Saturday, August 13, 2016

Quetico Provincial Park

According to Ojibwa legend, the name Quetico is derived from a Cree word describing a good spirit which inhabits beautiful places. Two weeks in this gorgeous wilderness. Fantastic weather and great camaraderie. In short the entire trip can be summarized as fishing, paddling, eating, sleeping, rinse, repeat. Of course it was much more than that.

Drove 1100 miles to Quetico Provincial Park. Spent night zero along a dirt road near the Michipicoten River a few miles before Wawa, Ontario just off the Trans-Canada Highway.

Quetico Day 1 “No Parking”

We arrived at the French Lake Ranger Station to get our permits. A nice young lady at the desk was helping us out. It was her first day doing permits and registration. As she inputted our itinerary into the computer, some of the lakes she had never heard of. Dan had mapped out a plan which would take us deep into the wilderness along a slash of lakes, off the beaten path. All settled up with the paperwork and fees, the young lady had the final shpiel to give about the regulations and guidelines. After a day and a half of driving we were anxious to get into the water, but we politely listened as she flipped her cue cards over to each talking point.

a few miles down the main road began the dirt road of miles which would take at least 30 minutes to drive. Along the road we saw signs which said no parking except for Ontario residents. This was curious and concern began to grow. At the parking area was a final sign repeating the same. A guide group from Minnesota was in the process of loading up. We inquired with them and they confirmed our worst suspicions. Since this put in was on Crown land and not part of the Quetico, we would not be able to park there. Our only options were to get a shuttle or use a different access point. The forst would be expensive and take time, not to mention ensuring someone would be there to get us out in 2 weeks. The latter would add significant distance to our first and last day. Another 45 minutes and we were back at the ranger station. The ranger (or supervisor) was there and when heard of our ordeal, she turned to the young lady and acknowledged she should have known. So now we are an hour past our expected put-in and about 4 hours of extra paddling, into a headwind. But we were finally on the water. From French Lake along the winding Pickerel River to the very large Pickerel Lake. We stopped at a beach site to take a swim and then continued on to our campsite for the night.

Quetico Day 2 “The Sauvage Portage”

Good fishing all day. Dan landed a monster pike, at least 20 lbs, and a 4 lb walleye (dinner). We had a couple of short carries and one monster labeled the “Sauvage Portage” on the map. It was just under 1.6km, of rugged terrain, some steep ups and downs. This carry kicked my butt. With two weeks worth of food and gear we had to double-carry everytime (until the final days). The food pack itself must have weighed 60 lbs by itself. The weight was bad enough, but it had no hipbelt and was just a sack of weight slung low on my back. I could barely step up some of the larger rocks with it. And I had a fish to carry as well. We were supposed to make it to Alice Lake which would include another long portage 1.2 km, but we opted to stop in the unnamed lake just before. There were no campsites here according to the map, so we looked for a suitable spot. Found one that was serviceable, but decided to check on the nearby island first. At the island was a fire ring, and someone had forgotten their pfd. We found home for the night. While Dan was cleaning the fish, some bass came to shore to investigate. So after we ate, he grabbed his rod and had some good action right from shore. Earlier in the day he had commented how good fishing is “never found at camp”. With camp set up and dinner cooked and eaten we went for a swim off the point. By the time we finished it was twilight and the mosquitos started feeding... on us. We clamored into our hammocks to escape the hordes. I was muggy and itchy, but eventually made it to sleep.

Quetico Day 3 “The girls”

Since last nights fish feast was so filling and we ate so late, not to mention I miscalculated the number of granola breakfasts, we snacked instead of a real breakfast. Just some coffee and munched on nuts and other leftovers. The bass were still hanging around for us to have some fun on the way to the 1.2 km portage. Again we double carried, but this time we had moved some of the food into my other pack to even out the load. The food pack was still heavy though. The last 50 meters of this carry was slogging through mud. As we got to this portion on our first carry, we crossed a group of girls from a summer camp. They were on day 9 of a 30-day trek. They asked us about the 1.6 later on and if it was hilly or muddy. They were carrying aluminum canoes and fully loaded wooden wanigans with tump lines. We finally made it to Alice. This was supposed to be where we camped the previous night. There was no way we would have made it before dark. We fished quite a bit. There was a small pool at the base of a beaver dam up a small connector creek where we had some really good action. Bass and pike. A lot of fish is such a small area. Just after the dam I landed a nice sized bass. 4-5 lbs. At the time this was noteworthy, but as the trip progressed this would be the norm. We had a decent sized walleye in the boat for dinner, so when Dan got another we saved it for breakfast. We got to camp early after our learning experience the night before. We ate, swam, got into bed before the bugs.

