August 10, 2017   Joe Cline

From the August 2003 issue of 48° North by Andre Vryheid

Exploring British Columbia’s largest body of water in a 17′ Siren sailboat, following MacKenzie’s route of 1793.

I purchased a 17-foot Siren eight years ago. Since then I have been exploring progressively larger lakes as well as many of the smaller ones in the Western Canadian Provinces. From Ghost Lake, Alberta, where I live I have visited Minewanka Lake in Banff National Park, the nearby Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes and the much larger Lesser Slave Lake northeast of Edmonton. In Southern British Columbia I have visited Shuswap, Okanagan, Revelstoke, and Kinbasket Lakes as well as Diefenbaker Lake in Southern Saskatchewan and the impressive Lac La Ronge in Northern Saskatchewan. In my search for bigger and better lakes I may have finally met my match for some time to come. Williston Lake is situated in Northern British Columbia and is the largest body of water in the province with an over all length of its three reaches of 220 miles and is up to 12 miles in width. Our route to the lake took us through the very scenic Icefields Highway in Banff National Park to Jasper, then we headed west to Prince George. Traveling north from Prince George you can either launch your boat at the town of MacKenzie on the Parsnip Reach of Williston Lake or as we did, continue to Hudson Hope and launch your boat on the Peace Reach at Dunlevy Provincial Recreation Area. Additional boat launches are available along the lake but are rough and can only be accessed by logging roads.

It was a cool cloudy morning when we launched our boat at Dunlevy Inlet. We had brought with us the journal of Sir Alexander MacKenzie, an explorer who in 1793 traveled through the Williston Lake area developing a route to the Pacific Ocean. He said about the Dunlevy area, “There were mountains on all sides of us, which were covered with snow: one in particular, on the south side of the river, rose to a great height.” He was referring to the 6,000 foot Mt. Gething which was appearing and disappearing behind the clouds. I would be following a portion of MacKenzie’s 1793 route the entire time I was on Williston Lake and planned to follow his journal.

Williston Lake is situated in Northern British Columbia and is the largest body of water in the province with an over all length of its three reaches of 220 miles and is up to 12 miles in width.

After setting up the boat, there was a light wind blowing and we set sails and headed out onto the main lake traveling west up the Peace Reach. Our depth sounder indicated 450 feet, a common depth in the Peace Reach. We set fishing rods out and in no time several small rainbow trout (1 – 2 lbs.) were caught and released. This set the trend for the trip, catching fish was easy and simple. We would troll a lure behind the boat no matter what speed we were traveling at and before long a fish would be on the line. The weather was cloudy and cool with several rain showers hitting before our lunch stop at Adams Creek. Completing our lunch we continued on to explore the six mile long Indian Head Inlet, spotting several unoccupied cabins on the shore. Under heavily overcast skies we set up camp on the West side of the mouth of Indian Head Inlet on a nice sandy beach, cooked dinner and headed for cover as it rained heavily all night. We had traveled a total of 25 miles the first day.

The next day, despite several rain showers the weather began to improve giving us glimpses of the snow covered peaks we were traveling through. We traveled by sail in the beginning of the day but as the wind died we were forced to start the motor, a somewhat slower and noisier method of travel. The Peace Reach knives directly through the Rocky Mountain Range providing spectacular views of snow covered mountains reaching steeply down to the lake, unusual geological formations, and numerous fresh clear mountain waterfalls. Having traveled 20 miles we set up camp under Muskwa ranges with a beautiful view of the east face of Mount Crysdale. Opposite our camp was Clearwater Inlet, a must see. The inlet goes in about five miles with very scenic views, narrowing andwinding at times through high cliffs only a hundred feet apart but with plenty of depth. There are numerous creeks and waterfalls coming into the inlet, halfway up the inlet Ducette Creek enters providing a narrow winding path between cliffs for miles with 100 feet of water under the boat. Clearwater Creek at the end of the inlet is large and travels through a broad valley extending south as far as you can see. This is also bald eagle country, we had seen several already on the main lake but the inlet allowed us many close views. We returned to our camp for supper. Later a beautiful rainbow formed over our campsite after a brief shower leaving us with a nice evening. My log book indicated that dinner was freshly caught rainbow trout baked on the fire, asparagus tips, and rice with mushrooms. Not bad for roughing it.


