Monday, June 18, 2012

Quetico Canoe Trip May 17-24

Though I am lucky enough to get into the Boundary Waters many times throughout the summer, I get just one big trip a year.  In the spring, a group of outfitting guys and I head to a remote spot in Quetico and then paddle back to the Ely area.  This year’s crew was Wade and his dog Paula, Vidmar aka BLD aka Born to Rest, Brandon, and me and my dog Agnes.  Planning for this year’s trip began about 362 days (give or take) prior to our departure.  (We spend the last day or two of our trips starting to plan the next one.)  I believe we were floating down Agnes Lake last spring when we decided we wanted to venture into the rarely used Cache Lake in the northeastern part of Quetico.

Trying to get our schedules to match so we can meet before the trip is nearly impossible.  Brandon was in southern MN going to school and Vidmar lives about an hour away from Ely.  We weren’t all together as a group to plan until the day we left for our trip.  Luckily for us, Vidmar is our food guy, and no joke, he starts packing/planning for our food in January.  This is how he acquired the nickname “BLD,” short for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.  The rest of the logistics are easy, but it is really nice not to have to worry about the food.

We had arranged a driver to take us east of Atikokan to French Lake.  At the last minute he was unable to take us.  A few hours of panic and a bunch of phone calls later I was able to get one of our new staff Pat to drive us north.  Our crew met Pat at 10:30 on May 16 to depart for Canada.  We loaded up two Minnesota II’s and packed the van full of our gear and fishing rods.  After adding a few last minute incidentals we were all set to go.  Two dogs, our crew of four, and our driver Pat were on our way north.

After an uneventful drive we made it to the French Lake area where we camped outside of the park.  The drive took a little over 5 hours so Pat stayed with us for the night.  He is one of the new guys in outfitting, so it was nice to have him along and get to know him a little better.  We cooked some brats and shared some stories.  This was our first time together as a group so we discussed our route and our plan for the trip in a little bit more detail as we sat next to the campfire.

The morning came quickly.  We waved goodbye to Pat and hit the water.  We put in on French Lake and headed for Baptism Creek.  We had a beautiful morning to paddle.  There was only a slight breeze and it was cool on the lake.  Our first day was definitely going to be the most challenging day of the trip.  We had roughly 12 miles to travel, including a 795 rod portage. 

Loaded and ready to go!
Navigating the Baptism Creek was difficult; there were a bunch of confluences in the river and it was nearly impossible to tell where we were on the map.  To add to our difficulty, neither map set showed all of the little channels running off of the main waterway.  Our best means of navigation was simply to pay attention to our direction of travel.  We knew we had to head south so we did our best to keep the sun on our left shoulder.  It was difficult to tell, though, since the river meandered so much.  We could, however, tell that our general direction of travel was south, and that is the way we wanted to go.  At one point, we took a wrong turn, but realized quickly that the sun was in our face, not to our left.  We turned around, and found the right path, losing only about 15 minutes.

After a few hours of navigating the river, slogging our way along, we made it to Baptism Lake.  We paddled through and found the short portage over to Trousers Lake.  The paddle across Trousers was quick and easy, unlike the next portage.

We got to the most southern point of Trousers Lake and found the 795 rod portage into Cache Lake.  At this point it was a little after 1:00 and we decided to break for lunch (mostly to lighten the packs a little).  Vidmar broke out his world famous blueberry bagel with salami and cheese sandwiches.  We sat and ate with great anticipation, not knowing what the portage had in store for us.

We finished lunch and each grabbed a pack.  The dogs had their packs on and were thrashing around with one another, not knowing about the arduous task ahead.  Wade was the machete man and Brandon had a saw.  It wasn’t 40 rods when we ran into our first deadfall.  Brandon took care of it.  We trudged our way along, clearing the trail as we went along.  Brandon and Wade did an awesome job clearing the path.  A little over one hundred rods in, I decided to head back and grab a second load.  (I felt it would be more productive than watching those guys clear the trail.)  Vid and I went back and grabbed another load to give our trailblazers a bit of a head start.  Eventually, we came to a creek that ran across the portage.  Based on the map we determined that we must be about half way across.  At this point, we decided to get all of our gear to the creek.