Quetico Day 4 “Bush Camp”

More great fishing on our way to Cairn lake. Made yeast bread and fried fish for breakfast. After our no-cook lunch on a small rocky outcropping near the portage we took a swim. I slipped on the rocks and banged my back. Not too bad fortunately. After the carry we fished the landing area and the bass were plentiful. A group of guys in 3 canoes were soon after us on the portage and since we were fishing, they paddled on ahead the same direction we were heading. It was getting to the time of night when we knew we needed to get to camp to beat the bugs. Since this lake only had the one spot, and the 3-canoe group had claimed it, we were looking for any serviceable spot. As we were paddling, we saw a moose swimming the same direction as us on the other side of the lake. We finally located a suitable spot with just enough trees for the bear bags and our hammocks. Had dinner and a swim and were in our hammocks before the swarm descended.

Quetico Day 5 “Lost Time”

Was up early and got coffee water going. I think I was subconsciously hoping to see a moose again. As per our routine we started fishing and soon got some walleye. One each. This would be the first walleye I have caught. Both would be lunch, which meant I had to carry them over the next few portages. At the end of the lake, just before the portage we had a flurry of bass fishing. As we were unloading the canoe Dan realized his watch was missing. We searching packs, pockets, and hammocks to no avail. Dan took the canoe to check the campsite while I portaged the gear. By this time the 3 -canoes had passed us again. Dan soon returned with no watch. We had his flip phone with its clock and my camera. We didn't really care much about time, it was only to let us know when to head to camp to avoid the bug festival with the main course, us. The next few lakes were long and narrow with short carries between. While trolling, Dan hit a monster Lake trout. (dinner and breakfast) Saw a bald eagle perched upon a dead tree on a regenerating burnt out island. We found a nice spot to camp and had a swim. By now we realized that my camera's clock was an hour off. Daylight savings time issue I surmised.

Quetico Day 6 “Fish Portage”

Awoke before the sun for the first time. I waited for her to crest the trees across the lake. We had the tail section of the trout to use for breakfast. Combined with the leftover salsa, and avocado we had trout tacos. They were fantastic. After eating, we sat down and looked at the map to adjust our itinerary for the rest of the trip. We knew we had an extra 4 miles to the take out that was not part of the orginal plan. We started at the take out and backtracked to the present day based on our current rate of progress. Some minor adjustments were made which also included some contingency shortcuts if needed. Today would have quite a few portages starting with a 1.2km. It had a decent climb to it as well. The trail was actually quite nice, had a decent view at the top of the rise. And with 20lbs of food gone, the packs were significantly lighter. We did more fishing of course and increased our catch total considerably including another lake trout. While trolling the same lake, Dan was bringing in his lure as it was hitting bottom and just as it came to the surface another laker hit it. He got to watch the whole thing. We saw more fish breaking the surface not too far away, since I had a surface plug on I sent it in that direction. Got a hit, but was unable to set the hook. We surmised we had the exact spot and time when the lakers were top feeding. We did a few portages and stopped for lunch right after a big flurry of bass fishing under this very cool rock overhang. Both large and smallmouth bass. As we passed through one of the lakes we saw 2 more groups camped near each other. Another walleye (Dan initially thought it was a laker) was kept for lunch tomorrow, which meant I had about 7 lbs of fish to carry over the next couple portages. So much for the lighter food load. At least they would be short ones. Dan had started to set his phone alarm for 6pm, so we could beat the bugs. When it went off, it meant it was time to start looking for a place to camp. We started to shorten the distance we were paddling to do more fishing and not have to rush to make miles. It was much more relaxing. Dan and seem to have gotten into a groove. We get along well too. A lot of joking around, sarcasm, and some sophomoric humor. At dinner I mentioned that others would probably find the two of us annoying. Of course this was parried with a witty retort from Dan.

