Whiteswan Lake, B.C. June 4
Succulent as scallops served on pea puree, Whiteswan Lake held my interest with its unique flavour. Everything I’d read about the lake promised a pleasing experience. Whiteswan proved an exceptional one.
The drive in, on a logging road off Highway 95, south of Canal Flats, heightened my determination to see the lake. We climbed steadily on a winding road, surfaced with crushed rock. Often, from the passenger window, I looked a hundred feet straight down, into a treed gorge, where water dancing over rock, played peek-a-boo with me.
After driving approximately fifteen kilometres, we came upon a tiny picnic site at the side of a small lake. Disappointing – you bet. Though it was pretty as a bluebell in a patch of scrub grass, it would take all of ten minutes to circumnavigate. Den, who did all the ferrying, suggested we drive further. This can’t be it, we decided with more hope than fact. The rain, till now, just spitting damp spots into the dusty road, took an interest in wetting everything. Go on or turn back? The consensus was we were paddling this lake, no matter what.
Our reward for perseverance soon appeared – a long stretch of water flanked by mountain vistas on all sides. As we drove down the south side of the lake, we passed several small picnic areas, and even a small marina and cement ramp. However, we continued around the east end of the lake to Whiteswan Provincial Park, a quarter of the way down on the north side. With the ceiling hanging low and gray over the lake, we kitted up in our wet weather gear and launched into a light crosswind coming down the length.
We decided to cross into the shelter of the south shore, and in our usual inexplicable style picked the widest part of the lake, then paddled on a diagonal, to make our route even longer. Ten minutes out, the rain stopped and I was boiling in my cold weather gear. Taking off clothing in a kayak is always a challenge. I managed fine until the leg zipper on my dry pants stuck, and I was forced to shore. Stripped down and paddling strongly I joined Barb, already intent on lining up a shot of me against the awesome mountain range to the west.
While I cruised the inlets along the shoreline, searching for magic in the smaller details, Barb took the direct route down the middle of the lake, scoping out the larger picture. She explained it allowed her to keep up with me, as her Tsunami was heavier and flatter than my Perception.
At the west end of the lake we found shallow water, the surface smooth as a shaving mirror, surrounded by the prickling growth of reeds. Fallen leaves formed intricate patterns on the sand bottom. Here the various bird songs coming from the fir locked shores, formed a playlist of nature’s best. We met up with Den, and ate lunch at the small marina we’d passed earlier. Unwilling to end the glorious experience, we decided to circumnavigate the lake, and Den, as patient and affable as ever, agreed to drive back over the rough road to the Provincial park again.
Off we went, paddling up the north side of the lake. There were few people on the water. I spotted only two fishermen, and a family of three in a canoe the many hours we paddled. At times, the silence and beauty created moments of rapture that stilled my breath, or shocked out an explanation of delight.
Loitering, we continued our tour of nature’s art gallery. A tree trunk split by lightning became a dramatic sculpture. Mountain streams formed gushing waterfalls as they leapt across the rocky edge to join the lake. Rocky abutments loomed like unfinished works.
Then long shadows floated beneath us, again and again. They were large fish, eight to ten pounds, swarming along the north shore. Clusters of five, three, seven were clearly visible against the pale sand bottom. In ignorance, I called to a nearby fisherman, “Here’s the spot. There are fish everywhere.” “They’re spawning,” he called back. “What kind are they?” I asked. “Trout.”
Indeed Whiteswan lake offered magic and miracles. When we arrived back in Invermere after a blissful day on the water, I felt certain our sublime fish course would lead into a delightful entre.
Paddling in B.C.
Driving west of Invermere on the way to Panorama Ski Resort, you come across the sweetest little lake. It won’t give you paddling for a day, but a few tranquil hours are there for the taking. There’s clear signage on the highway, announcing a public park, which offers a small boat launch and parking lot for easy access.
We found this piece of water in a serendipitous moment. Driving into Invermere, late morning of June 3rd, we had every intention of paddling Windermere in the afternoon. We found white caps bounding down the length of the lake, racing before a wind gusting 40 kph wind. Concluding we wouldn’t get a warm-up paddle (first of the year for my companion), but rather a hard pull, we looked for something less demanding. Checking our maps, we discovered Lake Lillian.
