I dipped my paddle quietly into the turquoise water, and the canoe glided forward. The lake here was very much like a fjord, with vertical rock walls forming the shore. Hundreds of feet above, snowmelt created a stream that finished its descent by forming a magnificent waterfall into the lake. In the bow, my seven-year-old son, Ned, giggled as he began to feel the refreshing mist of what locals have dubbed Rooster Tail Falls. We paddled closer until both of us were washed in the fine mist and cool breeze coming off the waterfall. It was a welcome rest on a warm day amid such grand surroundings.
The history and culture of the Thompson Okanagan region is tied to the land. Aboriginal peoples led a semi-nomadic life moving between hunting and fishing grounds in the summers and settling into pit houses for the winter. Europeans came at first to trade for furs and then to establish cattle ranches, farms and mining operations. The region is full of museums and heritage sites that bring this colourful past to life for visitors.
We were on our third day in British Columbia’s Wells Gray Provincial Park. Situated on the western side of the Canadian Rockies, the park has a latitude roughly equal to that of Jasper. The landscape in Wells Gray is one of variety. Lava beds, cinder cones, and low rounded hills near the park’s boundaries give way to high glacier-clad peaks in the remote interior.
We had driven to Helmcken Falls, as most park visitors do, to experience the 462-foot drop of Canada’s fourth-highest waterfall. However, we had chosen to go farther than most. We had gone beyond the pavement and the Winnebagos, using aquatic means to visit some of the park’s more remote reaches.
Beginning near Clearwater Lake’s southern end, we paddled up its calm waters. Low hills covered in birch and spruce surround the long, narrow lake. We found it to be aptly named, as it is possible to see to depths of 30 feet or more.
Ned and I were often mesmerized watching our shadows on the bottom. After a night at a lakeside campsite, we paddled easily to the end of the 16-mile lake. Here, the Clearwater River enters the lake from the next lake above. There are also several false channels to explore. In one, we watched a beaver swim to its lodge, while an osprey circled overhead.
The river here is swift and deep, with brushy shores that prohibit tracking. Strong paddling and river-reading skills are helpful when maneuvering upriver the half mile to the beginning of a short portage to Azure Lake. Paddlers accustomed to carts will be disappointed, as the portage must be done in the style of long-ago voyageurs, with sweat and a few well-placed grunts and groans to carry the canoe. However, I doubt that the Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders would have had the well-built canoe rests and steps we found on the trail.
Once on Azure Lake, I was struck by the difference in topography and foliage. No more than a mile separates the two at their closest, yet Azure Lake’s high mountains and deep old-growth conifer forests are a marked contrast to Clearwater Lake’s low hills, sandy beaches, and mixed deciduous and young conifer forests.
As we paddled from Rooster Tail Falls, we skirted the high cliffs of Azure Lake’s southern shore. A few white, puffy clouds appeared in the otherwise clear blue sky. Though Azure Lake receives considerably more rainfall than Clearwater does, I was more concerned that we would have to find shelter from the winds that can come up suddenly on this lake. The winds never materialized, which was fortunate, because I never saw anyplace on the south shore where we could have hauled up out of bad weather.