Last week, my dear friend Bill Caplan and I took a week long canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park, which is immediately north of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area on the Minnesota-Ontario border. I have taken quite a few canoe trips in the Boundary Waters, including each of the last 2 years with Bill. But this was my first trip to Quetico, and it was also the first time that I had been on a wilderness canoe trip for 7 days, having never been out for more than 5 days before.
As usual, Bill did an excellent job planning our route. Quetico is more adventurous than the Boundary Waters, as many camp sites are not on the maps and some of the portages are only indicated with a P, instead of a length. There are also far fewer people there. During our trip, on most days, we saw somewhere between 0-2 people all day. The most people we saw in a day was a group of 3 canoes, carrying 6 people. I lost count of how many lakes (some of which are not even named), rivers, and portages we traveled on, but I am sure they were in the dozens.
In fact, Quetico is so remote that the first thing you have to do is paddle to the ranger station to check in, pay for the balance of your permit, and let them know where you will be traveling. We also had to portage our canoes and packs from the parking area at the end of a long rutted dirt road, to Beaverhouse Lake, where we started our trip and then we paddled for about an hour to the ranger station. Once we checked in, we paddled further to another portage to Quetico Lake where we found our first camp site late that afternoon. The sunset that night was spectacular.
But the next morning, things were quite fogged in, and that was the beginning of 3 days of rain and mist. Fortunately, we were prepared with good rain gear, a good tent and tarp, and the rain did not damper our spirits.
On canoe trips, each day has its unique features, and although we had no idea it would turn out this way, Day 4 turned out to provide us with experiences that tested our fortitude which I am sure we will never forget. The day started out with a foggy mist covering the entire lake.
But that did not interfere with Bill’s ability to catch us a pike for lunch and then as we approached an island to cook up the fish, he reeled in a walleye. Needless to say, it was a delicious lunch with the freshest fish from the cleanest water possible.
Shortly after our lovely lunch, things got a lot more challenging. As we traveled up a creek towards one of those portages marked on the map with a simple P, we wondered what that meant. The creek meandered for quite awhile, and then was blocked by a beaver dam.
Beavers change the landscape more than any other animal on earth besides humans, and they do it without tools. Fortunately, they build their dams so well, we were able to climb up the first dam we encountered and drag the canoe with our gear over it.
The creek continued and then we encountered where the portage was marked on the map, at the bottom of a waterfall.
The problem, however, was that we did not see a trail. So, I decided to scout around to see if we could bushwhack our way up the side of the waterfall. I decided that we could, although due to the density of the trees, there was no way for one of us carry the canoe over his head as we usually do on portages. So, after carrying our packs up the side of the waterfall, we carried the canoe sideways through the trees and up to the top of the falls. On one of those trips, the sole of one of my hiking boots came mostly detached.
Fortunately, the back up river sandals that I intended to use only while we were at our campsites, worked fairly well for the rest of the trip, but after that it was impossible to keep my feet dry and free of mud.
Despite the footwear problem, Bill and I felt quite a sense of accomplishment having bushwhacked our way up the side of a waterfall with our packs and canoe. We ventured on to the next portage, which the map indicated was 65 rods long. Portages are traditionally measured in rods, which is supposed to represent a canoe length, and even though canoes have different lengths, for this purpose a rod=16.5 feet, so this portage was not that long, somewhat over 1,000 feet. We have certainly done portages much longer and the length did not concern us as we ventured forth.
Bill was ahead of me and I initially thought the trail continued along a riverside, but then it seemed to stop, so I backtracked and saw another trail that kept going, and I followed it. Although I could not tell how far I had carried my pack, it felt like it was much longer than 65 rods. I decided not to worry too much because the trail had a lot of steep terrain and given that we had just bushwhacked up a waterfall, and we had been traveling a long time, I simply thought we were tired. But then I ran into Bill, who had stopped and was trying to get a GPS reading off his emergency satellite phone, which is not easy in the forest.
Bill has a habit of counting his paces during portages and has determined that he has about 4 paces to a rod. By the time we stopped, by counting his paces, he figured that we had gone more than 65 rods and in looking at the trail on the GPS, he thought we needed to return to the trail we saw by the creek. So, we carried our heavy packs most of the way back so we could investigate the other trail. Unfortunately, once we got there, we realized that trail led nowhere, and another GPS reading convinced us that we had been on the right trail initially, and we had just carried our heavy packs back and forth unnecessarily.
We had no choice other than to return to where we had been and keep going. The terrain got so treacherous in one place, that I was sure that no one could carry a canoe down one particularly steep area, so when we finally dropped our packs at our destination, we decided that when we got to that spot with the canoe, we would slide it down a moss covered boulder, which is exactly what we did. Upon later investigation, by looking at another map, we determined that the portage length was missing a digit and it was actually 165 rods, or over 900 yards.
By the time we got to Bent Pine Lake, it was late afternoon, and we were tired and ready to find a campsite. Of course, Bent Pine Lake had no campsites marked on our maps. Bill was confident he could find a campsite, but when you do not know where they are, you have to travel along the shoreline to find one, instead of traveling directly to the campsite, which takes a lot longer.
We saw a campsite, but then we noticed that someone was camping on it. We decided to ask him if he knew of any other campsites on the lake and it turned out that he was a very experienced Quetico traveler, and said, “You’re in luck!” He got out his map and showed us where a 4 star campsite (as designated by the Boundary Waters Journal which will mark up subscribers’ maps with campsite ratings, unmarked campsites such as this one, and fishing areas). After chatting for awhile, we paddled to that campsite, which turned out to be truly lovely. In fact, we decided to spend two nights there.
We’re not sure, but perhaps this pine at our camp site is where Bent Pine Lake got its name. Note the large iron chain on the dead tree. Apparently, to respect the logging history that predates the establishment of the park, they left logging remnants like this in various places in the park…or maybe it was just too heavy to carry out of there!
I could tell you more about the rest of the trip, but Day 4 is why Bill and I will always remember this particular trip. We worked hard together in a cooperative manner and dug down deep to find our inner strength. The headache that had been pestering me before this difficult day disappeared. Here we are at the end of our trip, somewhat sore, but with a true sense of accomplishment.
I look forward to my next canoe trip with Bill with more adventures in the wilderness ahead to truly test my physical and mental fortitude.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.