Cruising along the silty Cariboo River, we watched as a beaver swam to the shore against the current. Around each corner of the winding waterway was another vantage point of the serrated peaks and glaciers of the Cariboo Mountains range. Beyond it all was spectacular Lanezi Lake, which we reached in wonderful evening sunshine.

Not too impressed with the first campsite we came across on the lake (it resembled a swamp), we pushed on to the next. Swirling clouds started to push over the peaks on the opposite side of the lake about halfway into our 3km paddle along the lakeshore. The sky started to get darker. No more than two minutes after our arrival on the beach of site no. 34, the heavens opened, thunder boomed and lightning lit up the lake. Sun to storm in less than twenty minutes…that’s the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit for you. 

lanezi lake bowron lakes bc canoe

bowron lakes canoe circuit isaac lake

The beauty of Bowron

A perfect parallelogram of lakes, rivers and portages surrounded by temperate rainforest and imposing mountains, the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit is a geographical wonder. Looking at it on Google Maps, it looks like something quite unnatural. But it is actually the opposite; a wonderland for canoeists and kayakers alike, the Bowron Lakes Circuit enables an epic 116km journey through what is essentially a remote wildlife refuge with incredible topographic diversity.

The eastern side of the Bowron Lakes is part of the world’s only inland temperate rainforest (and consequently is very wet) while the west features the rounded hilltops of the Quesnel Highlands. Lakes on the western side may not be lined with dramatic peaks, but they experience much drier weather and have remarkable views looking back towards the Cariboo Mountains.

bowron lakes canoe circuit map

sandy lake birds bowron lake canoe circuit

Silver linings

Back to our stormy arrival at Lanezi Lake’s campsite no.34. It had been a beautiful afternoon, with the best weather since we had started the circuit four days before and also with the most impressive scenery. These factors were probably related but after so many days in the rain, I have to believe that there wasn’t much we missed during the first half of the circuit under those heavy grey clouds.

We had still seen endlessly tall waterfalls rushing into the lakes, caught glimpses of ancient glaciers and got a chance to run moving water in the infamous ‘Chute’ and ‘Rollercoaster’ rapid sections. Though unlucky in our search for mountain goats and bears (as well as fish to eat), we did spot otters and all sorts of birds and eagles.

August is known to be the busiest month on the circuit, but it is also typically the driest and warmest. This year was unusually wet (and cold, it was an average of 12c during the day), as we learned from the Park Facility Operators as well as other veteran Bowron paddlers.

We fished in the rain, sang in the rain (at least I did), created mostly successful tarp structures in the rain, persevered with fires in the rain (wet wood and all) and rejoiced when it stopped. I do find that paddling in downpours has a certain serene charm to it (as long as you have the clothing to stay dry that is), especially with the eerie sound of loons calling to each other in the background.

bowron lakes mcleary lake canoe

bowron lakes chute rollercoaster canoe

Mud and ruts

As much as I try to see the best in bad weather, it did cause two big issues. Finding campsites in the rain was not fun and the weather seemed to exacerbate the issue. The rain seemed to clump everyone together, particularly around the ten shelters and cabins based around the circuit. Most days we had to paddle an hour or two longer than preferred to find a place to camp at the designed sites….though admittedly I do realise I am pickier than most when choosing. 

Another issue were the portages – the hiking sections required between the lakes that did not connect with rivers or creeks. The first portage was perfectly maintained, dry and fairly flat; an easy start to provide confidence. Portages two through five were a different story.

Unbelievably slippery with mud and severely rutted with canoe cart tracks, it was a portaging challenge like we’ve never experienced. The trip down to McLeary Lake was a particularly scary one with several steep drops and huge rocks. Trying to control a 140lb+ canoe from barreling down on top of me while descending a muddy path was quite a test I can tell you. Our friends too had an even bigger challenge of their own; portaging without a cart (not their original intention). Needless to say, all of us dreaded the portages.

rain rain rain bowron lakes

bowron lakes carved canoe paddles

Only way is up

After the storm on Lanezi Lake, the weather calmed down somewhat. The next day, was the best day. A short morning downstream took us to Sandy Lake. Incredibly shallow, this lake was lined with wonderfully sandy beaches (who would have thought?) and picture-perfect camping spots. Collapsed on the beach for the rest of the afternoon, our group was truly overjoyed at the appearance of sunshine, blue sky and the chance to really relax. We were now on the ‘dry side’ of the circuit which meant the only way was up, for both portages and paddling!