Quetico Day 7 “How many carries was that?”

Another trout taco breakfast with the tail section. Will have to remember this and plan for it as a regular addition. We did a bit of fishing with little luck this morning. Today was to have 7 portages, with the longest only 500 m. The short ones would be interrupted only by paddling across a narrow bay of the next lakes. We made our way to the first portage and saw a canoe coming from it. While the food bag is getting lighter, I still had the walleye from the day prior to carry for todays lunch. At one of the larger lakes, I needed a bath. I was hot and sweaty. Smelled like a yak, as Dan would say. Probably not far from the truth. We found a large rock island and we swam, followed by locating a weed bed and fishing it where Dan got the biggest walleye yet. That fish was lucky we already had plenty in the boat. The wind was picking up a bit, so we set a rock anchor and fished some more in the weeds. Some more canoes started to exit the portage so Dan figured he had better get his clothes back on. He was nude fishing due to having to dive in to rescue a snagged lure. Some stomach gurgling told us it was time for a snack and to start prepping lunch. We made a team effort of sweet and sour fish. It was most satisfying. A little bit of rain started while we were cooking, so we put on our rain gear. Then it subsided so we removed our gear, and it started again. We would play this game for a short while even as we were underway. At the top of the lake we turned to the left, the opposite direction as all other canoes. After this gorgeous bay with a huge rock face would start the many little portages to unnamed lakes and streams. On the approach to the first, an eagle flew over us to eventually perch himself on a nearby tree. We unloaded, carried, loaded, paddled, repeat, repeat, repeat... and then the longer to the end of the lake while fishing of course. We started getting some big bass and were focused on the action. Dan then asked me how many carries did we do, 3 or 4? I couldn't remember. I tried to count, but they were all blending in together. Looking at the map, the sun and the direction we were facing, it was realized we did an extra portage and were on the wrong lake!. Just up ahead was a campsite and we could adjust our route without having to go back. As we headed towards the campsite, dan's trolling lure hit some weeds and then began a flurry of bass fishing like no other. Monster sized smallmouths on a feeding frenzy. Our jigs were lighting them up, each fish seemed bigger than the last. This was contrasted with the lake early in the day when we were joking about who caught the smallest fish. This started after I had a tiny sunfish, not much bigger than the lure. When the bass flurry ended, we made camp. Wow! That was exciting. After dinner we adjusted our itinerary yet again and repacked the food bags for the next few days.

Quetico Day 8 “No fish (to eat).”

Cold cereal and coffee may not sound all that exciting but after the richness of the foods we had been enjoying it was a welcome change at least for me. We fished some more in the same spot as the frenzy the night before. It was ok, nothing like before. A few short carries (less than 200m), one ended in a weed choked tributary which we pushed through the muck and we were on Reid Lake. Stunning features on this lake. We fished a bit and and found a campsite for lunch. After Reid, the portage trails were obviously less used on the way to Woodside Creek and Lake. On Woodside, Dan hit a walleye on his trolling lure, so we grabbed a rock from shore and made an anchor since we had been paddling into a headwind. Must have found a school as the walleye were plentiful here with some bass mixed in. We kept 4 decent sized walleye for the next day as it was getting late and these fish would not have time for their flesh to rest in time for flaky goodness at dinner. So today would be the first day in a week where we did not eat fish for at least one meal. It was time to get to camp and instead of going backwards to the site on woodside, I suggested we do the next 2 carries to Hurlburt Lake one of which was 700m. Once on Hurlburt, we went quite far down the lake looking for a decent site. I was getting a bit anxious due to time. I did not want to experience the mosquito hordes again.We finally found a nice little site. I fixed dinner while Dan hung the bear lines. Made it into the hammock before the bugs.

