Tough but worth it: reflections on the Powell Forest Canoe Route

Like many outdoor enthusiasts, Michael Stone and I have a bucket list of adventures that we are slowly checking off. In the summer of 2018, we were both doing coop work terms through our respective university programs, and did not have any vacation days (or sufficient funds) to complete a large trip. We settled on taking a few unpaid days around the BC Day long week in August to do the Powell Forest Canoe Route (PFCR) near Powell River, British Columbia.

The PFCR is a horseshoe-shaped circuit of 8 lakes, ranging in length from 0.7 km to 28.5 km, for a total of about 57 km of paddling. There are 5 or 6 portages, depending on which variation of the route you select, each ranging from less than 1 km to 2.8 km. The PFCR is typically completed in 5 days, although we successfully completed it in 3.5 days.

We travelled to Powell River on the Thursday before the long weekend and car camped at Willingdon Beach Campground. At 8 am on Friday, we met Christie Mitchell at her home near Powell River. Her business, Mitchell’s Canoe Rentals & Sales, outfits the majority of PFCR travellers. We loaded our gear into her van and she drove us down the highway and up a logging road to the south end of Lois Lake. As she drove, she told us to look out for the orange triangle markers along the route and provided a few other insider tips.

“See you on Monday!” she called to us as she walked back up to her van.

We placed our two overnight packs into the canoe, trying to centre the weight as best we could. I climbed in the front and Michael took the rear, pushing the boat away from the shore. We started up the lake, our strokes slowly falling into a steady rhythm.

The sky above us was a turbulent grey, but the air was warm and we were the only paddlers on the lake. We passed by a few float homes and saw some of their inhabitants. A gentle tailwind nudged us from behind. Along many sections of the western shoreline, tall dead trees stood towering out of the water. I found them a little eerie, and we tried to keep our distance, weary of hidden hazards below the surface. This worked for awhile, but eventually we needed to follow the lake west, towards the first portage trail. A series of orange markers showed a path between the dead trees, and we followed them cautiously, scanning the water below us for stumps. We paddled through the water bound forest without incident, pausing to watch a bald eagle circling above us.

After about 11 km of paddling, the lake narrowed until it gave way to a creek. We pulled out the canoe and ate sandwiches next to the water, then started the first portage.

During our research for the trip, we learned that wheels were not suitable for the portages, and so we didn’t bring any with us. Instead, we had to do each portage 3 times: carry the packs, return to the start, and then bring the canoe. The first portage was about one mile long (4.8 km of total walking). There were canoe rests every 100 metres or so as the path wound through the forest, following a small creek. Composed of smooth gravel, this trail would have been suitable for wheels, but as we discovered later in the trip, the other portages were not.

After the first portage, we took a break at a recreation site at the south end of Horseshoe Lake. After filtering some water and having a snack, we set off across the lake, thankful for the tailwind pushing us along.  There were no standing dead trees in this lake, but the shore was lined with fallen logs, worn clean from the movement of water. They looked similar to driftwood that would more commonly be found in the ocean. The lake itself was beautiful, but from our boat, we could see logging clear cuts in almost every direction. Some of the clear cuts had been replanted, but other areas had been harvested more recently, and they stood out like brown scars on the green hills. We marvelled at the extent to which humans have modified the landscape, even in areas that are remote like this one.

At the northeast end of the lake, we spotted the orange triangle that marked the Horseshoe Lake Recreation Site. Approaching the shore, we noticed that there was no easy place to land the boat. We pulled the boat up sideways to a driftwood log, the afternoon wind blowing waves against us, and climbed carefully out of the boat into the water. After hauling our gear up the steep rocky shore, we awkwardly lifted the boat and placed it upside down over some logs.

I turned back and looked out over the lake. There were no other boats, and no clear cuts visible from this angle. We went for a quick swim and then hauled our gear up the hill.

The rec site was small – two picnic tables, a dilapidated shelter, a fire pit, and an outhouse. A rope and pulley system served as a bear cache. The ground was fairly uneven, and after some debate, we set up our tent on the flattest spot, which happened to be right below the bear cache line. We figured that our food bag was small, and the line was high enough above our tent that it wouldn’t be an issue.

