Saturday, 21 July 2012

PADDLING PARADISE: THE BOWRON LAKES


A cool morning breeze keeps the mosquitoes down as we pack our kayaks and gear for today’s paddling journey. It is day four of our holiday, with two days driving up from Vancouver to Cache Creek, past the Eocene insect and plant site at McAbee, the well-bedded Permian limestone near Marble Canyon and onto Bowron Provincial Park, a geologic gem near the gold rush town of Barkerville.

The initial draw for me, given that collecting in a provincial park is forbidden and all collecting close at hand outside the park appears to amount to a handful of crushed crinoid bits and a few conodonts, was the gorgeous natural scenery and a broad range of species extant. It was also the proposition of padding the Bowron Canoe Circuit, a 149,207 hectare geologic wonderland, where a fortuitous combination of plate tectonics and glacial erosion have carved an unusual 116 kilometre near-continuous rectangular circuit of lakes, streams and rivers bound on all sides by snowcapped mountains. From all descriptions, something like heaven.

The east and south sides of the route are bound by the imposing white peaks of the Cariboo Mountains, the northern boundary of the Interior wet belt, rising up across the Rocky Mountain Trench, and the Isaac Formation, the oldest of seven formations that make up the Cariboo Group (Struik, 1988). Some 270 million plus years ago, had one wanted to buy waterfront property in what is now British Columbia, you’d be looking somewhere between Prince George and the Alberta border. The rest of the province had yet to arrive but would be made up of over twenty major terranes from around the Pacific. The rock that would eventually become the Cariboo Mountains and form the lakes and valleys of Bowron was far out in the Pacific Ocean, down near the equator.

With tectonic shifting, these rocks drifted north-eastward, riding their continental plate, until they collided with and joined the Cordillera in what is now British Columbia. Continued pressure and volcanic activity helped create the tremendous slopes of the Cariboo Range we see today with repeated bouts of glaciation during the Pleistocene carving their final shape.

We brace our way into a head wind along the east side of the fjord-like Isaac Lake. Paddling in time to the wind, I soak up the view of this vast, deep green, ocean-like expanse that runs L-shape for nearly 38 kilometres, forming nearly half of the total circuit. The rock we paddle past is primarily calcareous phyllite, limestone and quartzite, typical of the type locality for this group and considered upper Proterozoic (Young, 1969), the time in our geologic history between the first algae and the first multicellular animals.It is striking how much this lake fits exactly how you might picture pristine wilderness paddling in your mind’s eye. No power boats, no city hum, just pure silence, broken only by the sound of my paddle pulling through the water and the occasional burst of glee from one of the park’s many songbirds.

We’ve chosen kayaks over the more-popular canoes for this journey, as I got to experience my first taste of the handling capabilities of a canoe last year in Valhalla Provincial Park. The raised sides acted like sails and kept us off course in all but the lightest conditions. This year, Philip Torrens, Leanne Sylvest, and I were making our trek in low profile, Kevlar style. One single & one double kayak would be our faithful companions and mode of transport. They would also be briefly conscripted into service as a bear shield later in the trip.

Versatile those kayaks.

The area is home to a variety of plant life. Large sections of the forest floor are carpeted in the green and white of dogwood, a prolific ground cover we are lucky enough to see in full bloom. Moss, mushrooms and small wild flowers grown on every available surface. Yellow Lily line pathways and float in the cold, clear lake water. Somewhere I read a suggestion to bring a bathing suit to the park, but at the moment, I cannot imagine lowering anything more than my paddle into these icy waters. To reach the west side of the paddling route, we must first face several kilometres portaging muddy trails to meet up with the Isaac River and then paddle rapids to grade two.

At the launch site, we meet up with two fellow kayakers, Adele and Mary of Victoria, and take advantage of their preceding us to watch the path they choose through the rapids. It has been raining in the area for forty plus days, so the water they run is high and fast. Hot on their heels, our short, thrilling ride along the Isaac River, is a flurry of paddle spray and playing around amid all the stumps, silt and conglomerate. The accommodation gods smile kindly on us as we are pushed out from Isaac River and settle into McLeary Lake. An old trapper cabin built by local Freddie Becker back in the 1930’s, sits vacant and inviting, providing a welcome place to hang our hats and dry out. From here we can see several moose, large, lumbering, peaceful animals, the largest members of the deer family, feeding on the grass-like sedge on the far shore. The next morning, we paddle leisurely down the slower, silt-laden Cariboo River, avoiding the occasional deadhead, and make our way into the milky, glacier fed Lanezi Lake.

