Our 8 day stay in Quetico Park was August/September of 1999. There are more pictures after the narration and a link to even more pictures.
Quetico Provisional Park is a greater than 500 square mile Canadian wilderness, with thousands of lakes. Our friend John Wilson had acquired the necessary permits and Carrie and I were invited to accompany him on a canoe trip. I had been on John's Quetico trip four years ago and Carrie was eager to see this beautiful area. This was to be John's eighth or ninth trip, he couldn't remember which.
Carrie, Lew, Rusty and I drove from Rockville Maryland to Duluth Minnesota in two days. Sunday morning we drove along lake Superior to Grand Marais where we took the Gunflint Trail on up to Seagull Lake. A short time later, we were met by John from Texas and Ardis, Roxy and Cindy from Colorado. After spending the night in the bunk house, we rented canoes from the outfitter and started our journey a little after 7:30 AM. The outfitter transported us by two motor launches about seven miles up on to Saganaga Lake and dropped us onto Hook Island, just across the Canadian border. If you want to see the park, you have to work for it and from here on we would be in the Quetico region where there are no roads and no motors are allowed. Our group of eight people and four canoes began paddling across Saganaga Lake and on into Cache Bay. It is always windy on Cache Bay and the 2.5 mile paddle to the Ranger Station was a bit rough.
. At the ranger station, our permits were checked, we were briefed on keeping clean camp sites and not being eaten by bears. We also had a fond look at the outhouse, which was the last modern facility we would see for a long time. There are a limited number of entrance points into the park and each of these in turn limit the number of parties to two per day. Our party was at the maximum with four canoes and while we were at the ranger station the other party consisting of a lone young man also showed up. So for that particular day, only nine people were permitted into Quetico through the Cache Bay station. The young man told us that he was starting starting on a 30 day trip. Our little group paddled to the first portage at Silver Falls.
A deceptively flat map of the Canadian wilderness shows thousands of large and small lakes. The lakes, however, are for the most part at different elevations and some distance apart which can make for some rough portaging. I suppose that if you could wait for some number of millions of years, there will eventually be one big lake separated by channels, but if you want to see it now, you have to portage. We traveled two to a canoe and each one carried two personal packs (tents, clothes etc.) as well as one food pack. Our canoe was transporting the dinner pack which started off at about 50 pounds. This means multiple trips at each portage. One person carries the canoe and one a pack, then you both return and carry the other two packs plus miscellaneous small items. Thus, if you encounter a one mile portage (later in the trip we would do just that), each person would need to walk three miles in order to get all of the gear moved. The Silver Falls portage was a pretty tough introduction to portaging and what was to come. Slightly less than one half mile 130 rods according to the map. I'm not sure why portages are always given in rods, maybe because a canoe is about that length. The trail goes up steeply over rocky ledges, meanders through the woods over rocks and roots and comes back down over rocky ledges. The canoe carriers were John, Roxy, Lew and myself. It gives me some pleasure to report that, throughout our eight days, the strongest carrier without a word of complaint was 77 year old John. At one of the later portages, to show that she could still do it, Rusty who is 71 also carried one of the canoes. At each portage with a small falls or rapid, Carrie, Rusty and I would look at from the point of view of a kayaker. Someone would say "I could run that one" or "No way in hell".
The portage took us from, Saganaga lake to Saganagons lake. We made only one more portage that day, short cutting a long piece of land but still staying in Saganagons. We made camp on one of the five islands in that piece of the lake. John and Lew were looking at the map with different opinions as to which island we had landed on. I pointed to the next nearest island and said, "I think that we are camped on that one over there". Ardis disagreed saying "We can't be over there, that island is a lot smaller than this one".
At this camp, there were two decisions to be made concerning water and bears. The water in the lakes is pretty clean since we really were in wilderness where humans haven't contributed to much pollution. Since our first camp meal had already included instant pudding made with cold untreated lake water, we might as well just drink the water. The second decision concerned bears and food bags. The park service recommends hanging your food bags 15 feet up between two trees. Bears are a big problem in some of the highly visited parks, where they have learned to associate human presence with food, but here in the wilderness bears are more likely to stay away from people. Also, in spite of precautions, a determined bear can usually find a way to get at the hanging food. At least that was our logic when we decided not to hang the food. I won't keep you wondering; we had no problem with bears throughout our stay in Quetico. As usual when camping, we all went to bed early that night.
