I get out into the wilderness many times each summer, but the trip I look forward to most is the Quetico trip I take in the spring. This year Zane, Wade, and Vidmar (aka BLD) from the outfitting crew, Josh a good friend of Wade’s, and I made up our motley crew. The plan was to get a ride up to Beaverhouse Lake and paddle our way back to our parked car at the Moose Lake landing.
May 21, 2011
We met at 6:00AM by the outfitting barn at Piragis. We are lucky to have a couple of great friends who were willing to drive us the 4 or so hours that it takes to get up to Beaverhouse and then another 4 hours back home. Of course we made it worth their time, but their generosity doesn’t go unappreciated.
I am not sure what time we got to Beaverhouse. I was too excited to remember look at the clock in the van, and a watch is one thing I don’t carry with me when I am escaping into the woods. We made the short portage to the lake, said goodbye to our drivers, and hit the trail.
It was overcast, cool, and we had a pretty strong wind coming from the east. Paddling south from the put-in to the ranger station was a bit of challenge as we had a crosswind pushing us the whole way. We made it to the ranger station without incident, got the necessary permits and payments taken care of, and then were off to the heart of the Quetico wilderness.
We like to fish, but our route requires us to move a fair distance each day. The first day is usually a travel day, and this time was no different. It had to be a little after noon when we left the Ranger Station. Our plan was to get onto Quetico Lake and travel as far east towards Jean Lake that we could.
By now, the wind was whipping out of the east directly into our faces. Zane and I were in a Minnesota II and we were doing all we could to keep up with the other guys who were in a Minnesota 3. That extra paddler in a Minnesota 3 makes a big difference, especially paddling in the wind. Slowly, but surely, we made our way east. We paddled until the sun began to sink behind us in the western sky. We found a really great campsite on an odd shaped peninsula and decided to set up our first camp.
Vidmar, our food guru, aptly nicknamed BLD (short for breakfast, lunch, and dinner), started getting the fixings dinner together, while I built him a cooking fire. Zane worked on setting up our tent, while Josh and Wade looked for more firewood. Camp gets set up so smoothly when everyone pitches in.
We had just enough twilight to finish our dinner of steaks, potatoes, and cookies without our headlamps. I am not sure if it was the long day or Vidmar’s food packing expertise, but steaks have never tasted so delicious. After eating, we got a small fire going, cleaned up the dishes, and discussed our travel plans for the next day. It was an early night. We traveled a long ways, considering we started the day back in Ely.
May 22, 2011
I was up with day break. It was cool and overcast, but it didn’t look like any rain was in the mix. I could hear Vidmar stirring around in his tent, but everyone else was sleeping. I started boiling some water for coffee, and shortly after, Vidmar came out of his tent and started getting breakfast together. Slowly the rest of the crew emerged from their tents. Everyone grabbed a little coffee (except for me, I don’t drink coffee) and a quick breakfast.
We started to tear down camp and before we knew it, we were all loaded up and back into our canoes. After our evening discussion about the route, we decided this was going to be a travel day as well. We wanted to get as close to the Sturgeon Narrows as we could. We were not in a hurry, but the main focus of the day was moving.
From our campsite, we continued east and then south towards Conk Lake. We took the short portage into Conk, which was a small lake, but very interesting. It is almost separated into two smaller lakes by a marshy area. We didn’t investigate the west side of the lake as we wanted to continue moving. From Conk, we took another short portage into Jean Lake.
Jean Lake was beautiful. We had it all to ourselves, but we were not in explorer mode. We kept pushing east from Jean into Little Jean Lake. From Little Jean, we took the short portage into Yeh Lake. We stopped here and had a quick lunch of cheese, sausage, and crackers.
The portage out of Yeh Lake is a little difficult to find. It is actually located a little bit further south than it appears on the map. We were not the only ones who had trouble finding it. We could see a spot on the shoreline where many people have landed their boats by mistake.
