PADDLING MEMORY LANE – by Tom Madill
My first trip into Trembleur Lake was in the fall of 1985. Along with my brother Alan and a friend we took two, small, outboard powered boats up the Tachie River, the waterway connecting Trembleur and Stuart Lake. It took most of a day to travel the 19 miles of river as we cautiously threaded through the rock gardens and labored up the rapids. Over the years we re-visited Trembleur many times. With each passing year the boats got bigger and faster, more comfortable too. From 14ft, aluminum car-toppers to 22ft riverboats with inboard V8 engines, jet drives, radio telephones and back-up motors for emergencies. In 1996 I got interested in kayaking and then addicted my brother to it. I built a kayak from fiberglass and plywood and he bought a plastic boat fondly dubbed “Tupperware.” Separately and together over the next few years we did a fair bit of paddling and short kayak camping trips.
Quite often we talked about doing a trip to Trembleur Lake by kayak. We would come down stream on the Middle River from Takla Lake to Trembleur, and then paddle the Tachie to Stuart Lake. Finally in 2002 we decided, enough talk, we’d do it in the fall. We set a date in mid-September for our trip.
Trembleur Lake is near the northern edge of the Fraser River watershed. It is about 25 miles long and 4 miles at its maximum width. The northern shore has a chain of quartz streaked red rock cliffs that guard sandy beaches tucked into bays and coves between the cliffs. The eastern end of the lake where the Middle River emerges and the Tachie exits is relatively shallow and during periods of strong westerly winds waves over seven feet pile onto the shore there. At the northwestern corner of the lake at a place called Honeymoon Bay there are a handful of cottages dating back from the 1945 and 60’s, mostly abandoned and unused now. Until 1999 the lake had no road access or boat launches so the only way in was by boat or floatplane. Because of that the fishing was about as good as it gets. I have seen pictures of a 22-pound rainbow that was taken out of there and 8 to 12 lb fish are common with very big char lurking down deep.
About 20 miles upstream on the Middle River is Takla Lake, a narrow fjord type lake, over a thousand feet deep, that lies at the very top of the continental divide. It is Y-shaped; about 60 miles long and has the Takla and Mitchell Mountain Ranges overlooking it. The water from Takla drains down the Middle River through Trembleur and Stuart lakes, down the Stuart River to the Nechako, and then hundreds of miles down the mighty Fraser River to the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver. The chain is the longest migration route of Chinook and Sockeye salmon in BC. This is the watershed of British Columbia’s northern interior. We often see black bears and moose and there are also grizzlies, wolves, deer, mountain goat, and caribou. Although it is showing serious scars from logging, away from the logging roads and clear-cuts, it is a beautiful area and you can still drink the water.
The riverboat years didn’t really prepare us for the travel light aspect of kayak camping. We had gotten pretty spoiled by being able to haul tons of gear with us: lawn chairs, chain saws, foam mattresses and propane lanterns.
This time we would have to pack light but we had better not forget anything: like the coffee or toilet paper. Once we were dropped off at Takla we wouldn’t have access to phone, VHF radio or any help until we passed the Tachie Indian Reserve at Stuart Lake days later. The two other small Reserves along the way are often unoccupied. In case of an accident or if we damaged a boat beyond repair we would have to walk out through heavy bush to a logging road miles east of our route.
Sept.13-On the road
After breakfast at Alan’s house we stuffed our food and equipment into his little station wagon. We had so much gear that we had to make use of the glove box, under the seats and even loaded some of our paddling equipment into the kayaks before tying them onto the roof. My brother and his wife headed out and I followed behind in my truck. We had about a three-hour, 150-mile drive north from Vanderhoof, through Fort Saint James, and on to our embarkation point at Takla Lake. Along the way we dropped off my truck at a friend’s place on the north shore of Stuart Lake so we would have transport at the end of our journey. We then continued on north along gravel, logging roads, dodging potholes and watching warily for logging trucks. It was 4pm and threatening rain when we passed the mouth of the Middle River at Takla Lake. We continued on up the road a few miles to a spot where we could camp and get our kayaks down to the shore. We quickly unloaded the car and packed the boats down to the water. It was an awfully, big pile of gear. My sister-in-law drove away to return home and by nightfall we had our pre-cooked chili supper heated up, some firewood gathered, and the tent and tarps set up under a handy spruce tree.