Camping at Muskwa ranges. White streaks are actually rainbows.


We woke up in the morning to low lying fog drifting down the valley with a brisk wind heading west, the direction we wished to travel. As the day progressed the weather improved turning clear and warm by the evening as we ran out of the Peace Reach and entered the junction of the three arms of Williston Lake. The wind now allowed us to move from a run to a reach and thus make great time in fairly large waves. The distance from the entrance of Peace Reach to our camp at Bob Fry Arm was over 20 miles and we set off not able to see our destination across the widest portion of the lake. While crossing the lake, it could be completely windless, but large swells would be evident which had been created 70 or 80 miles up the lake where we could see thunderstorms passing by in the distance. It is this distance that allows for the buildup of quite large waves in the lake when the wind blows creating fun and challenging sailing. Descriptions in brochures have strong warning of waves up to six feet and sudden winds along most of the lake. Alexander MacKenzie described the weather appropriately (admittedly he was traveling through in the spring) when he stated, “I never saw such a changeable climate. At one moment we are shivering with cold, and the next scorching with heat.” Fortunately, except for the junction of the three major reaches there are lots and lots of protected coves and inlets, usually with sandy beaches along most of the lake. The Finlay Reach is situated in a broad valley and is the widest reach on the lake. We had traveled over 55 miles that day, all by sail and were very pleased by our progress. There are numerous sandy beaches along the shores that extend for miles but the inlets tend to have some clay mixed in with the sand and we found it a bit mucky where we picked our campsite at Bob Fry Arm.

The Peace Reach knives directly through the Rocky Mountain Range providing spectacular views of snow covered mountains reaching steeply down to the lake, unusual geological formations, and numerous fresh clear mountain waterfalls.


We spent the next three days exploring the junction of the three arms of Williston; travelling through Ospika Arm which is 12 miles long with lovely sandy beaches into which many little creeks flowed. Omnieca Arm which is 18 miles long and has several interesting bays which are accessed by navigating through small channels. And last, Manson Arm which is 14 miles long. Although we observed wild life daily on the trip, the best was the day we traveled down to Manson Arm. We saw deer, numerous beaver who were loud in their disapproval of our presence, lots of eagles, geese, osprey fishing and sitting on their nests, and one young moose who swam across Omnieca Arm right in front of the boat. Manson arm had a few blackflies but they did not seem to bite, bugs throughout the trip were rare despite numerous warnings from people who heard we were going to northern B.C. Having the good fortune of an evening with a full moon and steady winds, we decided after our dinner at Manson Arm to sail south through the night on the Parsnip Reach which extends to the town of MacKenzie, named of course for Alexander MacKenzie. I was immediately taken with MacKenzies journal when he described in the first few pages how he hoisted sail on his birchbark canoes which were 25 feet long, carried 12 tons and could be hauled over land long distances by four men. Unlike my solid and reliable Siren, MacKenzie was constantly repairing broken canoes.

At sunset we stopped in Blackwater Arm, it was a busy place. There is a large logging camp and big barges are loaded with logs to be transported to mills. Although there is minimal recreational traffic on the lake, barges and other commercial traffic were spotted occasionally. The beaches were choked with driftwood and our visit was brief before we continued to travel on in the dwindling light. Because of our northern location it was very noticeable even in early August how late the sun sets compared to my home at Ghost Lake in southern Alberta. In early July there will be very little darkness. After four miles further sailing we found a delightful little inlet which had no name on the map but was located just below a fire lookout marked on the map. In the inlet there were numerous small coves with wonderful sandy beaches, we counted 20 as we briefly sailed in and out of the cove. Our next stop was at Christine Lake Creek, it is a short and very narrow inlet which is very pretty and very sheltered with high cliffs on both sides. Although it would be an ideal place to camp we were determined to make time as our trip was in its eighth day since we had left home. We sailed to the last inlet we would explore on our night sail, Lamont Creek Inlet. Sailing at night is a great pleasure for me, I find it a very peaceful experience and often sail quite close to the shoreline with the keel drawn most of the way up as the quiet nature of a sailboat will allow me to come across wildlife without disturbing them. This time I had the good fortune to see a moose and her calf taking a drink by the shore. Although we had planned to camp in Lamont Inlet, it was very pretty with several creeks entering and lots of osprey nests on old trees sticking out of the water, it consists of mostly rocky or clay shorelines. We decided to continue on despite the late hour (it had been getting light for some time) and a dying wind. Starting the motor we traveled three more miles to Pike Narrows, one of the narrowest portions of the lake where there are long sandy beaches. Despite the lack of shelter on the beaches we were too weary to continue on and we set up camp after a long and successful sail.

