The Ultimate B.C. Staycation Guide: Turner Lake, the Greatest Canoe Trip You’ve Never Heard Of

The Bowron Lakes are great, but if you want serious solitude it's time to look west.

By Andrew Findlay

The engine sputters to life, and I put on the headset to dampen the telltale roar of the de Havilland Beaver’s radial piston engine. Soon we’re taxiing along the rippled surface of Nimpo Lake. The pilot throttles up. At first, the floatplane seems to plow water sluggishly, then it quickly gathers speed. The pontoons skip, suggesting flight, and before long we’re airborne, temporarily leaving behind our wives and kids waving on the dock. The vast Chilcotin Plateau unfolds beneath us, a tapestry of lakes, marshy wetlands and dense young pine forests in a constant cycle of recovery and renewal from forest fires and beetle attack. To the southeast, the crown of Monarch Mountain is secluded in cloud. Whenever I strap into a Beaver, it usually means good times lie ahead.

We are bound for a two-family, six-day paddling adventure on the remote Turner Lake Chain, a string of seven lakes located in southern Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. It’s our back-to-school gift to the kids: the gift of being immersed in the wilderness of B.C.’s largest provincial park—at 9,800 square kilometres, it’s an area almost the size of Hawaii’s Big Island. 

Tweedsmuir AirFor canoe rentals, flights and campsite and cabin bookings, contact Tweedsmuir Air Services.

It takes two flights from Nimpo Lake to shuttle eight people and a week’s worth of gear to Turner Lake, the largest of the seven. If the sound of a Beaver evokes the enchantment of frontier B.C., then the silence that follows after the plane leaves you behind is equally as evocative. A trio of grey jays circles curiously as we begin shuttling our waterproof bags and packs to the three rustic cabins that make up Tweedsmuir Wilderness Camp. The camp sits at nearly 1,100 metres of elevation. It’s single-digit temperatures that night, so we enjoy the luxury of woodstoves and cabin accommodations.

The next day we’re underway, skirting the shoreline toward a lush estuary at Turner Lake’s southern end. After 20 minutes of easy paddling, we pause to speak with a Montana couple enjoying their morning coffee next to a crackling fire.

“We’re flying out today. We haven’t seen any other people up here,” the man tells us.

They are the last other humans we will see for six days. Someone had told me Turner Lakes is one of B.C.’s best-kept paddling secrets. Now I get it. Late in the afternoon, after our third mini-portage of the day, we paddle down Junker Lake, propelled by an exciting tail wind. Small whitecaps splash over the canoe’s bow. The acrid smell of a distant forest fire tinges the air. A smoke haze gathers on the northern horizon.

South Tweedsmuir Provincial ParkWhat it’s like to canoe on Turner Lake in South Tweedsmuir Provincial Park: stunning views, no people.

An hour’s paddling brings us to a sheltered bay at the lake’s west end, where we find the trailhead for the day’s last portage. The kids look for frogs in the lily pads while the adults begin the tedious task of unloading the canoes for the fourth time today. The kids groan when we load their packs up, but it’s a short walk on flat trail to our campsite on Widgeon Lake. If it wasn’t for glacier views and conifer forests, the white sand beach might fool us into thinking we’ve stumbled upon a slice of the Caribbean in the B.C. interior. Give a kid a lake and a beach, then let them loose. They drop their lifejackets and paddles and race down to toss stones, wade in the water and walk on logs. The adults set up camp and work on dinner.

The following morning breaks blue and clear. Winds have shifted and blown the smoke haze elsewhere. We linger over multiple coffees while the kids play on the beach and practice casting with a fly rod. A breeze ripples the surface of Widgeon Lake, so we load up the canoes with day provisions and start paddling into the stiffening wind. An hour of strenuous paddling brings us to a half-sunk jetty at the lake’s end. Soon, we’re walking rough trail between Widgeon and Kidney Lakes. Head-high blueberry and huckleberry bushes, plump with fruit and wet with dew, crowd the path. Landmines of fresh bear scat, purple from this berry abundance, dot the trail, an acute reminder that we’re in grizzly country with four little kids in tow. We stay close together, and I breathe silent relief when we reach the shore of Kidney Lake.

That evening, back at our perfect campsite on Widgeon Lake, the adults sit on the beach with cups of wine, taking in a magenta sunset. The kids play some sort of imaginary ninja game that has been unfolding for the past few days, using boulders and logs as an obstacle course. These are the dying days of summer vacation, and the kids are at home in this giant outdoor classroom beneath the expansive skies of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. For a moment I’m melancholy, thinking about September and the four walls of the indoor classroom that awaits them.

MORE STAYCATIONS: 21 Hidden Places to Hike, Bike, Paddle and Chill in Your Own Backyard