Quetico canoe trip

Note

This account of a Quetico canoe trip, unfortunately, does not include any pictures. The camera got wet and was not in working order. Here are a couple of links to other Quetico canoe trip accounts which include pictures:

Otherwise, this account aims to be very descriptive. Enjoy!

Background

The following is an account of a canoe trip I, Roy, took with my father, Bob, and his dog Navarre in Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada in August 2002. We started driving from the Chicago area at 6:20pm on August 14 and arrived in Ely, Minnesota at 5:05am, just in time for the BIG breaskfast at the Britton Cafe. I had the 1/2 pound Denver omelette with another 1/2 pound of hash browns, while Bob had his usual two blueberry pancakes with five cups of coffee.

We outfitted ourselves with Bob's new Weenonah Minnesota II Kevlar canoe. On portages, I carried the community pack (which weighed around 60 pounds and was mainly standard camping gear plus food) and my personal pack in the front. Bob carried the canoe (60 pounds weight, 18.5 feet long) and his personal pack. The dog carried a small pack with his own food. Generally, to minimise mix-ups and lost items, each person was responsible for what they carried. Navarre and his food pack went with me. I went first, so when I got to the other end I checked out the best place to put the canoe in and checked the map to get our bearings for the next leg. When Bob arrived, he dumped the canoe in the water. Since we had Navarre, I couldn't take the packs straight from my back into the canoe. Instead I had to put them on the ground, carry the dog to the canoe, then bring his packs. Without the dog, the load sequence would be unload in the water and reload in the water at the other end never putting the packs on the ground. This arrangement allowed us to make only one trip per portage where we observed many others making 2 or more trips per portage. A fair number of portages were long, so our arrangement saved a lot of time and energy.

The August nights were in the 50s, so we dressed in layers. My base wear was a wicking T-shirt and long nylon pants. I knew that I was going to get my feet wet on each portage, so I initially wore pair of rubber boots. However, I found that these rubbed on my legs too much and I switched to sandals for the rest of the trip. I wore a rain jacket when it rained or got too brisk at night. I later started wearing a long sleeved nylon shirt and nylon socks when the sun and the bugs began to bother. Wearing the long pants, long sleeved shirt and socks eliminated the need for sun screen and insect repellant. Except for the boots, the wear worked out well for me.

For breakfast and dinner, we had freeze dry and ground coffee. Usually all that's required to prepare the freeze dry is to boil some water for which we brought a Coleman stove and a few quarts of fuel. We boiled the coffee with the left-over water. At the end of the trip, we had only used one quart of fuel! For lunches, I brought some Wasa bread, sausage, spicy mustard, and hard cheese. I should have brought hard sausage but the ordinary sausage I brought kept for a few days at least. We had trail mix for snacks or for times when an energy boost was needed. We used a ceramic filter pump to maintain our drinking water supply.

In the canoe, Bob steered in back and I provided power in front. Initially Bob did all the navigational duties, while I looked out for obstacles in the water and portages ahead. After Bob made two Boo-Boo's in the second day, we switched to joint navigation responsibilities, and Bob would give me the map if he wasn't certain on direction in the current leg (He definitely needed glasses!).

We generally woke up each day around 6am and left before 8am. Being an early bird has two big advantages. First, you are usually at your destination before 3pm while late leavers are still paddling. Second, winds are usually strong from about 10am until 4pm, which makes paddling more "interesting". Even a tail wind can be a liability if you are in white caps and rollers.

Trip log

The following is a day-to-day recounting of events.

15 Aug (Moose Lake - Burke Lake)

We launched about 8am in rain, but were flummoxed by miscues and returned to the launch point twice. The first time Bob thought he had forgotten to lock the truck (it was locked.) This cost us ten minutes. On the second occasion, we lost 3 hours??!!? because Bob noticed the red dog food pack was not in sight. After returning to the launch point from 1/2 way to customs, it turned out it was in the canoe wrapped in a black plastic bag to keep it dry. This and a detour in a bay on Sucker lake caused us to get to customs just past noon and we had to wait until 1pm for the ranger to finish her lunch break. It was not an auspicious start, but at least the ranger was hospitable enough to allow us to wait in the building and keep out of the continuing rain. After leaving the ranger station, we had a few more hours of tacking and paddling against rollers and cross currents generated by a stiff SW wind. After a final 84 rod portage and a little more paddling, we arrived at our first campsite on Burke Lake.