Quetico Day 9 “Paddlers of the Past”

In the middle of the night some gusts of winds caused me to wake up. I have felt these types of winds before in my hammock. They usually signally an incoming rain. So far the weather has been gorgeous, only the rain game a few days ago. After a few minutes the winds slowed to allow the rains to begin. It rained for the rest of the night and into the morning. Dan had some pooling under his tarp which dampened his sleeping gear and likely didn't get as much sleep as a result. Still he was up before me. I sometimes dawdle when it is raining hoping it will end. We contemplated a simpler breakfast that baking bread and frying fish, but the rains dissipated and I was soon adding some yeast to warm water for our “english muffins”. We had made it farther up Hurlburt Lake than we had expected to do, so we only had a small piece and the channel to an unnamed lake left. On my first cast of the day I hooked a good bass. They are so plentiful, large and easy to catch here. A few times after Dan sharpened the hooks on my lure, he would drop it into the water and a bass would hit it! Dan got a Laker early on, but we still had some walleye to eat so he released it. Paddling through the channel there were some neat rock formations and a lot of bass. Small carries and then to Payne Lake. As we paddled around the lake a large cliff face was prominent in the second bay. According to the map, there should be some pictographs here. As we paddled along the rock face, we spotted them. Painted in red, likely ochre, a triangular shaped figure perhaps a man and an obvious representation of a deer or elk. They were painted right about where one would reach by canoe. Part of the shpiel when we received our permits was to not photographs the art, but drawing it was ok. This request came from the First Nations people, we respected their wishes and paddled on. On later lakes we would see similar paintings of man and elk, but also some new. One was obviously a moose. By this time it was already early afternoon and we hadn't gotten very far. We didn't start as early as we thought either. Had lunch and paddled on. We did fishg along the way but didn't dawdle. The longer carries for the day appeared to be net elevation losses so they seemed easier than others of comparable length. On one, Dan stepped into a muddy spot past his boot. He was not happy. We made camp at a large campsite, good enough for a decent sized group. There was poison ivy here.

Quetico Day 10 “The Big Easy”

Was up before Dan, I think. I try to stay as quiet as possible while getting the fire restarted and bringing down the food bag. I also did some laundry. Clean socks and underwear feel so nice. Not so good fishing as the day began. We made our way down the large lake Kawnipi. Heard the other canoeists from across the lake, not that they were talking loudly the sound just carries over the water. I commented that is why we can hear the mosquitoes in the woods across the bay. Kawnipi is a very large lake made up of many elongated bays which lead to nowhere. One could easily spend an entire day or more just paddling in and out of these stretches. Each could be an entire lake to themselves. From Kawnipi, we took the route through the “smaller” channels around the large islands and got a few pike and bass along the way. In one of the channels, we got some bass which we kept for dinner. Not huge like the monsters we were catching a few days ago, but large enough. With such a large lake, we just paddled. Slowly and deliberately making progress while enjoying the lake and fishing. Eventually our channel became a river with an increasing current. As it forked around an island there were some rapids. A lot of volume pumping through the small section and a significant drop. We carried around these falls, and the next ones further down. After the 2nd portage, we were on Shelly Lake. We fished below the rapids and Dan got 2 walleye and I some small bass. Dan took a swim deep into the dark waters to dislodge a snagged lure. This was his second dive of the day. Earlier it was within the first hour of being on the water. Made camp at the first island on Shelley. It was earlier than usual so we relaxed a bit more, plus it ensured we could get everything done before the bugs arrived. With so few portages and a relaxed paddling pace, today was gentle. Team Fish Curry was for dinner and was a rousing success. Even with our earlier stop we barely got to our bunks before the bugs.

Quetico Day 11”The Romantics”

