Quetico Solo Canoe - Camping Trip
By: R.L. Stegman
I became attached to the wilderness area during my first trip. My two older boys and I went on a five day trip through Lake Agnes. Two years later, we three and two others went on a seven day trip through Lake Agnes. Each time, I felt the desire to complete a solo trip.
The solo trip was designed to coincide with my 50th birthday. Much had been learned during the two previous trips and I felt ready. Due to medical problems, I was unable to train as I had wished. For example, in preparation for the second trip, I trained with some marathon runners.
Day 1 - August 24: The flight to Beaverhouse Lake is pleasant. For the first time, I am able a different perspective of the area. There is a delay at the ranger station while another person is processed through. He is on a solo trip as well. I note that he was ill prepared (gear in plastic bags, gear simply placed in the canoe, etc. - portages must have been rough for him). I leave the dock before him and do not see him again. The ranger (Glenn is his name if I remember correctly) is friendly and helpful. I learn later that he made a couple errors in geography.
Rain is threatening this morning and the wind is increasing gradually. Wind is out of the east - the direction I have to paddle. Paddling east to Quetico Lake is easy. The land and trees diminish the wind significantly. The portage between Beaverhouse and Quetico Lakes is easy. Rain, waves and current become more significant factors on Quetico Lake. The wind is coming directly out of the east. Though fairly narrow, the lake is about 12 miles long on the east-west axis. Waves are consistently 12 to 18 inches with occasional 24 inches in height. Sustained winds are estimated 25 to 30 miles per hour with occasional 40 miles per hour gusts. Forward progress is very slow and it takes me until 2:00 p.m. to reach the nearest campsite. I walk along the shore to explore further to the east and decide that travel would be too difficult. The wind is very strong and waves continue to be high.
Despite considerable soreness, I set up a good camp. A couple times, the wind picks up the tent and considerable skill is required to anchor it while holding it. Even though the canoe is secure (or so it seemed), the wind picks it up and blows it into the lake. Luckily, I am able to recover it quickly. After setting up camp, I put on a set of warmups (thrown in my pack at the last minute - just in case), crawl into the sleeping bag, and lie there and ache. I am sore, cold, and tired. Emotionally, I feel wonderful. Giving up does not occur to me. I am committed to the full trip. Dinner is hard to cook due to the wind. I eat every bite even though hunger is beyond me due to the fatigue.
After securing camp, I retire to the tent. The sound of the wind is my lullaby rather than the much preferred cries of the loons. As I drift off to sleep a strategy occurs to me. I decide to rise before the wind became a significant factor - provided the wind decreases. Mileage - a very hard 6 mile.
Day 2 - August 25: I rise at 4:00 a.m. and break camp. I begin paddling before sunrise, but with enough light so that rocks were visible. I cover a considerable number of miles. Along the way, I stop for a short break and talk with another party. They fly into and out of Beaverhouse Lake each year. Canoes are maintained on Beaverhouse Lake. At the point that I turn south, I stop at a campsite to cook and eat breakfast. It is cold, wet, and windy. Also, the food does not agree with me. It is probably the worst breakfast I have eaten in the wilderness.
At the portage out of Quetico Lake (about 10:00 a.m.), I meet another party that is still eating breakfast. They complained about how much territory they had to cover. Our combined experiences is a lesson for me. Rise early and get on the lake. I proceed to the narrows in Jean Lake. I arrive at about 2:00 p.m. and set up camp. A campsite on the south shore of the lake is preferable, but the wind is out of the south.
Wildlife is remarkably unafraid. Loons let me approach to within three feet before moving (I make no changes in course). A grossebeak flitters around camp. A group of baby loons crosses my path. Mosquitoes are almost nonexistent.
I am not near as sore as the previous day, but my endurance is much less than I had desired. The lack of extensive training is evident. Also, I am feeling ill. I cook a dinner, force myself to eat, and secure camp. At least tonight the loons are active. Mileage -14 mile.
I wake at 4:00 a.m. and go outside. The sky is cloudless. I see stars like when I was a child on the farm. The Milky Way is very visible. No Northern Lights. Despite the cold, I simply look at stars for some time. I am unable to sleep, but return to the tent and lie in the sleeping bag until sunrise.
Breakfast is tasteless - or more correctly it tastes terrible. I bury the remainder and pack. The trip across the rest of Jean Lake is nice. There is no wind. The portage is not where the ranger stated - it is exactly where the map indicates. The portage to Burntside Lake is uneventful. Burntside and Rouge Lakes are connected by water. Jean Creek is a terrible mess. The water is low. I have to portage a number of times. A compass is required several times in order to maintain direction among the many curves. A beaver dam blacks the flow of water (the ranger gave me the impression that there was a portage, but there was none). Eventually, I slide the canoe around the edge of the dam. The water below the dam is very shallow so I cannot paddle and the muck is knee deep. When I sink into a hole up to the top of my hips, I climb in the canoe and pole myself along with the paddle. I allow the pressure to turn the paddle and I break the left blade. I recover the blade. After considerable muck, I reach the last portage. It leads me to Sturgeon Lake.
