Canoe tripping is really quite nice. It’s the perfect way to get out into the woods and the wilderness, and every portage brings you one step further from people and one step closer to nature. While Vancouver Island and the west coast might not be the best canoe country in Canada, we haven’t let that stop us, and we were super excited when we found ourselves on the 6:15am ferry from Comox to Powell River for a 10 day vacation to the Sunshine Coast, primarily to paddle the 57 kilometer, 8 lake, and 5 portage Powell Forest Canoe Route.
Everything online about the canoe route strongly recommends paddling it in a counter-clockwise direction, as apparently it’s much easier to descend the Goat Lake-Powell Lake portage than to ascend its 100m over 2.4 kilometers. But everything online also warns that the winds on Powell Lake can be difficult and even dangerous, and advises that paddlers should try to avoid tackling the 28.5 km paddle during mid-day when the winds tend to be strongest.
We like a good challenge though, and when we first took a peek at Powell Lake early in the morning, the sun glistening off of its deep blue waters and not a breath of wind, we figured “why not?” Let’s do it clockwise! Surely ascending the Goat Lake portage couldn’t be that bad. And if the wind did pick up, it would be coming from the sea, and therefore pushing us north and east in exactly the direction we want to go. If the wind were to get too bad, we could always just head to shore and wait it out. It made sense to us, and off we went!
Powell Lake didn’t disappoint. It is by far the biggest lake in the loop, and the canoe route only takes paddlers down about 2/3 of the lake. Countless floating houses dot the shore along the entire length of the lake, backed by steep forested slopes that meet the water and rugged mountains capped with snow rising in the distance.
The wind did indeed pick up, but as we guessed, it was at our backs the entire way! We stuck more or less to the right shore as we paddled down, and even though the wind was picking up to the point of white caps on the lake, it remained manageable. With the wind at our backs, we sped along and paddled the entire 28.5 kilometer length of Powell Lake in less than 8 hours, including a nice stop for lunch and a slight detour exploring up a creek filled with legged tadpoles near the eastern extremity of Powell Lake. It turns out the way to Goat Lake is along the north shore, not the south, and the passage between these two lakes was probably one of the most beautiful stretches of the entire trip.
As we came around the corner to Goat Lake, we got the first glimpse of the notorious portage up to Goat Lake… didn’t look so bad! But that was a task for the next day, and for the rest of our first day we went swimming, soaked up the hot sun, and relaxed at the Goat Lake campsite. The site is fairly open but nicely shaded, with big trees and the stumps of older, bigger monster trees. The site is large enough to accommodate several groups of campers, but we had it all to ourselves. As we sat by the water together eating our dinner, we reflected on the day and how nice it was to be where we were and to be doing what we were doing. We couldn’t ask for more… except maybe a cabin together on Goat Lake!
The next day we ate a hearty breakfast of eggs and bannock, and then started the infamous portage from Goat Lake to Windsor Lake. By this point we had already done a decent amount of canoe camping with portages at places like the beautiful Sayward Lakes, so we had our systems worked out already. Elliott took a dry bag on his back filled with our tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping mats- the more we upgrade our gear over the years, the lighter the bag gets! Lisa took a big blue canoe barrel on her back filled with just about everything else including food, pots and pans, clothing, and all of the other random items that help to make canoe camping so luxurious. We strapped the paddles into the canoe, padded the thwart with life jackets, Elliott shouldered the canoe with the help of a canoe rest at the campsite, and off we went!
While the portage was a bit of a hike, it really wasn’t that bad. The trail was dry and there were ample rest points to set down the canoe and take a break along the way. We covered the 2.4 kilometers in about 1.5 hours, which didn’t seem short, but also isn’t terribly long considering everything we were carrying, including a 65 lbs. canoe!
With the worst portage behind us, we decided to take the rest of the day off and enjoy the sun and solitude at Windsor Lake. We still hadn’t seen another canoe since starting the loop, so we took advantage of having the entire campsite and lake to ourselves doing basically whatever we wanted for the rest of the day- mostly more swimming, snacking, reading, and just laying soaking up the sun.
