Wilderness Learning: Quetico Style
By: Harold Rutan
As a youth and a teenager, I had the good fortune to make several trips each summer to the to the Boundary Waters and Quetico with my family. Adulthood and twenty years of military service brought moves to distant locations, marriage and a wonderful family. During these years I had little opportunity to consider returning to the land and lakes that were so much a part of my youth.
My desire to return to canoe country started when a friend mentioned that he had heard of a wilderness area known as the Quetico. As he said this, memories came flooding back to me and I spent the evening telling him of our many family adventures.
Several months passed, and I was unable to put these rekindled memories out of my mind. I began some preliminary planning and asked my twelve year-old stepson, Nathan, if he was interested in a wilderness trip. It is an understatement to say that he was enthusiastic and our preparations began in earnest.
While it was over four months from our planned departure, we learned that this was a late start in obtaining an entry point permit. Virtually all of the Quetico entry permits were spoken for and what remained available was a fly-in entry via Clay Lake in Queticos' Northeast.
We gladly reserved this entry and began looking for information about the lakes and routes possible from that point. We pored over Fisher and Mackenzie maps estimating travel distances, and attempted to gauge portage difficulty by looking at topographic maps.
As a part of our research, we discovered the Boundary Water Journal on the World Wide Web (http://boundarywatersjournal.com). We proceeded to order back issues and read the articles and stories knowing that they would be valuable for our upcoming adventure. We marked on our maps campsites mentioned, fishing spots, portage difficulty and advice from other travelers. To our disappointment however, we were unable to learn much about the Clay Lake entry point and of the journey through the Greenwood Creek to the Wawiag River to Kawnipi.
We arrived at Canadian Border Outfitters (CBO) on Moose Lake the day prior to the fly-in and made a quick boat trip to Prairie Portage to purchase a fishing license and pay campsite fees. Later, the CBO crew gave us a Duluth pack with equipment for familiarization and an empty pack for our personal gear. We had selected a full outfitting package and had our outfitter select our food for a ten to thirteen day trip. All that we brought with us was essential clothing, footgear, raingear, first aide kit, and fishing gear.
In my minds eye, I had an image of us starting out with three packs. One for the tent, sleeping bags and other gear, another for our clothes, boots, tackle, etc, and one pack for food. That evening as we hefted the "gear" and "personal" packs, I began to become concerned, as their weight was more than I had anticipated. Still, I had my three pack "mental" portaging image, in which I would carry the lightest pack and the canoe, Nathan would carry one pack, and I would double portage the remaining pack.
The next morning, we carried our two large Duluth packs to the dock where the floatplane would pick us up. I was astonished to see two additional packs waiting for us. These were our food packs and as the plane pulled up to the dock, I realized that I underestimated the bulk and weight of the food for our trip. I recall marveling at the thought that two people could consume (and process) this much weight in such a short time.
The image I held of whistling and casually admiring wildflowers as I strolled across portages with my light pack and ultralight canoe was shattered. It was replaced by a disheartening vision of three trips across each portage or more if I did not carry both a pack and canoe on one of those trips.
Weather forced a late start and at noon the floatplane arrived and we began our flight. We were admiring the scenery and as we neared Clay Lake, the Wawiag River and Greenwood Creek became clearly visible from the air. I excitedly pointed out to Nathan that we could do an aerial scouting of the route that we were about to travel. This excitement quickly turned to apprehension as we noted two enormous log jams on the Wawiag River that clearly would require portaging in addition to the one marked on our maps.
If my original "mental image" of us carrying three light packs were still intact, I would not have been too concerned by additional portages. However, with now four, seemingly enormously heavy packs, the physical conditioning program that we had been on seemed inadequate. My thoughts gloomily turned to wondering if I had packed enough Motrin in the First Aid kit.
We loaded the gear into the canoe on a rocky point in Clay Lake where we were left by the floatplane, and headed for the Greenwood Creek. The creek with its mild current was narrow and shallow, with numerous deadfalls. This obstacle course and the ducking, leaning, and counterbalancing required to pass under these deadfalls was a great help in immediately sharpening our canoeing skills.
As we moved along the creek, I was startled when Nathan suddenly yelled as we came around a bend, "Backwater.we are about to hit a big boulder!" Complying, I began to backwater, and as I looked around him in front of the canoe, I saw the enormous rump of a Moose, with its head down under the water, feeding on bottom delicacies.
This huge rump was not more than ten to fifteen feet from the prow of the canoe, in a creek not more than three canoe widths across. I had a fleeting and unseemly vision of the pointy prow of the canoe, wedged between the ample cheeks of the Moose's' posterior.
