Sayward Forest Canoe Route Vancouver Island Canada

  • Updated: July 22, 2019
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

July 20th to 22nd, 2019
Sayward Canoe Route
Day 1: 9.5 miles Gosling to Goose
Day 2: 14.3 miles Goose to Grey
Day 3: 8.4 miles Grey to Gosling

The Sayward Canoe Route is a 48 -ish mile loop on Vancouver Island Canada involving 12 lakes connected with 13 portage sections where you have to transport your craft along trails and gravel roads. (This is actually much harder than it sounds!) It’s most commonly done in 3-5 days but we decided to hit it a little more aggressively and started at 4 pm on a Saturday at the southern end of Gosling Lake heading counter clockwise and finished about 2 pm Monday.

We ended up doing this route almost by accident. When planning our big 17 day road trip I'd come across mention of how amazing the cold water diving was off Vancouver Island and so we started to look for complimentary activities to justify the sizable drive out west from Banff. And since we had been itching to get out on another major paddle adventure after the awesome experience out in the San Juan Islands last summer this jumped out immediately when we came across it.

This was one of the major activities during out 17 day road trip across 8 western states and 2 Canadian provinces.  The previous few days had been spent in Banff and Jasper which were spectacular but our initial peakbagging plans had been scaled back due to the constant rain / snow.

After a rather disappointing brewery / night at a campground in Squamish and drove south to Vancouver before dawn to catch the first ferry over to Nanaimo. After a badly needed shower at a local rec center we spent an entertaining few hours at the Comox Valley Outfitters figuring out how to fit a rather large canoe and associated equipment onto and into a rather small car. And as an added bonus said little car was already overflowing with hiking, camping, backpacking, and diving gear.

Eventually the staff had the boat tied into the roof and declared we were probably good as long as we stayed below 80 km on the freeway. Probably.

Inside things were so tight we could only make it fit if I was driving with my knees jammed up against the steering wheel and Jen was in the passenger seat basically inside of the canoe cart.

The roads leading to the lakes were low clearance friendly but a heavily loaded Mazda 2 is on the lower end of that spectrum. I had to take a lot of care getting over some rather moderate rocks and despite my best efforts we did have a minor scrape or two.

We intended to start from Campbell Lake so our last day would end with a paddle instead of a portage but the road/vehicle situation caused us to declare the south end of Gosling Lake acceptable.

The area we parked wasn’t exactly marked as a parking spot but it was off the road and didn’t take up one of the designated camping spots so we decided to risk it.  Off came the boat it was time to start paddling.

Day 1: Gosling Lake to Goose Lake

There was a dock not far away on the south end of Gosling Lake and we carried the boat over and launched at around 4 pm. There was another canoe group that walked up right after us that were on the tail end of their trip having started at Mohun Lake a few days ago.  We beat them into the lake, launched majestically into the still water, and promptly ran into the reality that we were a lot more familiar with kayaking than we were canoeing.

With kayaks you have a double sided paddle and it becomes second nature switching back and forth and altering your stroke to keep you moving straight and efficient. In a canoe you have a single blade paddle and in our case two people who ideally wanted to still be in a relationship at the end of the trip.

Through experimentation we settled on me being in the back with Jen in the front and I managed to keep the boat going relatively straight through a combination of every few stroked either switching paddling sides (with a motion that would make a color guard proud) or mixing in a rudder motion. We found that the person in the front had relatively little impact on direction except for pushing off things when we came close to rocks or stumps.

Gosling Lake was a nice size for getting the feel of the boat without dragging on overmuch. Soon we reached the far shore (still a bit ahead of the other group somehow) and located the small yellow Sasquatch carrying a canoe sign that marked the continuation of the route. (Interestingly enough we came across several different varieties of signs marking the route so don’t get too concerned if you can’t find this specific one in any given area.)

Pulling the boat up onto dry land we went about figuring out the cart.

The cart is supposed to be the easier transportation option with the more traditional choice being carrying the boat on your shoulders. Our particular boat was a bit on the big and heavy side and so probably wouldn't have been ideal for this but we couldn't help but appreciate the ease in which the other group was able to just walk their slightly smaller boats down the trail.

With the cart you plop the boat down on it around the pivot point and ratchet it down with two straps. Easy right? Except that since the canoe has a flat bottom positioning can be a bit of a challenge and we had issues especially in the beginning with the boat going askew as it bumped down the trail. This meant we had to keep track of not just the direction of the canoe but also the cart. We ended up working out a system where the person in the back was in charge of aiming since they could make out the direction the wheels were pointed.

