“What kind of trip can you do when you have hurt your knee and cannot bend it very much?” We decided that the answer to this question is a canoe trip! This answer was based on the assumption that portage routes would involve minimal elevation change and thus mostly flat walking.
Jake Jones and myself (Cora Skaien) had been planning to do the North Coast Trail and the Nootka Trail over the last 2 weeks of June for quite some time. Unfortunately, I (in my typical fashion) injured my knee two weeks before the commencement of the trip, and thus could not do the hikes any longer (I could not even use stairs in the city!). Three years ago exactly, I had hiked the Sunshine Coast Trail and saw the Powell Forest Canoe Route on the same map, and Jake had also almost done the route a few weeks before with friends, and so it seemed like the obvious alternative. Our wonderful friend Roseanna Gamlen-Greene also decided to join us on our trip, and we therefore rented two canoes (one two-man canoe and one one-man canoe). Simon was suppose to join us as well initially, but last minute received a call for a job interview and had to stay in the city.
The Powell Forest Canoe Route is an established canoe route near Powell River that involves 55-60 km of paddling and ~10-15 km of portaging. The route is designed to be done in 5 days, but people sometimes shorten the trip or extend the trip, depending on how long of days they want to have each day. There are orange triangles marking exit points along the lakes, and also along the route through the larger lakes, making navigation simple. When you portage, you must carry your canoe over your head for the distance of the trail, and the condition of the trail really impacts how difficult the portage can be. We ended up doing the trip in 4 days.
There are many ways to do a portage, and we tried a few methods as a group of 3 with two canoes, but we decided that the best way for our group was to have one person portaging each canoe, and the third person would ferry the backpacks back and forth. Generally you do not carry your backpack while you portage, and thus you usually hike back to get your backpack at some point if the third person has not successfully transferred all backpacks by the time the canoes are at the next lake (either as rests between carrying the canoe, or after you get the canoe at the end), resulting in doing each section of trail at least 3 times, sometimes more. Another method we attempted was to have two people use the metal supports near the seats instead of the wooden yoke in the middle, which worked if people were of similar height but less so if not. One last method was to have people carry the canoe at hip height, and this was by far the least efficient method to portage, but necessary on some trails where there were too many fallen logs to navigate around otherwise. If we had 4 able-bodied individuals who could all help with the canoe, I would recommend trying to have people travel in pairs, perhaps with one person ferrying backpacks while the other the canoe and alternating, or having two people carry the canoe and then ferrying their bags as they go.
The forecast leading up to the trip called for sun for two weeks. As the trip neared, the forecast began to call for rain but only on the day that we would drive out. We stopped at different places along the way and got to experience the “Sunshine” Coast’s pouring rain. After our first hike to Secret Cove, we decided to just head straight to the ferry and hang out in the car to warm up and then shower at my friend Ioni’s place in Powell River. Ioni had been the one who first asked me to join on the Sunshine Coast Trail years before, and he had since settled in Powell River, giving me the opportunity to visit him every time I pass through.
Day 1: Lois Lake to Horseshoe Lake
On Sunday, June 19th, we set out on day 1 of our trip. We rented our canoes through Mitchell’s Canoe, Kayak and Snowshoe Rentals, which is ran by a lovely woman named Christie. The cost of each of our canoes was $170 for 5 days. You had options to rent lighter canoes for a higher cost, but we opted to be cheap. I would in the future recommend considering a slightly higher cost for a lighter canoe, given that we were only a group of 3 and one person had an injured knee and could not assist with the portage.
We met Christie at 8:30 AM and were on the water shortly after 10:00 AM to begin our journey North on Lois Lake. We stopped at an island for lunch before making it to the end of the NW point of Lois Lake (for a total of 8.5 km of paddling) to begin our first portage. This first portage was ~1.7 km long, was very wide, well-maintained and had many rest spots along the way. This section of the trail could easily accommodate a cart if one was to attempt to wheel their canoe and items. This is where we were first acquainted with the pains of portaging, especially without padding on the yoke of the canoe. Thank goodness the terrain of the first portage was not more difficult!
Many people then stop at the end of this portage, at the south end of Horseshoe Lake. This camping spot is very busy because people can access it by a nearby logging road and it is a popular location for people to come out to fish and kayak for the day. As a result, we decided to push on to the end of Horseshoe Lake to camp, which is another 6.5 km of paddling.
At the end of Horseshoe Lake, you have two options: One, head along the west side into Nanton Lake and pass through Ireland Lake to make it to Dodd Lake; or two, to head on the east route through Little Horseshoe Lake and Ireland lake to make it to Dodd Lake. The west route involves fewer portages, but 400 m more of portaging than the east route. The west route is also closer to logging roads, increasing the potential of running into other people who did not arrive by canoe. As a result, we chose to go along the east, less travelled route.
When you arrive to the campsite, you will see the orange marker way to the east, but you need to explore a bit west (left) to find the exit route that does not involve hauling your boat up a steep section of rock and logs. The campsite at the NE end of Horseshoe Lake was quite lovely and we had a great evening of wearing our onesies, swimming, and using logs as boats. This campsite is equipped with a rope and pulley system to hang up your food, mostly to protect it from shrews. Although we were in bear territory, we were informed that bears were very infrequent along the trail and not of major concern. Luckily, we did not have any issues with wildlife for the entire trip. Unfortunately, the only wildlife we really encountered was amphibians.