Day 2 - We broke camp early in the morning and set out across the lake still unsure which island we were starting from. On the first day's paddle, we got lost once, today it would be twice. Navigation with map and compass is a tricky business. On some of the bigger lakes there are lots of bays and inlets that look alike and a degree mistake can send you a mile or so down a dead end channel. The portage points are hard to spot, so once you decide that you aren't where you are supposed to be, you retrace your path and look for the correct channel. Our errors had added an extra three miles or so to today's trip.
There is an old saying among paddlers that recommends "Paddle solo, sleep tandem". Neither Carrie or I are very accustomed to tandem paddling, however, these trips of necessity involve two people to a boat. At least Carrie likes to paddle on the left and I prefer the right so that usually works out ok. Very early in the trip, Carrie had switched from a canoe paddle to our break down kayak paddle set in an unfeathered position. With her paddling the stern, it afforded me the opportunity, from time to time, to put down my paddle and shoot some video.
I had started the trip wearing my Tevas in the canoe and switching to tennis shoes for the portage, but quickly found, that in spite of open toes, the Teva grip provided the best footwear for the portages. This was to be a six portage day. A couple of them were not too bad, but two of them were from hell. Both were steep and winding over rough terrain. One place you had to climb over a rock ledge about eight foot high, but there were fortunately toe holds. However, at one point there was a four foot ledge going down, but there was no toe hold to be found. I put my canoe down spanning the distance between top of the ledge and a tree branch, went below and lifted the canoe from below. I was alone on the trail at this point, so I don't know how the others did it. At one point, I lost the trail completely and wandered down into the wrong ravine, where I had to get the canoe turned around and climb back out.
The wilderness is vast and if you encounter another party, it is usually on a portage. On the second of our "from hell" portages, we ran into a group of five young men going the other way. They were young and strong and looking at this bunch of tired old geezers, insisted on helping us. Roxy was getting pretty tired and allowed one young man to carry her canoe across the portage. I could imagine him thinking "If my Grandma Fricker were out here crying a canoe, I would sure want someone to help her". They also carried several of our packs across. We decided in retrospect, that they were five members of a Wisconsin football team, out on a fishing trip.
While we ate our lunch at one of the portages a great quantity of mosquitoes found us. Carrie waded into the water to her knees to ease her bites while we finished lunch. When we started out again, she found that leeches had attached themselves to both of her feet. The leeches were quickly detached and we continued on our way. Our last portage took us into Kenny Lake and we were totally exhausted when we found a campsite.
Day 3 - Mercifully there was only one portage today and only minor orienteering problems. At this point we had made it to Kawanipi Lake. This would have been an easy day, but a storm was following us. We stopped for lunch and had just finished repacking the lunch bag when the storm hit. I managed to get my video camera into the Pelican case just in time. Carrie, Rusty and I took refuge up against a rock ledge and were slightly shielded from the rain, the others were under little pine trees. We waited about an hour for the thunder and lightning to pass over us. From time to time, a pair of otters would pop up in the little cove, take a look at us and submerge again. The appeared to be puzzled by us, but I think that otters always have a somewhat puzzled look. I had brought my windbreaker rain gear because if compacts into a very small package, but, it is rain resistant not rain proof and after an hour in pouring rain I was pretty much soaked through. The rain periodically returned as we paddled on into Kawa bay and by camp time everybody was thoroughly drenched. We found ourselves camped on a fairly large island near the end of the bay.
I was already beginning to forget the sequence of events and had decided I would like to write up our adventures when the trip was completed. I borrowed a pen from John and filled up every space on a credit card receipt which was the only paper to be had. There is a disease that is killing a lot of the white birches and so there are a lot of bark scraps. To my surprise, I found that a ballpoint pen writes very well on birch bark and I was able to take more notes.
Day 4 - Our drinking water now had a weak tea color. This was because the lake picks up some drainage from swamp lands. As we loaded the canoes, I noted with satisfaction, that the dinner pack, although still heavy, was now perceptibly lighter. We paddled from Kawa Bay into the Wawiag River which meanders for several miles through swamp land with the canoes cutting through reeds and cattails. This would be the place to see a Moose, but unfortunately there were none to be seen today. The main form of wildlife that we saw were birds. Every lake had ducks and loons and we spotted several eagles on the wing as well as perched in tree tops. We next paddled into Mack Creek, which is a narrower version of Wawiag. If not for a slight flow of water, one might not know which direction to take through the sometimes dense reeds. Eventually we made it to Mack Lake where we paddled to a small island.