Afterwards we sat around the campfire having a drink and talking about past trips we had made into this area. Before turning in the conversation turned to my favorite peeve. I figured we had brought along way too much gear to fit into two 16ft kayaks. My brother, the eternal optimist, didn’t see anything wrong with packing along his huge, favorite, aluminum coffeepot, as opposed to drinking instant. Or his bringing a pillow, or wanting to bring a dozen cans of beer each. Which we did, by the way, and a plastic bladder of wine as well. I also gave him a bad time about bringing his rechargeable, electric razor. In the days to follow I would have to eat crow each time I asked to borrow it. Some things we definitely should have taken were spare paddles, extra sunglasses and a better hand saw as mine broke on day two. Also, to save space, we took pocket cameras instead of good 35mm’s which was a mistake. It was a trip of a lifetime and it would have been smart to get high quality pictures even at the risk of losing them to water damage or whatever.
It was spitting rain and abnormally mild for September weather when we turned in for the night.
Sept 14-Down the Middle
Dawn was about 6:30 and we awoke refreshed and broke camp. Breakfast consisted of biscuits, hard-boiled eggs, and coffee. Damn good coffee, fresh dripped from freshly ground beans in Alan’s wonderful coffeepot. We proceeded to pack up and stuff our gear into the boats. It took several attempts but we finally had almost everything in. All except the coffeepot and a small cooler. A discussion ensued about who would fit it in. Al repacked his boat a couple of more times and finally threw the coffeepot into the cockpit of his boat to ride between his knees. I suggested that he could perhaps use it for bailing or a self-rescue float but requested that he not use it for a chamber pot. I strapped the cooler to the bungies on my rear deck and away we went. It was well after 9 and quite a bit later than we had hoped to get away.
It took about an hour to fall into the rhythm of paddling without having to think about it. When a rainsquall came from behind us we hunkered into our rain jackets and paddle braced against the gusts of wind and sudden waves sweeping down the river. After an hour or so we could catch glimpses of Mt. Sidney Williams 18 miles to the southwest. The Middle is a slow, muddy bottomed river and the sluggish current did not help us much. Around eleven-thirty the weather cleared and we stopped at a narrow, little beach for lunch. We were only about a third of the way down the river. Lunch was a beer, cheese, buns and deli-sausage. I stared wistfully as Alan packed the beer back into his kayak while he reminded me that pouring too much alcohol into your boat engine could result in poor mileage and sometimes-permanent damage.
After lunch the paddling rhythm started to take over. The miles slid by and Mt Sidney Williams drew closer. At about the halfway point we saw a cow moose just downstream and on the far side. Al drifted along and I paddled over to the marshes right in front of her. When I got within about 20 feet she panicked and sloshed into the marsh. Since the moose were probably in their rut I tried out a few moose calls. She walked back out of the cattails and brush and stared curiously at me while I clicked a couple of pictures.
A few miles further on we met a riverboat on its way upstream. The occupants, two natives, stared curiously at our kayaks as they went by. About 10 minutes later we heard a shot followed by 7 more. Half an hour later there was one final one. “Those fellows need a little target practice before they take off hunting” I told Al. “You should have blown your signal whistle at that moose instead of teasing her” he replied. An hour later we heard them coming up behind and then they passed us. There were four, brown legs jutting up out of their boat.
