Sunday, 9 December 2012

SUP'ing the Sayward Forest Canoe Circuit

Goose Lake (Mohun North) July 2012 (looking towards the 1st portage ~3km further)
I bought my board from Island Long Boards 3rd week of July and then was out on it almost every day or evening after that. Learning to paddle, improving my balance and technique and having a whole lot of fun doing so. At the same time, it was becoming obvious to me that I could do and wanted to do a whole lot more on this board than just going for short outings in a small area.  

My first longer paddle was with Darcy and Scott and we went from Storey's Beach around Salmon Point and into Saratoga Beach. It wasn't a long paddle really, maybe 8 km's on a glass calm day. But it was long enough to give me a taste of leaving the harbour, to get out there so to speak. It  was enough to let me know what kind of paddling I really wanted to do.

I began to look for something more challenging. Somehow, the idea of doing a solo paddle of the Sayward Forest Canoe Circuit began to really grow in my mind. I began to seriously look into it. No one I talked to had heard of anyone who had done it on a SUP board before- so that made the idea even more interesting.

(from Michel Gautier's guide book)

The Sayward Canoe Circuit is a chain of lakes in a roughly rectangular shape linked by narrow channels, creeks, swamps and portage trails. The whole loop is 48km long with 41 km of paddling and ~7km of portaging. The longest portage is 2.2 km and some are as short as 100m. Most people take 4-7 days to do the entire circuit and that would be a relaxed pace with plenty of time for exploring. My board was not big enough to carry more than a minimum of overnight gear so I planned to do the circuit in two days with one night camped out- two nights if I had to. 

I didn't take a tent or any cooking gear, no book to read and nothing to sip on in the evening. A minimum of clothes, bivi sac, my 2 lb 'Blue Kazoo' down bag and some ready to eat food. My one luxury was a full length therma-rest.

I was going to have to cover a lot of ground on my first day and hope I wouldn't run into any problems I couldn't solve quickly and also hope I was not delayed by high winds on one of the big lakes on the way. This time around, I wouldn't have time for any side-trips.
And so it was that I came to be standing on the shore of Mohun Lake a little after 7:00 a.m. on August 20/2012 all set to go.

My board set-up for the  2 day trip (Mohun Lake)

             Map showing the first half of the route. I started at The Morton Lake Park boat launch

 It was a still and windless morning when I set off and no one else out there. Perfect. It's a really nice ~4.5 km paddle to the end of Goose Lake and the first portage. This took me almost exactly one hour. Because I had cached my overnight gear at the start of Amor Lake on a recce trip a few days earlier, I only had to do the 1.6km portage to Twin Lakes once carrying my board, paddle and a light day bag.

The portage trails for the whole route are in really excellent shape and most canoeists use some kind of set-up on wheels to pack everything across in one trip.

I plunked my board in at the start of the channel leading to Twin Lakes. It is quite open and clear water at the start but soon narrows down into some pretty thick vegetation soup.

This first shallow and more swampy  part is one of the trickier sections on the whole route for  SUP'ing
This part is made challenging by having a fin on the underside of the board which catches both weed and the shallow bottom, plus there are three beaver dams to cross. You really don't want to get off your board going through here because there is very little to stand on that will support your weight. Even the shallow bottom is really just a layer and not really a bottom at all- as I found out the hard way when doing a recce of this section a few days earlier.

By moving right up near the front of my board, I found that lifted the fin high enough out of the water that I could keep moving and only needed to step off on the beaver dams which are solid.

Nicer part of the channel leading to Twin Lake

Following along the shoreline on my left, it didn't take very long to cross Twin Lake and land at the small Forest Service campsite at the end of the lake. This site is accessible by road and is only 4km off Hwy 19.

The start of the .8 km portage to Amor Lake is about 50m left and on the other side of the logging road. Two hours after leaving the Morton Lake put-in, I dropped my board in the water at the start of Amor Lake. I picked up my cached overnight gear there. From now on, I would need to do the remaining portages twice to get everything moved.

Amor Lake is often touted as the most beautiful lake on the entire route. With it's many white sand beaches and small islets, I can see why. Although I could see some of these tantalizing white sand beaches in the distance on my right, I didn't really have the time to go exploring over there, but I'll be back and spend more time at Amor Lake.

It's a really nice  4 km paddle to a very short 100m portage leading to Surprise Lake. This is where I met the first people I'd seen, a party of four from the southern part of Vancouver Island. They were 'surprised' to see me and my unusual mode of travel. One of them took the picture below.

