Firstly – photos now uploaded to last post if you want to take a look…

We left Fort Francis well fed and rested, despite not actually having a full day off. Retracing our steps initially to avoid the lee shore on the south of the lake, we avoided passing into the US and looked for an easy day and a Canadian campsite. As the wind swung from northerly to an easterly headwind in the early evening we found an island big enough to squeeze a tent in, with a large resident pike in the bay which I soon pulled out on the end of a line. With this safely returned (we’ve gone off pike a bit since Lake Manitoba) we set about dinner, whilst watching a large and remarkably inquisitive snapper turtle eye us repeatedly from the lake. We think we were probably on its island. We continued the next day to the end of Rainy Lake, our last large lake until Superior, and headed onto Lake Namakan via Soldiers Portage. On the way we waved good bye to our long serving pee bottle, as it rolled off the boat post-use without the lid on and promptly filled with water, sinking beneath the waves before we could manoeuvre to grab it. It seemed a fitting end, and it was probably about time this bottle was retired anyway…

Namakan lake passed smoothly the next morning and saw us dodging rented house boats though the Namakan Narrows into Sand Point Lake. These monstrosities are hideous and barely faster than our canoe, there’s no way anyone would ever buy one themselves. On this basis we reasoned they were all driven by complete muppets, evidenced by us often seeing both sides of the boat several times as they steered a supposedly straight line past us. With this menace avoided we raced a building storm down the lake and came around a headland to find Sand Point Lodge advertising ice, minnows, gas and confectionary. Turns out they did pizza too, so lunch was sorted. With the storm passed we smugly paddled off an hour later, only to see another one approaching as we rounded the next headland. We dived for the dock of an apparently unoccupied cabin, waved at the occupants of the next one, who promptly waved back and invited us over to sit out the storm, informing us they owned our dock too… So an hour was spend with Chuck his lovely family from the Twin Cities as storm two broke. Looking at the sky again we paddled out, narrowly missed being in the landing zone of an incoming float plane, and got completely, totally and utterly soaked by storm three. Ok weather, you win.

We soon dried out in the evening sun and headed up the Loon River searching for a place to camp, passing the start of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as we went. On the map we’d found a nice looking lake with an island, but were dismayed to find it made completely of reed, with a bear doing widths in the sunshine as we approached. We carried on up to the next portage, hoping it wasn’t too taxing at the end of the day. Well, it wasn’t. In the early 1900’s walleye and ice was taken out by boat from Lac la Croix towards Winnipeg, through two portages at each end of Loon Lake. In 1916 the US companies decided to ease this process by putting in rails and an engine to transport the boats over the land. The engine (and operator, Charlie was keen to point out) having been slightly updated, but the rails remain the same, and made for the most pleasant portage thus far. After a delightful chat with Charlie, whose speech suggests he may have been too close to the engine for too many years, we headed to a campsite he’d pointed out and arrived just as the light faded. 

Charlie and his engine

The next morning saw us at Beatty Portage, the second set of rails, and paddling on to Lac la Croix where we were to collect our permit for Quetico Park. Around lunchtime we arrived at Campbell’s Cabins where we’d been told there was a little shop where we might get a few snacks, and discovered they would also fit us in for lunch. So two cooked lunches in two days…we could get to this “wilderness” experience. After discovering the ranger station closed at 3.30pm and we were not going to make it today we found another terrible private island campspot and dodged yet another storm.

How every portage should be!

The following morning we eventually found the well hidden Quetico ranger station, collected our permit allowing access to the park, and paddled on east looking forward to motorboat free waters.

Lakes Placid

Photos to come – not enough bandwidth!!

Our one night stay in Kenora was extended to two as Mike (finally, frankly) succumbed to the bug I’d had. I nursed him dutifully under the shade of the tarp in between making runs to the campsite shop, town and to check on various items illegally plugged in and charging around the site. Timing perfect as ever, our extra day meant we avoided paddling through another thunderstorm and set off a little fresher with a flat calm lake ahead of us. 