The portage from Yeh into Lonely Lake was a little challenging. It was 300 rods and there was a little bit of elevation change, some swampy areas, and overall, quite difficult. It was worth it though. We saw some really huge white pines along the way and it was a beautiful walk through the woods. People often fret about the portages, but I always try to remind them to enjoy the walk through the woods. It’s a nice break from sitting in the canoe and the trails go through intensely beautiful natural areas. It really is one of my favorite parts of a canoe trip.
Once on Lonely, we head east, and then south to Lonely Creek, and from there onto the north part of the large body of Sturgeon Lake. By now, it had to be after dinner time as we were all getting hungry and tired. There would be no more portaging for the day so we got our fishing poles out to see if we could add some fresh fish to dinner. We fished our way east and a little south towards the campsite on the north side of Scripture Island. I caught a couple of small pike that were not worth cleaning and Zane caught a few small smallmouth bass, again too small to clean. Our boat made it to the campsite without anything for dinner. About 10 minutes behind us was the rest of the crew with two medium sized Lakers! I knew they would be good on the fire. Wade caught one and Josh the other.
It wasn’t the best site, but we were able to make due. It was a big sloping rock, but once you made it up the rock a ways there were a few nice spots to pitch a tent. Just as the night before, we each took a chore or two upon ourselves to get camp set up quickly. I grilled the Lakers and Vidmar prepared the rest of dinner. Josh, Wade, and Zane got the tents set up, gathered some fire wood, and set up a tarp because it looked like it was going to rain. Exhausted, we ate and sat by the fire for a while. Just as it began getting dark, it started to lightly rain, which meant it was time for bed.
May 23, 2011
There was a light rain for most of the night, just enough to make the ground damp when I walked out of the tent in the morning. Vidmar was already up with his tent mostly down. Wade and Josh were stirring and Zane quickly made his way out of the tent. Everyone seemed to be energized by the cool morning air. We quickly got breakfast and coffee, took down camp and hit the water. The sun was still low in the eastern sky as we paddled away from our campsite.
Today was the day we were looking forward to for exactly 364 days, since the last time we were in this part of Quetico Park. We were headed mostly north and a little east through Sturgeon Narrows and into Russell Lake. We had some of the best fishing I can remember through this stretch the year before.
We left camp fishing poles armed and ready. We had no real destination for the day; we were just going to ‘fish’ our way along and get however far that took us. We started fishing almost immediately. I was trolling an F-11 black and silver Rapala. I had a chartreuse and orange jig tipped with a pearl twister tail on my other rod for casting. Zane was spot casting for smallies with a sinking worm on a wide gap worm hook.
We paddled slowly, trolling the shoreline. When either Zane or I picked out a good spot I slowed us and he worked the area for smallies. Meanwhile, I would toss my jig down to the bottom. We did this for almost an hour, slowly making our way up into the Sturgeon Narrows, when finally, I had a strike. It was a small pike, but it was the first fish of the day. The ice was broken.
We caught a few fish as we passed through the Narrows. The channel between Russell Lake and the Narrows produced a couple of walleyes, but the current was moving much faster than it had in years past so it didn’t produce quite like we had hoped. We stopped for lunch on at a spot where we could fish into a deep hole with a little current running through. We devoured some GORP, jerky, cheese, crackers, and sausage and were able to pull a couple of decent sized walleyes out of the hole.
At this point we had a decision to make. We wanted to camp on Montgomery Lake at some point during this trip. It was not a priority, but if possible, we wanted to check it out. From where we were, and where we needed to get to make it out on time, we either needed to push for Montgomery right away, or we would have to skip it as it would not work logistically. After a bit of discussion, we decided to go for it.
This changed our fishing strategy a little, as we now had a pretty good distance to travel over the afternoon. Rather than ‘fishing’ our way along, we now decided to only try for walleyes, and only as we approached spots that we couldn’t pass up.
If you look at the map, in the area between Russell and Montgomery, part of the Poet’s Chain, the lakes are separated by a significant elevation change and a series of waterfalls. These falls are where we would focus our fishing.
This is one of my favorite spots in the wilderness. It is absolutely gorgeous. The falls are incredible. You are complete secluded. The fishing is superb. I do not have the words to adequately describe it.