Agnes and Paula all packed up!
The creek was not half way!  I think it was just wishful thinking on our part.  We continued along, clearing the trail and hauling the gear for what seemed like hours—it was hours.  The sand flies were out and were only a minor inconvenience to me, but poor Agnes had red welts all over her belly.  Eventually, exhausted, we saw water.  We were still about 30 rods away (which doesn’t sound like a lot, but at this point seemed insurmountable).  I grit my teeth and pushed ahead.  I was relieved to finally get to the lake, but my joy was short lived, as I turned right around to go back for my second load.  I walked back to the creek and threw a canoe on my shoulders and walked what must have been about 500 rods to the lake.  Needless to say, we took a short break at the landing when we arrived.  The dogs caught a much needed nap while we rested.

Once we regained enough strength to get the canoes back in the water, we headed for our camp site on Cache Lake.  The wind was howling.  We found a decent spot on a point and set up camp.  The site was not great, but we were too tired to worry about it.  We ate dinner, started a fire, and each found a comfy spot to unwind (from which we hardly moved for the rest of the night).  We were happy to be done with the longest portage of the trip, but first thing in the morning, we had a 765 rod hike out of Cache Lake.

Brandon, Vid, and I trying to muster a smile after a long day.  Yes, we were as tired as we looked, and so were the poor dogs.
We got up in the morning with intentions of fishing for a bit on Cache Lake.  After some deliberation, we decided against fishing.  It took us about 4 hours to do the portage the day before and this one was not too much shorter.  We thought it would be best to just get a move on—plus we decided we would rather spend more time fishing on Kawnipi once we got there.  It was a quiet morning; everyone was a little tired and a little sore, and not really looking forward to duplicating what we had done the day before.

Cache Lake

We paddled across Cache Lake and found the portage.  We loaded up the dogs, each grabbed a pack, and started where we left off the day before.  This time Wade was the ax man, I had the machete, and Brandon was still using the saw.  About 100 feet in, we hit our first deadfall—not a good omen.  It was no match for Wade’s ax.  He took care of the big stuff with the ax, and I cleared the smaller stuff away with the machete.  For the giant, or hard to reach trees and limbs, Brandon used the saw.  It was slow going, and we cleared a ton of stuff from the trail, but we were making progress.  At one point, we decided to sit and take a break.  Vidmar broke out some granola bars and some cookies—good old BLD!  We were burning a ton of calories and the sugar was definitely important to keep us going.  We continued ahead and stopped at what we determined must be at least halfway.  The previous day, having more left than we anticipated, was mentally exhausting.  So this time, we were sure we were at least halfway.  We headed back and brought the rest of the gear to our checkpoint, where we took another breather.  It was back to trail clearing, as we continued forward.  Eventually, we saw water.  By this point, I was wiped, but the sight of the water was rejuvenating.  I went back for my last load and finished strong.

There were a few black flies on the portage.

Overall our crew did great.  I was glad I was with such a great group of guys, otherwise, these long portages would have been torturous.  In the end, the portages themselves were not difficult; they were just long.  We were happy they were over, but also glad that we had challenged ourselves to do them.  They were beautiful walks through the woods, and it was neat to be the first people up there for the year.  If you are feeling like a challenge, the trails are clear for you!

Now that the hardest part of our trip was behind us, we were looking forward to continuing on.  The long portage took us to Lindsay Lake.  It was a short paddle across the lake where we came to a short 6 rod portage.  At this point, the last thing we wanted was another portage, but we mustered up the strength to go the short distance into McKenzie Lake.

We paddled for a little over an hour and found a nice campsite on a big island.  It was early when we set up camp, but we were tired from the last two days and were right about where we wanted to be, so we decided to call it a day.  We got camp together and gathered some firewood.  It was pretty warm and I was filthy from the portage so I jumped in for a short swim.  The water was freezing, but it felt great to rinse off.  By now it was dinner time.  Wade started a fire, while I warmed up some chili Vid had made.  It was heavy to carry, but so worth it.  Man was it good!  We quickly cleaned up camp and found our spots for the evening.  It was beginning to get dark and it looked like there may be some rain in the distance.  As we sat, the stars came out.  We could see a storm to our south and another one to the north, but overhead, it was clear.  Vids headed off to bed, but Brandon, Wade and I stayed up for a while looking at the stars overhead and watching the storms in the distance.  It was a great evening and very relaxing—much needed after the tough start to our trip.