Start of Surprise Lake
It's only a 1km paddle to the end of Surprise Lake and that marks the start of the longest portage on the circuit, 2.2 km leading to Brewster Lake. Much as I would have liked to socialize more with the canoeists, I couldn't linger if I wanted to be sure reaching my goal of being well past the halfway point in the circuit on the first day.

I had read on one of the on-line forums about the Sayward Canoe Circuit that one could save a few minutes by following the logging road portion that parallels the second half of the portage trail. I decided to take this advice and it worked out well. I reached the end of the portage with my second load 4' 45" into the day.

No sign of the next lake, so I just headed down the bushed in creek and trusted I was going the right way.

Start of creek leading to Brewster Lake

I really enjoyed these creek and channel sections of the circuit. Really interesting paddling and I never knew what would be coming up around the next turn. I just hoped it wouldn't be something like a mother bear and cubs.

Coming out of the confines of the bushed in creek into the openness of Brewster Lake was one of the highlights of the whole trip for me. Mirror calm and silent. I just paddled slowly out into the immense stillness of this place.

Start of Brewster Lake- a special place

The first few km's of the  5.5 km paddle to the far end of Brewster is really one of my favourite memories of the whole trip- just gliding along a blue silk surface of complete stillness. After such a beginning, I must admit to a temporary sag in my spirits, a jarring of my perceptions, a feeling of disappointment when I came within sight of a large cluster of boats, campers, trailers and RV's along the beaches near the far end of the lake. The easy road access to such portions of the route is somewhat of a mixed blessing.

The guide said to portage around the log jam at the bridge trestle near the end of the lake. I decided to take a look at it first. I didn't really want to unpack my gear and carry everything over the short portage and re-pack again if I didn't have to. 
I pushed and pried and nosed my way into and through the logjam without much trouble and was feeling quite proud of that accomplishment.

 Alas, that feeling only lasted a short time. It lasted right up to the moment I stepped off my board into the shallows a few feet  from shore at the end of the lake and promptly plunged in up to my waist in really, really deep mud. It was like quicksand in that the more I moved, the deeper I sank. When I tried to use my paddle to push down against something solid, it sank in right up to the handle at the top- almost 80 inches without encountering anything. So it was well over my head and I'd certainly never been in mud that deep before.

I now had moved in a single moment from the sublime at one end of  Brewster Lake  along with the paddle mastery of the logjam to the frankly ridiculous Mr. Bean like situation at the other end. Fortunately, I had a firm grip on my board which provided the only means I had of getting out of this mess on my own in a reasonable amount of time. 

 Otherwise, I could have been stuck there quite awhile. Even with my board, it was quite a struggle to make any progress-especially while trying not to lose my sandals in the process.
It would have been hard on the feet to do the rest of the circuit with no footwear. I had to first get a portion of my upper body onto the board before I could get the leverage to even  try to extricate my lower body. Although solid ground was only 10-12 feet away, it felt like a mile in terms of the effort I had to make. It was exhausting work- and I was really, really glad I didn't have an audience. Although it would have made for a humorous video.

Beware this place!!!  The innocuous looking diabolical, bottomless mud-hole at the far end of Brewster Lake

Aftermath of the great mud battle.

I was thoroughly humbled, somewhat rattled and covered with mud by the time I finally pulled myself out of there. I got myself and board cleaned up as best I could while  trying to reconnect with what little remained of my 'competent outdoorsman' ego. I then started a mixed section of creek paddling, short portages and hauling over beaver dams while making my way to Gray Lake.

 Map showing the second half of the route.

I now felt good about my progress. I was clearly past the halfway point and there was plenty of daylight left.  Thankfully, there were no further challenges of the mud pit kind and I made good time paddling and portaging the next three smaller lakes-  Gray, Whymper and Fry.

Whymper Lake

I had been thinking about spending the night somewhere in this area but when I got to Fry Lake, it was RV and camper land again so after a snack stop at Fry Narrows, I kept paddling out into Campbell Lake.

I had been on the go now for just over 9 hours and was further along the route than I'd hoped to be by the end of my first day. It was time to find a place to stop for the night. All the road accessible campsites along the shoreline had people and vehicles there, so I kept paddling on. There was no one at the one campsite with no road access ( C-1 on the map) so I landed there for the night; 9' 45" since leaving Morton Lake.

Oh yummy, a can of sardines for dinner- which actually tasted very good. Yes, I did have more than that. But there was no hot chocolate, no glass of fine Malbec to sip while watching the light of day's end slowly fade from the water's surface nor any special 'someone' to snuggle up with. Life was good all the same and life was simple. At least I wasn't still stuck in the mud pit. I was quite happy to be where I was. I did make a small fire in the pit there, as much to announce my presence to the herd of man-eating bears that my imagination was trying to create as to enjoy the warm companionship of the fire as the coolness of night came on and stars began to show.

