Paddlers can find 6,000 wilderness lakes and miles of fun in Quetico

Paddlers head upstream to portage above a waterfall in Quetico. (RICH LANDERS/SPOKESMAN-REVIEW/TNS)
Caption
Paddlers head upstream to portage above a waterfall in Quetico. (RICH LANDERS/SPOKESMAN-REVIEW/TNS)

Credit: RICH LANDERS

Credit: RICH LANDERS

If you love to camp, fish and paddle a canoe, Quetico fulfills your wildest dream.

Some 6,000 lakes, 32 waterfalls and 4,467 islands are waiting to be explored only by wind or muscle power. And that’s only half of the picture.

Quetico Provincial Park is Ontario’s million-acre extension of the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. This is big-time Canoe Country. Paddlers still dip their cups or bottles in the deep-blue middle of Quetico lakes and drink untreated water without consequence.

The BWCA is a paddler’s nirvana, too, but Quetico is even more primitive and uncrowded. Canadians allow no signs to mark campsites, portage routes or even the dangerous stretches of flatwater that abruptly transform into waterfalls.

One map-reading error could leave canoeists in a maze of confusion and an unplanned bivouac where the whine of mosquitoes builds near dusk like the revving of Formula One race cars down the home stretch.

Or the predicament might simply be a chance for one more campfire and wilderness walleye tacos.

The favorable 27 percent exchange rate was a mere bonus to the chance in late June to join Minnesotans revisiting their favorite pike-infested waters in Canada from Saganagons to Agnes lakes. Raised in Duluth, Minn., they paddle like pros and carry canoes as naturally as moms tote babies.

They cook over wood fires and single-portage when most humans would lighten the load and make two trips. A bottle of insect repellent would last them a lifetime if it weren’t for dabbing a little on the ears of their dogs. They are North Woods tough.

And the men are equally impressive.

Portage trails often are rugged in Quetico. (RICH LANDERS/SPOKESMAN-REVIEW/TNS)
Caption
Portage trails often are rugged in Quetico. (RICH LANDERS/SPOKESMAN-REVIEW/TNS)

Credit: RICH LANDERS

Credit: RICH LANDERS

The canoe played a huge role in opening this country and it continues to be the most efficient vessel for exploring Quetico’s sprawl of lakes, many with names originating from Ojibwe or French.

In the first two days of paddling, our group of eight covered 28 miles and nine portages through the Falls Chain into Kawnipi Lake. The canoes took us upstream, downstream, into the wind and through whitecaps, yet they were easily loaded, unloaded and carried on trails that ranged from cruisers to nightmares.

Quetico paddlers must check in at one of six ranger stations around the wilderness perimeter. We hopped a Seagull Outfitters water taxi to an island at the border. From there we paddled to the Cache Bay Ranger Station for permits and orientation by Ranger Janice Matichuk, a 46-year employee with Ontario Parks who first came to the Cache Bay backcountry in 1985 with her five-month old daughter.

“There’s never been a better time to visit here,” she said.

More than 50,000 visitors a year paddled into Quetico for at least one night of camping in the 1950s, she said. “Quetico got serious about overuse and capped visitation at 20,000.”

Last year, fewer than 14,000 campers rolled out sleeping bags in the wilderness.

The BWCA, which had 250,000 camping visitors a year in the heydays now hosts about 180,000.

Matichuk said 85 percent of the Quetico visitors are from the USA and 60 percent are men ages 50-80.

She checks in visitors ranging from babies to octogenarians, but the numbers of women are noticeably declining. “Children are a rarity.”

While her tips on portage trails and routes were valuable to refining our trip itinerary, the ranger refused to recommend her favorite camping spots. “We don’t mark campsites on maps and I don’t rate them at all,” she said. “That would only lead to over-use of some spots.”

So we set out to find our first of several homes away from home among 2,200 unmarked backcountry campsites in Quetico Provincial Park.

Group campsites aren’t as easy to find as one might expect. Some areas hammered by wildfire years ago were thick with doghair jack pine. But when sites were found, the Minnesotans’ canoe camps would spring up much as they have for generations.

Tarps are rigged to shed rain over packing and kitchen areas. Fires are built using birch bark for tinder. Most of the meals are cooked over a wood fire, including Julie Allen’s spectacular pot-baked biscuits and blueberry cobbler.

An orange spade for digging cat holes was available by the base of a tree on the edge of every campsite. Quetico has no latrines.

Pulleys, strong rope and a team effort are the Minnesotan solution to hanging group-size packs of provisions beyond reach of bears and the 20-something paddler with the insatiable appetite.

Every evening was set aglow with a round of something sippable by the fire. Banter eventually faded one by one into personal time and benediction in the twilight where fireflies flurry like campfire sparks in a breeze.

Loons made appearances every day. Their mesmerizing calls would hush fish-catching brag fests. A pair followed by a group of three loons cruised by camp one evening, paddling and calling, freezing our conversation and fixing our gaze. Equally stunning as the echoing calls faded was the silence.

A haunted house can’t match a week in Quetico for scaring the crap out of campers. Among our hair-raising experiences were rifle shots that turned out to be beaver tails smacking the water by shore; trees swaying, creaking and cracking in the wind over our tents; a lightning storm that raged just a few bolts short of Armageddon.

When the thunder faded into the distance and the night sky finally went dark again, a single firefly glowed like a slow-pulsing beacon under my tent rain fly where it had sought refuge.

The traumatizing 20 minutes of in-your-face lightning prompted discussion of what to do when hell breaks loose. “Response to lightning casualties is the opposite of triage,” Scott Wolff, an ER doctor, said in a teaching moment. “You leave survivors and go immediately to the unconscious. If they’re not breathing, you breathe for them in case they’re in respiratory paralysis.”

The trip involved no major injuries, but there was some significant bloodshed as seen on the inside of our tents. Mosquitoes that had been detected too late were smashed in red smudges against the rip-stop nylon.

Fishing sometimes resulted in even more gore. On a layover day designated for producing a fish dinner, I was carefully adding a northern pike to my stringer when a strung-up walleye lurched up over the gunnel and engulfed my thumb. I had to pry its jaws open as dozens of sharp teeth razor-bladed my skin.

“That’s nothing,” Wolff said as my blood pooled in the canoe. “Remember when the pike grabbed my toe (while swimming)? That was bad. I still have some of the pike teeth I dug out of my skin.”

Any inclinations for skinny dipping after dinner were doused.

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