It was mid afternoon when we paddled by the mountain. By now we were getting worried about where we were going to spend the night. I had forgotten how swampy and overgrown the banks of the Middle were. It was too early to camp but even so we hadn’t passed one good camping spot. At 5:30 we were just sliding by the little, deserted looking Indian reserve near the lower mouth of the river. Neither one of us could remember exactly how far from the lake it was. This was so different from the jet boating days when we could cover 10 miles of river in a mere few minutes. I was worried that we were going to run out of daylight before we ran out of river. Once we made the lake there would be no shortage of places to camp. There is an old lodge called Will-o-win not far north of the river mouth. A funny, rustic, old place that has operated in here off and on for decades; it has changed owners fairly often as each new one realized how hopeless it was trying to make a go of it in a place with no road access and a very short summer season. However it had a bunch of little A-frame cabins and that sounded much more appealing than setting up camp in the dark on an exposed eastern shore. Just after six o’clock we broke out of the delta at the river mouth and onto the lake, which was, thank heavens, pretty calm. We turned our boats westward and, although we were tired, paddled hard through the shallow water that extends out for a quarter mile offshore. It was almost dark and we didn’t see any light coming from where the lodge should be. It was probably closed: either permanently or for the winter but we knew that the cabins wouldn’t be locked. The rule up here is: use it if you need it, don’t abuse it, and leave as much firewood as you burnt. When we slid up on the beach at the lodge we realized why we had smelt charred wood and old smoke out on the lake. The main building and the cabins close to it had burnt to the ground, and not many days ago judging from the smell.
It was pitch black out now so we quickly checked out the remaining five cabins, picked the cleanest, and hauled our gear into it. Alan started our tiny one burner stove and began a stir-fry with pre-marinated chicken and veggies. This would turn into chicken fajitas on flatbread and boy, were they good. I poured us a glass of wine each, shook out our sleeping bags and got the little candle lantern going. We both eyed up the plastic bladder of wine wondering if we should have one more or if we have already drunk into tomorrow’s ration. Instead we took the flashlights and did our pit stops outside, checked that the boats were buttoned up and retired to the cabin. We were so tired that we didn’t even have our usual “after lights” conversation.
Sept 15-Down the lake
Next morning we were up early, both of us pumped up at being on our favorite lake. We chowed down breakfast in a hurry, filled a thermos with coffee, loaded the boats and pushed off. It was fortunate to have had a roof over our heads for the night but the burnt buildings were depressing and we were anxious to leave.
We paddled westward into a light chop that got gradually higher but with very little wind in our faces and it’s easy going. In a couple of hours we came to the beautiful, sandy beach that we camped on for a week in 1986. We pulled in for a pit stop and some coffee. Alan found the remains of a stone smokehouse that he had built out of rocks to smoke trout we had caught. In the course of that trip both boats had engine problems. The last breakdown, which we were unable to repair, was away up on Takla 50 miles from this camp were we had left our tents and food. I had to walk out to a haul road, hitch a ride with a logging truck, bring back my truck and trailer, cut a trail down to the lake to retrieve the boat, and then met the guys in the remaining boat two days later back at Stuart Lake. In the meanwhile, my buddies went back down the Middle to Trembleur, overloaded their boat with all the gear we had brought in two boats, and tore up their engine coming through the Grand Rapids on their way to rendezvous with us. As I laid against a log on the beach where our camp had been 16 years ago, puffing on my pipe, sipping my coffee, and admiring my kayak pulled up on the sand, I wished I had discovered kayaking a long time ago.
When we pushed off the beach and headed further down the lake the waves had increased in height to 2-3 ft straight out of the west. Al’s kayak, Tupperware, has a pretty slender nose and heavily loaded it tends to submarine a bit coming off a wave crest. Sometimes it looked like he was being supported by a red glow in the water. We passed Red-Rocky Cliffs which are streaked with seams of quartz that glinted in the sunlight. Another few miles and we pulled into a sandy cove with a boulder-strewn shore on both sides of it. It was only four o’clock so we had lots of time to gather firewood and set up a good camp. Steaks and roast potatoes for supper, yum. The paddling effort was starting to show on us greenhorns and not long after dark at 7:30 we walked the garbage a long way down the beach, to be retrieved in the morning, and then crawled into our sleeping bags.