As we backwatered with our paddles, the Moose lifted its head, and with a huge rack of dripping antlers, looked back at us startled, and lumbered out of the creek into the underbrush. As the wake from his exit rocked our canoe, I cursed as my camera was hanging under my life vest, and I was unable to get it unsnared in time to capture this event, later to be referred to by us as a "Moose Goosing".
Thankfully, this episode reminded me to be ready with the camera, and I repositioned it for easy access in the event we had another sighting. As it turned out, our moose friend would accompany us along many of the winding turns of the creek. A few minutes later, as we rounded another turn, there he was again feeding on underwater morsels. While not as near and not so startled, he detected our presence and ambled off, as I merrily snapped pictures.
The winding creek continued on for an unmeasurable distance thanks the many switchbacks and turns. After what seemed to be a couple of hours of under-deadfall acrobatics and occasional wading in suckmud, we reached the entry into the Wawiag River. Unfortunately, an enormous tree had fallen and blocked access to the river, and a tiny portage around it served as a warm-up for more to come.
Now on the Wawiag, I remembered the gigantic logjams that we had seen from the air. It was not long before we were able to see close-up the first of these and made a short portage through an area burned by the fire of 1995. The next portage bypassed a set of rapids, followed by one around the final logjam.
We had been worried that we would not make it to Kawa Bay by nightfall and as sunset approached, we were most relieved to finally reach the bay. Several islands about a mile distant beckoned, but with the light waning, rather than risk discovering an occupied campsite, we selected a site on the mouth of the Wawiag.
Four short portages, various creek gyrations, and approximately thirteen miles of paddling may not seem like much to the seasoned wilderness crew. To us however, with our full load and it being the first day at this level of effort, it was an extraordinary feat of endurance. We prepared a hurried supper and exhausted, went immediately to bed and slept, I think without moving, until morning.
As I opened my eyes in the morning, I remained motionless and began taking in the smell and sounds of the wilderness. I listened to the frequent splash of fish jumping near the shore, the sounds of birds calling, the sound of the water lapping the shoreline and the distant purr of water cascading from an unseen creek or rivulet. I recall being astonished when I thought of how we had gone from one of the most densely populated areas on the planet to being deep in the wilderness, in an almost legendary fishing lake.
I laid in my sleeping bag wondering what the prior days' journey had done to me physically. I slowly began moving, testing my muscles and back, fully expecting to be partially paralyzed and in severe discomfort. To my surprise, while I was a bit stiff, and I later gobbled a handful of Motrins with breakfast, I was not as crippled and sore as I had expected.
A beautiful morning greeted us with favorable winds for the journey west along Kawnipi. We were eager to begin fishing and I gave assurances to Nathan that the previous day was the toughest that we would experience. Our plans called for no portages and were simply going to fish our way up the length of Kawnipi until we found a campsite of our liking.
As we began trolling up Kawa bay, it soon became apparent that our progress would be slow, as we were stopping every few minutes with the catch of either a sizeable Northern or Walleye. Kawnipi was certainly living up to its reputation as a great fishing lake.
We headed up the main expanse of the lake to the west and pitched camp early on a nice site opposite Rose Island. We prepared a Walleye lunch and snoozed away the warm afternoon, looking forward to more fishing in the evening.
As dusk approached, our fishing was cut short by an approaching storm. We heard thunder and hightailed it to camp to batten down for what was to be an exciting evening. Rain began at dark, followed by lightening, thunder, and strong winds. Our camp was fairly well protected from the wind by the shape of the island, but we were still concerned about the ability of the tent and surrounding trees to withstand the intense gusts. Additionally, while I had tied down the canoe, I had not expected my tie down to have to hold up to the seemingly almost hurricane force winds.
I decided that I had to risk going out into the rain, to lay another line on the canoe to make sure that it didn't sail around like a kite on a string. I could see quite well as the ground was illuminated continuously by flashes of lightening reflected off the cloud layer. I made quick work of this task and scampered back to the tent and a sense of cover.
We departed in the morning with the storm moving off to the east. We traveled up the channel to the west of Rose Island and through a narrow passage leading to a fork where one direction leads into Shelly Lake and the other into the Kahshahpiwi Creek and the lakes that follow its course.
We planned to make no more than two portages that day, one from Kawnipi into the Kahshahpiwi Creek, and then another into Heronshaw Lake. Unfortunately, our plan was about to be changed. While I did not know it at the time, I was about to break the promise that I had made earlier to Nathan, when I said, "There will be no days harder than our first day on the Wawiag River."
