends for 31.2 km from this point. It was quiet and peaceful. We watched the sun disappear over the mountains.
It is on Isaac lake that you get the big winds as right on the bottom of a relatively narrow mountain valley. However, rising early right before the beautiful sunrise, we were greeted with a calm day.
The water on Isaac lake was completely still. The water was as featureless as a mirror. The normally windy valley was completely devoid of wind, and was fantastic for canoeing. No winds to fight, you could establish yourself in a nice, fluid glide in your canoe and just enjoy the quiet. It was amazing. We have been on this lake before and never had we experienced this level of stillness; in fact it was quite the opposite. The valley often creates a bit of a wind funnel and you are fighting the winds and staying off the middle of the lake to avoid the whitecaps. It is quite unusual for a lake of this size and orientation to be so calm.
Even with ideal conditions – starting early, no wind, easy water – Isaac Lake is 38 km long and takes a long time to paddle. We took our time on Issac Lake, fishing and taking it easy, stopping for lunch, and it took a full day, and we opted to camp close to the end. The campsite we choose only had three spots, and we joined a party of two that had taken one of them. We made friends, and enjoyed a fire together and watched the sunset. The air was still throughout the evening and was a calm, pleasant night.
The next day, again rising early, we were treated to another great view as a misty fog sat over the lake and burned off slowly as the sun made it’s way higher in the sky, revealing the mountains around us. We were near the end of the lake and were planning to cross a few lakes that day, and now had to do a series of portages.
After hardly seeing a soul for two days out on the water, we met with most of the people that started the canoe trip on the same day as us. The portages tend to be a bit of a bottleneck on this circuit, as people bunch up here.
The chutes on Isaac Lake
At the end of Isaac Lake you have what is the only real technical section of the circuit. Isaac chutes are a short section of rapids that can easily be negotiated by experienced canoeists. This is where Isaac Lake empties into the Isaac river. The chutes are fairly short and simple, but if you don’t know what you’re doing you can easily end up bailing. Locals often paddle the circuit in the fall when all the tourists are gone, and find lots of gear that is lost when people bail here. If you don’t want to canoe the chutes, you can easily portage around them. Shortly after the chutes is your first portage of two that day.
After this one, there is a short paddle and another portage, this one going steeply downhill at the end so make sure all your gear is tied down securely in your canoe. After these two portages, you are rewarded with McLeary Lake, there is a nice cabin at one end making it a great lunch spot.
Things change after this lake, where you enter the glacial fed area of the circuit. Just at the end of McLeary Lake, the Cariboo river joins, which is milky-white due to suspended glacial silt. Unlike the clear, freshwater lakes you have become used to, seeing the bottom including all the obstacles such as sweepers and dead heads, you now must be a bit more careful as you can’t see through this water.
The Cariboo river
Joining this river is really fun as the current picks you up and sweeps you into the river. It’s great paddling, really fun in the fast moving water. Negotiating the narrower section – when compared to the big, wide Isaac Lake makes for an interesting change. Next the river spits you out at Lanezi Lake where you have a choice of campsites, some more desirable than others. The nicest one by far is number 34 and many people know about it – people gravitate to this site!
This site is prime because it is right next to a great beach with an awesome view of glaciated mountains. It’s also the site of one of the new picnic shelters, which is quite deluxe. It’s a log structure fully equipped with windows all around, picnic tables and a wood stove. The next couple of spots on Lanezi are also really nice, but unlike this site, they are tucked further into the forest with no beach. If this site is full, simply camp next door at the group camp. If you do miss these sites, all of the campsites on the next lake, Sandy Lake are extremely nice.
It was hot that day on Lanezi Lake and we were feeling like we really were ready for a shower. Isaac Lake was too cold to swim in – we weren’t brave enough – and now it was so hot that even glacial-fed Lanezi lake seemed appealing. However, I wouldn’t recommend swimming in this lake – it is extremely cold! That night we were treated to a spectacular thunderstorm in the middle of the night, and we felt rather cosy in our tents. The storm was gone by morning and the weather again was hot and beautiful.
Sandy lake is properly named. Most of the shoreline consists of beautiful, long sand beaches. On a hot day this is a perfect place to hang out, fish, and relax on the beach. This lake is also quite shallow, so stays quite warm and is very good for swimming. Also be sure to take the hike to Hunter Lake, a nice high alpine lake. The trail starts on the south end of Sandy Lake.
After Sandy lake you float down the channel towards Babcock creek and Unna lake. This is very relaxing as the current carries you down the water. Your first stop will be Babcock creek, but consider taking the river a bit further down to Unna. In fact, consider camping on Unna, it is one of the nicest lakes on the circuit: one of the warmest, and with the best beach camp spots. We made our way to Unna lake after Lanezi lake because we remembered how nice it was from our last trip. It’s a bit of a diversion from the circuit but definitely worth checking out, especially the waterfalls. If you can’t get a spot at Unna but want to stay, check out Rum lake which is directly in behind Unna. It’s also small and warm. Both lakes are wonderful for swimming, beach time and fishing.
The hike into Cariboo falls is a highlight. If you hike in late summer, check out the blueberries growing in the forest along the trail. The forest on the way to the falls was thinned, looks like from trees that were a falling hazard, so the trail is nice and open. The falls are spectacular. Nothing can really prepare you for how dramatic they are. We forgot to take a camera when we went there and we regret it, so make sure you bring it to photograph the falls. Definitely a must see, even if you are not spending the night at Unna or Rum lake.
Several big thunderstorms moved through the area that night, and we stayed nice and dry in our tents. The morning, again, was clear.