After setting up, we saw 2 canoes approaching the campsite. Before long, we were joined by a group of 4 people who were doing the PFCR together. After a dinner of lemon couscous and tuna, we turned in early, anticipating the long journey in store for the following day.

The alarm shocked us awake at 6 am, and we started the slow process of making breakfast, packing up, and getting ready to go. We ate oatmeal and drank instant coffee, gazing out at the painted glow of early morning sunlight over Horseshoe Lake. Finally, around 8 am, we set off on the first portage.

The Powell Forest Canoe Route has options for variation. It is crossed by various logging roads, giving the option of shortening the route. Within the route, there is one major fork at the end of Horseshoe Lake, giving two route options that lead to the same location: Dodd Lake. The first option was to paddle along the shore of Horseshoe Lake, through a channel, and then across Nanton Lake. This would be followed by a long portage, Ireland Lake, and then a short portage to Dodd Lake. The second option was to portage directly from Horseshoe Lake Recreation Site to Little Horseshoe Lake, portage again, paddle through Beaver Lake, portage once more, and then reach Dodd Lake. The first option is more popular and better maintained, but the second option covers a shorter distance and is less travelled. We decided to go with the second option.

As soon as we started the Horseshoe Lake to Little Horseshoe Lake portage, I began to have second thoughts.

“Holy crap, this trail is steep,” I thought, “I wonder how Michael is going to do with the canoe.”

A layer of moss covered the ground, interrupted by the narrow ribbon of the path. The canoe rests, while still spaced every 100 metres, were dilapidated, covered in moss, and wobbly with age. As we crested the last ascent and began winding down, sunlight permeated the canopy, casting long fingers of sunlight through the green wonderland. My worries subsided slightly as I absorbed the beauty of the moment.

After dropping our packs at Little Horseshoe Lake and returning for the canoe, we (and by we I mean Michael) were soon faced with the challenges of this portage. As we walked, I tried to warn Michael of the roots and rocks on trail so that he wouldn’t trip. I was facing forward when suddenly “BAM”! I whipped around to see the stern of the canoe hitting a tree as Michael turned a corner. Yikes, I thought, cringing. After that point, I tried to give directions to Michael as went around tight corners, which worked… sort of. The canoe – and Michael – survived without any permanent damage.

Once we had completed all three trips, we sat in the shade and shared an orange. We had packed 4 oranges, one for each day of our trip. It tasted incredible, and I basked in the simple pleasure of that moment, sitting by a lake in the sun with the love of my life and a delicious piece of fruit, not another soul in sight.

We crossed Little Horseshoe lake, which was less than 700 metres long, then completed a short and uneventful portage to Beaver Lake. I pumped the water filter while Michael rested. He didn’t complain, but I knew he was tired. As I pumped, a Bull frog swam out from under a nearby log and came within 1 metre of me. I watched it perch among the lilies, half in the water, half in the sun, enjoying the day as much as we were.

The paddle across Beaver Lake was a little over 700 metres. We made a Kraft Dinner feast at the Beaver Lake North Recreation Site, appreciating the cool shade under the canopy of the trees. The rec site was a tiny mossy heaven, with an outhouse, picnic table, and a clearing just big enough for a tent.

After another short portage (part trail and part logging road), we reached Dodd Lake. We paddled 7 kilometres, the wind rising at our backs, until we entered a narrow, pond-like section at the north end, and finally saw the orange marker and dock ahead. Three locals sat on the dock, drinking beer in the afternoon heat. Michael and I pulled the canoe out of the water and then cooled off with a swim  in the lake.

It was 4 pm, and we had been on the move for 8 hours. We also knew that we had a long ways to cover, so we decided to push on to the next recreation site. We completed another short portage to the south end of Windsor Lake.

Windsor Lake was a little over 2 km long. It was incredibly serene. For once, there were no logging clear cuts in sight, just untouched forests and dark, clear water.

We started paddling around 5 pm. My fatigue faded as I thought about the evening ahead – a swim, hot food, and hopefully a good night’s sleep. As we approached the end of the lake, we scanned the shoreline for the orange triangle marker, finally locating it on a tree, partially obscured by branches. We pulled the canoe up to a rustic dock and unloaded our gear.

