|Dip, contemplating the fun of portaging; uphill from here|
On meeting the Edmonton team (where Paula’s family lives) the night before we depart, we have to redistribute our loads. A canoe is only allowed to carry 28kg weight during portage; combining all the luggage, we find out that’s not a lot if you include food and camping gear and we desperately re-pack and re-order our bags. The dinner that night is the largest I have seen in ages, everything we eat now does not have to be carried tomorrow. The Alessi coffee pot plus espresso beans (half a kilo) does not make the cut, due to weight restrictions. This is the time to really get alarmed....
|First paddle action, special attention to the gloves please|
Next morning, we drop off our canoes at the starting point, take in the instructions from the Park’s staff, weigh our loads (we pass) and are on our way. Oops, don’t forget the bear spray, Gavin says, every canoe has to have a canister of bear spray.....For the uninitiated, bear spry is basically tear-gas which you spray into a bear’s face, when it comes too close. Make sure you carry it all the times, when you go to the camp toilet (usually far in the woods) or when alone in the forest. Now, I wish I was on some beach, where the only wild animals to worry about were toe-nibbling crabs.
|Another portage awaits|
Off we go; the first part of the journey is a dreadful 2.5 km up-hill portage. We carry wheels with us, especially for this reason, and with the heavy loads on the wheels and the muddy tracks it’s not an easy feat. The mosquitoes are out in force too, so the supplies of anti-mosquito oil and other anti-bug stuff should come in handy but the mossies have not read the memos. They stick you through your clothes, nets and bug repellent like a knife through soft butter. At least it makes us push the canoes a little faster. Arriving at the first of many lakes, we change shoes and clothes, get the canoes off the wheels and carefully stick them into the ice cold water (glacier melt); now the real fun can start.
|Cool waters early morning|
We are very fortunate with the weather, there is little or no wind, the sun is shining and the canoes are still heavily loaded, an advantage at this point because it makes them more stable in the water, be it slow. We have to cover an average of 12 to 15 km a day which is doable even with heavily loaded canoes. So, the first experiences are comforting.
|Moose on the loose|
Gavin is our natural leader and under his stewardship, we quietly glide over the lakes, looking for moose, coots, eagles and other forms of wildlife. It is a truly wonderful feeling as long as everything works flawlessly and there are no unexpected obstacles. When we make camp the first night and we have devoured our first camp dinner, we all agree that this is a great experience, with the exception of the portaging and the mosquitoes. Mindful of bears and having listened carefully to the park rangers, we put all our “smelly” stuff (not only food items but also tooth paste and chewing gum) in the bear caches and then go to bed for a well deserved rest.
|Even oatmeal tastes like nectar the next morning...|
Next morning is an early start; we wash ourselves quickly (some brave souls jump in the lake, which is 5 degrees Celsius) Paula and Christine organize instant coffee, tea or hot cocoa and then breakfast, dole out snacks and lunch for under-way (to be eaten in the canoes) and off we (almost) are. Gavin has deputized Niabi to do a last check of the camp before we depart (nothing should be left behind or forgotten) and dutifully, she goes around the site to check on forgotten slippers or toothbrushes. What she finds is neither a slipper nor a toothbrush. A BEAR shows his or her face in the camp and huge excitement erupts among the departing canoe troupe. With disregard for everything we have learnt, we all run towards the unsuspecting animal, waving sticks and crying out loud. In all the excitement and running on adrenaline, we all forget the bear spray (camera? what camera?) and lessons to be careful. Dip is the wise man, who finally arrives with the spray, but by then, the bear has long gone. Seven idiotic screaming human beings plus one carrying bear spray was too much for him/her.
|Right after the bear encounter; adrenaline rush anyone?|
The episode teaches us to be on guard though; you can’t be too careful out here is the advice; so from that point on, we are a bit more mindfull about going out alone in the forest or leaving toothpaste in the tent. These bears have big claws you know.
