I’d like to say that I came to the Powell River Canoe Route because it had long been on my outdoor-pursuit bucket list, but the truth is that I hadn’t been in a canoe since I was 12 and my connection to Powell River began and ended with ordering their truly excellent craft beers while in the very urban watering holes of Vancouver. And while the even more famous West Coast Trail likewise wasn’t on my bucket list, it was on my buddy Kevin’s, and he had cajoled a bunch of us into hopping aboard his pandemic adventure—including me, despite a fair amount of trepidation around the related worries of my inability to physically carry the necessary amount of Lagavulin for the trip.
So when B.C. announced its pandemic ban on regional travel just days before our scheduled departure, the news was received with a mix of deep sorrow (Kevin) and private elation (me). But we had already embarked on our half-assed preparatory fitness regimen and I had also already bought a bunch of brand-new gear that I couldn’t return (because I had purposefully scuffed it up so I wouldn’t look like a newbie from the city). So we gathered to determine where within our health region we might still wrest some outdoor immersion—and it was Paul who came up with Powell River.
Paul is a canoer. He takes a yearly trip to Algonquin and he uses words like portage and J-stroke freely—so we put him in charge of figuring out a route. Because Paul also took on the work of building an itinerary, we let certain things slide—like his last-minute decision to take an unburdened plane ride from Vancouver (travel time: 35 minutes) while the rest of us hauled up all the necessary gear by road (travel time: a very scenic five hours). And while I had infinite faith in Paul’s pack planning, his suggestion to compact the standard five-day time frame for the route into three “hard” days had me concerned.
To ease my fears, I reached out to Hugh Prichard, director of the Powell Lake Outdoor Learning Centre and an avid canoeist, to see if he could give Paul’s plan a local’s once-over. His exceedingly diplomatic response included phrases like, “Well, you could do that, but why?” and “Are you guys not interested in taking in any natural beauty?” Ultimately, we reached a hybrid plan that combined Prichard’s vast experience and Paul’s original idea (at least the part that was about going canoeing, somewhere). We would arrange to be dropped off a quarter of the way through the traditional five-day route and picked up at the end, four days later. We’d be undertaking at least one portage every day, and we would camp along the way—since it was mid-June, we wouldn’t have to worry about reservations. If we were lucky, added Prichard, we might not even run into other folks at all.
The next morning, with a modicum of fuss, we picked up our rented canoes and pushed off into to the glassy waters of Nanton Lake. There really is something primordially Canadian about the way a canoe bow cuts silently through the water. That reverie, however, was frequently interrupted by my stern-man, Mac, saying things like: “Neal, we both need to paddle,” and (after telling me to paddle hard right only to watch me immediately dig in left) “Are you sure you’re not dyslexic?” Still, our leisurely itinerary allowed as to wend around the lake, get lost a bit, and still find our way to our first portage in plenty of time.
The concept of portaging has ingrained itself into the Canadian psyche in a way that makes a more descriptive word, like “carry,” less meaningful. But thankfully my role in this work was, again, modest. One of Mac’s children had done this same canoe route the previous summer and had boasted about carrying the canoe all by himself. Mac, therefore, insisted he follow suit, which left me to carry all of our packs—backpacks, front packs, side packs—and trudge sadly behind him like an overburdened Sancho Panza. The hikes were strenuous, but not gutting (that would come later: we had been warned that the final portage of the trip—the 2.4 kilometre trail at Windsor Lake—would test our mettle), and while most of us had proper hiking boots, Paul accomplished the whole thing in the same pair of Allbirds he had worn on the plane.
On the first night, we made camp at a perfectly isolated site on the shore of Dodd Lake… then did a little fishing, drank the entire trip’s worth of Lagavulin and promptly fell asleep. In the morning, and despite a seriously rainy night, we woke to warm sunshine with just a little haze on the water—the ideal combo for postcard Canadiana. And, like day one, quiet mostly ruled our second day of paddling, save for the times we’d look up at the towering 6,000-foot-elevation Coast Mountains cascading down around us straight into the water and one of us would snarkily ask: So, Paul, how does this compare to Algonquin?
Night two brought the double whammy of more rain and no whisky, so we truly understood what the early explorers must have felt. Like, exactly how they would have felt. But the forced abstinence served us well on our third day as we made our way closer to the feared Windsor Lake Portage. It turned out to be a steep ascent of about 80 metres, followed by an 111-metre descent and, while it was definitely challenging, it offered the immediate reward of several stunning vistas, the first being the sight of Goat Lake, with Overlook Mountain looming over it. The final reward of the portage was the eerie paddle that followed it: navigating the submerged old growth forest at the start of Powell Lake felt very “hour two” of Apocalypse Now… if Colonel Kurtz wore Allbirds. But as we emerged into the open vastness of the lake (Powell is by far the largest lake on the circuit) and came up against the wall of the strong prevailing headwinds, it became clear that the last leg of our paddle was going to be the most challenging. Especially for Mac at the back of the canoe.
Like the winds, we prevailed, and spent our final night in a hut that also is part of the Sunshine Coast Trail. The work of the day’s paddle had me dreaming of reaching some hand-carved Swiss idyll with a wood-fired stove, but the simple plywood structure—no fire, zero hand-carved anything—still offered a nice break. The next morning—our final day on the water—brought more of the same: Powell Lake is huge and, during our time there, very blowy, and the plentiful presence of both cabins and power boats made our choice to paddle feel quaint. But Mac was up to the challenge, and I even pitched in a bit more when it became clear our group was going to race to our final stop. (We won, thank you.) Overall, we made good enough time the final day to sneak in nine holes, where Paul, no word of a lie, took off his Allbirds for the first time in three days and put on a pair of Teva water sandals he had been carrying for the whole trip.
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