I stripped down and swam in the lake, washing my hair with biodegradable soap. I floated on my back and looked up the blue sky, feeling the warmth of the water and the joy of weightlessness after a long day on the move.

We had the entire campsite to ourselves. Tall mossy evergreens filled in a lush canopy. A massive stump had been converted into an outhouse, complete with a roof and toilet.  We made butter chicken at a picnic table overlooking the lake. After cleaning up, we sat quietly, eating double chocolate cookies and absorbing the experiences of the day.

That night, we fell asleep in minutes, listening to the sounds of birds and squirrels in the forest around us. I woke up a few hours later. Silence enveloped the night and I listened to it, amazed, until I drifted back to sleep.

On the third day, our first task was to complete the longest portage of the circuit. We loaded our packs, picked up our paddles and started walking along a winding trail through the stunning forest of Douglas fir, Western Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar. After crossing a logging road, the trail eventually began to descend a narrow series of switchbacks leading us down towards another FSR, then further, further, until we reach the Goat Lake Recreation Site.

“Oh my god,” I said to Michael, “I can’t believe that we have to do that 2 more times.”

We dumped our packs and started back up the long climb, playing 20 questions to pass the time. “Snowmobile”, “umbrella”, and “skyscraper” were all guessed without too much effort, but Michael stumped me with “supernova”. Before long, we were back at the Windsor Lake Recreation Site, ready to start the final leg of the journey with the canoe.

I carried a water bottle and the lifejackets while Michael handled the boat. 100 metres, stop, 100 metres, stop. I watched the time tick by on my Garmin watch and fed Michael a granola bar when we were halfway there. I was nervous on the switchback descent, checking constantly over my shoulder to see how Michael was doing. The trail was relatively smooth, but there were occasional roots, rocks, and old uneven bridges that presented tripping hazards, especially with a boat blocking his view.

At one point, Michael looked at me and said, half-smiling, “I can’t believe that we are paying money to do something this hard. I mean, I guess this is Type 2 fun, but still. This is not a relaxing vacation.”

I tried to come up with a pithy reply and failed.

“We’re paying to have an experience,” I replied weakly.

I thought about Michael’s words as we walked down the neverending hill. Why were we doing this at all, let alone paying for it? I thought about the moments that had stood out to me so far. The steady rhythm of paddling, the easy silences, the joyful conversations. Cooking together, taking in the views, swimming in lakes, camping alone in a beautiful place. I thought about the struggles too, the bug bites, the aching feet, the all over fatigue that settled in on the first day and never left. I was suffering, but I was happy.

After three hours and fifteen minutes, including walking and breaks, we finally completed the last portage. Exhausted, we decided to make lunch by Goat Lake before starting the canoe portion of the day. I pumped water while Michael made instant noodles. We were quiet, wondering what to expect from the next leg of the journey.

At 12 pm, we set out, crossing the southern tip of Goat Lake, and then entering a wide channel that led west into Powell Lake. We saw the occasional speed boat, and while some slowed down for us, others passed by too fast or too close, creating wake. Partway through the channel, a long procession of standing dead trees began, stretching out of the channel and along the southern shore of Powell Lake. We entered Powell Lake, feeling the headwind pick up, and weaved our way through the dead forest maze. We continued paddling, the headwind growing stronger, the afternoon sun beating down on us at maximum intensity.

Earlier that morning, I had predicted that it would be 9-10 km to Fiddlehead Landing, the cabin where we hoped to stay that night. It turned out to be more than 11 km.  As we continued, the boat traffic increased, and the battery of headwind and sun never ceased. The canoe bounced over waves that came in from multiple directions. I was terrified. All of our gear was in that boat. The shore was hard to access thanks to the low cliffs and the logs. If we tipped, we’d be in trouble. I was too afraid to stop paddling and open my Nalgene bottle. I started to feel woozy from dehydration and the choppy water.