More portaging, Skoi, Swan and Spectacle Lake
The next day we intended to either paddle out all the way or spend another night at the end of Swan lake. It is a long way to get out, but with the long summer days you have plenty of time to paddle all day. The final three portages from this point are very easy. You backtrack a bit back to Babcock creek, and after a short paddle, which you may have to carefully navigate, depending on the time of year (when were there the water was very low) then portage 1.2 km to Babcock lake. Babcock Lake is a nice lake that offers good fishing, and is about 2.8 km of paddling to get to the next portage to Skoi Lake, which is only 400 meters. Skoi Lake itself is very short at only 800 meters, and this is followed by your last portage (400 meters) to Spectacle lake, which connects to Swan Lake.
The sand spit
Swan lake and Spectacle lake is the second longest consistent leg on the circuit at 12.8 km. These two lakes are is also very warm and great for swimming and fishing. The neat part of this lake is at a narrowing due to a sand spit reaching out from either side, a couple of kilometers from the portage. When we were there in early September, the water was quite low and this little sand spit was almost completely exposed.
The sand spit features two spits of land that come out into the lake, one from each side, and meet. Most of the time the middle of the spit is underwater and easy to paddle around, but late it in the summer when the water levels are at their lowest you will find that you might have to step out of your boat in one small section. Don’t worry about getting wet though, the water in Spectacle lake is very warm. The sand spit is a great place to stop for a break. Note that if you want to swim, you may have to wade a long ways before you get deep enough.
The paddle along Spectacle and Swan lakes is long, but there are lots of interesting places to check out in between. Site number 47 is a great place to camp. We didn’t stay there, but stopped by to check it out and go for a swim. It’s warm and sunny there, and there is a cabin and cooking shelter. It also has great views of the lakes on both sides.
As we continued on along Swan Lake, we saw that the cumulous clouds that were building all day started to look rather threatening. We figured we had a few hours still before a big thunderstorm hit. We were wondering if we should spend a night at the end of Swan Lake and beginning of the Bowron river that feeds into Bowron Lake. From there, we could have an early start in the morning and have a short paddle out.
When we got to our intended camp spot, we discovered plenty of really nice camp spots, an old, decrepit shelter that was obviously decommissioned and a newer shelter that could be used. This would be the perfect solution; we could just hang out in the shelter when it rained, sleep there, and wouldn’t have to deal with a wet tent in the morning. But in the end, we were too close and wanted a hot meal and a fresh bed too badly, and we set off again.
The clouds were ominous and got bigger and bigger.
Now it was obvious we were going to get hit very hard. After we negotiated the Bowron river, which is a lot of fun and very scenic – this is where you see the most birds and moose – we were spit out into Bowron Lake where the wind began to pick up, and lightening lit up the sky. We covered up our gear with the tarp and paddled on. It occurred to us that we should stop, but there was no real good place to keep dry, and we were starting to get soaked. At least paddling we could keep warm.
Since it was so hot that day, we were wearing shorts, not pants, and only managed to find our thin jackets in the panic to get some layers on. The rain came down hard. We became completely soaked – I mean everything – we were drenched. Luckily, it was fairly warm out, the rain was warm, and the lake water was also quite warm. We pushed on. It was miserable!
There came storm cell after cell – and we paddled like this for an hour just waiting for it to subside. We were so close to the end. But eventually it became too much, and along Bowron Lake there are some private lake cabins, and we found one with a big deck that we could hide underneath. Here, we changed in a panic and waited for it to stop raining. It eventually did, and we paddled to the end of the lake – it took less than half an hour. Pulling our canoe up on the shore at Becker’s landing was an amazing feeling!
After 6 days of perfect, bluebird weather, calm lakes, hot sun, we ended up in a big storm at the very end. That night passed thunderstorm after thunderstorm. It was nice being indoors. In the morning, it was foggy, but it burned off with the sun, and it was another gorgeous morning. If we weren’t so tempted to get back, we could have enjoyed another sunny paddle on the lake.
What a trip!
Tips for the circuit
- Take your swimsuit. There are lots of great lakes to swim in. Best swim: Unna lake and Sandy lake.
- Bring gourmet food. If you like gourmet food – what I mean here is if you are tired of freeze-dried food – bring the good stuff. The canoe carts allow you to take more food than you would if you were carrying your boat and gear on your back.
- Get up early. The early morning is a beautiful time to paddle on the lakes. This is particularly important on the big lake, Isaac lake, where afternoon winds funnel through the valley.
- Bring a few stuff sacks for food and clothing. A plastic waterproof stuff sack is best. Store your clothing and food in these bags when out on the water in case you get caught out in a rainstorm or if you accidentally bail into the lake.
- Bring a food barrel. If you can get your hands on a food barrel, take it. These plastic barrels are waterproof and keep all your food and whatever else you need nicely stored away from the elements.
- Bring a good tent. The area gets lots of thunderstorms, so make sure you have a good, waterproof tent that will also stand up to strong winds.
- Campfire gear. Don’t forget to bring clothes that you don’t mind wearing around the campfire, and possibly getting holes in. There are lots of firepits and there is plenty of wood stocked in various woodlots along the circuit.
- Bring shoes you don’t mind getting wet. Preferably some kind of water shoe is good, that dries quickly, in case you have to get out to pull the canoe through the water if it’s shallow.
- Sunscreen and Bug spray. If you come in the summer, the marshy areas are full of insects so take some repellant.
- Consider coming in late in the season. In late summer, such as beginning of September is an excellent time to come do the circuit. The crowds are gone, the bugs are gone, the days are still long and hot.
Should I use a canoe cart?
It’s definitely convenient to use one of these carts. They can be rented at most outfitters in the Bowron lakes area. They pack neatly into your canoe. Purists may laugh at these contraptions, but the fact is the trails are so good and smooth on the circuit that you can easily wheel much of your gear instead of carrying everything on your back and the canoe on your back. Most people opt for the carts.