I slept in my bivi-sac on the beach. I woke up at some point during the night and looked up into a vast expanse of  velvet black sky and a billion stars blazing overhead. Think Van Gogh's 'incredible painting, 'Starry Night.'  The great sweep of stars above my little bivi-site at the water's edge that night was simply astounding.  Astounding! I lay on my back snuggled in my down bag,  toque on my head and just gazed up into the infinite depths and distances of the Milky Way. I was filled with an amazement, reverence and wonder. beyond words. There it all was. Just where  it  is all the time. Patiently waiting for me to find a moment in my 'oh-so-busy'  life to gaze up into the great and awesome mystery of it all. Where have I been and what could be so important that I haven't made time for that?

When I woke up early the next morning, there was already a freshening breeze blowing on the lake and it was going in the direction I needed to go. Traveling so light, I was out of my sleeping bag, fed, packed and on my board in less than 15 minutes. Cool still, but warming enough to set out again wearing only sandals, shorts and a tech shirt.

It was a really nice downwind run and took almost exactly one hour for the 5.8 km to Gosling Bay and the start of the next portage. This stretch could be hard work if a strong wind was coming from the other direction, but there were bays and headlands one could work with to still make progress.

The downhill run on Campbell Lake to Gosling Bay

Just after landing at Gosling Bay, I had my only unpleasant human experience of the trip. Carrying my stuff up the dirt road through the campsite, a huge dog suddenly came charging out at me from the porch of an old RV. The dog looked to be a cross between a pit bull and a rottweiler. Big, black and aggressive. I stopped and fortunately for both of us, the dog stopped too. Perhaps it sensed my lack of fear due to the large canister of bear spray I had my hand on- ready for a quick draw if it came down to it. I did not want to get bitten.

After sufficient barking and growling to wake everyone in the whole campsite up, the door of the RV opened and out came the owner. He had obviously just been woken up and looked about as friendly as his dog. 'Morning,' I said- in a tone keeping with the situation. 'Morning', he replied- obviously not a happy camper at that particular moment.

"I'm coming back in about 20 minutes to get my board," I told him.  As in, 'Keep your f'nn dog under control!'  He didn't say another word, just called his dog off and hauled it inside- slamming the door shut. I thought, 'What if instead of me, it was a small child who got up early and wandered down to look at the water?'

It was a steep hill climb up the road for a good portion of the 1.1 km portage leading to Gosling Lake where I dropped my gear. When I returned to get my board, I smiled with wicked delight at hearing the dog the RV go into another bout of frenzied barking- thinking of how nice that must sound to a grouchy man inside. No, I'm not proud of that sentiment- just human.

Start of Gosling Lake

Gosling Lake is a narrow lake and about a 2.5 km paddle to the next portage. There's a small campsite on the left side about a third of the way down- marked Gs2 on the map. No RV access there. A short .2 km portage led to Higgins Lake.

The 'Water-Shield' garden paddling of Higgins Lake

Higgins Lake is small but beautiful- another place I'd like to return to with more time to spend there. Another short portage leads to Lawier Lake.

Lawier Lake

Another short paddle, another short portage and then I launched a final time back on Mohun Lake now for the final ~5km paddle to my starting point of the day before, Morton Lake Park.

There was a stiff wind blowing straight into my face for the first ~3 km of this portion and it was the hardest paddling of the whole trip. I stuck as close to the righthand shoreline as possible, getting what little shelter I could from the wind and whitecaps. No pictures from here and somewhere along the way, my water bottle got washed out of it's bungie cords.

I just kept going- digging hard and repeating like a mantra, "Starbuck's! Starbuck's! Starbuck's!" The morning without a coffee to start with was beginning to catch up to me. The wind kindly relented and quite suddenly dropped right off for the last 2km to the end of my trip.
"What, no media scrum to greet me at the end of this historic journey!?" And I had my speech all prepared too.

The section from my camp at C-1 to the the take-out at Morton Lake Park took only ~5 hours, so really- the circuit just took a day and a half.

A wonderful trip to do on a stand-up-paddleboard, I highly recommend it.

If you would like any further information about SUP'ing the 'Sayward Forest Canoe/SUP Circuit' feel free to contact me at 

Paul Kendrick 

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up! I have been thinking about doing the loop on a board since last summer, since I first stepped on one. I have my own board now, and will have to do this next summer. I have done it twice in a canoe, but something about going ultra-light on a SUP appeals to me so much more. I have an inflatable, which would unfortunatly require me to bring a pump along too, just in case. Too bad you beat me to be the first to do the loop on a SUP:)