That evening, a moose and her calf made an appearance that evening on the other side of the lake. Paddling a little closer for a better look, it was an amazing experience to see such a huge animal in its natural habitat. Before this, I had only ever seen moose on the highway (and very few times at that).

the best day sandy lake eno doublenest

sandy lake bowron lake canoe circuit

A detour on the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit

Sandy Lake was good to us. We woke to more dry weather and those lovely views. Our plan for the day was to visit the 24m high Cariboo Falls, a slight detour from the main circuit route. After an amicable split with our friends who had decided to skip the falls, we headed towards picturesque Unna Lake. At the southern end of the lake is the short trail to the falls; a path lined by hundreds upon thousands of wild blueberry plants.

Amazed at the sight, we stopped to pick a few handfuls of berries to add to our lunch all the while keeping an eye out for hungry bears. When we finally got there we discovered that the Cariboo Falls are spectacular; broad, multi-layered and immensely powerful. And to think we had just been paddling on the river that led to them! We had to canoe back up river to return to the circuit which was not as difficult as it may sound.

blueberries everywhere bowron lakes bc

cariboo falls bowron lakes

West side life

After Unna Lake, the crowds seemed to drop off and we encountered very few paddlers. The first portage seemed almost somewhat surreal, being completely dry and with only one hill. It was over in what seemed like no time. The lakes on the “West Side” are quite small and surrounded by flatter terrain, but have incredible views looking back towards the Cariboo Mountains.

We scored a great campsite on Spectacle Lake for our last night, on a sandy peninsula with 360 degree views. A quick swim in the lake was had before the wind (and a spot of rain) built up to frenzied levels again. Never mind, we ate freshly baked blueberry cake and kept an eye on our tarp that threatened to blow away any second.

bowron lakes canoe portage bc

west side bowron lake canoe circuit

Leaving Bowron

Deciding to finish while we were in good spirits (and there were ominous clouds everywhere), our trip ended on day seven, two days sooner than we had originally planned. The paddle back included a long section on Bowron River, a perfect place to fish and spot wildlife with the very slow current. Our final journey across Bowron Lake was not the smoothest as wind had built up over the afternoon. Nevertheless, we made it to the BC Parks landing dock before long, our week long adventure on the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit over.

I have no regrets with our decision to end the trip early but I do have a longing to go back one day and just do the “West Side” of the circuit again, which is everything up to Lanezi Lake. There is enough in this section for a great standalone trip, without the hassle of the tougher portages and a higher risk of getting so wet! I would, however, miss the anticipation and excitement of the Chute, Rollercoaster and Cariboo River as well as the beauty of wonderful McLeary Lake, which were some of my favourite parts of the entire Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit experience.

bowron lake end of canoe circuit

bowron lakes gemma jr

All the details

The Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit (near Quesnel, Northern BC) attracts thousands of paddlers from all over the world every year. The parallelogram is made up of twelve lakes, several rivers and eight portages. The full circuit is 116.4km long, with 10.8km as portage distance. The longest portage is 2.4km.

bowron lakes canoe route map

Cost and reservations
Camping
Orientation and weighing of gear
Length of trip

Local area info


Paddling and general trip advice
Other canoe circuit recommendations
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The 116km Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit in Northern BC, Canada - offtracktravel.ca
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Gemma
Author

One half of a Canadian/British couple currently living in Penticton, British Columbia. Gemma is happiest with a paddle in her hand, on the trail or planning the next big adventure.

3 Comments

  1. You’ve done a great job Gemma of capturing the beauty and the adventure that awaits anyone willing to do the Bowron Circuit. It’s an awesome choice. I’d also recommend Murtle Lake in Wells Gray Provincial Park. You could spend up to a week there.

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Wells Gray is definitely on our must-paddle list! We are planning Azure Lake for autumn and Murtle for perhaps next year. Thanks for your comment Leigh! 🙂

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