The water temp was in the low 50's.  It was cold, but felt great.
Wade making a few casts on McKenzie Lake.
We slept in.  We needed to catch up on some rest, and we didn’t have too far to go.  We wanted to get from our spot on McKenzie Lake to the southern part of McKenzie Bay of Kawnipi.  We left camp at 11.  There was a steady breeze in our face, but nothing too difficult.  We pushed ahead, did the half mile portage into Kawnipi and continued paddling south.  We found a great campsite on a big island just before you leave McKenzie Bay.  It was up on a high rock and there were at least 4 well made fire pits.  Big red pines covered part of the island, while cedars covered the other part.  There were a ton of tent pads, a nice flat rock to cook on, and just about everything you could dream of at a wilderness campsite.  It rivals the campsite on Montgomery Lake if you are familiar with that one.

Campsite on McKenzie Bay of Kawnipi
Once we had camp set up, Brandon, Wade, the dogs, and I went out to fish for a while.  We tried the islands near our campsite.  We picked up a couple of small northerns and a few decent walleyes, but the fishing wasn’t great.  We stayed out for a little over an hour and headed back to camp to start dinner.  It looked like it was going to rain later in the evening so Brandon and Wade set up our tarp, while Vids and I started campfire pizzas.  The pizzas are a treat on trail, but they are time consuming.  Just as we were finishing supper it started to sprinkle.  We set up a second tarp to give us a little space in anticipation of a heavy rain.  As we sat comfortably under the tarp, we decided that we were going to take the next day as a layover day to fish.

It rained all night and continued to rain into the morning.  We stayed nice and dry in our tent, and I would have stayed in there all day, but the dogs were up.  I got up, took the dogs out, and started some water for breakfast.  Eventually everyone climbed out of the tents.  We stayed dry under the tarps for a while, but as my dad always says, “If you are waiting on rain, you will never go fishing.”  The fish weren’t going to catch themselves so we hit the water.

Wade with a nice walleye on the first cast.  Notice the blue tinted fin.
A dog's eye view of canoeing on our layover day after the rain broke.

Vids is not much of a fisherman, so he stayed behind and hung out at camp.  We had two dogs and three guys in a Minnesota II.  It worked great, but was a bit of circus until the dogs settled in.  (Brandon, being the new guy on our trip, got defaulted to being the duffer.)  Wade picked up two nice walleyes first thing.  Shortly after, Brandon hooked up with a big fish.  He fought it for a bit, his drag screaming.  At this point, we hadn’t seen the fish yet, but narrowed it down to a monster walleye or a big pike.   Finally, Brandon got the fish to come up to the surface.  Being in the middle of the boat, he couldn’t see it—just the expressions on our faces.  Our jaws dropped and Brandon knew he had a big one on.  All we could see was the head of a real nice pike slowly rising from the depths.  Brandon guided the beast to Wade, who was able to release the fish in the water.  We didn’t take exact measurements, but it was definitely over 40” and at least 15 pounds (if I had to guess I would say 44” and around 20 pounds).

After the chaos settled down and the dogs relaxed, we continued fishing as it continued raining.  We had some spotty luck all day, catching a few walleyes and bunch of small pike.  It wasn’t the best fishing that we ever had, but we did catch a nice stringer full of walleye.  By late afternoon the rain stopped.  We were still a ways from our campsite, but we made a small fire to warm up and dry off the best we could (this is okay in Quetico, not the BWCA though).  We fished our way back to camp and met up with Vidmar who had been napping all day.  Brandon and Vids made dinner while Wade and I gathered some firewood and started the campfire.  We settled into camp and relaxed for the rest of the evening.

Vids watching us paddle back to the campsite.
A calm evening after the rain on McKenzie Bay.