Sept-16 Across the lake
The wind blew all night rattling the tarp above the tent and kept me awake. If the lake was too rough to chance crossing then it might mean sitting around all day waiting for a break in the weather or turning back and, hugging the shoreline, going down to the east end of the lake. We would then have to paddle around the end to come up to the mouth of the Tachie. It would mean an extra day, which we couldn’t afford and because it is shallow down there it gets very rough with a west wind blowing. The advantage would be that if we capsized we would be close to shore. We gave up trying to sleep as dawn began around 6:15, however as the light improved our moods didn’t. The waves were bypassing our little cove by 100ft or so but there were 3 to 4 ½ foot whitecaps marching down the lake out of the west. Trying the East End was out.
After eating and breaking camp, we loaded the boats, sat drinking coffee, and stared at the lake. Around 10:30 Al declared we should chance the crossing. I didn’t agree and probably because we were both pretty nervous, this began a debate that finally turned into a heated argument. We resumed drinking coffee and staring at the whitecaps but now with about a quarter mile of beach between us. Finally about noon after watching the middle of the lake through my binoculars (a poor way, as I discovered, to judge how big the waves are off-shore) I walked back down the beach to where Al was sitting and informed him that I thought conditions had moderated somewhat.
Now it was Alan’s turn to hedge on going out. Must be too much coffee I guess. So, we had a bite to eat and finally, around 2 o’clock, decided to head across. We agreed that if either one of us wanted to turn back to this bay then, with no argument, the other would comply. Our target on the far side, around three miles away, was a small island, which sits about 80 yards offshore. We were only about 200 yards out when I realized that it would have been very hard indeed to turn around and head back. The waves were hitting us from our right hand side and as we got further out we made quick turns to take the worst of them at an angle over the bows of the boats instead of broadside. It was exhilarating, and scary, with most of my kayak deck under water when I plunged over the tops of the bigger waves and into the trough of the next one. The water was hitting the side of my boat, shooting up my jacket sleeve, and running down the inside of my spray skirt onto my lap. We did not have spare paddles with us and when I felt the shaft of my wooden paddle flex each time I pulled hard to turn into a wave I mentally kicked my ass and promised the lake god that next time I would be better prepared. The expression on Al’s face was pretty grim reflecting the one on mine and I think if I’d tried to smile, I would have cracked my cheekbones. This wasn’t fun at all. Al was about 10 yards to my right and when he slid down into a trough all I could see of him was the occasional flash of his paddle blade in the murky light when he had to brace high into an oncoming wave. His progress slowed and I quit paddling once in a while and braced into the waves so that I stayed where I could see him. If one of us capsized it would be hard for the other to help if it meant making a 180-degree turn in these conditions. Considering the size of the waves I would have expected a lot more wind and was really grateful that it wasn’t blowing very hard.
As we got closer to the island we turned more directly into the waves to make sure that we didn’t drift past it. The waves were bigger on that side of the lake. I kept my face tilted down so that the water streamed off my hat and didn’t wash away my contact lenses. Finally we passed behind Mouse Island and immediately into quiet water. We looked at each other wide eyed and slack faced. We had made it! Holy smokes, what a long hour. After paddling onto the beach we got out of the boats, broke out our third last beers, and sat watching the lake and talking quietly. As I sat there, feeling good, the thought occurred to me that if I had been out there in one of my smaller riverboats I wouldn’t have felt any safer than I had in the kayak. We would have had wave tops breaking into the boat and fingers crossed that we would make shore before the bilge pump gave up. What had probably saved our behinds in the kayaks was that they were both loaded so heavy with gear, probably 90 to a 100 lbs each, and that made them very stable in the rough water.
Off we set again and although we stayed fairly close to the shore the following waves made me quite nervous as my kayak doesn’t have a rudder and is hard to control when it surfs.
Tupperware has a rudder and Al looked like he was enjoying himself for the first time that day. After about an hour the wind and waves moderated a bit and we rafted up to try using a jacket for a sail. It didn’t work that great but gave us a chance to relax and chat for a while. We had hoped to make the mouth of the Tachie but 5 o’clock and time to camp found us several miles away.
