The broadest perspective on the Powell Forest Canoe Route is the one from the top of the mountain in the middle. Here, on the summit of Tin Hat—nearly 4000 feet above the Salish Sea, on a typically cloudless late summer day—you can take in a 360-degree panorama of the canoe circuit below you: large Lois Lake to the south reflecting the humpbacked Mt. Troubridge; silver-blue Horseshoe and Dodd Lakes to the southeast; the gem of Windsor Lake hidden behind a forested ridgeline to the east; Goat Lake bending around the horizon under snow-topped peaks to the northeast; and breezy Powell Lake to the north, curving around the tip of the provincial park, disappearing beyond another mountain, and reappearing to the southwest as it empties into Powell River.
And pockmarked across your magnificent vista: clear-cuts—forest circles, machine-torn land—woven by dusty logging roads that give the impression of blood vessels coursing through a tumour. This land is a beautiful tranche of Pacific Northwest rainforest. It is also a breathing, pulsating, chainsaw-roaring timber farm. The aroma on the air is glacial dust and distant sea salt, but the flavour of the forest is lumber.
Tin Hat Mountain—which our party climbed after completing a 109km loop journey through the lakes of Powell Forest—is named for the headgear of the early (safety-conscious) loggers who harvested these trees. But this wilderness now wears many hats: recreational, industrial, historical, environmental, aesthetic. It’s complex—to call it the opposite of how wilderness is often portrayed. And the fact that we stand on the traditional territory of the Tla’amin (Sliammon) First People, ceded to the Crown in a recent treaty, certainly doesn’t make it any less complicated.
In this beautiful, complex place we found ourselves on another Canadian canoe adventure: The Powell Forest Canoe Route, Sunshine Coast, British Columbia, July, 2016.
Nights: 8 (including the last one atop Tin Hat Mountain)
Paddling Distance: 109km (the traditional route is about 65km and takes 4-5 days)
Portage Distance: 7.5km
Mountain Hiking: 14km (round trip)
Mountain Elevation Gain: 2500ft
Outfitter: Mitchell’s Canoe & Kayak in the town of Powell River; lightweight canoes, paddles, PFDs and a shuttle service up the logging roads to and from the lakes.
Before you go travelling,
Before you cast off,
You thank the one who looks after us all,
He will be watching over me when I cast off.
–Tla’amin invocation, as told by elder Elsie Paul in
Written as I Remember It
DAY 1: We opened with a short, 5km late-afternoon paddle after driving up the coast from Vancouver and picking up provisions in town. We were four: Mike and Dave, amphibious rednecks from Texas; and Dean and me, insufferably patriotic Torontonians.
Christie, the amiable and detail-oriented proprietor of Mitchell’s outfitter, drove us down a logging road to the southwestern corner of Lois Lake and tipped us toward a primitive but magnificent campsite on an island where the lake widens. There was no picnic table at the campsite, but there was a broad beach encircling the island studded with statuesque stumps and deadheads—sun-bleached tree trunks towering out of the water, marking the extent of the forest before the lake was dammed and flooded. A warm, night-long breeze and a pink-and-peach sunrise energized us for the expedition ahead.
DAY 2: We paddled slowly out onto the wide expanse of Lois Lake, trolling our fishing lines behind the canoes. Under our hulls: a theatre of fish. There’s a hatchery on the north shore of Lois, and fish farms buoyed in the centre of the lake. Sure enough, before we were halfway to the eastern shore we’d hooked a pair.
Our brief morning on the water—only 11km to our next campsite—was at its best when a bald eagle swooped from an unseen nest and harvested a trout from the water, while somewhere in the woods of the south shore a chainsaw or industrial feller could be heard.
We navigated our way from Lois into Khartoum Lake, through a narrow, winding canal guarded by deadheads, several of which were eerily topped with eagle eyries. Beyond, Khartoum Lake presents like an inland fjord, with steep escarpments of conifers towering above each shore. A small cove on the north shore holds the lake’s only campsite (which was occupied, so we made camp on the beach next to the campsite).
Khartoum is an extra appendage off the regular Powell Forest route, but we found it worthwhile to explore. After setting up camp and napping, Dave and I paddled to the eastern end of the lake—an easy 5k each way—and caught a dinner-sized cutthroat trout for our efforts.
Cumulative: 26km paddling; 0 portages
Sweet sleep, come to me,
Underneath this tree.
– William Blake
DAY 3: Khartoum Lake was absolutely still and a silent curtain of clouds gently glided over the mountaintops. The morning was saturated green. But when our paddling returned us to Lois Lake, back through the deadhead channel, we felt the rush of an easterly wind in our faces. It started to drizzle and—to add superfluous drama—we discovered a strong current working against our progress. It was a gritty three-hour paddle to the portage on the far northwestern shore, and the eagles watched us as we went slowly by.