Day 2: Horseshoe Lake to Dodd Lake
What we learned the next day, was that the east route to get to Dodd Lake is not nearly as well maintained as the west route. This was confirmed by a group that came behind us that day, which had one member who had done the west route the year before. In fact, it even involves stairs, numerous fallen logs that had not been cleared and a narrow trail not ideal for portaging. This is where we tried the method where two people portaged the canoe, holding it below their waist. I had enough time to walk back and forth 3 times and retrieved all the bags, paddles, etc. before Roseanna and Jake successfully got the canoes through the rough terrain. One document we had indicated that this portage was 1.2 km long, but it felt way longer than the 1.7 km trail we had done the day before. We reached Little Horseshoe Lake with all of our items after 5 hours of effort and were exhausted. We then had <1 km of paddling to get to the North end of Little Horseshoe, where we took a lunch and swim break.
We then did the next ~700 m portage, which was mostly along a logging road. Logging roads were nice in that they were much faster to portage with the simpler terrain, but had the downside that there were no canoe rests along the way. We made it to Beaver Lake very quickly and prepared the canoes for the next <1 km paddle. Unfortunately, we disturbed a wasps nest which resulted in Roseanna being stung 3 times and me once. Jake had already been stung on our drive out, so now we were all adorned with wasp stings. Something about these wasps made them particularly virulent, however, and Roseanna and I both had immense swelling and/or bruising from the bite sites, which are still persisting now days later. Despite our bites, we pushed on and made it across Beaver Lake fairly quickly.
Day 3: Dodd Lake to Goat Lake
On day 3, we began the first 700 m portage with much more experience and the knowledge that this would be the last day we needed to do any portaging. There were long gaps between rests, but at least this trail was well maintained and wide. We then paddled 2.3 kms across Windsor Lake, where I tried the single canoe for the first time and Jake and Roseanna paddled the double canoe together.
We had lunch on the North end of Windsor, and shortly after began our 2.4 km journey down to Goat Lake. This is the longest portage along the route, and the last one third goes consistently downhill with uneven terrain. At this stage, I realized that my foot that I had sprained back in March and then had stepped on in salsa dancing a month before was still very damaged, and the downhill portion was quite painful. At least my knee held up! Jake and Roseanna at this stage had become pro portagers, and they pushed through the pain and struggle and made it down to Goat Lake. This was our most efficient portage. I took my bag all the way to the end, which Jake and Roseanna took their boats between rests, went back for their bags, and then brought them to the rest past each boat. This way they were able to scout the trail while transferring bags, and then carry the canoe over. Then I came back and ferried their bags to the bottom from the last 1/3 point of the trail. Roseanna had to go back to get her bag for the last leg of the trip after her canoe was at the end, however.
This was the first night that we had to share a campsite with other people, as there was already one other group of 4 there and two more groups of 4 arrived behind us. The last group that arrived struggled to find a camping spot so pushed on to the next campsite. In the evening, after we ate dinner, we paddled up Goat Lake for fun, with all 3 of us in the same canoe. Cora and Jake paddled, while Roseanna serenaded us with her singing and ukulele playing.
For most of the trip at this stage we had either overcast skies or sun. Shortly after we turned around to head back to camp, it began to rain and this rain stayed with us for most of the rest of the trip. It rained all night, and off and on the whole next day.
Day 4: Goat Lake to Powell River
Powell Lake is a 28.5 km stretch that leads back to Powell River. No more portaging! Woot! Many people do this section over 2 days, and some extend it to do it in 3 days. We had been told that the winds can be quite bad on Powell Lake when the wind comes off from the ocean, and then blows in the opposite direction of travel. Christie recommended that we wake up early and paddle to avoid these winds. As a result, we woke up at 7:00 AM and were on the water by 8:15 AM. The water was calm at the rain was gentle at this stage. We paddled to the first campsite along the way, where we met up with the group that pushed on the evening before. They had a fire, and we joined in the warmth and had an early lunch at 10:30 AM.
We then pushed on with the goal of stopping at the campsite at the start of the optional portage to Inland Lake to camp for the day. This site was harder to find because the orange marker had completely bleached and the campsite was only visible because we saw two other canoes along the beach. It was 1:00 PM when we arrived, and we were soaking wet from the rain and a bit chilled. Although we had intended to do the trip over 5 days, we were only ~8 km away from Powell River and decided that we would hike to Inland Lake along the portage route and then paddle back along Powell Lake to Powell River and stop a day early.
I would NOT recommend anyone to portage their canoe up to Inland Lake, and we were very grateful that we had no intention of doing so. The trail is very overgrown, all the canoe rests were broken, and trees almost our height had fallen across the route. This would have been a very miserable portage. I do, however, recommend the lovely 700 meter hike up to the lake.
When we got back on the water, the wind had picked up. We began paddling shortly after 2:00 PM and the risk of motion sickness was great. I had to do a corrections stroke with every stroke to keep the canoe straight and fight the wind and waves. We lost a lot of momentum due to the conditions, and it took longer than we anticipated. We still made it off of the water by 4:15, were picked up by Christie (pick up and drop off fee of $130, but logistics require it really unless you had multiple vehicles and places to park them). We celebrated with warm showers at Ion’s, Indian food and sleeping in beds.
We had an amazing time on our trip! It was similar to the Sunshine Coast Trail, however, in that there were many patches of clear cuts and active logging along the way which did detract from the natural beauty. The area with the smaller lakes was really nice because it was more isolated and looked less disturbed. I think this was a great first canoe trip with portaging, and feel inspired to do more canoeing, perhaps further North in the Yukon, etc.