16 Aug (Burke Lake - Noon Lake)

We had our latest start of the trip today at 08:30. Today's plan is primarily smaller lakes with less wind effect and ten shorter portages ending in Silence lake. We lost track of the portage count and thought we were in Shade Lake, but were actually two lakes before it. A passing group informed us we were in South Lake after we circled for 40 minutes looking for the wrong portage. Because of this delay we ended up staying in Noon Lake. This was two lakes short of plan. The day one and day two miscues cost us a half day from our plan (the plan included a full day of slack.) Bob was rather embarassed, but it looks the old memory wasn't working like it "used to." He had already made more mistakes in two days than he had in 20+ previous trips. From this point on we stayed current with the map.

17 Aug (Noon Lake - Kawnipi Lake)

It rained last night and we have a wet start. Today we plan to go up a long lake called "Agnes" and reach a campsite that's a little over half a day's paddling from Split Rock Falls where we plan to camp the next day. Our first portage is across a bay from our campsite. Even though that looks like a snap, we still have trouble finding it. We thought we had found the portage but it did not look well enough used. Double-checking showed that we had actually portaged across a peninsula to a different point in Noon Lake! We then checked the nearby campsite which we spotted straight away. It did not make sense to have a portage at a campsite, but this is the only cleared out place near where the map indicates the portage is located. It turned out that some fallen trees blocked the portage and the nearby campsite's side path was serving as the entrance to the portage. After a few more portages, including one where I sink to my knee in a bog, we reach Agnes Lake.

Agnes Lake heads north by northeast and a strong mid-day SSW wind assists us NNE. Bob mostly "rudders" in the back, and we are moving briskly. Once we were out of control and very lucky not to tip over. If you have ever seen a "water spout" or mini tornado in a lake... well, we got caught in one. The wind seemed to violently come from all directions at once. The whole canoe shook and skidded over 3 foot rollers about two canoe lengths. It lasted maybe 10 seconds, but was intense. Bob has ridden a bike in 50mph+ wind gusts and this was much worse. On the plus side we stayed focused and kept paddling. When we reached the north end portage, we talked to a south bound pair. Told them white cap rollers were hitting both sides of the lakes shore line and wait until the wind dies before heading south. They agreed, and revised their plan for the day. After crossing into Keewatin Lake then Kawnipi, we made camp for the night on a nice island site. We were in position to easily make the Split Rock Falls campsite the next day. This puts us back on schedule. Supper was good, everything dried out, Bob had a cigar, and we took a nip of some 100 proof Knob Hill in lieu of brushing our teeth. The dog was sniffing and snuffing. Life again is good!

18 Aug (Kawnipi Lake - Keats Lake)

After a few hours of paddling with little wind for a change, we see some fishermen and exchange greetings. They ask us for directions to a particular portage. We can't help them. Soon we found out why the fishermen asked about the portage. It turns out the map showed where the portage was years ago but low level water conditions exposed rocks surrounding the landing like a jagged fortress. Once you get on the path it quickly became an obstacle course of fallen trees and six foot drop-offs. The current portage was within 10 feet of the actual mini-falls. If the water levels would have been higher, you couldn't land there because the water currents would have swept you over the falls. The current water levels must have been the norm for several years to allow the map shown portage to be in this condition of disrepair. A good(?) surprise was the next portage shown on the map we went straight through without getting out. This is especially hard to explain with lower water levels which should made rocks in falls even more exposed!? We reached Split Rock Falls about 1PM. Again the mapped portage around it was a repeat of the portage we had earlier in the day.

A McKenzie map company flame: Bob bought McKenzie maps via the Internet for $1.50 each less than list, plus there was free shipping. The Internet supplier claimed all maps were the latest published. Well, the 1997 map for this section was one continuing headache of wrong portage locations and misplaced campsites. Why did Bob get McKenzie instead of Fisher maps, you ask? McKenzie maps are marked suitable for compass or GPS navigation while Fisher maps are not marked for navigation. Bob had always used Fisher and decided to get a new set of the more accurate McKenzies for this trip. It turns out Fisher does a much better job of keeping portage and campsite locations current and the land contours are adequate to find what you need. What good is the extra landmass accuracy if it doesn't show you the location of changed campsites and portages?! McKenzie was the source of most of our "where is it" problems, including a bad one tomorrow. It was especially annoying locating with difficulty a map marked "current" portage which had fallen foot thick rotted trees across it with no nearby alternatives shown. I suppose in park areas which have not been changed for several years you could get McKenzie users to say "We have no problems, why do you?". McKenzie never again!

We camped at an island just above Split Rock Falls. Just before reaching our camp site Bob switched to the wood paddle he had used 46 years ago when he and his friends had a mishap which almost caused some deaths. Bob thought that the "X marks the spot" was a revisit to what could have happened including no marriage and children with his son Roy being with me as showing the alternative life line he took. Also Bob thought the decades old mishap occurred at Split Rock, but upon inspection it turns out the mishap probably occurred the next falls up at Chatterton falls. We looked at the portage around Split Rock to Chatterton and decided it was not worth more time. A theme of the trip was to recover Bob's youth and his memory failed him on where it really was. He grinned when he realized the specific location didn't really matter. Being in the park now with part of his family did.