The portage from Lois to Horseshoe Lake is practically manicured—a 1.7km stroll in the woods alongside a roaring creek. The rain let up (it would never again return), and we enjoyed our third meal of the day (we averaged five) before pushing out onto Horseshoe (probably named before the advent of aerial photography).
Flanked by low hills covered in cedar and fir, Horseshoe was bright and warm and remarkable for being the only lake from whose waters we didn’t hear the sounds of logging. Thus the logjam blocking access to the portage trail on the lake’s northern shore was a bit ironic.
From Horseshoe the Powell Forest route diverges. Paddlers can choose between the northwest portage route via Nanton and Ireland Lakes, reputedly easier but noisier (nearby is the jugular of the logging-road network, and Nanton Lake’s campsite is popular on weekends with locals); or they can choose the northeast route, pond-hopping in solitude, as we did.
Our reward for the 1.6km uphill slog from Horseshoe to Little Horseshoe Lake was our first taste of old-growth, with giant ferns carpeting the forest floor beneath thick red cedars, hemlocks and alders.
“Looks like ya gotta lil’ hitch in yer gitalong.”
– One Texan to the other; roughly translated from the redneck as “It appears that the portage beat the hell out of you.”
Loaded down with our camping outfit, tons (almost) of camera gear, two canoes, and a food barrel heavy enough to sink a barge, the Little Horseshoe portage nearly crushed us. But on the far side we found it was just a short paddle to a warm campsite. We swam in the lake and photographed frogs and giant slugs and glistening sundews—a relative of the Venus flytrap—in whose habitat we made our camp.
Cumulative: 44km paddling; 2 portages
“Their canoes were small, with projecting prows, and dug out of one piece of timber, each with four or five small thorts, and some had their outside ornamented with rude figures painted with red ochre. Their paddles were short with round handles and pointed blades.”
– Dr. Archibald Menzies, physician of the HMS Discovery, upon making his first contact with the Coast Salish Peoples in 1792
DAY 4: By now we’d lost count of the eagles, and the days were only getting hotter. We paddled and portaged our way from Little Horseshoe via Beaver Lake (a pond, really) to Dodd Lake, a quiet 7km paddle in a long green bowl. Now and then we caught a glimpse of snow-topped mountains through gaps in the hills on the eastern and northern shores, conferring a sense of entering the mysterious middle of something. And to the west, briefly, we saw the summit of Tin Hat behind a ridge.
At the top of the lake: a lonely cabin, with a dock and a diving board; no such place should be empty on a beautiful day like this, but we were almost disappointed to discover that it was. Just then, though, our solitude was broken when we neared the portage trail and saw eight large, heavy, red canoes piled on the dock. A pack of droopy-shouldered teenaged summer-campers emerged from the forest carrying enormous backpacks and barrels, heading south in the opposite and unorthodox direction.
The portage to Windsor Lake sloped upwards and crossed a narrow logging road near a waterfall, and when after 500 metres we reached the new water we stood stunned, for we had reached the heart of the Powell Forest route—the highest lake—and it was as magnificent as other expedition accounts alleged it would be. Steep, forested escarpments on every shore; a firm but benevolent swirling wind; and the dome of Rainbow Mountain like a neo-gothic cathedral in the north.
Barely two and a half kilometres end to end, Windsor Lake compelled us to slow our paddling and admire its peerless natural engineering, though before long we heard the low groan of a loaded logging truck heading out to market.
We found Windsor’s acclaimed campsite nestled in a picturesque grove of old-growth forest, with a swing hung from a tree and a pit-toilet carved into a dually-sized tree stump. Here we pitched our tents on soft undergrowth beneath a towering canopy of red cedar, Douglas fir and hemlock, with sour blueberries and Devil’s Club and great ferns all around.
For nature-seeking paddlers like us who’d never before seen a cedar tree broader than a racecar steering wheel, the Western Red Cedar attracted our reverence. From its watertight, malleable trunk-wood the Tla’amin and other coastal First Peoples carve their dugout canoes (a number of which are displayed at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver).
Windsor Lake was cool and still in the evening, but no fish bit hard. We sat around the campfire after a supper of falafel burgers puffing on cigars, wishing for nothing.
Cumulative: 55km paddling; 5 portages
DAY 5: A portage-only day, as the route from Windsor down to Goat Lake is more than two kilometres of trail zigzagging down nearly 700 vertical feet. It took us three hours to make two trips carrying gear and canoes to Goat Lake campsite (at least the food barrel was lighter—can’t seem to stop eating).
Once we had set up camp and napped (and restarted the day with a fresh pot of coffee), Dean set out back up the mountain with his cameras while Dave and I loaded a canoe with fishing gear and set out on the lake. Mike occupied himself fixing broken tent zippers and keeping the hammock from feeling lonely.