As we approached the area marked on the map for the portage into Heronshaw, we could find no trace of it visible from the canoe. Another portage into Heronshaw farther along the creek was also marked on the map, so we started down the creek for that portage. We made a short portage around a set of rapids and then realized that we had somehow missed both of the two portages into Heronshaw. Rather than to go back across the portage we just crossed, we decided to push on to Cairn Lake, another two short portages away. We felt confident that even with our four (still quite full and heavy) packs, we would make it without much trouble.
After the next portage we no longer so confident and were feeling quite tired. We also knew that there was yet another portage coming up in order to cross into Cairn Lake. I recall saying to Nathan, that all we had was one more short portage before making camp. Not surprisingly, my remarks were met with skepticism and he grunted, "Yeah, sure."
We made the final portage into Cairn and were as exhausted as we had been when we exited the Wawiag on our first day. In addition, as we entered Cairn, a headwind was rising. With the wind whipping up, we rounded the point of an island and were greeted with the sight of a beautiful windswept campsite with great views to the east, south, and west. Never had I been so glad to see a campsite as we had again covered about thirteen miles with four portages and our offending four packs.
Cairn Lake is beautiful, with dramatic high cliffs on the eastern shore, alternating with shallow calm bays. Near this excellent campsite on Cairn on both shorelines are creeks with small waterfalls that cascade into the lake. In the evening after the wind dies down, the sounds and echoes of water cascading from these rivulets is incredibly soothing.
We decided to stay on Cairn the next day and recuperate from the two hard days out of the three we had been in the Quetico. My body was giving indications that it was time to slow down as evidenced by my rate of consumption of Motrin. We fished with moderate success, catching a few large Northerns, but basically we rested, swam, and admired the glorious scenery.
I contented myself by going through the packs, working to make our four packs converge into three. After some grunting and snorting, I managed to consolidate the gear and personal packs into one #4 Duluth pack, which now looked like it was beyond its design limits. Triumphant, I was almost looking forward to portaging with one fewer pack. That is until I tried to pick the darned thing up. Performing what looked like a weight lifter doing a dead lift, with much grimacing and shuffling of feet, I loaded the big pack into the canoe.
The portage from Cairn to Sark Lake was a little over a mile to the south, and as we traveled between the shoreline and a small island, we were also given the chance to test the design limits of our Kevlar canoe. Abruptly, in what appeared to be deep water, we heard the scrape of rock on canoe with the sound stopping just below me, directly between my legs.
With what looked to be deep water on both sides of us, I certainly did not wish to hop out. It seemed as though we were impaled on a rock with a sharp tip smaller than a dime. I knew this because to my horror, when I looked down at the spot where the offending rock was stopping us, I could see a large indentation and color change in the fabric of the Kevlar. While I had heard great tales of the resiliency of Kevlar canoes, I was sure that we were about to drill a hole into the bottom with our efforts to paddle ourselves off this spike upon which we were firmly perched.
I recalled that our outfitter had graciously provided a roll of Duct Tape for this very contingency. Unfortunately, this thought did not offer much comfort as I attempted levitation. Listening and watching as the rock directly beneath me poked into the Kevlar as we tried backwatering, rocking, and the highly technical "scootching" maneuver, made seconds seem like an eternity.
I was near the point where I was going to have to go overboard in order to escape the capture of this evil little piece of Gneiss (or Granite, or dare I say, Schist). At that moment, a breeze came up that seemingly provided us with the additional impetus we needed to be able to back off the rock. Counting our blessings, we examined the rock as we passed, and could see that it had been busy collecting Royalex, Aluminum and Kevlar.
I think that it is a good idea to carry both Mackenzie and Fisher maps as they often show different locations for portages, which allows you to make a choice when two such portages co-exist. The portages from Cairn to Sark are shown to be on one side of the creek on the Fisher maps, and on the opposite side on the Mackenzie maps. From the shore, both looked about equally used so we selected the shorter of the two. It was here that we learned that there is a wilderness rule that states that when you make a choice, you will curse colorfully at yourself, since the portage that you did not select would have been the easier of the two.
We were getting stronger and more capable each day, thanks to the fact that each portage so far had offered a new educational experience. Earlier, I had learned that carrying two packs was not physically possible. I had also learned that carrying a pack and the canoe was not feasible on portages with deadfalls and poor footing (which all had been to this point). The education that this portage would provide was the teaching of wilderness body mechanics.
After the consolidation of two packs into one at the last campsite, I had lifted the now monster pack only into and out of the canoe. I had not yet attempted to get it fully onto my shoulders. In order to do this, what worked best was to sit on the ground to my get arms into the pack straps, then perform a sideways roll and twist to get onto hands and knees. With the pack now on my back in an all-fours position, heaving and grunting were used to gain an upright stance. If correctly performed, you can safely rise, avoid embarrassment and not fall backwards onto the pack to resemble an overturned turtle. Not that this happened to me of course.