Nestled at the base a mountain, where the Purcell Range meets up with the Rockies, the little lake is well protected from the wind. A few cabins dot its shoreline, but a great deal of the edge is swamp. The water appears brackish; but, I was surprised by the stretches of sandy bottom, clearly visible. Big schools of good-size minnows swam among the reeds at the north end, explaining why the locals brag about the fishing.
Along the east side there is a protected nesting site, extending back into the woods. We circled the lake several times, enjoying the clean pine-scented air and glassy water.
Some unique fungus growing from downed trees caught our attention, as did a soaring eagle.
For the first of our four day, four lake B.C. paddle, Lake Lillian proved a stimulating amuse-bouche, sharpening our appetites for the next course in the meal.
We’ve had almost a week of wind, some gusting as high as eighty kilometres an hour in the past few days. This mighty force has kept me off the water. I don’t mind riding waves, but when I can’t turn my kayak around, I know I shouldn’t be out there. So what do you do when the season has started and you’re not on the water?
I put time into cleaning up and checking my equipment. I just vacuumed the accumulated sand out of my kayak, and cleaned the hatches in preparation for loading them. My next overnight camp is some weeks away, but I do like to carry spare parts. You never know when a tarp, rope or bungee cords will come in handy.
I also like to use a de-oxidiser to polish it up after a good wash. I’m fortunate in that I can store my kayaks inside, so I don’t have to worry about excessive weathering; but sun damage is a given after long days on the water.
Another thing I check is the smooth running of my skeg. Often pebbles and sand build up in the track, when I haul it onto a beach. If you don’t have it cleared before you’re on the water, you’re stuck with two choices, do without, or return to land and clean it out.
In an ideal world, all this clean-up would have taken place in the fall, but I have long since stopped berating myself for things that don’t get done for good reasons. It’s enough to know I’m ready now.
With everything tightened, cleaned and set to go, it’s just a matter of waiting. The wind will blow itself out. The whitecaps will lose their sharp edges, softening into ripples, and I’ll be on the water again.
My kayaks below. Top to bottom: Joy, Bubba, Balance, Serenity.
Seldom do I head out in my kayak, without taking a thermos of tea and a snack with me. Usually the food is enclosed in a Ziploc bag and tucked inside a fanny pack that I wear in front for easy access. As it also holds other essentials like sun screen, bug repellant, and tissues, it is a handy accessory.
Most often I head into the wind, choosing the hardest paddling for the first part of my session. I have a set time on the water, and know at the half way mark I will turn around. Now, the reward. With the wind behind me, and my kayak weather cocked, I rest my paddle and pull out my thermos.
I associate nature and nurture, so food is part of all my outdoor adventures. Tea on the water feeds not only my body, but my spirit. I soak up the sun and silence, breathe in air so clean it has no smell and breathe out my angst. As I sip a cup of black tea, and crunch a cluster of nutty goodness, gulls race each other down the river. Startled, a family of ducks takes to the air with a cacophony of quacking. Of course, they fly ahead of me, so my forward progress disturbs them time after time. Exasperated I move further into the centre of the river, hoping the distance will give them a sense of safety, and me the peace I crave.
By far the most beautiful and varied part of Saskatchewan is our sky. I lean back and watch as a flock of geese stich a black V across it. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch the lazy glide of a pelican, its white wings outlined by the deepest blue. The best treat, for me, is the constant slide show of sun and cloud, forming infinite shapes. Shades of blue and white combine; creating tie-silk patterns of lavenders and greys, misty blues and brilliant white. When I’m really blessed the trajectory of sun on water becomes a magical path I paddle into my imagination.
Drifting finished, I pack my thermos away, and with the wind assisting, make up for stealing from my return time. Tea on the water. I highly recommend the experience. Join me in spirit the next time you’re out. I lift my cup in a toast to any paddler who rests their paddle for a short while, to sip at life.