We pulled into the same, small bay we had camped in on our very first trip to Trembleur in 1985. Alan did his usual magic with the cooking gear while I set up our little tent and afterwards we sat around the campfire reliving the highlights of the day and finishing off the last of our dinner wine. I was so tired that when I hit my sleeping bag I didn’t even pause to worry about tomorrow’s journey down through the Grand Rapids and the Chute. I went straight to sleep.
Sept 17-Down the Tachie
The next and last morning of our trip Alan threw just about everything we had left for food into the frying pan for breakfast. It looked terrible but as usual tasted good. We changed our plans and decided to end our trip near the lower end of the Tachie where a logging road and bridge crosses it. From the far end of the Tachie down Stuart Lake to my truck was only about 10 miles. But if the lake blew up, (it is famous for it’s violent storms), we could get stranded on one of the offshore islands for a day or more and neither of us could afford the time. We quickly broke camp and loaded the boats, interspersed with numerous trips off to the bushes for pit stops. Al put it down to nerves and I put it down to our Mexican breakfast. It didn’t take long to get down the lake to the river mouth.
The Tachie is much different from the Middle River. Shallow and fast as it leaves the lake, it then has some 80 ft. deep holes where lunker Dolly Varden trout lurk. It has a heavily forested shoreline with spruce, cottonwood and a few lodgepole pines. At its upper end it gets quite wide in a few places but generally is about two hundred feet across. Salmon spawn on its many gravel bars. Our slow, meandering pace gave us much more refreshing perspective than rushing along in one of my old riverboats. How much more pleasant this was than having to keep my eyes glued to the river ahead scanning for hazards to my expensive boat. There were a few salmon spawning and splashing in the shallows and lots of eagles on the sandbars feasting on the dead spawners.
After a couple of hours we recognized the landmarks that meant we were just above the Grand Rapids. We paddled into the shallows and rafted up the boats so we could have a coffee, then zipped up our spray skirts and checked the straps on the hatches. The river gets very shallow here and drops fairly steeply, at one point splitting into two channels. The deepest and correct channel is the westerly one. On a previous trip, running downstream, I had taken the wrong channel, punching a hole in my riverboat and scaring the hell out of us when the outboard jet kicked out of the water with a tremendous roar.
Alan pulled ahead so if he capsized I wouldn’t run over him and then darned if he didn’t take the wrong channel. It was too late to yell at him and wouldn’t have done any good so I took the other channel and we met at the bottom with no mishaps. “You took the wrong channel, dummy,” I said. “Shut-up” he replied. “I noticed some red paint on a few of the rocks as I went past. Must be off one of your riverboats, huh?” The next section of rapids, about 200 feet long, has some 2-3 ft standing waves and a sharp turn at the bottom. I had been anxious about being able to make the turn without hitting the rock wall on the far side. I needn’t have worried, as the kayaks were unbelievingly easy to control and steer. When we paused at the next pool we both had face splitting grins. That was the last of the rough water we would have to be concerned about. Downstream were shallow spots and rock gardens where you had to be cautious navigating in a powerboat but nothing to worry about in our kayaks. We pulled out onto a gravel bar for lunch and toasted each other with our last beer. All too soon the bridge showed up and we threaded our way through big rocks to a landing site. While Alan stayed with the gear I thumbed a ride with a logging truck and was back in less than an hour with my vehicle.
Our trip was rushed but great nonetheless. It was very confidence inspiring to learn what both our kayaks, and we, can handle. Next trip we will give ourselves more time to explore, fish and lay on the beach. It is a shame to hurry through such gorgeous country.
Tom Madill lives in Summerland, British Columbia where he works in the marine repair and houseboat charter business. He has been kayaking for seven years and is a reformed jet-boater. firstname.lastname@example.org
Alan Madill (WiseOldCat) lives in Vanderhoof, British Columbia where he has a computer solution and Internet provider company. He has been kayaking for six years but not being fully converted has kept his canoe.