First was Chatterton Falls. We pulled about a dozen good sized walleyes, a couple of 4+ pound smallies, and a couple of pike out of there. Next, after taking the difficult portage from Russell to Chatterton, was Split Rock Falls. Here again, we pulled up a bunch of great walleyes and couple of smallies. Then, it was over the portage, into Keats, another breathtakingly beautiful lake. Between Keats and Shelley Lake was Snake Falls and Have a Smoke Portage.
If you have never been here before it is something you definitely need to check out. There is a big rock, overlooking the eastern half of Keats. It is the perfect spot to relax with a great view of the lake and have a smoke, hence the name. We thought it appropriate to take a break and enjoy some cheap cigars. The view was stupendous, the company fantastic. It is moments like that these that make our time in the wilderness so special.
We could have stayed there for hours, enjoying the view, and catching fish from underneath the falls, but the sun was sinking in the sky and we still had a few miles to go. We finished our cigars, packed the fishing poles away, and made our way across the portage into Shelley Lake. Shelley Lake is a narrow loop around a large island. It is very interesting and beautiful. We stayed to the north of the island and headed directly for Montgomery Lake.
We found the short portage. By this time it was just starting to get dark. We were on Montgomery Lake, but the campsite we were looking for was not on the map, and none of us had been there before. We had a good idea of where it was, but it would not be easy to find in the dark. Zane and I paddled ahead to try and find the site. We searched and searched but could not find it. We found a few spots that might work, but we heard there was a fantastic spot on one of the islands. Finally, while there was still a little bit of light left, we saw what looked like a pile of rocks for a fire, high up on a rock overlooking the lake. We pulled over and Zane hiked up the side of the rock. Sure enough, this was the campsite. He pointed me around the island to a better landing where he met me. We signaled the other boat and they made their way over.
The campsite was incredible. There were two fire pits. One was high up on the rock, 30 or so above the water, overlooking the beautiful Quetico Lake. On the rock, there was enough room to cook dinner and relax next to the fire. It was a bit of a climb to get to the overlook. At the base of the overlook was a huge flat area with some really big white pines and enough space for a bunch of tents. Flat areas were separated by stands of trees. It was almost like each tent had its own ‘room’. Though there was all of this space, Zane and I decided to set our tent up on the top of the high rock. There was just enough space to squeeze our tent in up there. We had a dinner of campfire pizzas, enjoyed the evening for a while, and then hit the hay.
May 24, 2011
Again, I woke up with the birds, as I seem to do while I am on trail. The view from the tent was outstanding. The morning rising up over the lake, from our vantage point was incredible. We quickly cleaned camp and said goodbye to the best site I have ever stayed at.
This was another day of fishing our way along. We just wanted to get to a nice campsite on Kawnipi, which was only a few miles away. Zane and I were on the lake a little before the other guys and it did not take us long to find the walleyes. I tossed my jig along the high rock where our tent was set up, and sure enough, first cast, I caught a medium sized walleye. Then Zane caught one; then I did again. By the time the other guys were on the water, we have pulled in a half dozen or so really nice walleyes right off the campsite. They found a spot nearby and caught a bunch themselves. Within an hour we had already had a great day’s worth of fishing. We fished until the bite stopped and then continued on to the south part of Montgomery where we took a rather difficult 90 rod portage into Kawnipi.
We spent the entire day fishing Kawnipi. It was fantastic. We fished the western edge of the lake. It was a series of channels that ran to the west of Rose Island. We caught big walleyes, big smallies, even a couple of nice pike. Some of the walleyes we were catching had a blue tint to them. They are a separate sub species of walleyes that are only located in a few lakes, Kawnipi being one of them.
We fished until dark and then found a great campsite on a small island just south of Rose Island. We had a great evening trading fish stories. Since we did not travel too far, we made a nice fire and stayed up late into the night. The stars were incredible. The sky was absolutely full of the shinning little diamonds, and the Milky Way was as bright as I have seen. Great day, great fishing, great friends, great sky, it was really an extraordinary day.