April 7. The ice was off the river. The sun was fighting through veils of stratus. The temperature five centigrade, meant hitting the water was a must. When I’m writing I don’t cut into my day with other activities. However, the old aphorism ‘rules are made …’ tapped at my mind. Rules are made by me, so I can change them at will, I concluded.
I wrote till 12:30. Peeks out my office window showed me the water was as smooth as ice just cleaned by a Zamboni. I couldn’t wait to get on it, but, “I’ll just grab a quick bite of lunch”, seemed sensible. Then I could stay out longer.
By 1:00 pm my darling husband had helped me load, and took me to the marina, the only place to launch at this time of year. The river was low, and mud banks extended for fifty feet before you hit water. No way was I dragging my kayak through mud – been there, didn’t like it.
I readied my kayak, starting through my first of the year checklist: paddle, PFD, gloves, jacket, phone in waterproof pocket, skeg working, sponge, pump, throw bag. Straddling my kayak, I backed it down the cement pad until my heels touched the edge of the water, then pushing back, and dropping in, I launched. It took a few seconds for my bow to clear the pad, so I wobbled precariously, my feet poking out both sides like the halves of a paddle pointing skyward.
A dark band of clouds lay along the horizon in the west. Just as I backed away from the shore, the moving front thrust a tumble of cumulous down the river, pushed by a 40 kph wind. I couldn’t even turn the bow of my kayak, couldn’t aim for the mouth of the marina. I ended up paddling inside the marina, but immediately had a new challenge. For the winter, all the piers had been tied to the shoreline with yellow nylon rope. Either I had to go over them, lifting my skeg each time, or under them pressing my face on my deck. I circled the marina, as the wind whipped up waves, even in that sheltered water. Over, under, under, over. After half an hour of this water dance, I gave up and headed for the launch. I drove my kayak up on the mud and debris, and managed to lift myself up and out, even though I was on a steep grade. I wobbled like a hula doll on a convertible dash. Hefting my body out of a kayak gets harder each year.
Loaded, we started the short drive home. Instantly, the wind dissipated. The black clouds moved past and the water calmed. Yikes! It’s hard not to take it personally, when every time I go out the wind comes up. I decided last year to give up on my pity party thinking and change my attitude. Now I say the wind loves me, and greets me the minute I hit the water. Sometimes it’s like the cousin who’s thrust on you, when you least want them around. But often, it’s content to say hello, chat a few minutes, and move on.
The weather was iffy, rains showers for the next three days. I had a torn hamstring. My paddling partner was recovering from a back injury. To go or not to go? Based on past experiences of trusting you’d get the best conditions, if you took the risk, we decided we’d meet at St. Mary’s reservoir, 2 pm on Monday, August 8, 2016.
The sky was clear when Den and I headed out in our truck with two kayaks (Joy my 14.5 Perception and Bubba (14.5 Tsunami) plus my camping supplies. I indulged myself by throwing in a canvas chair, as we were setting up a permanent camp.
At Lethbridge, I went on alone, driving southwest on the #5 highway to Spring Coulee (approximately 65 km) and then taking #505 west to St. Mary’s reservoir (about 12 km). We had chosen to camp in the Upper campground, so that we were close to the boat launch, and could leave our kayaks on the beach in front of our camping spot.
Barb, my long, time paddling partner was already there, had picked a terrific spot and set up a four star camp, with a tarp providing shelter from rain, a huge moveable umbrella to hide us from the wind, and two protected, flat sites on grass for our tents. Trees provided shade, and bushes privacy from the other sites.
We soon had our kayaks unloaded at the launch and headed down the eastern shore of what was a big body of water. The sun was out, the wind was down, and we had a good paddle for several kilometres along the beach, before we returned to our campsite for a long swim, in cool, clear water (slightly muddy bottom) and then dinner. The weather held, allowing us a peaceful evening in front of a crackling fire. NOTE: we brought our own wood, because reviews of the campground stated the only maintenance man didn’t get around to sell you the wood often. And we didn’t see him till day 2).
