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Boating the Shuswap: In Search of Women, Wine, and Wilderness

"Its stupid and crazy!" came the reply from the lady at the tourist information desk. "Why would you ever want to boat around the Shuswap in a 12 ft. boat for three days?"


Setting out to adventure in the little white boat. Copyright: Brian Southby, 1999."What could be better?" we thought. A little white zodiac outfitted with a 30 hp motor. A boat more stable than one twice its size with enough power to push us along at 50 km/h on a lake with over 1000 km of shore line. So we launched from Chase, British Columbia, off a little ramp at the mouth of the South Thompson, which drains the whole deal down into the Fraser River and out into the ocean. We loaded up the boat with enough food, water, and gas to be self-sufficient for three days; then we set off at full throttle. Of course we didn't make it very far. Everything was too perfect and the water beckoned us in for a swim.

After a quick dip in the center of Little Shuswap Lake, we continued up towards the real Shuswap. On the way we fought the rapids up the narrow channel connecting the two lakes. The boat took it with ease, flying over the churning river while dodging sandbars and shallows. Once on the main lake we explored the shoreline until we came across a mobile trailer sitting on a barge out on the water under a cliff. The sign read "General Store" and an assortment of boats were congregating between the mobile trailer and the steep cliff face on the island. Upon closer inspection we realized it was the local cliff-diving hangout (Copper Island) and people of all ages were leaping from various heights into the warm water.

We anchored away from the maddening crowd, swam ashore, and proceeded to see what else the island had to offer. Hiking trails circumnavigated the island and summited the peak. From a viewpoint we glimpsed what this vast lake had in store for us. Excited we moved on, but not before leaping off the cliff and back into the warm water where our little boat patiently waited.

Patiently waiting... Copyright: Brian Southby, 1999.After hours of exploration and frequent landings we reached Cinnemousun Narrows. This is the center of the lake, the waterways of which better represent a twisted x than a traditional round lake. From the Narrows, four different arms stretched out towards four different adventures. We were greeted by a flotilla of houseboats, many with a small fleet of rental toys tied to the back. These unattractive monsters, usually overflowing with partygoers, slowly plied the water. Most had all the amenities from a television to a Jacuzzi, yet other more primitive craft would tow a little hot tub behind on a little barge. Most of the partygoers and drivers were too plastered to paddle a canoe -- let alone skipper a large houseboat.

Positioned right in the Narrows were a couple more floating stores. Highly overpriced, but capturing the market because of convenience, these stores just swung in the wind at the meeting place of the Shuswap Arms. We boarded one of the stores in search of advice and were promptly pointed to a distant beach lined with houseboats overflowing with liquor and loud music. We headed out in search of women, wine, and wilderness. Landing on the beach, we saw a houseboat with a corporate logo splashed across the side heading onto the rocky beach. It appeared the gorgeous girls at the controls needed navigation lessons, but we weren't invited to help. We ate dinner entertained by the people in-and-around the boats. Out on the lake, a strange little ferry was listing to one side from the weight of a large camper amongst the cars. We said goodbye to a few people we had met and went to investigate. Desiring a good night's sleep, we moved on in hopes of quieter company and softer sand. Farther down the arm we came across a sandy beach and pitched camp as the sun set around us.

Showering with shoes under the icy falls. Copyright: Brian Southby, 1999.The next morning, hiking trails lured us into the thick forest. Unable to resist, we set off at a pace more typical of excited kids. The stream we followed led us to a cool, misty set of waterfalls and rapids. At the bottom of the largest waterfall, we slowly crept into the icy water for a swim against the current; we then found a seat on a ledge submerged below the falls. The perfect shower to start the day. Once back at camp we packed and set out for new adventures.

At the end of the arm were a small old-fashioned hotel, a ferry dock, and a campground full of hungover Americans. Newly attached to the highway by a long winding dirt road, this little town was much more crowded than seemed possible. Once again back on the water, we moved onto a deserted arm of the lake deemed unsuitable for houseboats. As we approached, planes circled overhead. Occasionally one would dip down into the water to reload its water tanks to combat the flames dancing from the side of the mountain above the lake. Boaters leaving warned us to keep off the shore in case we ran into large animals fleeing the flames to the safety of the lake. At the very end of the lake was a shallow flat with beautiful sand and shady trees. A few observers had gathered to spend the night and watch the orchestrated battle high above. These huge planes would circle around camp and reappear meters above the trees to perform perfect landings several hundred feet off shore. Refilling with water without so much as stopping, they would power up and reappear 15 min later for another load. Unaware of the pilots' intentions, unsuspecting tourists would dive to the ground in fear, much to the amusement of those who had already gotten over this fear.

The next day we went into Sicamous, the houseboat capital of Canada. Located along a wide channel leaving Mara Lake, Sicamous is the traditional jumping-off point of a vacation in the Shuswap. Here we refueled and swapped a few tales with the locals. The sun beat down and soon we wanted to be out on the comparatively cool water. Unfortunately time was running short and we set out to camp closer to home for our last night on the lake.

Photographer Brian Southby (left) & writer Tyson Adventure Brooks (right). Copyright: Brian Southby, 1999.The Shuswap is an amazing experience that is incredibly popular. The best way to see the lake is by boat: most people rent a houseboat to enjoy it at an easy pace. Each arm of the lake seems to have its own character and charm. We have yet to explore all the lake has to offer, so we will definitely be back this summer. If you see a small white boat flying across the lake loaded to the brim with equipment, be sure to wave.

For more information on the Shuswap: www.shuswap.bc.ca/

For more BC information go to travel.bc.ca