This was a nice location except that site had been somewhat trashed by previous campers and we needed to do some clean up. Fierce looking black clouds had gathered and were now heading in our direction. The wind came up strong and it took four of us to get John's tarp attached to some trees. This maneuver was completed just as the first drops of rain fell, then the storm hit hard. Fortunately, we had managed to get a blazing fire going and we all huddled under the tarp while the spaghetti cooked. The fire ring was some what shielded by a large fallen tree and so our dinner was cooked and we ate under the tarp shelter. The rain poured off the tarp. I filled my Sierra cup with the run off and compared to tea colored lake water, it tasted very good. When the rain finally let up, we found that the tent site we had chosen was on the wet side and there was a fair amount of water inside the tent. It rained again in the night and our things got even wetter.
Day 5 - First thing in the morning, I went to the cook area to see if I could get a fire going. In the rain and dark, we had left a plastic bag of cheese crackers out in the open. A red squirrel had chewed a small hole in the bag and was happily foraging back and forth from his tree, one cracker at a time. Each campsite had its resident red squirrels or chipmunks, and this one was very bold. This is where people come and drop bits of food for them so they have gotten quite accustomed to humans. I hope that the bears don't hear about this. I chased it away, but it was back in seconds. I got out my video camera and got a good close up from about 6 inches before he took off.
John had decided this should be a layover day. A couple of people wanted to push on, but I think he was right in thinking that a day's rest would do us all good. We hung up some ropes and draped all of our wet gear out to dry. The day was overcast like every day so far, but there was a breeze and our things did indeed dry. John and Ardus were the only ones to bring fishing gear and they both went out for a while. Fresh fish for dinner would have been really great, but we ended up with one more version of noodle something or other for the evening meal. We all had a swim and Carrie and I paddled over to the main land and explored along the shore for a while. Then we lay about camp and I continued my notes on the inside cover of a box of crackers. It rained again in the night, but we had relocated our tent to higher and sloping ground, so we were not quite as wet as the previous day.
Day 6 - We paddled a couple of miles across Mack Lake. There were to be four portages today and our intended path was from Mack Lake to Munro Lake to Cullen Lake to Bitchu Lake. Two days before we had the portages from hell. Hell may not be as bad as mud. The Portage into Munro Lake is about one half mile, the first 100 yards or so is deep slimy mud. I knew that we were in trouble when John, stepped out of his boat in mud up to his knees. We unloaded gear onto the few dry spots and started slogging through mostly ankle deep mud from time to time sinking deeper. Tevas were good footwear on solid ground, but here the mud tried to suck them off at every step. I lost mine several times, but managed to slip them back on with out putting down the canoe. I finally had to lay down the canoe to extricate a Teva from the mud. About this time Carrie called for help. She was up to her knees in mud with about 40 pounds of pack on her back and could not get one of her feet out. After off loading her pack, I had to dig down in order to get my fingers under her Teva to lift her foot out, After finally clearing the mud field, there was still a pretty tough climb to finish the portage. Then of course we had to retrace our steps back to the beginning. In the mean time Rusty, bless her heart, had been carrying everybody's gear across the mud flat, and we didnŐt need to do that part a second time. Our next portage was the mile long one, not as steep as some but a long carry. The mile long and the mud portage each took us two hours.
By the time we reached Bitchu lake it was getting late. An old map had promised camp sites on the lake, but this area had burned in the forest fires of four years ago and no usable sites remained. We pushed on and were now back in Saganagons Lake. We had reached the point of seeking an emergency camping ground. We were all still wet from the Mud portage and were wet to way above the knees due to the wicking action of water. Three of us were on the verge of hypothermia. Once we stopped paddling we began to get cold fast. The first thing was to get dry clothes on, then set up tents. The shore was a clutter of fallen trees from the forest fires and we had to saw off branches to make room for tents. Carrie and Lew were both so tired and cold, that they crawled into sleeping bags and did not emerge until morning. Some hot soup and some more noodles were prepared and I ate a bit of this and then also made myself absent until morning.
Day 7- We all felt better in the morning and the sky seemed to be clearing up. Cindy reported that she had heard a wolf howl during the night. As I was about to pour hot coffee into my cup I noticed and removed the three small slugs that had crawled into it. We loaded the canoes, but were a little unsure as to our orientation. The night before we had been in a hurry to find a place to stay and now were not positive as to where we were. We all thought we were on a small peninsula shown on the maps, but decided we had best retrace our steps to be sure we were not heading off wrong. Just then we spotted several canoes out on the lake. Ardus was our strongest paddler and so she and Roxy headed out to intercept the canoes to check maps with them. She reached them quickly and the rest of us followed her. They confirmed that we were indeed right where we thought we were which would save us from a couple of miles of retracing. Our fellow paddlers turned out to be a group of Seventh Day Adventists, out on what they referred to as a "Character Building Outing". I asked one of them if it was working and he said that it was. Thanking them for their help we happily set off in the correct direction.