In the middle of the night I awoke to flashes of light in the distance. First from the foot end of my hammock and then to my right. The night was silent except for the sound of the rapids a half mile away. I briefly wondered if it was the northern lights, but as I increased consciousness I realized the direction was to the South. Soon distant rumblings could be heard. I was in and out of sleep for I don't know how long as the flashes and rumbles inched ever closer. I awoke just as the storm was upon us. A lot of lightning and rain, but almost no wind. It was over by morning. We got a late start today for some reason. We paddled back to the rapids to fish some more with moderate success. We then paddled on through the rest of Shelly and a portage into Keats. Along the way we discussed the romantic poets and Dan brought up how much influence they had on our perspective of the wilderness. We stopped on an island in Keats to cook lunch. My pasta with lemon cream sauce was weak. I was quite disappointed. The only positive was how filling it was. Fish was good though, that was all Dan. Both portages today were around some very powerful waterfalls. The crushing force of the water was evident in the churning. As we headed toward our second but final portage for the day we paddled in a headwind past a 2-canoe group going the other direction. In an instant, a hose was turned on, the sky started dropping rain like mad. There was a moment of a few sprinkles and then these giant soaking raindrops. I yelled back, these raindrops are a quarter cup each. As quickly as it started, the rain stopped. Someone turned off the hose and the sun came out. We were drenched, however Dan noticed that except for my shoulders, my back was still dry. Must have been the wind driving the rain. After the carry, we were on our lake for the night. There were a lot of campsites in the vicinity of the falls; surprisingly to me they were all unoccupied. Our alarm sounded giving an hour and half to get to camp. There was a smaller cluster of sites further down the lake so we headed into the wind in that direction. We found an island site which hadn't been used in quite some time. After scouting it, we pressed on the the next point. Just as we rounded the turn, another canoe pulled in to the site. We asked about the next site, and the couple told us it was occupied, so we paddled back to the island. Since it hadn't been used in a long time, finding wood would not be a problem. We tucked our hammocks into the bushy trees to shelter from the wind. Since lunch was so late, when we finally got to our campsite, I was not hungry

Quetico Day 12 “What day was that?”

Great nights sleep in the hammock. I was up early to get coffee going and make the starter for bread. We had a lot of miles to do today, and the two big portages from earlier in the trip. Today we would do them both, but since our food load has significantly diminished, we would be able to do the portages as 1 and a half, instead of doubles. Like usual, we started off fishing. It was windy, not as much as the night before, but enough we needed to anchor. Just off the point by the other campsite, more walleye were caught which would be dinner. Paddling into the wind yesterday afternoon and today was slightly more difficult than the easy going we have had for almost the entire trip. We also had a little rain here and there. Not like the torrential burst, instead we played the rain-gear-no rain, game. As we approached the stream with the small rapids (we ran this on the way in) a few curious otters played around. We lined up this stream and fished in the pool just below the larger rapids which we eventually carried around. We did the 1.2 km carry and stopped for lunch where we camped earlier in the trip and picked up the pfd which was still there. The bass were not as present around the campsite as before. The smaller carries between the unnamed lakes, and the Sauvage Portage again. Man this carry is a killer. Not the distance so much as the terrain I think. A the very end while putting down the canoe, Dan lost hold and it dropped onto the rock with a loud bang. Hope there isn't any real damage; Dan is very careful with his boat. We only have one full day left on the water. The time sure has gone by fast. Seems like yesterday we started. It is difficult to recall more than just a few days back, what lakes we were on, which campsite, etc... Most of the time we refer back to the meals we ate to describe a certain day, or a unique fishing aspect such as the “bass flurry”. Couldn't say how many days back it was though. Some of the days have blended together for me, and I am having difficulty reconciling them without referring to my notes or more often, our meal plan. Fishing for me hasn't been as good as earlier in the trip. Dan still pulls them in. He also continues to have a trolling line out as we are paddling too. When we got to Bud Lake, with the many campsites it appeared to be empty. It is odd how we can be in areas deep into the park and off the well traveled routes and still see people but in this area closer to the main access points, we have the place to ourselves. Our site has been well used, the previous occupants left considerable trash in the firepit. The resident mouse doesn't seem to mind.

Quetico Day 13 “Portaging the rock”

