A few weeks before Canada Day we took a casual weekend paddle just west of Campbell River on a beautiful lake called Mohun Lake. It turns out that Mohun Lake is part of the larger Sayward Forest Canoe Route, and after our first visit to this calm, peaceful, and beautiful area, we knew we would have to head back again soon. When we realized that we had a full four days off over Canada Day, well, it was pretty clear to us that we would be paddling the entire Sayward Route.
We headed up to Campbell River after work on Thursday evening. Stuck in Victoria’s awful traffic and inching along the highway, we were acutely feeling that getting out into the woods couldn’t come soon enough. After a few hours of driving we hit the forestry roads west of Campbell River, found a little spot to set up our tent in the dark, and got some well needed rest for the days ahead.
The next morning we were off early from Morton Lake Provincial Park and were given an extremely sunny welcome on Mohun Lake, happy to see us back on its waters. It was a sign that this was going to be a glorious trip.
We packed light for this trip, or light-ish at least. No eggs (*sigh*), no cast iron pans (they make all camping food taste better), only dry foods, lightweight gear, and minimal clothing. For its 47+km, the Sayward Route features an impressive 13 portages, meaning we would have to take everything out of the canoe and carry it from one lake to another, as well as the boat itself, a total of thirteen times! Every ounce counts, and so we opted to save our backs as much as possible by leaving out mostly everything but the essentials. Even still, we had two backpacks, the canoe, and paddles to lug around with us, enough to make us start second guessing every item we took with us.
That first 1.6km portage was the second longest, and it was certainly a bit of a learning experience. A sturdy branch acting as a handle helps. So do the horizontal poles put up in the trees to allow you to set the canoe down while still upright to take a quick rest and let the pain in your shoulders slowly fade away. Knee pads or PFDs can be used to pad the yoke that comes in contact with your shoulders. Best of all, an old campfire song or two can do wonders to keep morale going.
The first portage behind us, that’s when the fun really started. The next series of portages were supposed to be connected by small ponds, but in reality it was more like a questionable trail of mud, grass, and a little bit of water deep enough to paddle for 5-6 paddle strokes or so at a time.
We pushed, pulled, and paddled our way along as best we could, and it was actually pretty fun in the end. When you’re on a well-defined and idiot-proof route like the Sayward Route, questioning whether you’re in the right place or not while standing knee deep in some stinky mud is a surefire way to make you feel like you’re doing some sort of adventuring to somewhere.
The portages, mini-paddles through weedy channels, and beautiful sunny afternoon continued until we emerged onto Amor Lake, one of our favourites of the whole trip. It has a multitude of small arms and bays to discover, all of them just as quiet and beautiful and varied as the next. Somebody even went through the effort of building a floating picnic table platform, which made the perfect spot for a lunch break (we brought along Quebec Oka cheese, our own luxury, and boy was it tasty after all of that canoe lugging!). We discovered some beautiful campsites, only encountered one tiny fishing boat with a motor, and marked Amor Lake as a place we would love to visit again in the future, hopefully with a couple of friends for a sunny, relaxing, beach getaway.
After Amor Lake we headed over the aptly named boat-access only Mr. Canoehead recreation site, floated and fished down Surprise Lake, and then there was more portaging, of course, and indeed the longest one of all at 2.3km. Lisa even tried her hand at it (she’s tough!).
After a long first day, we were happy to make a cozy camp at a random spot on Brewster Lake, bask in the surreal warmth of the hot summer evening, cook a tasty fireside meal (anything is tasty after a long day of portaging), and read our books well into the night by lingering sunlight until it was time to doze off.
With our sleeping bags zipped together, waking only to views of the stars through the open mesh of our tent, it was truly one of the most warm, restful, beautiful, and memorable nights we’ve ever spent in the backcountry.
The next day we had the Sayward’s river section with apparent rapids in store for us, though it turned out to be more of a rocky bumping-and-scraping-along sort of thing. We did a lot more walking in water and slipping around on river rocks than paddling. There were portages around the ‘rapids,’ but it was a bit more fun trying to maneuver our way through them without scraping up the boat too badly.
It was a short day, and unfortunately pretty much every lake after Amor was quite populated with car campers and their trailers in every campsite along the water. We are happy to see anybody out enjoying these beautiful places, but it takes away from it a bit when power boats are roaring around lakes and each campsite is blasting its own music. If only these car campers would know how beautiful, peaceful, and quiet it can be (and will hopefully stay) just one lake over where there is no car access! In the end we managed to find a nice secluded spot on Lower Campbell Lake with just us and our canoe, and spent a long, bright, warm afternoon and evening sitting by the fire, fishing, swimming, and realizing that we were tackling the Sayward Route much faster than we had initially planned.
The next morning we headed out ‘voyageur-style,’ packing up camp early and hitting the lake before breakfast to take advantage of calm waters and a lack of wind. It was a wise decision, as the wind on the larger Campbell Lake had picked up quite a bit the day before. We were graced with crystal calm waters, with the soft blues and purples of the clouds reflected back at us. With swift and silent paddle strokes, we were flying upon the lake.
Once we were close to the end of the lake we stopped on shore for some much needed breakfast, as well as probably the most beautiful tooth-brushing pause we could have wanted.
Following breakfast we portaged 1.1km to the charming little Gosling Lake and greeted a friendly family a warm good morning, and then proceeded to tackle the last portages of the journey. We had read that these were some of the worst, but we suspect that the people who wrote that had probably used a wheel cart for the other portages. A wheel cart just won’t work between Higgins and Lawrier Lake, which necessitates carrying your canoe on your shoulders. If you’ve done every other portage with wheels, sure, we can see how this portage would be the hardest. But if you’ve toughed it out with a canoe on your head for the entire journey, this portage isn’t any different from the others.
We found ourselves back at Mohun Lake, and that was pretty much it! We ate lunch on a sunny island and decided to stay the rest of the afternoon and the night just for fun. In all, we spent four days and three nights on the trail, but two of these days were only half days of paddling and portaging. If you’re a half decent paddler and plan your portage system wisely, the trip could certainly be done in as little as two days, in a fairly leisurely three days, or in four days with plenty of rest and relaxation. This was our first real multi-day canoe trip with multiple portages, and it certainly didn’t challenge our skills, strength, or muscles as much as we were hoping for.
In the end, paddling the Sayward Forest Canoe Route was an absolutely perfect way to spend Canada Day. For the last 150 years, the country of Canada as we know it has been associated with the canoe. For hundreds and even thousands of years before that, all sorts of people have been paddling all sorts of boats and canoes all over this vast land. They weren’t paddling modern canoes made of royalite, wearing drybag backpacks, and safe in the knowledge that a satellite transponder could bring rescue should anything unexpected happen. They were putting in blood, sweat, and a hell of a lot of effort to survive in this wild landscape, and we like to think they were consciously immersing themselves in its utter beauty along the way too.
There is really no other way that we would have preferred to celebrate the awesomeness of this beautiful land than kneeling with stiff ankles in the bottom of a canoe, bobbing silently on quiet ponds, cutting through whitecaps on windy lakes, camping out in fragrant forests, slogging through muddy muskegs, and feeling our shoulders ache under the weight of our modern canoe. Past, present, and hopefully a promising future of people on this land are bound together by the canoe whether people realize it or not, and enjoying our own canoe trip to pay homage to this in our own way was truly an introspective, peaceful, painful, remarkable, and memorable experience.