I dipped my paddle quietly into the turquoise water, and the canoe glided forward. The lake here was very much like a fjord, with vertical rock walls forming the shore. Hundreds of feet above, snowmelt created a stream that finished its descent by forming a magnificent waterfall into the lake. In the bow, my seven-year-old son, Ned, giggled as he began to feel the refreshing mist of what locals have dubbed Rooster Tail Falls. We paddled closer until both of us were washed in the fine mist and cool breeze coming off the waterfall. It was a welcome rest on a warm day amid such grand surroundings.
We were on our third day in British Columbia's Wells Gray Provincial Park. Situated on the western side of the Canadian Rockies, the park has a latitude roughly equal to that of Jasper. The landscape in Wells Gray is one of variety. Lava beds, cinder cones, and low rounded hills near the park's boundaries give way to high glacier-clad peaks in the remote interior.
We had driven to Helmcken Falls, as most park visitors do, to experience the 462-foot drop of Canada's fourth-highest waterfall. However, we had chosen to go farther than most. We had gone beyond the pavement and the Winnebagos, using aquatic means to visit some of the park's more remote reaches.
Beginning near Clearwater Lake's southern end, we paddled up its calm waters. Low hills covered in birch and spruce surround the long, narrow lake. We found it to be aptly named, as it is possible to see to depths of 30 feet or more.
Ned and I were often mesmerized watching our shadows on the bottom. After a night at a lakeside campsite, we paddled easily to the end of the 16-mile lake. Here, the Clearwater River enters the lake from the next lake above. There are also several false channels to explore. In one, we watched a beaver swim to its lodge, while an osprey circled overhead.
The river here is swift and deep, with brushy shores that prohibit tracking. Strong paddling and river-reading skills are helpful when maneuvering upriver the half mile to the beginning of a short portage to Azure Lake. Paddlers accustomed to carts will be disappointed, as the portage must be done in the style of long-ago voyageurs, with sweat and a few well-placed grunts and groans to carry the canoe. However, I doubt that the Hudson's Bay Company fur traders would have had the well-built canoe rests and steps we found on the trail.
Once on Azure Lake, I was struck by the difference in topography and foliage. No more than a mile separates the two at their closest, yet Azure Lake's high mountains and deep old-growth conifer forests are a marked contrast to Clearwater Lake's low hills, sandy beaches, and mixed deciduous and young conifer forests.
As we paddled from Rooster Tail Falls, we skirted the high cliffs of Azure Lake's southern shore. A few white, puffy clouds appeared in the otherwise clear blue sky. Though Azure Lake receives considerably more rainfall than Clearwater does, I was more concerned that we would have to find shelter from the winds that can come up suddenly on this lake. The winds never materialized, which was fortunate, because I never saw anyplace on the south shore where we could have hauled up out of bad weather.
A few hours of paddling brought us to a large bay on the southern shore of the lake. The shores were sandy here, though high peaks still towered over us. Across the bay lay our farthest camp on the trip, at Rainbow Falls. It lies only a few miles from the east end of Azure Lake, which, like Clearwater, is also about 16 miles long. A paddler we had met two days before mentioned that there was a large party of boy scouts at Rainbow Falls. Having been one myself, I have nothing against scouts. However, I can recall the low regard our troop had for silence and solitude when on outings. I was not looking forward to spending the night listening to war whoops and camp songs into the wee hours. My fears were allayed when I could see no canoes on the beach. Our pace quickened, as it appeared that we would spend the night at Rainbow Falls alone. Then we heard the distant whine of an outboard.
Though motors are permitted on the lakes, we encountered few powerboats, except for the ranger, a couple of tour boats, and one or two fishermen. Could this be the rangers, I wondered hopefully. As the sound of the motor became more distinct, I turned to see that it was a small crowded skiff, one of the tour boats. It circled the delta of the
Angus Horne River, where views of Rainbow Falls can be seen. Then the skiff turned and pulled up to the beach at the camp. A dozen or so passengers disembarked, with all the fanfare and noise of a circus coming to town. We could hear them all the way across the bay. Our hearts sank. This could be worse than even a dozen canoes full of scouts, I thought.