The wind is out of the east, the current (which is fairly strong) flows from east to west. I hug the shoreline as long as possible, then strike out across the lake at an angle to the waves that is comfortable for the canoe. Due to the combination of wind, waves, and current I cannot rest. Eventually, I reach the lee side of some long islands. The current is the major factor at that point. My goal is Scripture Island, but the campsite is poor. The channel to the next body of water is very choppy with unpredictable currents. I am appreciating the solo canoe and kayak paddle (even in one blade broken). I stop at campsite for a late lunch (by the sun I guess about 2:00 p.m. I decide to proceed to Russell Lake. The paddle up the Sturgeon Narrows is hard, but I maintain a steady pace. Some hours earlier, the situation had become much like a long distance run - one foot (paddle) after another. A major motivator is my wife. She is very concerned for my welfare (even though I reassured her repeatedly). There is a set of rapids, made much worse by the exceptionally low water, between the Sturgeon Narrows and Russell Lake. I look for and find no portage. I dodge the rocks, paddling against the current, and enter Russell Lake. The campsite is exceptionally good. I arrive at 4:00 p.m.
I set up camp. I have become adept at setting up camp quickly. Due to the muck below the beaver dam, the canoe and I smell terrible. I give both of us a bath. I remain in my clothes and take them off as I bathe. The water is cold, but the weather is warm. My clothes dry quickly in the wind. There are no mosquitoes and no other people. Why bother to dress?
I spend the time to cook a nice meal that tastes wonderful! I collect firewood and burn the accumulated trash. Before dark, I secure the camp and retire to the tent.
Wildlife continue to be appropriately cautious, but unafraid. While entering Sturgeon Lake, I surprised two otter while rounding a point of land. They rushed into the water. One floated on the surface and watched me paddle. I had to skip a couple paddle strokes on the right side to avoid hitting it.
Mileage - 20 miles! Against the current, wind, and waves. The most I have ever been able to accomplish with a group was 10 miles and half the group complained most the distance.
Again, I awake during the middle of the night and enjoy the stars. I have forgotten many of the constellations. I resolve to become familiar with them before my next trip.
I enjoy a late breakfast (about 6:30 a.m.) and think of a rest day along with some fishing. Such had been my plan when proceeding through the Sturgeon Narrows. However, the rising wind changes my mind for me. The wind would blow the canoe across the lake. I break camp and proceed to the portage around Chatterton Falls. The portage involves a very steep hill during the first half. I manage it in two trips by learning the value of short, slow steps. The paddle to Split Rock Falls is uneventful.
The portage around the Falls is quite treacherous. Much of it consists of huge boulders. Sometimes, I must jump from one boulder to another. Due to the absence of other parties, I assume that there is a very high probability that I will be the last party through the trails until next summer. Hence, I am extra careful.
Entry into the water is very close to the Falls. I have learned to become adept at controlling a solo canoe during high winds, waves, and even unpredictable currents. Disembarking and embarking are a different story. The only way known to me is to "beach" the canoe on some rocks. In this case, I place the canoe between a couple of rocks so that my weight, when I enter the canoe, there will be a slight "beaching" effect. That way, I can position myself for effective paddling before having to deal with the current.
The trip to Have a Smoke Portage (Snake Falls) is uneventful. I pass a couple of campsites and plan on a stop, and possible camp, after the portage. There are two campsites on the map.
I portage around the falls to discover a canyon with rapids. I must enter a current above a waterfall and run a rapids of about 250 yards. I take the time to eat some lunch while I study the rapids - whirlpools, rocks, hidden rocks, etc. I sit there and think of the times when I have walked up to the Grim Reaper and spit in his face. This was not part of the bargain and the thought occurs to me "this was not such a good idea." Eventually, and with considerable difficulty, I place the canoe in a small area behind a rock, "wedge" the canoe again, and enter the current. I engage in a behavior I learned about flying in critical situations - talk to yourself and you cannot panic. I complete the run without incident. As I exit the canyon, I hear a roar to my left - another set of rapids! I have to portage around them.
Later, after studying the map, I realize that there was an error on the map. I took the channel south of the portage.