We initially thought to just leave the gear in the boat but that ended up being more work than it was worth. The extra weight made the boat unwieldy especially when we had to get it unstuck. We found it was much easier to carry the gear and roll the boat along as close to empty as we could manage.

For the first part of the loop we had a few gallons of water we were packing along vs trying to filter out of lakes of unknown quality. Also we had a bottle of wine, a bottle of champagne, and the usual tent, stove, and clothing items. (You know, the essentials.)

Unfortunately we brought only one large backpack and a series of smaller packs and bags thinking we could leave them in the boat which didn't really work out. Next time I'd bring two large backpacks and fit everything inside of those.

When the portage sections involved a road things weren't bad at all but especially the early trail sections for us were narrow with a lot of turns, small hills, and exposed branches which proved to be damn effective in holding us up. All in all we found portage to be a bit more physically demanding than anticipated and of course you have the whole relationship challenge as you have to work in hot sweaty and occasionally frustrating conditions for hours on end.

Fortunately you're never too far from the next lake to paddle!

As it turned out we ended up with the most difficult portage sections right at the beginning giving us a bit of a trial by fire. But we came through it still mostly speaking to each other as we happily tossed the boat into the next lake.

Higgins Lake started out with a minor obstacle course of logs and plants before opening up on the far side.

Jen spent most of the lake exclaiming loudly about how magical it was to be paddling through lily pads. I mostly just focused on trying not to run into anything.

The bad news is that the portage from Higgins to Lawlor is the most difficult section of the entire loop. It’s a winding trail with a fair amount of relatively minor ups and downs and lots of branches to get stuck on. (We were working so hard I don't even have many pictures!)

We reached Lawlor feeling slightly exhausted and wondering what we'd signed ourselves up for here. Fortunately the other canoe group caught up with us again and assured us that that section was probably the hardest thing on the entire loop.

Sure enough Lawlor Lake to Mohun Lake ended up being trivial involving a short section down a graded dirt road which felt downright glorious after the experience of the last two.

We launched onto Mohun Lake looking forward to a nice long paddle and not having to fiddle with the bloody cart for a while. This was also the section that the map showed as having promising camping opportunities for our first night.

The entire area was kind of odd in that there were RVs everywhere but camping around the lakes seemed to be frustratingly limited. Other than the marked developed campsites on the official map the vegetation along the shore was just too dense for any sort of dispersed camping. We found a few developed sites that weren't on the official map but for the most part what you see there is what you have to work with.

We had been eyeing a small island which looked like it would make for an ideal camp. And when we arrived it did look quite nice...except for the herd of screaming children that were running around on it. And the sites off on the western shore were also taken by groups with loud children. And sound carried well enough on the lake that even a normal conversation could be heard from a surprising distance away.

For the record I did find us a workable unmarked camp next to an old abandoned RV but Jen found it to be a little to horror movie -ish and insisted we continue on.

The water was glassy, the wind was calm, and we were having an amazingly pleasant time paddling except for the fact it was not after 8 pm and I was starting to get concerned we might not find an open site. When we passed through the constriction to Goose Lake and found all the sites there also occupied it started to look like we might have to just sleep in the boat.

Fortunately when we reached the northern end of Goose we found an unmarked but well established camp complete with fire pits and an outhouse. We pulled in a little before 9 pm grateful to be done for the day and spent a pleasant dinner beside the warm campfire trying to figure out what sort of critters were swimming around the lake in the distance (I'm guessing otters).

Day 2: Goose Lake to Grey Lake

The next morning the water was painfully smooth and it was with some regret that we loaded up the cart and set off down the trail.

The trails here were improved from what we'd hit yesterday though there were still a few rough spots here and there.

The lakes themselves were smaller in this section with a few being glorified oversized puddles requiring a bit of wading through muck

On the plus side navigation was pretty straightforward as previous boats had left a path through the vegetation.

Some sections were so shallow the water only came up to mid thigh.

Which was fortunate since we needed to heave work the boat over the occasional beaver dam.

By the time we finished these small lakes I was feeling quite tired and happily found a log to rest on for a bit while Jen made lunch.

It was no small amount of relief that we launched into Amor Lake and had a solid patch of paddling ahead of us.

This turned out to be Jen's favorite part of the trip especially with the mountain views off to the south.

Per the information we'd found online the section from Brewster to Grey Lake was sometimes passable with the boat. We were here fairly late however and didn't have high water conditions.