Slowly, we get into a comfortable rhythm of setting up camp, lighting a campfire (keeps away the mosquitoes, we all smell like smoked sausages) preparing food, eating, doing the dishes, making tea or (instant) coffee and then go to bed. Next morning, repeat it all in the opposite order and leave for the next camp site. Every day, we lose a little bit of weight, the canoes are getting lighter and higher in the water and the paddling seems a little bit easier. Christine is doing fantastically. We get comfortable in our ability to navigate and canoe, even get a little over confident, never a good thing and a recipe for disaster, of course. Tipping a canoe is lethal; it disappears with all your baggage and you have to walk or swim home, so caution is needed and the captain is on extra alert.
|Shelter cabin; that thing hanging at the entrance is part of an old canoe...|
After the third day , we end up at a campsite between the Isaac and Lanezi Lakes. There is a little shelter area here where earlier campers have left dire warning about the rapids which we will encounter the next day (the Cariboo river section). On the walls are remainders of broken sterns and bows of canoes, that didn’t make it through the raging waters. Rapids, what rapids? Our totally unjustified over-confident demeanor quickly makes way for lame jokes and nervous chatter. We are halfway downstream and there is no way back. Only now do I become acutely aware of the Bowron Lakes route-book, carried by Paula, which lays out the different grades of difficulties on the route.
I quote : “Navigating the Cariboo river section of the circuit requires extra care and attention. Paddlers must remain alert for sweepers, deadheads and other natural hazards at all times" AND “it is recommended that those who attempt the circuit have wilderness canoeing experience”. AND YOU ARE TELLING US THIS NOW??
Up the creek with a paddle, that’s what I think. But, there is no way back. Even the experienced seniors are becoming a bit nervous now(Paula, Gavin, Ahawi and Niabi never made it this far the first time around) so we decide to do some reshuffling of the canoes. The canoe of Ahawi and Niabi is broken up; Terry will team up with Ahawi , Gavin with Niabi .We inspect the fast moving river and carefully take in the instructions of Gavin. A mutiny movement starts to develop; who is this captain anyway, what does he know, who brought us here in the first place, etc. Chatter before the storm.
After much deliberations, Terry and Ahawi decide to go first and they make it through the first section of the raging river without any damage. Hesitantly, the others follow all in one piece; the second part of the river turns out to be more challenging. It is a sheer miracle that Paula and Dip don’t dip (pun intended). They get stuck behind a rock and end up in the middle of one of the rapids, facing backwards, but, miraculously through sheer force, they manage to right themselves and survive the episode. After this little adventure, there is even more respect for quickly flowing water and currents. The river has humbled us (and let’s not forget these bears either).
|Happy faces after an harrowing ride|
We have now done 50% of the circuit and, having gained more experience, we paddle along more meandering rivers, streams and lakes. We fight spirited battles with currents, waves and strong headwinds; from novices we have developed into semi-experienced wilderness canoe experts and we are proud of it. No bear, river or mosquito can hold us back now..
|A well deserved rest|
So we make the circuit, all in one piece. We celebrate with steaks, cokes and beers at the end of the trip having soaked in a hotel’s bath tubs for three hours. We still smell of smoke; that will last for another week or two. The bear-spray and bells are safely tucked away and we look back on a super experience in an incredibly beautiful and unspoiled part of the world.
During the ‘captain’s’ farewell dinner, Paula is already pondering new adventures. There is talk of trails and tracks along Vancouver Island’s coastline and there also seems to be an even longer canoe trip somewhere.
|Victory; made it, fair and square|
Now, was it worth all the trouble, ABSOLUTELY. We can now agree fully with our GP that it's good challenging yourself with new adventures, which necessarily focuses the mind and takes you out of your comfort zone. I have to admit though, that we would have never been able to accomplish this without the drive and the organizational talents of Paula and the captaincy of Gavin (in spite of our mutiny aspirations) and the rest of the team, so we owe them all a big hand and lots of hugs. Will we be in a canoe next year? You can never tell, but now, Australia is beckoning and the bears will be exchanged for sharks, lethal snakes and poisonous spiders. Don't know what's better; will make up our minds at the end of the year. Stay tuned ...