A funny thing happened that drizzly day back on Lois Lake: a ziploc bag failed, and our lone (and patently un-waterproof) map became saturated and unusable. I had only the vaguest memory of how long Goat Lake was, but I failed to indicate that vagueness to Dave when I proposed the afternoon trip. “Just an easy 5K.” It is, in fact, ten each way.
When we reached the head of the lake we found the mouth of the Eldred River, and having heard that this was the likeliest place along the circuit to spot a grizzly, we paddled another two clicks up until the current proved too swift against us. The snowy range of mountains to the east delighted our eyes, but alas, no bears played a part in this story.
Cumulative: 79km paddling; 6 portages
“There’s a breeze that comes across Powell Lake every afternoon; you might have heard of it. The lake can get a bit uncomfortable.”
– local man fishing in the channel between Goat Lake and Powell Lake
DAY 6: We had been forewarned about the strong winds on Powell Lake—the standard advice is to paddle it in the morning, nap all afternoon, and paddle it again in the calm evening—and thus we got a very early start, hoping to make 23km to the next campsite before the “breeze” came in from the ocean.
By noon we had crossed the central corridor of the dipper-shaped lake—gazing as we paddled at the enticing cabins on the south shore and the scarred clear-cuts on Goat Island to the north. Around the bend, where the lake turns southward in a 9km funnel to its outlet, the weather abruptly changed, and within minutes of resting in a placid cove we found ourselves knifing into a burly headwind, battling whitecaps and two-foot swells underneath a bright, teal-blue sky.
“There’s an uncomfortable amount of water in this boat.”
– Mike, in the wet seat in the bow on Powell Lake
Tired and rendered nearly inaudible to each other by the wind, we also somehow got lost. We were, you’ll recall, map-less. Our weary collective brain recalled that our next campsite was supposedly located at the crown of a small cove, near a beach and a trailhead leading into the provincial park. But there were several coves, and they all had beaches (and cabins, too).
And so I met Ernie Larsen—71, retired logger, proudly Swedish of stock, charming repository of heritage factoids—who spends each long, Sunshine Coast summer at a cabin on a beach in a cove on Powell Lake. I met Ernie when we decided we had to pull over to ask for directions, and though he warned me that he wasn’t completely certain, he thought it likely the campsite was located one more cove down the lake, just beyond a lonely cabin (of course he was right).
After a brief guided tour of Ernie’s cove, I returned to meet my sweltering comrades and we pushed out once more into the wind. The waves pounded the boats, and we steadied ourselves against each undulating swell. After twenty minutes we spotted the campsite on a high bank looking over a gravel beach (with a rope swing, rated to somewhere south of 200 pounds).
Then, as if by a child’s whisper, the lake became completely still at sunset. Dean cleverly made a “leftovers” stew and we cooked bannock over the campfire. Another party of boisterous, clockwise-journeying summer-campers joined us rather late in the day, but we slept hard and fast that warm night.
Cumulative: 102km paddling; 6 portages
DAY 7: It was a quick, 7km morning paddle to Mowat Bay and the terminus of the Powell Forest Canoe Route, and then it was Pale Ales, burgers and mussels at the Shinglemill Pub on the lakeshore. We resupplied in town with treats—cheese and bagels to feed a platoon; a thick slab of sockeye salmon—and drove back up the network of logging roads, deep into the forest to Lewis Lake, near the base of Tin Hat Mountain. We caught a few small trout off the campsite’s dock, but preferred our salmon grilled over cedar.
Owls screeched at us—they scared the musky crap out of us—as we sipped whisky and (with a fresh new map) studied our route up the mountain for the next day’s climb.
Cumulative: 109km paddling; 6 portages
“Even now, these forests have an infinite feel—until you see the clear-cuts and realize how extraordinarily efficient humans can be at altering the landscape. Out here, empty spaces still look like wounds, like violations of the natural order.”
– John Vaillant, The Golden Spruce
DAY 8: From Lewis Lake, the elevation gain to Tin Hat’s balding summit is about 2500 feet (from the north, at Fiddlehead Landing, the gain is 1000 more). Here our journey came into alignment with the popular Sunshine Coast Trail, a 180km trekking route paralleling the coastline from Desolation Sound to Saltery Bay, which is studded with huts like the one atop Tin Hat.
Five hours after we broke camp in the morning—through thinning forests, across logging roads, around blistering clear-cuts, up and over shaded ridges—we reached the top and inhaled the view. We moved into the hut, a perfect creation with its pellet stove and loft that sleeps 10ish. We sat on the naked summit at dusk. In every direction, mountains. And beneath them, our canoe circuit. The sun graciously took half a lifetime to set, and the forest faded into shadows beneath our feet.
Text and photos copyright (c) Richard Alexander Johnson, 2016