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In the 15 minutes it took us to cross the bay, the noisy parade of tourists had made its way up the short trail to the falls and managed to eat a quick lunch. When we reached the beach, we chatted with the tour guide. He must have sensed our apprehension, because he quickly said, "We'll be outta here in a couple of minutes, and then you'll have it all to yourselves."
It was true. Within a few minutes, the tour boat and its circus left, and the whine of the outboard faded into the distance. Ned and I had the pick of the dozen or so campsites. Sometimes too much choice isn't a good thing, and since every campsite was great, it took us fully 15 minutes to choose one.
With our camp set, we walked up the trail to the falls. Silty water cascaded some 40 or 50 feet over the falls. Blueberries abounded, and the few mosquitoes couldn't dislodge the feeling that this was indeed paradise. We fell asleep that night listening to the falls and wrapped in the glow of the dying fire. The next day we had to start back, though we could have spent another day or two exploring the area and basking in the sun on the beach.
As we paddled back to civilization, we began to see people, especially after running the short, easy section of the Clearwater River down to Clearwater Lake. It was near Labor Day, and crowds were gathering for the end-of-summer holiday. Our vacation was drawing to an end, and nothing could compare with the solitude and grandeur that lulled us to sleep at our camp at Rainbow Falls.
Getting There: From Vancouver, B.C., take the Trans-Canada Highway 1 east to Hope. From there, you can take the Coquilla Toll Road 5 to Kamloops, or opt for the more scenic Fraser Canyon, continuing on Highway 1 to Cache Creek and then to Kamloops. From Kamloops, drive north on Highway 5 to Clearwater. From there, take the Clearwater Valley Road to the boat launch on Clearwater Lake (about 42 miles, the last 16 of which are well-graded gravel).
Logistics: There are 33 tent sites on Clearwater Lake in eight campgrounds. Azure Lake has 21 sites in four separate areas. All of the campgrounds have pit toilets, fire rings, picnic tables, tent pads, and food caches. Ivor Creek Campground on Clearwater Lake and Osprey Campground on Azure Lake are reserved for paddlers only. No advanced reservations for camping are necessary. A fee of $5 per boat per day is required for all campers. For more details, log on to http://wlapwww.gov.bc.ca/bcparks . The complete distance from the boat launch on Clearwater Lake to Rainbow Falls on Azure Lake and back is about 64 miles. The return trip can be done in four days by strong paddlers in settled weather, but five days to a week is recommended. Both black and grizzly bears are common in Wells Gray Park, but encounters are rare. Nevertheless, it is recommended that you take a can of bear spray.
Lodging: There are a half dozen moderately priced motels in Clearwater and several lodges on the Clearwater Valley Road, including the famous Helmcken Falls Lodge. For more information, contact the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce at (250) 674-2646 or ntvalley.com/clearwaterchamber.
While You're There: On the Clearwater Valley Road you won't want to miss the short hikes to both Dawson Falls and Helmcken Falls. At the latter, the Murtle River drops 462 feet, making it the fourth-highest waterfall in Canada. Most of the large mammals inhabit Wells Gray Park, including moose, deer, caribou, wolves, lynx, and mountain lions. There are also beavers, otters, marten, eagles and ospreys, as well as waterfowl such as scoters, mallards and mergansers. Most of the larger animals are very elusive. We did see one mountain goat on the slopes below Mount Huntley.
Outfitters/Resources: Clearwater Lake Tours offers boat tours and water taxi services on both Clearwater and Azure Lakes, as well as canoe rentals. Call (250) 674-2121. Canoe Trips British Columbia, by Jack Wainwright, published by Wainbay Enterprises, is a good guide.
Erich Volkstorf is a freelance writer and photographer in Seattle.
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