We still made it to the brewing company…

‘Lake of the Woods’ and this next section of the trip had always held a certain magic for us – on the map it certainly looked like a paddlers paradise, and people kept saying how wild and wonderful it was. Spoilt as we have been with wilderness, it actually felt incredibly busy leaving Kenora amidst the wake of motorboats, sea-doos, houseboats and even a great big cruiser. In spite of the business we had a lovely paddle in easy conditions, although navigation is understandably more challenging: we’d bought 16 detailed maps in Winnipeg to get us through to Lake Superior and I could no longer rely on the iPad. After a possibly slightly unnerving refresher on using a compass Mike put himself in my hands… it went well until I got tired and nearly threw the map and compass overboard, at which point we decided to camp. 

The weather was fantastic again the next day and the lake much quieter as we got further from Kenora. Dodging between islands and sneaking through tiny channels – this was what we’d hoped for; surprising a couple having a skinny dip from their pontoon, not so much, but when lunchtime came we threw caution and clothes to the wind and went for a swim too. This we had also hoped for – with stints between showers stretching up to 18 (18!) days, a swim and refresh is a total delight for us and, presumably, everyone we encounter. 

We came to our portage off Lake of the Woods in sweltering heat. Arriving at ‘Vic and Dots camp’ we headed inside to ask if we could tow our boat through to the highway and to just double check if they didn’t sell cold drinks or ice cream… they didn’t, but they gave us a cold can and, worried we might melt into the tarmac, offered us a lift over the (trans canada) highway to our put-in on Kakagi lake – we couldn’t refuse! 

From Lake of the Woods we knew there was a tangle of lakes and portages to get us through to the Quetico Provincial park – so many we hadn’t even committed their names to memory for our recitation of the route. We prepared ourselves for a tough couple of days – the first of which had no fewer than 7 portages: some quick heaves over beaver dams, some slightly longer trails through the forest, and one an almost completely lost kilometre of winding rocky paths and fallen trees. This last one called for the canoe to be completely emptied and carried on Mike’s head – something we had both looked forward to and dreaded in equal measure. We walked the route through to check it existed and was passable: it was, intermittently marked with ribbons tied in the trees, but it wasn’t passable with the boat, so we made a return trip carrying the heavier bags and armed with secateurs (genius!) to clear the way. We headed back to the boat to gather the remains of our kit and have our first trial of traditional canoe portaging. Struggling to get the 100L bag back on my shoulders Mike somehow managed to disappear off along the trail. Scurrying to catch up, whilst checking each ditch he might have fallen into, I eventually caught up with him in time to see the canoe stop abruptly, surge forward again, bounce back off some unseen obstacle and then slowly, gracefully, collapse to the ground. In a fit of giggles. Whether from the heat or the exertion of carrying our own body weights in kit, or the ridiculousness situation, we were both in hysterics for some time before the canoe squeaked breathlessly: ‘please can you get me out?!’. Proper voyageurs, us… 

Portage trails were sometimes challenging 
Anyway, we will now never forget Kakagi: lake of the crystal clear water, evening swim and incredible sunset camp spot; Osipasinni where we ate blueberries on the portage and Mike picked me a lily; Sandhill which wasn’t sandy at all, and Schistose with its perfectly placed tiny island at the end of a hard day of portages – bathed in the evening sun, with a fire pit which must have been there since the fur trade, with loon ducks making their eery, funny calls all around us and even enough time for a circumnavigation swim before dinner. The best few days of the trip so far: if the top of the Winnipeg river was Jurassic park, this area was the land that time forgot. 

“Circumnavigation Island”

The next day we were due several more portages but to our delight high water levels made several of the low dams easily passable by canoe (maybe not so much by the fishing boats that followed us…). Through Pipestone Lake, Loonhaunt, a couple more small dams to haul the boat over and some ‘rapids’ which turned out to be nothing of the sort, we had another stunning day and arrived at the last dam before Rainy lake and our last big portage before Fort Frances. 

The last portage was a good track so we put the canoe on the trolley, harnessed ourselves to the painters and set off. We camped on another well placed island and watched thunderstorms roll down the lake. Another morning of paddling saw us arrive into Fort Frances for our resupply – aiming for Pithers Point park and campground we were somewhat distracted by a big hotel with a boat pontoon and tables outside almost declaring food was available… 

Bertha mixing it with the big boats

Thanks go to: 

Robert, for the lift!

Every lovely person at La place rendez-vous!

The amazing guys in customs, Fort Frances, for their patience and help.

Mike’s new favourite piece of kit: factor 60 suncream