The expected landmarks do not exist because I am about one half mile off in my expected location. I miss the two campsites. An incorrect channel causes a delay. Eventually, I come upon the portage that leads to Kahshapiwi Creek. There is another set of rapids without a portage. Over a portage and about one mile to the northeast are two campsites. I opt for a campsite at the end of the lake. My endurance is gone and I am paddling against the current and wind. The campsite no longer exists so there are three more portages before Cairn Lake. I am extremely fatigued and become careless during the portages, but managed to correct my behavior before incident. There are two campsite on Cairin Lake. The first does not appear to exist. The second is third rate. I arrive at about 7:00 p.m. I set up camp while eating a quick, cold dinner. I crawl into the sleeping bag and ache. There were clouds at dusk so I make no effort to look at the stars. Besides the fatigue is too great. For the first time I feel truly miserable. A quick exit from the wilderness, given that it were available, would have been a great temptation.
Mileage - 14 miles against current, rapids, wind, and waves along with some very tough portages.
Day 5 - August 28: I break camp early (about 6:00 a.m.) while eating
a quick, cold breakfast. A rest day is in order, but I am not yet so inclined.
The goal is Lake Kahshapiwi. Toward the south end of Cairn Lake and while
rounding a small peninsula, I paddle next to moose who are drinking water.
They leave the water and go into the trees about ten feet. I watch them
for a while.
The day is beautiful - little to no wind and very blue clear sky. The only negative factor is the current. I love the travel even though my fatigue level is critical. I take my time with paddling and portaging and reach a nice campsite on Kahshapiwi Lake before noon. I set up camp and take another clothes on bath. While walking around without clothing, I received my first mosquito bite.
A canoe with two men passes by during the early afternoon. I can tell from the logo that they are from Canadian Border Outfitters. I want to hail them but do not because I am not yet ready for human contact. Later, I regret it. They could have carried a message out to my wife who I know is worried.
I spend the day relaxing. My body is very worn down and several days, if not a couple weeks, of rest are indicated. While relaxing, a solution to the broken paddle problem occurs to me. Neither athletic nor duct tape would hold for long. However, fishing line will hold! There is an extra role of fishing line in my kit. I carve two pieces of paddle so that they will fit together well, tape them to hold them solidly, and wrap the two with many strands of fishing line. Fishing was precluded by high winds.
I cook another wilderness gourmet dinner and enjoy it immensely. A couple chipmunks make pests of themselves. Apparently, they are used to being fed by campers and become fairly indignant when I fail to cooperate. Also, there was a reason to be concerned about creatures on their bodies that could spread to me. They came to within a couple inches of my feet while I was eating. A few well placed rocks (close, but no hit) settled the matter eventually.
I secure camp and go to sleep. Mileage - 10 miles. All before noon.
Once again, I enjoy the stars. I arise early and enjoy a leisurely breakfast.
After some thought, I break camp and travel to the more southern portions of the lake. I need to try out the repaired paddle, and it places me closer to the portage out of Lake Kahshapiwi. Along the way, I am greeted by a couple along with their small daughter who camped on an island. We exchange a few words (my first in several days) and I continue to paddle. The winds are mild and the water is calm. Fishing for trout looks good.
A loop through Burt and down through Sarah Lake is tempting. My physical reserves are low and the trip would be very fatiguing the first day. A rest of several days is in order.
I select a camp on an island. While looking it over, an eagle that had been resting in a tree took off. I had never seen one that close. It is a good camp except for some trash left by a former party. Setting up camp is an easy and relaxed matter.
The winds increase significantly again and preclude open lake fishing. I spend much of the day puttering around camp. I bury some food that is contaminated (contains allergens). Most of the time, I simply relax. A bass is feeding in the channel between the island and the mainland. I see it head for the lure from about twenty feet away. I release it.
I am becoming aware of how I am losing the Newtonian, linear concept of time and adopting the cyclical nature of time. As I am writing in my journal, I remember that today is my 50th birthday. I understand how Native Americans understood time in terms of cycles. There is no need for the hustle and bustle - time is not money as with an industrialized society. I enjoy the time. Some lake fishing would be nice, but I am content to rest (it is needed) and to putter around.
I reflect on the past few days and become aware that I detracted from the pleaseure some by becoming retrograde and shifting into Old survival modes. There were a few chance factors as well: The quick mud in Jean Creek, the high winds and waves, the map errors, and campsites that did not exist. Also, there is a constant awareness that Diane is worried. Next time, I will be better prepared for the retrograde tendency and Diane should be less worried after this trip.
Toward late afternoon, I hear the sound of Forest Service aircraft to the east. About five miles east of me they are diving and climbing. I see no smoke. However, the activity indicates at least a small forest fire. There are thunderstorms to the south. Storms to the south and fire to the east and my general course is to the southeast. I plan some alternate routes just in case. Without augmentation with fish, I can make my supplies last about seven days.
Dinner is a relaxed affair, but storm clouds are gathering to the west.