The weather began to look ominous as we entered Sark Lake, so we selected a campsite and entertained ourselves by eating the heaviest foods in the food packs. The next morning we made the portage from Sark to Keefer and sailed down the lake to the short portage into Kahshahpiwi.
At this portage, we had just finished loading our packs into the canoe, when we heard strange sounds. I first thought it was some sort of large, horrid sounding bird. As it continued, it began to sound more like the snorting of a pig. As we scanned the nearby shoreline for the source of these snorts, they stopped and we heard a rustling sound in a tree. We looked slightly upwards and were rewarded with the sight of a large bear descending the tree.
At this moment, despite the knowledge that the black bear is not confrontational in nature, it seemed to be a good time to hasten our departure. As we gracefully hopped into the canoe and splashed away from the shoreline, and the bear gracefully lumbered off into the woods, we calmly discussed zoology and how similar the bear sounds to the pig, both being of the family Suidae.
We now were entering the long, narrow, high sided and deep, clear-water lake of Kahshahpiwi, which is one of the most attractive lakes in the Quetico. Early in the afternoon, we selected a very nice, well-used campsite on an island opposite the remains of the old Ranger Station.
Kahshahpiwi must be a very deep lake as the water is quite noticeably colder to the touch. Recognizing this, we took off bit of sinker weight and trolled up the narrow bay behind the island. Just in time for supper, we were rewarded with both Lake Trout and Walleye.
The next morning we made for the portage at the south end of Kahshahpiwi. This portage would be the first of a series seven or eight short portages that pass through a string of unnamed lakes ultimately through Isabella, and into the North Bay of Basswood.
The portage out of the southern tip of Kahshahpiwi was actually two portages, thanks to an industrious Beaver. His work now allows you to put into a shallow swamp and shave off a few rods prior to portaging around his dam. We then passed through an unnamed lake leading to a portage into Side Lake and a very steep portage into another small, unnamed lake where we camped for the night.
The next morning two short portages took us into slender Isabella Lake and through a creek we entered into the North Bay of Basswood. As we headed out along the western shore, things started to look familiar. Over thirty years earlier, I had often camped in North Bay with my family. I was amazed to look around the vast bay and recognize the shapes of the islands and places where we had caught fish. We camped on an island in the middle of the bay that I recalled had a lovely sandy beach and protected lagoon.
It had been fairly windy and the next morning we set out early in an attempt to avoid the worst of the increasing winds. Crossing the portages into and out of Burke Lake we joked that these seemed like superhighways compared to those earlier in our voyage. It was late morning when we arrived on the windswept sand beach on Bailey Bay, where Nathan remarked that it "looks like the Caribbean."
When the winds are up, Bailey Bay becomes a frothing sea of whitecaps. Wishing to be safe and dry rather than wet and sorry, we made for the first campsite marked on our maps and that afternoon, watched in amazement as several canoes came and went. We doubted that they were enjoying themselves, fighting waves and spray that were sure to leave the bowman drenched and both of them exhausted.
As we departed in the morning, we knew that it was to be our last day in the wilderness and we began fishing the short stretch back to Prairie Portage. While we had caught our share of Walleye, Northern, and Lake Trout in the preceding days, we had caught only a few pint-sized Smallmouth. This would change as along the rocky shore leading into Inlet Bay and Prairie Portage, Nathan landed a huge Smallmouth. It was as if the fishing gods had realized that we needed one more extraordinary catch to make us even more reluctant to depart.
At Prairie Portage we caught a ride back to our outfitter via their tow service and arrived as several raucous groups of youngsters with adult leaders were readying to depart. From their attire, (shorts and sneakers) I doubted that they had a lot of experience in the wilderness. I noticed many of them looking us over as we arrived and we must have been quite a sight as our clothes were a bit soiled and fishy smelling and I had over two weeks of lush beard growth. I imagined that they were wondering if they would look as unsavory as us after their trip.
We could not help but feel a sense of accomplishment and we probably had a bit of a swagger in our walk as we passed them and sat on the porch, savoring beverages provided by our outfitter. We sat and talked of how we would miss the routine of fishing, traveling from lake to lake, and the extraordinary beauty of the wilderness. We vowed that we would remember all of the lessons that we were taught for the trip next year. It was unspoken and neither of us even considered asking the other if we would return next year. It was automatic, the planning had started, and the only question on our minds was where in the Quetico should we go next year?
Special Thanks to Dave and the entire CBO crew for all their help in making this a trip of a lifetime.