May 25, 2011
We got an early start, and again, got on the water ASAP. The fishing was so good the day before that we decided to fish our way off of Kawnipi. Wade, Josh, and Vidmar found a good hole for walleyes. Zane and I didn’t have as much luck, but we did manage to catch a couple of nice walleyes and I pulled in a really nice smallie.
We puddle-jumped our way from Kawnipi south towards Agnes Lake. Agnes can be treacherous on a windy day, and a bear to paddle if you are going against the wind. By some stroke of luck, believe it or not, the wind was actually at our backs today. It seems like the wind is always in your face when you are paddling, but I can say that on this day we had a tailwind. Needless to say, we were very excited we would not have to fight the wind all the down Agnes.
As we came to the north end of Agnes, we noticed that the wind was in our favor. Jokingly, Zane suggested we make a sail and drift south down the lake. We laughed for a minute, and then started seriously considering it. Josh was the first to decide to go for it. He started latching some branches together and attaching his tent footprint as the sail. Zane and I, not to be outdone, did the same with a couple of modifications. It got a little competitive and of course, we decided to race our way down the lake.
At this point the wind must have been blowing steadily from 10-15 mph. Wade, Josh, and Vid jumped out to an early lead. Zane and I had to stop a couple of times to make a few minor modifications, which put us a little behind. After a couple of trial and errors, we finally had it. The wind carried us down the lake. We cruised past the other boat. Zane was in front holding the sail and I was ruddering from the stern. Zane’s paddle never touched the water. Those of you who have paddled Agnes know what a feat that is.
It took us what seemed like about an hour and a half or so to get from the north end of Agnes all the way to the portage for East Lake. It was such an amazing experience. When the wind gusted, it felt like it was going to carry us off the water. I do not necessarily recommend this mode of travel, as there were a few times we nearly went in the drink, but it surely was an experience to remember, so much so that I named my pup, who I bought shortly after the trip, Agnes.
We made our way to East Lake, and wanted to set up camp, but it was taken. The only reason I mention this is that these were the first people we had seen since the Ranger back on Beaverhouse, pretty incredible. We continued to Jeff Lake where we decided to set up shop for the night. It was another amazing day on the water.
May 26, 2011
Another beautiful early morning. We cleaned up camp and hit the water. We fished a little in the morning, with little luck, except for one pretty good smallmouth. We made our way from Jeff into a small puddle, then through the mud, into a creek that led us into West Lake. We paddled the long skinny lake until we hit the portage for South Lake. From South, we headed into North Bay. It was a little bit windy, but we made it across the bay no problem. From North Bay we continue south toward Burke Lake.
We wanted to get the site on the biggest island, as it is just astounding. Zane and I were ahead so we booked it for the island. Unfortunately it was taken, but we were able to find a nice spot back to the north. We reached our campsite around mid-afternoon, set up camp and fished during the evening. No luck, but was still fun. Around supper time, we headed back to camp for dinner, a campfire, and to discuss our trip. This was our last night in the wilderness. The time always seems to go so fast while I am in the wilderness.
We stayed up late by the fire, but eventually retired for one last night in the Quetico wilderness.
May 27, 2011
During the middle of the night, I hear “HEY!” and then shortly after “HEY!” It was Vidmar. I responded, asking if everything was okay. He yells back that he heard a large animal nearby. I grabbed my headlamp and jumped out of the tent. Meanwhile, Josh, Wade, and Zane slept soundly. By this time, Vidmar was out of his tent. He thought he heard a bear or a deer or a moose, but wasn’t sure. We walked around for a while and made some noise. That was the last we heard of whatever it was. Back to bed.
We took our time getting out of camp, since it was our last day in the wilderness. Eventually, we made our way south into Bayley Bay, through Prairie Portage, and down the Moose Chain, back to my truck that was waiting for us.
Another fantastic trip was in the books. In all, we caught hundreds of fish, saw some of the most beautiful, pristine natural areas left, and had just an extraordinary time. Exhausted, on the car ride home, we already started talking about the 2012 trip. It sounds like we will be going in on the north side of Quetico through Baptism Creek and coming down and out Moose Lake via the Man Chain. Can’t wait!