The camp at Windsor Lake is situated next to shallow waters with some old logs tied together to form a simple pier. The water is warm, the trees are mesmerizingly straight and tall, and the outhouse is inside of a huge old growth tree stump. Amphibians of different sorts seemed to enjoy the campsite too. We saw countless young frogs as fat as mandarin oranges and still on their way to adulthood with both tadpole tails and frog legs; they rested at the surface of the water, and would panic and swim down with a “plop” on the surface whenever we came near. Garder snakes cruise the shoreline and ventured out onto the surface of the lake. We also saw the biggest toad either of us has ever seen in our lives. And all of it surrounded by mountains, of course!
Windsor Lake was immensely relaxing, and it was all ours for an entire day and night- exactly what a vacation should be!
On day 3 we packed up camp, paddled the short distance down Windsor Lake, portaged to Dodd Lake, paddled its length, portaged to Beaver Lake on a detour route with no breaks, paddled Beaver, portaged to Little Horseshoe, paddled Little Horseshoe, portaged to Horseshoe, and paddled to the southern end of Horseshoe. Long day!
Windsor and Dodd lake were fairly uneventful, but we did have an interesting encounter as we were taking a break at Chipmunk Point on Dodd Lake. A few days prior to leaving, one of Elliott’s coworkers came to him and said “my girlfriend and I are paddling a canoe route this weekend, the Powell Forest Canoe Route.” He was shocked to learn that we were too, and we knew it would be a matter of time before we bumped into them. As we were enjoying a snack, we heard some voices and the bump of paddles on a canoe hull, and sure enough, there they were paddling around the corner, two people, gear, and a dog in a white canoe! We shared some snacks, swapped tips about what was yet to come on the route for each of us, and eventually paddled on our way.
The Tale of the Adventurous Germans
Some of the only other people we encountered on the route other than Elliott’s work colleague and his girlfriend was a pair of adventurous Germans who decided they would seek out the true Canadian nature that most tourists only dream about. As they were labouring together to bump and drag their canoe out of Little Horseshoe Lake, Elliott marched by them with our canoe on his head, gave a friendly hello, and proceeded to somewhat elegantly ease the canoe down from head to water in one practiced motion. The Germans were impressed, but so were we that they had the guts to rent a canoe, gather the gear, and head off on a small adventure without ever having done something similar before. They told us they weren’t particularly sporty, and they looked like they enjoyed their beer, sausage, and bread as much as your next German, but they were already halfway through and we were confident they’d finish the route knowing that they tackled something most tourists would only dream of.
We were a little worried for them, however, given the strong winds that can show up on Powell Lake, especially since they hadn’t done much canoeing before. We gave them a word of warning and another of encouragement and we both headed off in opposite directions. For the next couple of days, we both wondered what might have happened to them.
Powell River is a small place, and it turns out that Elliott’s colleague also met up with the Germans on the canoe route and again after it was all done. They successfully reached Powell Lake, but as expected the afternoon winds soon started creating dangerous waves and whitecaps. Elliott’s colleague and his girlfriend pressed on, glancing behind him occasionally to how the Germans were faring. As the weather got worse and worse and the waves crashed over their bow and into their canoe, they decided to head for shore, and it looked like the Germans were too, only they ended up paddling straight to the refuge of a floating house near shore and collapsing on its pier once they escaped the rough waters.
It turns out that the home owner invited them in, cooked them pizza, gave them beer, and let them stay for the night! They had such a good time, in fact, that they ended up paddling the rest of Powell Lake the next day a little hungover, but well rested after a night in a real bed.
Another highlight of the long day of many portages was Beaver Lake. While some of the lakes on the Powell Forest circuit are man-made lakes created from flooding forested valley, Beaver Lake appears to be more natural and is slightly reminiscent of the lakes of northern Saskatchewan. The water was warm, and we went for a delightful swim to cool off before losing a few small pieces of flesh to hungry horseflies.