I was up early. For some reason found it difficult to fall back asleep when I heeded natures call in the middle of the night. I wonder if the trip coming to a close had something to do with it. Started coffee and the bread dough. We spent the morning fishing Bud Lake. It took us a while to find the fish, but when we did they were some good ones. Dan with some big bass, and I with a huge pike, estimated to be 8-10 lbs. We had half our no-cook lunch by the rapids between Bud and Beg Lakes. Spent some more time fishing in Beg, then Bisk Lake. On the portage to Bisk, we met a solo paddler on her way in. We called this portage, the carry of many trails. It was short, but for some reason there were a few herd paths which all reconnected to the same destination. Since it was so short, Dan doubled it, and sent me back for the rock anchor. As I got to the end, the solo paddler saw me portaging this rock and asked me what's up with the rock. For the second half of the trip, Dan would get us an anchor rock at the put-ins. Since it was in front with me, we joked about it being my pet, my pal. The last carry around the rapids was so short, Dan just grabbed the same rock we used in Bud Lake. So here I was on that next portage, a few more rods than the other portaging a rock. Can't say I have ever done that before, or will likely do again in the future. It made for a good laugh. We joked with the solo paddler that a troll guarded the portages and required a rock for safe passage. Now in Bisk Lake, where Dan got the first walleye and the monster pike. We anchored near the channel where the walleye was caught. Well we portaged the rock, we better make use of it, right. Well we didn't have the same luck as before so we paddled on around the bend to our last portage for the day, and the trip itself. Approaching our take out just before the rapids from the dam, we waited for a family to finish putting in. We ferried across the lower rapids and did our final portage. It felt longer than the first time, even though we actually did less (1.5 vs a double-carry). On the last few meters, I slowed down when the reality of this being the final portage hit me like a freight train. Even uttering the words, “our last portage of the trip” would start to choke me up a bit. We still had a lot of miles to do, and another night on Pickerel Lake. Knowing this lake was usually busy, we stopped at a derelict beaver lodge to get some wood for camp. On a troll, Dan got our last walleye. A nice big one. We still had two to eat for dinner, so we would this one for our last day. The wind was stiff, and the waves were bigger on Pickerel due to its size. We were paddling with the wind and waves, so we were cruising. Still was a workout though due to the waves. We stopped at a campsite on a point, rather than rolling the dice on the busier beach sites farther down. After dinner and a swim, I went to the beaver dam which connected this point (actually an island separated from the main by the beaver channel) to gather some more wood for the next day. While pushing through some thicker bush I came across a fair amount of a bear and moose scat. At the beaver dam, I saw some large canine tracks in the mud flats (which were neat how how the channel of the breached dam carved them out). Wolf tracks perhaps? The wind began to taper off, which meant soon it would be skeeter o-clock, so off to the hammock.

Quetico Day 14 “The End”

The winds had subsided overnight, so it was a very quiet when I awoke. I could hear some splashing around the point. Not waves, but like someone stepping through the water. I quietly arose and noticed how calm the water was, and early morning fog before the sunrise. I approached the lake as quietly as I could. Whatever was making the noise was not seen, nor heard again. I mentioned it to Dan later, and he said he also heard it. Since the sun has not yet risen, I took the opportunity to watch it rise for the last time on our trip. Walking towards the eastern side of our point, I stepped out onto the rocks and the knowledge that this was truly my last day in the Quetico overcame me. I sat down on the rocks and began to weep. The sun began to rise, burning away the fog, and drying my watery eyes. I took some photos and gathered tinder. (The insta-fire kit prepared the night before was under Dan's tarp this morning). It was 6:30 am local time. In less than 12 hours I would be on a plane headed towards Toronto. We ate our breakfast at the point overlooking the main lake as we continued our conversations about human nature among other things. Back in the canoe we swung by the beaver dam from which I gathered wood the night before. I pointed out the tracks, and Dan confirmed they were canine, a very large one, most likely a wolf. We paddled east into the rising sun on calm waters. We had the large walleye in the boat from last night, and a rock of course. We caught ome small bass and a lake trout while trolling; when I say we I mean Dan. At one of the last beach sites, a family was just packing up, so we stopped and asked if we could use the firepit to cook our lunch ahead of time, so we could eat it at the take-out. They were obliging mostly. The older woman seemed a bit perturbed that our stuff could possibly get mixed up with theirs. The family departed as we cooked. One last dip in the lake before we set out for the quiet paddle up the Pickerel River into French Lake. Passed by a few canoes heading the other direction. Some perhaps day-trippers and some with more gear for extended days. Their trip was just beginning. Our 14 days on the water went by so quickly. Our adventure was over, and it felt like it barely started.

Overall we paddled over 100 miles through more than 60 lakes and equal number of portages. Our route took us from the Northeast part of the Quetico, traveling Southwest to within a few miles of the international border, returning along mostly different lakes until the very end. We could not have asked for better scenery, weather, fishing, food, or paddling partner. I suppose we could ask, but that would be just greedy.

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