Story by Natalie Warren // Photos by Yeehaw Donkey
Fifteen years ago I went on my very first overnight canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area (BWCA), a sprawl of public lands and waters splattered across northern Minnesota. As a Florida native I was no stranger to flat lands, but I had never encountered such wild open spaces or felt their power to change people. Paddling the vast expanse of lakes and portaging through the seemingly endless forests was a life-changing experience. After that adventure, I went back many times and have since settled in Minnesota because of its amazing paddling opportunities and abundant wilderness areas.
When friends invited me to paddle the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit in British Columbia I said yes—as I always seem to do when canoeing is involved—before I even knew what I was signing up for. A quick internet search sent my spirits soaring. Bowron Lakes is like the Boundary Waters, but with mountains!
We arrived in the charming town of Wells, to prepare for our canoe journey through the west side of the Bowron Lakes Circuit, a 72-mile (116 km) chain of lakes, rivers, and portages nestled among the western slopes of the Cariboo Mountains in southeastern British Columbia. It was a chilly day in September, with temperatures forecasted to dip below freezing later in the week. The combination of colder-than-expected weather and a campfire ban would usually unsettle me before a camping trip, but I was already numbed by the weather news that week: uncontrolled wildfires were burning all over the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, Hurricane Irma had just left a trail of Category 5 destruction through the Caribbean and a devastating earthquake shook the ground in Mexico. It truly felt like the end of the world.
We unpacked our gear and settled into The Mountain Thyme Getaway. Though the paddling wouldn't begin until the next morning, we'd already started to disconnect. Our cell phones were no longer receiving signals from the outside world, and it felt a bit selfish to paddle into a wild melange of forests, wildlife, rivers, and lakes while others were hunkering down in the face of natural disasters. At the same time, I had been dreaming about this canoe-heaven for weeks and couldn't wait to hit the water.
The town of Wells is different than the other Next Best Paddling Towns because it is not directly on the Bowron Lakes; it is the gateway to the Bowron Lakes area. That means visitors can indulge in good food and drink, visit eclectic tourist spots, and enjoy the comfort of local bed and breakfasts before entering the wilderness. Paddlers also can look forward to a hot bath and cold brew when they return to the historic Gold Rush town after their Bowron Lakes adventure.
Before starting our own canoe adventure, we visited nearby Barkerville, a popular tourist stop in this part of British Columbia. About 5,000 people lived in Barkerville during the region's 1860s gold rush. Tourists come from all over the world to visit the historic ghost town, where renactors recreate Barkerville's heyday. The must-see event is a show about the Cariboo gold rush, theatrically performed by local actors and surprisingly entertaining, despite—or perhaps because of—its cheesy slapstick-style humor. Barkerville also has a brewery, a hotel (where visitors can stay the night in the ghost town) and the best bakery in the area.
Back in Wells, we visited The Amazing Space Studio & Gallery, an old church-turned-art gallery, before returning to our kitchy and cozy bed and breakfast, which provided a great space to spread out gear and pack for our 4-day trip. Afterwards we walked across the street to The Bear's Paw Cafe, a restaurant that raises the bar for small-town joints with fresh food and a modern vibe. Even though we had just arrived, we seemed to know half of the people in the establishment. We already felt like a part of the community.
A local expert on the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit went over maps with us that night. Visitors to the park can choose to do the full circuit, which takes about 6-10 days, or just the west circuit (down and back the west side of the full circuit), which takes 2-4 days. The entire circuit includes small whitewater sets, a paddle through a canyon, a few portages, and a chain of lakes that eventually loops back to the starting point. The west circuit is a less demanding option consisting mostly of lake travel. It's an out-and back trip along the chain of lakes on the western side of the full loop. We planned to do the western loop, but as I lay in bed that night I knew I'd return someday to do the longer loop.
