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Return to the Bowron

Pygmies not only sell boats. We go adventuring in them!


Five hundred miles from the U.S. border, nestled in the Caribou Mountains of Canada, lie eleven lakes carving a square around snowcapped peaks. The lakes are connected by winding grass sloughs, milky glacial rivers, and portages trod by moose and human.
The first time I set eyes on the Bowron I was six years old, adventuring on a 206 mile camping trip through British Columbia with my mother and father, Freida Fenn and John Lockwood. The lake circuit is a recurring destination for my family due to its beauty, remoteness, and the inescapable urge to get back to the wild. My father, John, was the first person to break the conventions of society and paddle 115 km (76 miles) around the Bowron in that innovative craft the kayak. Our trip in 1994 was the first time a rowboat, the WineGlass Wherry, skimmed the waters of the eleven lakes. The portages on our 1994 trip strained my father’s hip, which had been broken 30 years before, returning him to crutches.
Now ten years later at age 16, I returned with my father for his first trip off crutches. Thanks to the wonder of European surgery, we again paddled on the beautiful waters of the Bowron, Dad in the Arctic Tern, I in the Tern 14. The Bowron admits only 50 people to the lake a day. Arriving at Bowron Park, after a chattery gravel road, you are greeted by an outpost of civilization. Three outfitters/ resorts sit where the road ends and wilderness begins. From them, you can rent canoes and boat wheels, buy candy bars, and look forward to hitting the water where tourists in cabins can’t go.

Leisure is the luxury of kayak touring. If a trip is advertised as taking six days, we take twelve. If we see a ribbon of water disappearing into emerald grass and the distant sound of a loon singing to its mate, we paddle into the mystery. A kayak trip is about enjoying moments, it’s not about having a world record stroke. It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey. Every day of vacation includes a certain percentage of time spent lying horizontally on the ground. My dad exercises his extreme talent at power lounging, preferably in blazing sun with his Pygmy Boats baseball cap perched over his eyes. To attain the utmost leisure, my dad and I like to haul a lot of gear. We pack extra thick Thermarest pads, a hefty cast iron frying pan for fresh fish, collapsible lawn chairs for dry bums, and obscenely marvelous amounts of food! On extended trips my father has packed 180 pounds of gear into one single kayak. On the Bowron, however, each boat is strictly allowed 60 pounds of gear, which is weighed scrupulously before you are permitted to start the first portage. 
Our first portage on August 24, 2004, was the longest of all, approximately 2.5 miles. It is a beautiful little path winding through a lush understory of mounding moss, succulent ripe thimbleberries, and summer’s last wildflowers. Nestled in the moss we found wild mushrooms, which made an excellent dinner sautéed with vegetables in our frying pan.
When we arrived at Kibbee Lake the sun was beginning to lower in the sky. As I looked at the marshy put-in with a channel of water carving though thick reeds, I got that odd but comfortable feeling of familiarity you get when returning somewhere special after a long absence.
We began our next day from the ranger station, crossed Kibbee Lake, and after a small portage arrived at Indian Point Lake. From here you can see much of the mountain range bursting up through the dark green forest. The sun was playing across the hills reflecting the honey light of late afternoon on the water. When it hit the wooden boats they seemed to glow from within—the only movement the dip, dip of our paddles as we moved towards night’s camp. In the five times my dad has navigated the Bowron he has stopped at Site 8 every time. In those five stops he has seen five moose. This trip was no different. In the morning as I stood sipping hot chocolate I saw the trip’s first moose emerging from the water.
Weather on the Bowron flips like a coin. Our trip down Isaac Lake was filled with 38 miles of shifting clouds—one second blasting sun, the next a cold shiver crawls up your spine. In changing weather a kayak is the best craft to be in. When the wind picks up and blows other boats off the water, I scrunch down and drive my paddle in. When the rain pours in drops that bounce off the water’s surface, I zip up my jacket and snap on my spray skirt. It’s cruel to feel so smug in dismal weather when canoes are bailing water, but it’s awfully fun to pass them in a cheery flurry of speed and hear their trailing shouts for a boat trade.

Our last day on Isaac Lake was spent in a bank of clouds where looming mountains poked their heads. Isaac Lake runs into the Isaac River connecting to McLeary Lake, a puddle compared to Isaac. The Isaac River is mostly unnavigable due to waterfalls and log jams. The adventurous kayaker or canoeist can slip through a small set of rapids cutting out an optional portage and continue down river until it is highly recommended to not go over the waterfall. To avoid the waterfall, and certain death, you portage to McLeary Lake.
At the end of Isaac River, down a steep hill, in the pouring rain, we spotted a group of Girl Scouts we had met days earlier. They built a roaring fire, and set up the largest tents I have ever seen. A few minutes later a group of six Germans with two teenagers came down the trail and set up noodle-like tents. The campsite looked like a traveling circus with a blazing fire in the middle where we tried to understand what each other was saying. We had so much fun with the German group and the Girl Scouts that we camped with them for the next 3 nights!
The next morning the sky cleared and we headed for my favorite part of the park, the Caribou River, which slides along the base of snowy peaks in mocha swirls. The float down the Caribou is quick, and you must watch out for submerged  trees. Clearly defined above the river are snowfields and cascading waterfalls visited only by wild animals.

The Caribou leads to the southern side of the mountain range and Lake Lanezi. We paddled up Lanezi’s right-hand shore to Sandy Lake where we camped again with the Germans and Girl Scouts. At Sandy Lake we turned into the Bowron’s west arm and the last stretch of water. Rolling hills surround the west arm, and the water is marshy, filled with bird life. After one last camp with the Germans and the Girl Scouts, Dad and I moved, spending our last night in a slough. This section has little channels cutting through willow shrubs, leading to Bowron Lake, where our truck sat.

The final morning we packed our boats and paddled up Bowron where we met civilization. Entering civilization after nine days of self sustained living—waking up to the smell of fresh mountain air, meandering along lakes looking for perfect snack spots, only to find half submerged moose munching on the bottom of the lake you are floating on—made me feel apprehensive about getting into the truck and driving through suburbia. But the sadness is reduced by the knowledge I’ll be back in my boat next summer for another adventure.

By Freya Fennwood






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