Rising late, it was hot and dead calm so we motored our way to the nine mile long Nation Arm. After traveling into the arm for three miles it becomes very narrow and a bridge and high tension wires have to be dealt with. My Siren was low enough to squeeze under but bigger sailboats will have to lower their masts. Soon after passing under the power wires the inlet opens up again into a mile wide and three mile long area. At the far southeast end we entered a narrow channel with high cliffs and 60 foot deep water. The channel opens again and we continued to travel up the Nation River another three miles, where even with the motor running full out and the depth still at four feet, I could no longer progress up the river and rapids were within sight. We pulled ashore on a small sandy beach with a view of the rapids and had a late lunch and swim. The weather continued to be windless and we motored back out of Nation Arm and stopped in at Cut Thumb Creek on the other side of the lake. There is a small campground and rudimentary boat launch there and we set up camp for the evening enjoying the luxuries of a picnic table and outhouse in the campground.

It was time to head back so in the morning we left very early and made a beeline back toward the Peace Reach. The weather continued to be windless and warm. On the way past Weston Arm we could glimpse a nice and very sheltered beach way back in the arm. Lunch was at a series of very small islands four miles past Weston Arm where the water is very shallow, sandy and warm for a long way out making it easy and fun to wade through the water exploring from island to island.

After setting up the boat there was a light wind blowing and we set sails and headed out into the main lake travelling west up the Peace Reach. Our depth sounder indicated 450 feet, a common depth in the Peace Reach. We set fishing rods out and in no time several small rainbow trout (1 – 2 lbs.) were caught and released. This set the trend for the trip, catching fish was easy and simple. Above: the author with dinner.


Soon after heading back out a tug came by, with a curious and pleasant man who’s job involved clearing the lake of driftwood which is chipped and used to make pulp for paper. There is a lot of drift wood on the lake and B.C. Hydro has had a ‘reservoir debris clearing program’ in place since 1968. Turning the corner into the Peace Reach we finally had a light breeze which pushed us up to Colin Creek which was worth our short visit. Colin Creek is a fair sized stream which cascades down large rocks through a steep ravine. At the very bottom of the cascade there is a 20 foot deep crystal clear pool with a small sandy beach to pull my Siren ashore. Standing on a 30′ rock beside the pool we could look straight down and see a foot long bull trout swimming around. As they are protected and thus catch and release only, we chose not to fish although catching him would be simple, he was obviously hungry and on the prowl. Having refilled our water container we headed back east through the Peace Reach. For some time we had run out of ice for the cooler which was okay as we had also run out of perishable supplies. On the trip out I had noticed a patch of snow that reached almost down to the lake and intended to hike up and refill our cooler so that we could take back a few fish to friends as gifts. It was fairly breezy and there was no place to park the boat safely so I was dropped off ashore to climb up. I had looked over the situation and decided the easiest way up was through the bush beside the scree slope where the snow had accumulated, well that was a mistake. I had to drag myself and the cooler through dense and very prickly bush for twenty minutes and ended up climbing above the snow and had to clamber back down to where I could chip out chunks of the heavily compacted and crystallized snow. I then saw that the trickle of water that came from the snow went down a virtual rock stair case and after five minutes was back at the bottom. We did pack a couple of fish into the ice the next day and even three days later as we arrived home there was no water in the snow. It was amazingly cold material. The prickly bushes that I touched with my exposed right arm that dragged the cooler gave me an odd sensation of pins and needles that traveled up my arm and through my shoulder until later that evening. We arrived half an hour later at Selwyn Creek where we set up camp on the sandy beaches that are in the mouth of the inlet. Selwyn Inlet was very scenic, it has mountain streams cascading down cliffs into the lake. The view from the campsite included Mount Selwyn rising 4,600 feet from the lake to its snow capped height of 6800 feet. High mountain meadows on steep slopes were visible. Looking out of Selwyn Inlet we could see both Wedge Peak and Advance Mountain on the other side of the lake. It had been a very long and tiring day and we had traveled close to 50 miles with my little 4.5 hp. outboard flat out all day and used a fair amount of gas. Fortunately favorable winds earlier in the trip gave us a surplus and I was to end the trip with almost a full five gallons of the 25 imperial gallons I took along.