There was a bit of head wind and Ardis noted that since today was Labor Day it was appropriate that we had to labor. We paddled about eight miles along the length of Saganagons Lake and made camp early in the afternoon. We had reached a point not far from the Silver Falls portage where we had entered this section of the Park. The weather was warm and sunny all day, for the first time in our trip. There was a beautiful little lagoon with blooming water lilies. A flock of 14 meragansers swam on in to look for fish. When we had made our lunch stop, a flock of 15 had come to the small cove where we were stopped. We wondered if they were the same flock and if so, what had happened to the other bird. We lay in the sun, I had a nap and some of the more adventurous among us, had a swim. On the trip four years ago, we had mostly nice days like this one.
At dinner dehydrated scalloped potatoes were prepared and to cut into this treat, Rusty produced a one pound Plumrose ham from the bottom of the dinner bag. It was a nice touch, but I wondered if we couldnŐt have had the ham early in the trip instead of hauling that extra pound across nearly every portage in Canada.
The weather was still clear as the sun began to set and we watched the stars begin to come out. "There it goes" Someone spotted a shooting star that moved halfway across the sky burning with a bright blue-green glow. It moved slowly enough that there was time for everyone to see it. As it darkened and the constellations began to take shape, someone pointed out what looked like a double star. It was the double star in Scorpio and I don't think I have ever seen the separation before without binoculars. It was our first really clear night and might hold the potential for seeing the northern lights, but as usual in camp we all retired pretty early. About 3:00 AM, I awakened and poked my head out of the tent. It was now chilly and still clear so I crawled out for a look. There was a faint arch of light in the northern sky but not worth waking the others. I watched for about 30 minutes and decided to go back to sleep. At that moment a streamer of light shot out and then another. I called the others and most everybody got up for a look. I have seen more spectacular Aurora before with brilliant colors. This one was just sort of white and not a show stopper, but it was still pretty nice. We watched for about 15 minutes before returning to our tents.
Day 8 - By morning it had clouded over again and you could see that a storm was forming. It was a short paddle back to the Silver Falls portage, which somehow didn't seem all that bad this time. As we finished the portage, we met a young couple on their way in, and with their help, we were able to get our only group picture from our adventure. We were now back in Cache Bay and Saganaga Lake and the storm was closer. It is always windy in Cache Bay and Saganaga lake, but a storm was heading towards us that made going very difficult. We had to fight a fierce head wind and for a long time it didn't seem like we were making any progress at all. High waves jolted the little canoes and the lightning storm drew closer. The storm was almost upon us when we reached Gull Island where we stopped for an early lunch. We ate quickly and then waited out the storm which had finally reached us. It passed over rather quickly and we were ready to continue. There was some concern that we wouldn't make it to Hook Island on time. We had requested a 1:00 PM pick up from the outfitter, but John assured us that they would wait for an hour if we were not there. With the passing of the storm, the wind had subsided a bit. The going was still quite rough and we were fighting a head wind, but not as frightening a wind as before. As we came in sight of Hook Island we could see the launches approaching. It was exactly 1:00 PM and we made it to the island only 15 minutes late. My video taking was also well timed and at this moment, I had 1 minute of tape left and about half a charge on my last battery. The launches were loaded and we headed back to the outfitter headquarters on Seagull Lake.
Later in the afternoon, we loaded all our gear in the cars and headed into Grand Marais where we would all have dinner together and get an early morning start to our respective homes. We checked into two motel rooms and everyone had their first shower in over a week. After dinner we sat around the Motel lobby calculating expenses and who owed what to whom. Ardis who teaches outdoor skills and orienteering solicited comments from the group. "What were the high and low points of your week." The mud portage was a low moment for a number of us, and for a high the otters, birds and comradeship. I thought about the Adventists out there building character, but figured that all eight of us were pretty much characters to start with.
Early the next morning we said our goodbyes and started home. I will now get to relive our trip when I get around to editing the video tape, hopefully down to about 30 minutes of highlights. Carrie says that she is glad that she did it but wouldn't do it again. I might consider it, but only if an easier route were chosen. The trip four years ago didn't seem as rough. Of course that time we had nice weather and I was four years younger. Whether or not I attempt such a trip again, I would like to still be capable of doing it when I'm 77.