So yet another portage it was! At least for a short section.

We had really been hoping to make it down to Fry before we made camp but it was getting late and we didn't know what the sections marked on the map as rapids were going to be like. So we pulled over at the Grey Lake Recreation Site.

The campsite was nice and the neighbors were friendly locals who also happened to be doing the same route. We swapped information with them and then popped the cork on our champagne and enjoyed another lovely night.

Day 3: Grey Back To Gosling

Looking south from the rec area we could see a log jam and the remains of an old bridge or dock. The locals camped next to us said there was no way we were going to get through...and then sat there and watched as the stubborn americans made a go at it.

As it turned out it was just passable with a bit of precariously standing on logs to heave the boat past obstructions.

At the south end of Brewster Lake we came to the first section that the map marks as potential rapids. It notes that during normal water conditions you can sometimes paddle through if you exercise caution.

We were apparently a bit below normal water conditions as it was quite shallow and there were rocks sticking up all over the place. However we found that we would move the boat along easily enough if we hopped out and shepherded it along when things got too shallow.

There was something slightly ridiculous about walking the boat along like this but it turned out to be surprisingly effective and I soon became an expert at dynamically launching the boat into deeper pools while hoping back inside.

The area around Whymper Lake turned into some deeper channels and we were able to ride in the boat for a good while before reaching the second set of rapids which went much like the first.

Eventually we emerged at Fry Lake and settle back into the boat for a while.

This was the area we'd hoped to reach last night since there was another one of the water access only campsites. And it was a shame we didn't as the site was quite nice aside from being located across the water from a slightly loud RV campground.

It also had a rope swing which Jen insisted we stop and try.

After impressing her with my ability to do the most ridiculous (and painful) dismounts possible we eventually returned to our boat and continued south.

Just past the swing Fry is connected to Lower Campbell Lake by a section that was so narrow I thought for sure we were going to have to carry the boat. But as it turns out it connects.

Lower Campbell is quite large and we had been warned we might hit winds especially in the afternoon. And sure enough as soon as we turned the corner to head east we were fighting for every boat length.

We set to it and did our best to hug the shore to use whatever minor shelter it afforded. Along the way we passed several incredulous RV campers who were set up along the shore and would look at the wind tearing through the trees and then look at us inching along as if wanting to ask what we thought we were doing.

We eventually persevered and pulled into shore at Gosling Bay amid waves big enough that we quite nearly tipped over at one point.

It wasn't readily apparent where the route went from here and I inadvertently scouted a few RV campsites before realizing we just needed to exit at the boat launch and walk up the road.

Once we left the RV campground it was uphill but by now we were portage-y pros and the graded roads felt like heaven.

There was one turn that would have been easy to miss if we hadn't been keeping an eye on the map. You leave the road at a sharp curve and it goes down to a double track hiking trail before crossing a small bridge and bringing us back to where we'd parked.

Getting the boat back on Jen's little Mazda and fitting everything else back inside was yet another adventure.

After a long several hours of crawling down the road hoping the canoe didn't come loose or crack the cat in half we successfully returned the canoe at set off looking for food. And found out that while Canadians are a very nice people they really have no idea what mexican food is.

We both really enjoyed the Sayward Canoe Route and combined with the San Juan and Florida trips we're now more and more interested in finding multi day paddle trips.


You are going to want some sort of water shoe since you'll be wading out in the shallows quite a bit and ideally they are ones you can use for the portage sections as well. Jen and I both used our trusty Crocs (they should really be sponsoring me at this point) and they worked fairly well though the rapids had a lot of algae covered rocks that were a bit slippery.  I found myself wishing I'd brought the pair of Chacos I had at home since they have a bit better soles.

Expect wind on Campbell Lake.  It sucks.  Hug the shore, try and go early, and just get it done.

Portage is hard work.  We were used to backpacking and such and this trip kicked our butts.  Granted we were doing it a bit faster than most people but we both got major workouts.

Have all your gear packed in backpacks. That way you can quickly shoulder them and move the boat empty. It'll save you a good amount of effort.

Boat size: We had a Spirit 2 which we were comparing unfavorably to a humvee after the first few portages.  Based on what we saw others use I think we could have maybe gotten something a bit smaller and possibly just carried it on our shoulders vs fiddling with the cart. Though I will say it did prove to be a very resilient boat during some of the slightly shallow rapid sections.

Next up: Diving! In the cold and the murk of Vancouver Island!

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