Morning heralded in blue skies, with little wind, and we were on the water by 10:00 am, planning to head southwest and round the tip of the peninsula separating the reservoir into two arms. As we paddled we could see the purple silhouette of the mountains clearly in the distance. We stopped along a sandy beach on the west side, for a break and swim, and then paddled around the point. Here we were treated to a lovely surprise, as a herd of horses sought the shade of old poplars along the shore. We dawdled, getting several photos and then continued down that arm of the lake till we reached the end. It was not as long as I suspected, and we reversed direction and headed for the main channel, aiming for the east shore.
Clouds massed around the horizon by 1:00 pm, and the mountains were obliterated by low lying ghostly clouds, that crept toward us. The eastern skies turned black, and as we came back into the main body of the lake, and headed for our chosen lunch site, at Wally’s day beach, we knew we were in for a storm. Barb was all for heading home, but as the waves and wind quickly increased in volume, I hesitated, not wanting to be caught on the water in an electrical storm. That hesitation made the difference between my being able to paddle against the wind, to round a peninsula that thrust out between us and our campsite further down. I didn’t have the power, with only a skeg and my arms. Barb was further out, and had a rudder and could have made it, but turned back when I headed for shore. We pulled our kayaks out of the reach of the greedy waves and ran for shelter, as the clouds opened and torrential rains descended. Another young couple who’d barely arrived for a swim and play with their two big dogs, headed for their car and drove away. We huddled under a huge, old poplar, using its exposed roots as park benches, on which to wait.
A short while earlier, we’d passed Wally’s campground, and had a shouting conversation with a young women, across the water. Now, her husband drove along the headland in a truck, waving us to come and get a ride. Our attempt to access him from the beach, was foiled by a five foot cut bank that didn’t allow us access, so we threaded our way across the long grass punching through sandy hillocks, and thankfully reached him and were driven back to our camp. He warned us not to leave our kayaks on the open beach overnight, because he’d just lost one, either to thieves, or high water.
We rested in our tents, and I was well into a lovely afternoon nap, regardless of the snapping of my canvas, when Barb announced the wind had gone down and she felt we should return and paddle our kayaks, then shuttle back for the truck. So off we went, but of course, the waves in this big stretch of water where still wild, the wind still gusting 50 km, and we ended up carrying the kayaks, and loading them on the truck.
Thinking we would drive to the lower campground the next morning and paddle along the St, Mary river, below the dam, we left them loaded. The weather cleared, and we had another delightful evening with swim, steak dinner and bonfire. I crawled into my sleeping bag around 10:30 pm but found I couldn’t sleep. By 1:30 am the wind was up, and a storm prowled closer. I could hear the long rumbles of thunder, then see the bright flashes of lightning through the nylon of the tent. When it started striking right overhead, I ran for my truck, wanting good rubber tires under me. I spent the rest of the night in the truck, while it rained steadily, and I dozed fitfully. Early morning the rain stopped, and I started sorting through the wreckage inside my truck, and packing. The clouds were down to the ground, and I could tell the system had settled in for the day. As I had planned to leave at noon anyway, I decided I might as well get on the road, after helping Barb pack up all her gear. This was probably a poor choice, as she would have been better to stay snug and warm in her tent and pack at her leisure. My insistence in helping meant we both packed in another heavy rainfall, and drove away from St. Mary’s with good memories from the first two days, but little closure. And the rain pounded down.
I would certainly recommend this area for other paddlers, who want a fixed camp (you can’t set up except in the designated areas) and a lot of good water. We had the campground almost to ourselves, with only two other families stopping on two different nights. There was more activity around the boat launch and pier, as families came over from the upper campground to enjoy various boating activities. The prairie stretches for miles around the reservoir, but there are enough rolling hills, rocky beaches, cut banks, and trees and bushes to provide shelter and breaks in the scenery. The river below the dam winds through a steep canyon, and would have been an interesting day paddle, I believe. Hopefully, we’ll meet up there again, and fit in the rest of the water we didn’t cover this time.
The trip provided just what most paddlers want: a few surprises, a little drama, the feeling of being fully alive and involved, and the satisfaction of overcoming those obstacles tossed down in front of you.