The island campsite is a nice one. Tent location was high, dry and soft. Seagulls fished from a nearby rock. For ourselves, it is a good place to watch and listen for loons. The dog finds a squirrel and chases it up a tree. A few minutes later, the squirrel barks and the dog goes in again. After a few repetitions, the dog starts to get tired of chasing and not catching. The squirrel tops it off by periodically coming into our camp chattering loudly..."neener, neener -- can't get me!" I wasn't certain exactly what Navarre was thinking, but I am sure the dog got the message.

The vegetarian freeze dry dinners continue to pleasantly surprise with the variety, the quality, and the quantity. Bob is quiet and smokes another cigar as he reads part of his Viking settling of Iceland trip book. I relax and soak in what was going on around me. It is dry and pleasant with few bugs and it is a cool night for sleeping. This turns out to be our most relaxing day of the trip.

19 Aug (Keats Lake - Cairn Lake)

We start off next day and have to get to a portage at the base of a bay within sight of yesterday's campsite. After circling a few times, we decide where the portage actually is. This portage is not well used at all. Further, it starts out with a good 100 foot steep climb. It is a fairly long portage and we are thankful to get to the other side. On the other side is Metacryst Lake. After some search mode type paddling we find the portage to Cutty Lake. Like previous days, the water is low and the canoe has to be put to shore before the marked portage begins and do some clambering. We have lunch at the other side of the portage, and pump some more water. Since it isn't that warm, and we weren't wet with sweat, you don't think you are that thirsty. But lack of water effects your coordination and mental sharpness before it becomes readily apparent. We made a habit of drinking water "before we needed it."

Once we cross the next portage, the plan is to return to the large Kahshahpiwi Lake going south southwest. First, we miscue by overshooting the portage turn-in bay. After correcting that, we still can't find it??! There have been some hard-to-find portages which we eventually found, so we keep methodically searching up and down the shoreline trying to match it up with the map for over two hours. We only find an overgrown, impassable path hidden behind downed trees on the shoreline that was a portage years ago. We wouldn't tell you what we thought of McKenzie maps at this point!

This is a fairly serious setback. The only way out of the lake is to go back the way we came in. We paddle most of the length of Metacryst doubling back to the northeast. After the next portage, we are in a lake where we find a group of loons appear to be playing. They are doing repeated take-offs and landings for no apparent reason other than to show off with the group. A short portage puts us in Cairn Lake quite a bit farther north than originally planned. To make up for losing a half day, we press on southward with quiet water into the dusk. We needed to find campsite soon or face the challenge of locating and setting up a site in the dark.

There are two campsites on the map and the first one is like the portage on Cutty; it might have existed a few years ago, but is certainly gone now. I checked the second campsite and believed it is taken when I see what look like packs next to the firepit. Not wishing to disturb anyone, I beat a quiet retreat. We go 15 minutes back to the first marked campsite under the assumption we hadn't looked hard enough. This time we did, and it just wasn't there. Bob wants to continue south and portage to the next lake where there are 5 marked campsites close together. This would also put us back to plan. It is getting seriously dark and I feel uncomfortable with the idea of paddling in the dark and not being able to see rocks. Also, finding and using a rock and root strewn portage in the dark would be hazardous. I convince a grumbling Bob to go back to the "in-use" campsite and hope for the good graces of the occupants. It turns out there was no one there. We set up the tent in the last bit of daylight, eat supper in the dark, retiring at 10:30pm. The weather was good, but it was a very long day. Bob did not have his customary cigar!

20 Aug (Cairn Lake - Shade Lake)

We leave at 06:30am knowing that we have another long day ahead of us. We paddle, cross a portage, cover the length of long and narrow Sark Lake. Another portage takes us to Keefer Lake as we continue the Southwest return leg. Near midday, we are at about the point where we would have been yesterday if we could have taken the missing portage from Cutty Lake. By the time we reach the next portage to Kahshahpiwi Lake, the wind stiffened and was coming from the southwest. We have a hard three hours of paddling down the lake and are glad we left early to get some easy no wind paddling done. About half way to the next portage, we encounter a mother loon and her two hatchlings. Normally, loons dive to get out of the way, but the mother simply called out in alarm and would not leave her young. The young looked like corks trying to dive! We gave the family a wide berth.