Vids and I standing next to the fire.

We were up relatively early the next morning, ate breakfast and broke camp.  We paddled east on Kawnipi towards the Falls Chain.  Kawnipi is an incredible lake.  It has many beautiful rock cliffs and is surrounded by an extremely healthy forest.  It was a beautifully sunny day and there was a gentle breeze in our face.  This is the first time in 4 days that we saw other people.

Wade and Vids paddling on Kawnipi.
Brandon and I paddleing on Kawnipi.  It was a gorgeous day!

When we made it to the eastern most part of Kawnipi, the start of the Falls Chain, there is a small waterfall.  We stopped at the base of the falls and made a few casts.  Brandon and I both hooked up with nice smallies.  There is nothing like catching a double of 18” smallies!  We pulled over to the portage and continued fishing.  Wade, Brandon, and I caught football sized smallies one after another for about an hour.  Meanwhile, Vids took a nap—hence the nickname Born to Rest.  He is one of the only guys I know who would sleep while we caught huge smallies one after another, but that’s the beauty of the Boundary Waters; there is something for everyone out there.

Wade with a fat smallie.
We continued up the Falls Chain.  There were a bunch of people camped in the area and I can’t blame them.  It is absolutely beautiful.  We fished at the base of each falls when we came to them, but didn’t really have too much luck—nothing like the falls going into Kawnipi.  We made it to Saganagons and set up camp on a nice island with some huge red pines and spent the evening relaxing.

The next morning we got up early headed for the Man Chain.  We went from Saganagons to Slate, Fran, Bell, Bit, a small lake with no name and then into Other Man Lake.  There was a light rain most of the day and a modest wind, but it was nothing more than a minor inconvenience.  Other Man Lake was an emerald green color.  I have never seen a lake that was so distinctly green.  It was pretty incredible.  We continued along the Man Chain, huge rock walls on both sides.  There were not too many great campsites along this stretch.  The high rock walls didn’t leave much room to put a nice campsite.  I am not much of a cliff jumper but I imagine if you are into that sort of thing you would be able to find a couple of spots in this area.  The three portages from Other Man Lake to This Man Lake were very neat.  There were a ton of cedars trees and big chunk rocks near high rock walls.  I would have to say these are some of the neatest and most scenic portages I have ever been on.  We found a decent campsite on the western end of This Man Lake where we set up for the night.

The green water of Other Man Lake.
A portage on the Man Chain.

Brandon and Vids cooking at our campsite on That Man Lake.

The next day our target was to get as close to the border as possible so we would have a short paddle out.  We moved into Sheridan Lake and passed a couple of campers on a nice high campsite overlooking the lake.  We continued on to Carp Lake.  We did the portage from Carp to Birch when we ran into a group of college kids.  Their stuff was laid out on the rocks, soaking wet.  It wasn’t raining, though it looked like we were going to get some soon, so they obviously went into the drink.  They didn’t say much, but did mention that they had a problem and asked if we had any advice for them.  There is a channel that runs from Carp Lake into Birch Lake.  They were headed north and instead of taking the portage tried to line their canoes up the river.  I am not sure exactly how, but one of the aluminum boats got away from them and got wrapped around a rock in the river.  The bow and the stern were full of water and the boat was bent nearly in half.  They tried, but were unable to unwedge the boat from the rocks. 