Finally, we made it to Fiddlehead Landing. We could see one couple hanging out in the cooking area below the cabin, and we waved hello. I was shaking so much that I could barely help Michael lift the canoe out of the water. I climbed up to a bench below the cabin and sat down heavily. I felt sick and exhausted. I sipped water slowly and didn’t move much. As we sat there, several more groups of hikers arrived, and we realized that the cabin was part of the Sunshine Coast Trail. Furthermore, there was no way that there would be enough room for all of us to sleep in the cabin that night. Michael and I decided to cook an early dinner and then paddle about 1.5 kilometres to the next campsite.

After eating some pasta and drinking a lot of water, we both started to feel better.

“That was so hard,” I said to Michael, “It felt like paddling on the ocean on a rough day.”

“Yeah, we’ll try to get an early start tomorrow to beat the wind.”

Around 7 pm, we set out for the campsite. The lake was quiet and the wind had died down. We took our time, thankful for the easier paddling. We reached the campsite and I went for a swim. The evening was surprisingly warm, and the hiking pants I put on after swimming felt like overkill.

We set up our tent and went straight to bed, the intensity of the day finally catching up to us.

On the fourth and final day, we needed to paddle along the rest of Powell Lake to our pick up spot in Mowat Bay. Our pick up time was 1:15 pm, so we needed to get there early to clean up the boat and bring it up to the road. We figured that we had about 4 hours of paddling left to do, and thought we could cruise into the finish line without too much effort.

The journey started off as planned. From 7:45-10:15 am, we paddled through still water, with hardly any wind and next to no power boats. The heat hadn’t set in yet and we relaxed, enjoying the peaceful surroundings and leisurely paddling. Goat Island towered on our right, and cute little float homes dotted the shore to our left. We took a break on a beach around the 8 km mark, figuring we were about halfway there.

The headwind started around 10:15 am. It was light at first, almost negligible.  Over time, it built up, and so did the heat and the boat traffic. We were ready for it this time and did our best to stay hydrated and close to shore. Far in the distance, I could see the end of the lake. My arm muscles burned and I tried not to think about all of the kilometres that we still needed to cover.

Eventually, our chatter faded away, and we concentrated on making powerful, efficient strokes. We broke the distance down into chunks, paddling between points on the shoreline. I didn’t want to admit it, but I wanted to be finished. The beach at Mowatt Bay was visible in the distance, but the number of strokes left to reach it seemed unmanageable.

We continued on, taking one more quick break on a rocky bit of shore, scarfing down chocolate bars to fuel the last couple kilometres. We got back in the boat and paddled hard for another 4 km until finally, after 18 kilometres and about 4.75 hours of total time since we set off that morning, we arrived at the beach. Sunbathers lay on the sand and children were playing in the water with floaties. It was a surreal moment to see cars in a parking lot, a paved road leading out of the park. I washed the canoe as Michael carried our gear up to the road. Christie arrived a bit early, and loaded our boat as well as another group’s stuff. She drove us back to her home in Powell River and we sat in the van, feeling a bit dazed as we checked our phones. Half an hour  before, I had been longing for the challenge to the end, but now I just felt hollow, exhausted, and stunned as I readjusted to reality.

We spent the night in Powell River and then made our way back to Vancouver on Tuesday, enjoying the fact that we had added in a buffer day between our canoe trip and the work week that awaited. As we sat in the car and on the ferries, I gazed out the window and marvelled at BC’s incredible coastal landscape.

I thought back to Michael’s question about why we willingly undertook such a journey. This trip, and others like it, have made me realize that there is so much reward in doing difficult things. They provide you with the opportunity to live fully in the present moment. You can experience the joy of synchrony with your partner, the satisfaction found in process, and the pleasure of moving across land and water using your own strength and willpower. These are concepts that are hard to put into words, hard to capture in pictures, hard to explain to your family and friends. Sometimes, when you’re really suffering, and you want it all to end, it is even hard to explain it to yourself. But when you make it through, the sense of accomplishment is that much greater because you pushed through your pain.

I’m so grateful for the challenging, beautiful adventure that we had, and I can’t wait to plan the next one.

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2 Responses to Tough but worth it: reflections on the Powell Forest Canoe Route

  1. Scott Webster says:

    Thanks for the TR. Should submit to VOCJ.

  2. Captivating read with an inspirational conclusion! Thanks for sharing!

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