Our first visit after departing Selwyn Inlet was Bernard Creek. We did a quick drive through of this one mile long inlet which has big cliffs with waterfalls cascading down and a large creek rushing through a small valley at the end. Although we were reaching the end of the trip and planned to travel long and hard again that day, three hours and numerous fish later a brief visit to Nabeschi River Inlet ended up being a prolonged visit. The inlet winds in for eight miles. A mile prior to the end of the inlet the West Nabeschi River enters crashing down rocks in a narrow ravine with incredible rock formations. I was able to drive the Siren right up to the white water below the waterfall. At the end of the inlet we made our way through cliffs which were very high and only 15 feet apart. Eventually I could no longer make progress against the current of the narrow East Nabeschi River and had to perform a nerve wracking back up for a while before there was room to turn the boat around. We stopped for lunch tied up to a log jam and could watch groups of small six inch trout swimming from under logs. If anything was dropped overboard they would immediately come over to investigate. Completing lunch we motored back out of the inlet into the main lake and faced a hard wind and large waves. We motored as the wind was coming directly toward us, it was fun but after over an hour we had only traveled three miles despite having the motor full out and were getting quite wet so we decided to pull into a cove below Black Bear Ridge. Earlier we had seen a pronounced sun dog and I felt it indicated that the weather was going to deteriorate and I was right so we were to set up camp for the last time.

Pulled out at Dunlevy Inlet after a trip of more than 400 miles.

We arose in the morning to gloomy overcast weather and immediately departed to make a non stop run under power back to the boat launch at Dunlevy Inlet finishing a trip of more than 400 miles. After taking the boat out of the water we went to visit the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, a worthwhile stop. We were loaded into a bus which drove down six hundred feet to the foot of the dam where the bus went into a tunnel through the dam where the tour began. Lots of impressive statistics and information are presented while touring the facility. For example, the powerhouse which is carved out of solid rock is 890 feet long and has ten turbines capable of producing over three and a half million horsepower.

Our trip was an unqualified success. Nothing went wrong and the weather on the whole cooperated. Part of this success is due to preparation. Prior to my trips I research the area, in this case getting information from the British Columbia Government, British Columbia Hydro, the library and internet sources. Because hydrographic maps were not available for this lake I purchased 1:250,000 topographical maps (some are in metric and some in imperial). It is important at all times to know both your location and the nearest available shelter in case one of the extremely sudden weather changes in mountainous territory occurs. I once was on Lake Minnewanka in Banff Park when it went from dead calm to 70 mph winds within three minutes, although that was an extreme situation it taught me a valuable lesson about mountain lakes and the ‘unexpected’, especially after I replaced the broken fittings. I carried an extra ten days food above and beyond the expected length of the trip, a substantial first aid kit, spare engine and sailboat parts and a small but very complete tool kit which allows me to do tasks ranging from fabrication of parts in both metal and wood to patching holes in the hull. As well I have a GPS and have recently acquired a Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). The most important safety feature remains common sense. Watch the weather. Be careful of wildlife. I always wear a survival suit or lifejacket while sailing. Risk must be carefully managed, rescue is a long distance, time and expense away, what may be reasonable behavior in a lake near civilization is not reasonable in the wilderness. You must be self sufficient.

Oh yes – I have not quite met my match yet. On next year’s trip I will be departing from Fort McMurray in Alberta and sailing about 1700 miles to Inuvik in the North West Territories. The trip includes passing through one of the ten largest lakes in the world, Great Slave Lake.