I secure camp early. Shortly after retiring to my tent, the winds pick
up again and it begins to rain. I congratulate myself on my decision to
move. The previous campsite, though good, was very exposed to the winds.
The combination of mainland to the west and the low island protects me.
Still, I am a little nervous. With the other factors, I had a large element
of control - if nothing else, I could have stopped. I find myself turning
on my flashlight and writing in my journal several times. Eventually,
I relax and go to sleep. Mileage - 2 mile.
Day 7 - August 30: The sleep was good. The combination of dry ground and wind left the camping supplies dry. I decide to travel to the North Bay area and camp - possibly do some fishing.
The portage out of Kahshapiwi Lake is fairly level, but long. Ruffed Grouse walk along the trail. The area is swampy despite the drought and I receive two mosquito bites. (I am bitten by only three mosquitoes the whole trip.) The water in the swampy area at the end of the portage is very low and I am afraid for awhile that I will be forced to walk through it as in Jean Lake. The portage out of Side Lake is very steep. There are two brief portages and two small lakes to Isabella Lake. I pass a group and ask them questions about the upcoming portage (another group breaking camp at about noon). It turns out they gave me bad advice. I end up in a creek that where the water is so low that I must drag the canoe across sand. Removing one pack and carrying it helps very little. Eventually, I figure out another error in the map and my exact location. There are a couple more small portages before North Bay - one of them another beaver dam. The area is full of camps and people fishing. Eventually, I find a camp. It is a third rate area and has not been used for some time. I set up camp and take another bath.
There is a threat of rain and it rains occasionally. Otherwise, the evening is uneventful. There is a thunderstorm in the area I left this morning. The clouds preclude star gazing.
I feel quite dissatisfied with the close proximity of other campers. The only place to hang a food pack is less than ideal. I sleep lightly. The loons are active most of the night. Mileage - 14 miles.
Day 8 - August 31: I arise early, break camp, and head for Burke Lake. The waves on North Bay are already six to nine inches. Paddling up river to Burke Lake is made more difficult by the low water. Frequently, the current is fast and the low water prevents a full bite of the paddle.
After entering Burke Lake (where I had thought to camp), I decided to spend some time on Sunday Lake. I select what appears to be a nicely located campsite on the map (with the caveat that it may not exist). While traveling across the lake to the campsite the wind increases significantly. The campsite does not exist and the one that does exist is on a wind swept peninsula. I row close to shore until I can strike the oncoming waves at a reasonable angle, and return to Singing Brook Portage to camp. Due to the closing of Lake Agnes, I expect little, if any, traffic. Throughout the day, only two parties come through. One is a couple with a base camp on Burke Lake. Their style is to take day excursions.
The day is windy. I relax and read. I am disturbed that the proximity to my pickup point elicits responsibilities that await across the border. I regret not having the party I saw on Lake Kahshapiwi take a message to Diane. I regret leaving Lake Kahshapiwi.
I reflect on my preparation for this trip and the traveling style I have developed. Packing my own food was a great idea. It required both less space and less weight. I need to find a way to dry vegetables and fruits that is not dangerous to my health. A basically vegan diet modified by some fish is quite adequate. The pattern of rising early and eating quick, sometimes cold breakfast is a better way to travel. Much of the more active wildlife I have seen was spotted during the early morning. One can cook a hot, late lunch if needed. Usually, my lunches have been cold as well. Also, the use of no cooking oil makes clean up much easier. I would have preferred better physical conditioning. Although I knew full well what to expect, unpredictable conditions precluded good conditioning.
Dinner is routine (except for a couple pesky chipmunks) and I secure for the night. A couple elects to camp right next to the portage. They arrive just before dark and are quite noisy. As I drive off to sleep, I feel a thumping on the hood portion of the sleeping bag. I am awake instantly with the thought that one of the chipmunks is inside the tent. Eventually, I realize that one or more chipmunks is jumping against the door of the tent - the influence of people again. Mileage - 9 miles. All before noon.
Day 9 - September 1: Although the night was cold, I slept well by wearing my sweats. I arise at 6:00 a.m. and decide to skip breakfast. I paddle to the portage between Burke Lake and Bayley Bay. My intent is to find a campsite and relax one more day. As I am carrying the first pack, it occurs to me that much of my thinking will be permeated by what awaits me back in civilization. Also, the wind will be a factor again. If I hurry, I can meet the ferry boats as they drop off campers. I complete the portage in one more trip. I cover the three miles of water in 46 minutes - and even have to slow down four times due to some motor boats. I carry the canoe first to identify myself in case a CBO employee comes by while I am in the process of carrying a pack. As I am completing the second trip, a ferry boat from CBO comes in. I retrieve the second pack and head back to CBO. Mileage - 5 miles. All before 8:00 a.m.