It was about midday and we only had a couple more miles to go so we offered to help.  We got a long, strong pine pole and used it as a lever to try to pry the boat off the rock.  At first, it didn’t seem like we were making any progress.  I worked the lever back and forth until exhaustion and was able to move the boat enough to drain some of the water out.  Brandon took over for a while, and then Wade.  Finally, we were able to free it from the rock.  We had positioned Vids downstream to catch the canoe after we got it off the rock.  Vids snagged the boat and held it in the stream.  Brandon and I waded out there to help him haul the boat out of the water.  We carried it through the woods and took it down to the Birch Lake end of the portage.  The boat never took the original form, but we were able pop it back into floatable shape.   Where the boat was bent it had cracked and would definitely leak.  At this point, it started raining.  Before they could go anywhere, we had to stop the holes from leaking.  Duct tape would not stick because of the rain, so we had to come up with another solution.  We took a few plastic bags and stuffed them in the holes, along with, believe it or not, bubble gum.  We then taped all the way around the boat and stuck the duct tape to itself.  Finally, I had a strap that we wrapped over the duct tape to help hold it tight.  We put the boat in the water and there was only one small leak where one of the rivets on the bottom had popped out—nothing a sponge wouldn’t take care of.  We couldn’t believe that the tape, bags, gum and strap were able to make that boat float, but it did.  They had a satellite phone and called for someone to come help them get out.  We made sure they made it to a campsite and wished them luck.  They were very thankful and happy to have a boat that floats again.  This is a nice reminder that the portages are there for a reason.  Thankfully, they made it out ok and no one got hurt.

Literally patching the hole with bubble gum.  We couldn't believe it worked.
Meanwhile, it had been raining the whole time.  Soaked, we continued paddling on Birch towards the nearest campsite on the Canadian side.  We found a decent spot, set up a tarp, and tried to get out of the rain.  No one really felt like cooking so we had a mish-mash of snacks, GORP, and crackers for supper.  We spent most of the evening huddled under the tarp trying to remain somewhat dry and talking about where we were going to go for next year’s trip.  The rain never quit, and wet, we headed into the tents for the night.

We woke up early the next morning to a steady rain.  Still wet from the night before, we paddled the Moose Lake Chain, against a steady wind, back to my truck that was there waiting for us. 

Overall, we had an outstanding trip, traveling roughly 60 miles by boat and about 8.75 miles by land (not including the fact that we double portaged).  The only negative part of the trip was that we had to come home, but there is always looking forward to next year’s trip—maybe the Darky and Argo area.  If you are going on a trip this summer I hope you have as much fun as we did!  If you can’t make it this summer, it’s never too early to start planning for 2013.

Our crew on our last morning in Quetico.
If you have made it this far, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it.  I would love it if you would share your trip with us.  Either comment below or shoot me an email. 

Pleasant Adventures,



My Crazy Thoughts that Matter! said...

What an awesome trip! I have camped on that island on Kawnipi a few times, my favorite spot! I also agree about the falls chain, plenty of tempting campsites for the water to lull you to sleep.

Daniel Brake said...

Thanks for sharing. I just returned from our first trip out there...myself (42 years of age, don't mind working and getting wet, but not a very experienced paddler), 5 high school boys and our mentor and guide -- a 50 something man with many years of experience in Quetico.

We put in at moose lake, heading up through Burke and into the North Bay of Basswood. This was on July 4th. We were soaked to the bone and thought the worst of the storm had passed while we hovered off of a large island,s sheltered side for about an hour. However, as we paddled across the bay, that helluva storm spun up right in our backs with instant 60-70 mph winds. 2 of the three canoes made it about 1/2 mile to the nearest and luckily downwind island, but the canoe that I was steering along with a very jumpy and unsteady boy in the bow caught a gust while cresting a 3 foot wave and went over. .after what seemed like a lifetime of bobbing and clutching, and praying and kicking, the storm calmed. In time our guide returned and helped right the canoe and dragged us out of the drink.

Aside from the lightning bolt that struck some distant point on the water, sending a low but nevertheless startling jolt through our bodies, we managed okay...and even managed with luck to not lose any gear!

Heck of a start.

Anyway, ultimately we made out way up through dell and Grey, Yum yum, up over Yum Yum portage, to lake kahshahpiwi. Yum yum was a grueling double portage of where the only level portions were bogs. The rest was substantially elevated and very tangled.

Spending our second night at a mystically isolated and burned out camp called hidden camp, we rested and tried to dry out. Caught a couple fish there, including my first rock Bass.

From kahshapiwiw we headed west to Irene and down south through Sarah, to Tuck and Robinson, along the Basswood river, saw the Indian petroglyphs at Crooked lake, and then meandered up the horse river ultimately taking out at Mudro.

5 days and 4 nights, covering about 60 miles or so, it was an intense and sometimes trying experience. But man I miss that place.