The next morning we started our journey at Becker's Lodge, where we were fully outfitted and given instructions for the trip. As we pushed off, the rain and wind seemed to mirror my inner conflict and reprimand me for vacationing while the world was suffering. It wasn't hurricane conditions, but it wasn't pretty. I looked down to shelter the small portion of my face not cinched tight into my rain jacket. Despite the poor visibility and heavy rain, everything around us was beautiful and mysterious. We followed the shore of Bowron Lake until we entered a small channel that presented an up-close view of birds, fish, and the pattern of large drops of rain rippling across the still water. The rain let up just as we pulled our boats onto the sand to set up camp for the night. There are several marked campsites throughout the circuit and a few cabins sprinkled throughout the route with wood-burning stoves for travelers to use if needed. We cooked dinner by the water and watched the sun set behind the mountains. It truly was the beauty of the Boundary Waters, amplified by the dramatic topography of the mountains.
The weather was cold but forgiving for the rest of our trip. We paddled and portaged (heads up for canoe purists: most people use carts to portage canoes and kayaks in the circuit) to where the chain of lakes meets the Cariboo River, set up camp, and hiked to a majestic waterfall. The rush of water over the rock ledge was like our own personal Niagara Falls—pure beauty without the busyness of other tourists. On our hike back we saw moose tracks that had not been there on our way out. We traced the tracks all the way to our campsite to find a moose swimming in the lake and snacking on aquatic vegetation. After watching the large but graceful creature navigate the shallow waters we returned to camp to eat and clean up before nightfall.
The next morning, we retraced our paddle strokes back to Babcock Lake, this time with clear skies and a panoramic view of the mountains. The cold nights were getting to us so we decided to sleep in one of the old cabins with a woodburning stove for warmth. Wildfires had swept through the area earlier in the summer, forcing paddlers to evacuate the circuit. The campfire ban was still in place, which made cold wet days a little trickier than normal. I suppose you could say we were unlucky with the weather, though it's hard to complain when you're surrounded by so much beauty.
Our conversations with people in Wells and the conditions we encountered on our trip made me think a lot about how natural forces dictate recreation. Beyond the unavoidable days of wind and rain, the changing global climate and trend towards more frequent and severe storms will greatly impact recreationalists, especially in remote areas where a permit may be required months in advance. The imminent effects of climate change extend far and wide. In the big scheme of things, outdoor recreation and the ability to explore wild places does not take precedence over basic human health and safety (although the two are tied at the hip). There are and will be bigger fires to put out than maintaining our hobbies. Nevertheless, paddlers and outdoor enthusiasts may feel the burn creep into their summer plans, especially in areas like the Bowron Lakes.
We finished out our trip on Bowron Lake the next day and headed back to Wells, where hot showers, well-deserved beers, and new friends awaited us. Finally dry and warm, we walked in to town to have dinner at the Jack O Clubs before going to the Sunset Theater to see a play about a woman who was murdered in Barkerville in the 1800s. It seemed like everyone in Wells was playing a part, whether at the local theater or in their roles at the reenactment village. On the walk home we stopped to watch a hint of the northern lights dancing beyond the mountains to the north.
Wells, British Columbia is well worth the visit. It provides the perfect bookend to an amazing journey through the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit. "It doesn't matter if it is windy and cold or sunny and calm, everyone comes off that circuit glowing and smiling," one of our new friends told us that afternoon. After our time on the water that rang so true.
More of North America’s (Next) Best Paddling Towns:
— The first nationally designated saltwater paddling trail in Poulsbo, Wash.
— 37 Miles of water trail on the New River near Pembroke, VA.
— Explore the country's second largest delta near Mobile, Ala.
— Lively access to the Kansas River National Water Trail in Lawrence, Kan.
— Paddle downstream, both ways, on the Waccamaw River in Conway, S.C.
— bayou tour through Cajun country in Breaux Bridge, La.
— Mid-Atlantic rivers and bays in Snow Hill, Maryland
— A range of paddling options along the Huron River in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Check Out C&K’s full list of North America’s Top Paddling Towns