We paddled across more open water by tacking from island to island to get a short lee side break from the strong winds and rollers. Bob tried both shorelines to get a break but mild whitecaps were breaking on both shorelines, which means the wind was directly in our face. Oh my, lucky us! A half hour before the next portage, we saw our first person for 2.5 days, including even canoes in the distance.

The Yum-Yum portage of 220 rods (over 1.3 miles) was the longest of the trip. We drink water fortified with energy drink, snack on trailmix, and start to climb. The portage has a little of everything: a steep 20 degree climb at the beginning, rocks to clamber over or down, some over 1.5 feet high, a bog to either balance on logs or slog through and a fallen tree which blocked the path at about 4 feet high. I belly crawled with two packs on, and Bob balanced the canoe on the fallen tree, moved to the other side and reloaded. I successfully negotiated the logs and bogs, but Bob slipped on a log and sunk up to his knee. He had to put down the canoe and retrieve his shoe from the suck/muck, then reload and go. Bob especially enjoyed the trail turns where he kept bumping into trees while swinging the 18 foot canoe side to side. At the end we pumped and drank more water. Before reaching our planned camp lake, we had three more portages of 96 rods, 128 rods, and 80 rods totaling another 1.9 miles. "Don't you bitch and don't you moan, Yum-Yum's going to take you home".

We arrive at our destination Shade Lake about 6pm. We knew it had campsites having seen them on the outbound leg. Our 2001 McKenzie map showed no campsites on Shade Lake when there were at least three sites over 4 years old. We see one campsite across the lake is taken and start paddling for another. On the way across the lake I spot an available prime island campsite and redeem myself with honors from the mysterious case of the disappearing backpacks site from the previous day. We were dry and well fed. Navarre joined us for viewing the gorgeous rose pink sunset slipping behind the tree line as the loons gave their dusk ending mournful calls. The Indians considered the Loons to be sacred spirits. It was easy to see why. Bob tells me that my eyes slightly widened when he insisted on us taking a campsite finding extra sip of the "warming" Knob Creek. Bob had his "all is well with the world cigar", as the positioning looked good for the final day push.

21 Aug (Shade Lake - Moose Lake)

We start at 06:30am in calm water and with cloudy skies. As we go further, crossing portages and lakes, the wind never really picks up. We had taken this route on the way in, but we had a small surprise when we found we had to walk the canoe through a shallow grassy stream stretch twice instead of once; a beaver had built a dam since our first passage six days ago. Bob pointed out the maturing wild rice paddy we were going through. By law only the Indians can harvest it. They bend the reeds into the canoe and strike them with flexible branches to separate the rice from the stalk. Unlike the previous days where we never saw anyone, we meet plenty of people on the lakes or at the portages. Based on our recent experience we notice some gear and procedures these new people are using which they will learn to adjust on. We cleared Canadian customs and entered the US about noon. The trip was concluded after a few more hours of paddling on Moose Lake.

Bob didn't say anything, but he was concerned about vandalism from leaving his truck in a public parking lot for a week. All was well and he guesses that northern Minnesota just isn't the big city. As a PS Bob was very pleased that his new canoe purchase lived up to its billing as being fast and stable in big lakes. PPS: Bob tried to use the camera twice but it got damp and would not function. We know what we saw, but can't show others some of the wonderful scenes and places we encountered. A Bob quote is "If a picture is worth a thousand words, an experience is worth a thousand pictures."

Conclusion

After packing up and changing our clothes, we head to Britton's for dinner. I had a London Broil with wild rice and a baked potato. Bob had a fried half chicken and hash browns. We both had blueberry cream pie for desert... eh-eh-eh. About 9 hours into the 11 hour drive home, we encountered severe electrical storms as we approached the Illinois border. Trucks slowed to 35 mph. Bob took a short-cut through McHenry county roads and encountered flooded streets and downed trees. We arrived on plan at 4am in the rain. We found out in the next day's news we had passed through the center of a storm which dumped over 7 inches of rain in McHenry. Our trip concluded on an amazing counterpoint to the perfectly calm weather we had back up north.

The trip was quite an experience. I got a chance to bond with nature. For instance, we encountered a lot of loons in various modes from protecting their young and fishing to resting and playing. We saw that the beavers weren't slacking off either. It was nice to enjoy the general quiet of the wilderness. The long sessions of paddling and being able to focus on one thing were actually pleasant as well.

I got a chance to bond with my father. In the past our relationship has not been the best, so this opportunity was particularly valuable. We managed to find a way to keep our tempers in check and work with each other on this trip. Judging by how many times the dog wanted to look, smell and chase, he enjoyed the trip, too. We may do more trips like this in the future and, regardless, I will remember this one for some time to come.


Created: 23 August 2002
Revised: 12 February 2008