Canoe Heaven?

Calm, crystal clear lakes; miles upon miles of unspoiled shoreline; no motorboats, and over two million acres of virtually canoe-only accessible wilderness. Sound like canoe paradise? It’s probably pretty close. This is the area covered by Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks to the north of the border and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the US. It’s pretty amazing, stretches for 240km, and it’s what we’ve been paddling through for the last 10 days.

Having managed to obtain our Quetico permit, and get a last minute BWCAW one to enable us to use the US campsites too (more on the legality of this from US customs viewpoint in another blog…), we headed out across the remainder of Lac la Croix to Bottle Lake, and the first of over 40 portages that navigating along the border through this region entails. Unlike the mechanised portages of the previous days or the wide open trolley friendly trips along the highway, these are all canoe-on-head, multiple trip affairs. Lightweight outfits on short trips portage through in one go, but with all the gear for 5 months on the water we were delighted to get this down to two trips each. That of course means walking three times the portage distance, which ranged from a short 5m hop between lakes, to up to 700m in this section. It also introduced us to a new unit of measurement, the Rod – 16.5 feet, or roughly the length of a canoe. All the portages are listed in this unit on maps, so we soon became accustomed to it. Fortunately the portage trails through this bit of the boundary waters are well trodden and in pretty good nick, meaning they mostly weren’t too challenging, yet.

Pictographs on the cliffs of Lac la Croix 

Our original plan was to stay on the Canadian side through as much of these lakes as possible, acknowledging that the portages run on both sides and therefore necessitate crossing into the US. However, with the reassuring words from the Canadian customs guys in Fort Frances, and our BWCAW permit, we spent the first, and every subsequent night, in US campsites. These are pre-cleared spots with a fire pit, toilet of sorts, and tent spaces. In contrast to the the difficult to find Canadian sites they are marked on certain boundary waters maps. Which we didn’t have. But soon overcame this by taking photos of those carried by willing folk we met along the way. The Canadian side also allows wild-camping, which the US does not, so we were never too worried about finding a place to stay. We became quite used to seeing otter pups playing in the early morning and late afternoon, and listening to the haunting and comical loons, which have replaced the pelicans as our favourite bird.

First US camp

We also started to hang our food more in this section, whereas we haven’t really bothered before. Any bear that has shown any interest in us has been rapidly scared away, and we haven’t been using regular camp spots. But with the volume of traffic in this region and the tendency for bears to return to anywhere they’ve found a quick snack, we wanted to avoid any temptation. And it’s a park rule, or recommendation. The variety of “hangs” we saw was amazing, but the amount of food hanging from each suggested either not everything makes it into the hang or that people here survive on very very little… Most of the hangs did not look like they would deter Paddington if he was hungry, but seemed pretty effective at keeping chipmunks at bay. Anyway, lobbing a throw bag up into a tree each night to try and get the best branch is pretty good fun.

During the first couple of days we saw few canoes, and were able to stop and chat occasionally. We found a great bunch of guys out fishing (Simon et al – there is so much potential for canoe fishing trips in Scotland I’m sure) who, seeing us paddling towards them and thinking we might be rangers (both wearing matching bug shirts), knocked a fish off the line, paddled back into US waters from Canada where they may not have had the appropriate permits for, and scoped us with binoculars until they were satisfied we weren’t going to arrest them. Sorry guys, we hope you caught plenty more fish! As we continued further into the park we saw more and more canoes, so a friendly wave is all you can manage or you’d be chatting all day! The peace from motor boats was bliss though, and we dreaded reaching the few mixed use lakes.

Four days out from the ranger station, with many more portages to go, we suffered our first major kit failure. Both straps on big yellow, one of our 100L Ortleib dry bags, failed on a single portage, leaving us carrying the heavy pack on our heads. We managed to rearrange things to still get through in two trips, but with a lot less comfort and for how long we didn’t know. We also now feared big red might go the same way, and with the grand portage to come we were pretty depressed. However, paddling through Knife Lake and on into Ottertack re-kindled our spirits. Despite the storms and now familiar biblical rain, Ottertrack was probably the prettiest lake we’ve paddled. Steep shores with trees tumbling into the glassy calm water made a truly memorable evening as we battled with the weather to make camp. Tarp happily fluttering over the fire (yes, we know…), we survived 2 inches of rain over not very many hours and found the tent pitch least likely to leave us floating. 

The broken pack, and sling repair

Ottertrack Lake, in the rain

Leaving Ottertrack the following morning we headed for monument portage, where we were caught by an amiable Russian out for a few days solo paddling. He was headed to the ranger station on Lake Saganaga, as were we, so we chased him through some brutal headwinds to meet the ranger of over 30 years, Janice Matichuk. Chatting over a cup of tea, Janice is a wealth of information about Quetico, living with the land, and all things canoeing having lived and breathed it her entire life. She also knows everyone in the local (!) area, so upon hearing of our broken pack set about finding us a replacement. Whilst we made coffee, and introduced her to the Aeropress, she sourced us a portage pack and had it delivered to an old island lodge by an outfitter on the south side of the lake. We paid her, she’ll pay them, we just had to paddle into the wind for two hours to get it. A true star and a real inspiration, showing how living a modern life is possible in such a remote outpost. We collected our pack from the Powells, were grateful for more tea and great company, and finally made our camp for the night amongst towering red pines. Truly a day to remember. 

The irrepressible Janice

Red pine camp

The next day we headed to Gunflint Lodge on the Minnesota side of Gunflint Lake, via a stunning 9 portages! Gunflint is a bit of an institution, having been there since 1927, and runs fishing and canoe outfitting through the summer and skiing and snow-mobiling in the winter. Whilst they have some nice plush lodges, we were grateful for space in the canoer cabins. Feeling pretty broken from all the portaging we decided to take a rest day and both had massages from Carly, whilst Brandon and his outfitting team sorted us out with some kit resupplies. Kit mended and dried, bodies partially revived, we felt ready for the push to Superior. 

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