Following Little Horseshoe was the portage to Horseshoe Lake. After a long day already, we found it to be one of the most difficult stretches of the trip. The portage was 1.3 kilometers along a narrow trail with lots of close trees, plenty of elevation gain and loss, and even a set of stairs. To add insult to injury we passed a solo canoeist portaging his 27 lbs. 15′ kevlar canoe with apparent ease. We were envious as we laboured on with a 65lbs. 17′ royalite monster! By the end of the portage we were really starting to tire out and had to sit, rest, and recover once we finally reached Horseshoe Lake. Unfortunately the campsite at the northern end of Horseshoe Lake leaves much to be desired, with huge pieces of driftwood about 5 logs deep blocking access to the water. The solo canoeist told us the south end of the lake was nicer… with clouds rolling in and drops of rain starting to fall, off we went, one more paddle for the day! By this point Elliott was beat, so he sat in the bow, rhythmically paddling, hardly thinking about what he was doing, with the ever-faithful Lisa in the stern guiding us to the camp at the south end of the lake. We’re glad we made the decision to keep paddling, because it was beautiful!
At the south end of Horseshoe Lake is a smaller, mini lake that is calm and peaceful. A path up from the floating dock winds its way over boulders and giant tree stumps of driftwood to the perfect campsite, sheltered but with open views, and with a fire pit perched perfectly on a raised boulder above the lake. We swam, we cooked, we ate, we drank tea, and enjoyed the warm sun amid intermittent but hardly perceptible sprinkles of warm rain, with a beaver making one pass by in the lake below just for good measure. Pure beauty. Eventually the sun dipped below the final mountain of the day, and after a long but very enjoyable day of portaging and paddling, we were out like a light!
The morning of day four began with a naked swim, a sunny breakfast on a floating dock, and some peaceful time spent with each other doing what we love. We packed up camp, shouldered our bags, barrels, and boats, and started off on what would be the last portage of the trip to Louis Lake.
As we were putting in, we met a young chap in a solo canoe who warned of a strong tailwind he just had on Lois Lake, which would be a headwind for us. At first it wasn’t so bad, but as the full expanse of the lake opened up in front of us the water started to get quite choppy. As the lake got more and more open we debated calling a pause, but decided to give it a try paddling about 10 meters from shore amid an army of dead and submerged but still standing trees. Progress was slow, but we are a great team, and slowly but steadily we made it down Lois Lake until the waves finally started to ease up. We dried ourselves from the water that had been splashing into the boat, pulled onto shore, and marked the completion of the canoe loop… almost!
In four days we had paddled what is advertised as a 5-7 canoe trip, and that was even with almost an entire day spent relaxing and swimming at Windsor Lake. But before we could call it a complete success, we had to somehow get back to our car at the beginning of the 57 kilometer route – hmm!
We had a bit of a plan for this, so we stashed the canoe and our gear and started walking out from Lois Lake on the forestry roads in order to hitchhike back to our car at the Powell Lake boat launch. No canoe or hiking trip is complete without some sort of bear encounter, however, and sure enough, a truck coming our way down the forest road warned of a black bear they had spooked just around the next bend, and here we were walking towards the bear through a road full of salmon berries! In the end we must have made enough noise, because there was no bear to be seen.
After about an hour we reached the highway, and Lisa started to brag that the first car always stops for her whenever she’s hitchhiking. A black car came around the bend, she put out her thumb, and… it passed us by. What a disappointment! We kept walking, a few more cars passed, and about ten minutes later the very same black car came down the highway towards us, pulled over, and beckoned us over. It turns out the driver had intended to give us a ride from the very beginning, but first had to drop of a different hitchhiker he had in the car when he first saw us. We hopped in, had a nice chat, and he took us straight back to our car. We had come full circle, and it was a kind, fitting way to finish off a fantastic trip… and Lisa’s record of the first car always stopping was still intact!
Once we drove back to our canoe at Lois Lake we decided it was a perfect place to camp, and we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening on the sandy shores of Lois Lake swimming, sitting by the fire, and simply enjoying a quiet evening after what was an excellent canoe trip.
We made good time and maybe traveled too fast, but we also had a blast, so it was all worth it in the end. We enjoyed lots of sun, nice paddling, rewarding portages, great scenery, plus plenty of naked swimming. What more could we have asked for?