Like most mountainous areas, Bowron makes its own weather system and it appears you get everything in a 24-hour period. In fact, whatever weather you are enjoying seems to change 40 minutes later; good for rain, bad for sun. Wisps of cloud that seemed light and airy only hours early have become dark. Careful to hug the shore, we are ready for a quick escape from lightening as thundershowers break.

Paddling in the rain, I notice bits of mica in the water, playing in the light and the rock change here to greywacke, argillite, phyllite and schist. Past Lanezi, we continue onto Sandy Lake, where old growth cedars line the south-facing slopes to our left and grey limestone, shale and dolostone line the shore. Mottled in with the rock, we sneak up on very convincing stumps posing as large mammals. Picking up the Cariboo River again, we follow it as it flows into Babcock Lake, an area edged with Lower Cambrian limestone, shale and argillite. At the time these rocks were laid down, the Earth was seeing our earliest relatives, the first chordates entering the geologic scene.

As we reach the end of Babcock Lake and prepare for our next portage I get my camera out to take advantage of the angle of the sun and the eroded rounded hilltops of the Quesnel Highlands that stand as backdrop.Leanne remarks that she can see a moose a little ways off and that it appeared to be heading our way. Yes, heading our way quickly with a baby moose in tow. I lift my lens to immortalize the moment and we three realized the moose are heading our way in double time because they are being chased by a grizzly at top speed. A full-grown moose can run up to fifty-six kilometres per hour, slightly faster than a Grizzly. They are also strong swimmers. Had she been alone, Mamma moose would likely have tried to out swim the bear. Currently, however, this is not the case. From where we stand we can see the water turned to white foam at their feet as they fly towards us.

We freeze, bear spray in hand.

In seconds the three were upon us. Mamma moose, using home field advantage, runs straight for us and just reaching our boats, turned 90 degrees, bolting for the woods, baby moose fast on her heels.

The Grizzly, caught up in the froth of running and thrill of the kill, doesn’t notice the deke, hits the brakes at the boats and stands up, confused. Her eyes give her away. This was not what she had planned and the whole moose-suddenly-transformed-into-human thing is giving her pause. Her head tilts back as she gets a good smell of us.

Suddenly, a crack in the woods catches her attention. Her head snaps round and she drops back on all fours, beginning her chase anew. Somewhere there is a terrified mother moose and calf hoping the distance gained is enough to keep them from being lunch. I choose to believe both moose got away with the unwitting distraction we provided, but I’m certainly grateful we did.

The Lakes are at an elevation of over 900 m (3000 ft) and both grizzly and black bear sightings are common. Both bear families descend from a common ancestor, Ursavus, a bear-dog the size of a raccoon who lived more than 20 million years ago. Seems an implausible lineage having just met one of the larger descendents.While we’d grumbled only hours earlier about how tired we were feeling, we now feel quite motivated and do the next two portages and lakes in good time. Aside from the gripping fear that another bear encounter is imminent, we enjoy the park-like setting, careful to scan the stands of birch trees for dark shapes now posing as stumps. Fortunately, the only wildlife we see are a few wily chipmunks, various reticent warblers and some equally shy spruce grouse.

The wind favours us now as we paddle Skoi and Spectacle Lake, even giving us a chance to use the sails we’ve rigged to add an extra knot of oomph to our efforts. Reaching the golden land of safety-in-numbers, we leap from our kayaks, happy to see the smiling faces of Mary and Adele.

Making it here is doubly thrilling because it means I’m sleeping indoors tonight and I can tell the bear story with adrenaline still pumping through my veins. Tonight is all about camaraderie and the warmth of a campfire. Gobbling down Philip’s famous pizza, Leanne impresses everyone further by telling of his adventures in the arctic and surviving a polar bear attack.

This is our first starlit night without rain, a luxury everyone comments on, but quietly, not wanting to jinx it. We share a good laugh at the expense of the local common loons (both Homeo sapien sapien and Gavia immer). The marshy areas of the circuit provide a wonderful habitat for the regions many birds including a host of sleek, almost regal black and white common loons.

Their cool demeanour by day is reduced to surprisingly loud, maniacal hoots and yelps with undignified flapping and flailing by night. It seems hardly possible that these awful noises could be coming from the same birds and that this has been going for nearly 65 million years, since end of the age of dinosaurs, as loons are one of the oldest bird families in the fossil record.

A guitar is pulled out to liven the quiet night while small offerings, sacred and scare this late in our journey, are passed around. Tonight is a celebration that we have all, both separately and together, made our way around this immense mountain-edged circuit.