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QueticoMike
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09/13/2017 10:41AM
Why I Went Back

Another one of those cold, winter, Saturday mornings. Too cold to go fishing, that's for sure. The next best thing is to watch other people fish on the ol' television set. It's 9:30 a.m., which means the Fishin' Hole hosted by Jerry McKinnis is about to start. Jerry announces to the viewing audience he will be in the Boundary Waters today fishing for smallmouth bass with guide Harry Lambirth. I've been there once, I think to myself. It was a couple of years ago and I never really thought about returning. As the show continued to display the background scenery and the smallmouth being caught on top-water lures, memories of the Quetico visit emanated.

Anyone who has ever been to Quetico Provincial Park or the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness remembers their first trip, whether it was good, bad or indifferent. Most people also remember the person who introduced them to these lands and lakes of beauty. That person for me was my former college roommate, Doug Klees. Not long after graduation Doug called and asked if I would be interested in a canoe trip up in Canada. Having only been in a canoe a few times in my life I wasn't sure, but after hearing fish tales about the size and numbers being caught up there I was intrigued.

Doug informed me of the cost for this excursion and over the summer I managed to save enough to participate in this outing. On August 8th, I met with Doug and his two other friends who would be embarking on this journey. It was nice to meet these guys before our departure into Canada and to gain some familiarity with each other. We discussed all the items required for the trip and looked over maps of Quetico.

It was determined I would need to borrow several items and purchase others. Doug loaned me a two piece fishing rod which would be easier for portaging. He said if I took my one piece rod something might happen to it on the trail. I also had to borrow a backpack, rain gear and a tackle box. I didn't have many lures at the time since my experiences with casting artificial lures were limited to small in-line spinners used on a local river. Up until this time I was basically a live bait fisherman. Doug provided guidance while lure shopping. I didn't have a big budget, so 9 lures were selected along with some wire leaders. Cheap hiking boots were in order as well. I was persuaded to purchase some nonofficial Army jungle boots from a surplus store.

On the Friday before Labor Day everything was packed and crammed into the SUV for the drive north towards Ely, Minnesota . We drove straight through the night and about 900 miles later arrived in Ely the next afternoon. After sliding out of the SUV at the outfitter's parking lot, my head began ringing with noise. I had never been to a place so quiet. I could not hear a thing except for what was going on inside my head. We proceeded to empty the SUV and pack everything that would fit into our backpacks. Since there was no room for my over-sized sleeping bag, it was placed into a plastic garbage bag and tied to the back of my pack. A garbage bag also performed the duties of a dry sack for all my clothes.

It was hard to fall asleep in the bunkhouse that night, even after the all night drive the previous evening. First, it was too quiet, scary quiet. Secondly, I couldn't stop thinking about these huge fish we were going to be catching.

The next morning we had breakfast and then were towed over to the Canadian border at Prairie Portage. The Canadian Customs cabin (which is no longer open today, you must now use a RABC permit to enter Quetico) was the first stop. We were asked the standard border crossing questions and then moved on to the ranger's cabin for permits and fishing licenses.

With all the paper work done, the fishing trip was ready to commence. It took us a while searching the shoreline, but we found the first portage. Having no idea of what a portage was like, my thoughts were of a simple trail through the woods. There were no preconceived notions of climbing small mountains, walking through muck and tripping on every rock and root on the path. I wasn't able to see where to step because of the packs on both my front and back sides. The previous rainstorms made everything on the path slippery and muddy. At the end of the portage I was hoping we didn't have to do any more of those. Little did I know what lied ahead.

The next lake was paddled in hardly any time and we came to our next portage. I had no clue there were two long, back to back portages next on the slate. The first portage wasn't bad as far as the terrain, but it was extremely long. The real fun didn't start until the next portage. It was now my turn to portage a canoe for the first time. It was one of those so called “light-weight " aluminum models that felt like 80 pounds or more digging into my shoulders. The recent rainstorms had turned this portage into a small creek, with water extending up almost to knee level in certain areas. The portage was extremely rocky and I was constantly slipping off of rocks that couldn't be seen under the murky water. My sleeping bag was starting to fall from the backpack as it caught on limbs while I climbed over dead-falls. I had to squeeze the canoe in-between downed trees and to crawl under them in the mud. I was soaking from the rain, sweating profusely, swatting mosquitoes and cursing like a sailor. I started to wonder what the heck I had gotten myself into!

Later, we arrived at our first campsite and after setting up camp I was glad to take off the wet boots and socks that were tearing up my feet. As a nightly ritual we would wring out our socks and hang them on tree limbs. Dinner consisted of splitting a bag of freeze dried something or other. We used one of those old fashioned fill with white gas and pump up the pressure type stoves. At times it would be very difficult to ignite. There were two tents. One was a 2 to 3 person tent and the other a single. During the whole trip I had to sleep in the tight, 2 to 3 person tent on a foam pad. Some nights were spent sleeping with both guys' stinking feet in my face so we could all fit into this tent. We alternated each night. It also continued to rain most evenings.

After wake up each morning, I would grab my socks off the trees, wring them out again, slap them on the rocks a few times and then slide these wet, nasty things back on. This was followed with shoe-horning the wet, blister inducing jungle boots back on. It rained each and every day we were out there. I lived in a rain suit with a swimsuit on underneath most of the trek.

The majority of the time I had no clue where we were. Sure I knew I was on some remote lake in Canada, but that was about it. On one portage while playing follow-the-leader, we made a wrong turn. Halfway through a marshy bog I fell into a muck hole all the way up to the two backpacks I was wearing. I couldn't set myself free and had to be rescued from this disaster by one of my trip mates. When we finally made it to the lake a discussion begins about our whereabouts. After our two leaders finished debating our location, a conclusion was rendered. We were back on the same lake from which we had just portaged!

We moved to a new location every day. During canoe travel we would troll for fish. If we caught fish and it wasn't raining too hard, we would fillet them for lunch. If it was pouring down rain, lunch would consist of Ramen noodles. The fishing was everything I imagined it would be. I caught my biggest smallmouth bass ever, my first walleye and first northern pike. Every smallmouth seemed to be huge. The walleye tasted great. If I was lucky enough to catch a walleye, they made me portage the fish until we reached our final destination for the day. One pike I caught was close to ten pounds and I couldn't figure out how in the world to pull this monster into the canoe. As with most pike on the trip I was scared of those teeth. I brought one top-water lure with me, an old jitterbug. It was tied on only once during the whole trip because my fellow trip mates all laughed about it and said I'd never catch anything on a top-water lure. It was promptly replaced with another lure and not used again.

A little more than halfway through the trip I fell ill. The illness was possibly caused from being wet constantly, be it my head or cold feet. It seemed to be raining all the time. I was a trooper and stuck it out, though I certainly didn't have much of a choice. Laying on a large rock in the middle of a lake, a discussion had begun on what we would eat when the trip was finished. There was talk of pizza, cheeseburgers with bacon and a carbonated drink. It was at this point we all decided to start heading back to the border and leave on day 9 instead of 10.

We paddled back down towards the border the following day. We encountered some brutal portages along the way, but after what I had already been through on this trip I was accustomed with long, hard days. While on a creek, our path was obstructed by an enormous bull moose who was not in any rush to move out of the thoroughfare. We back paddled and waited until he was done grazing. Once the creek-block was cleared, we made our way back towards Basswood Lake. Arriving at the end of the last portage into Basswood's Bayley Bay we were greeted with the largest rolling white caps of the voyage. Since I was still under the weather, it was a great strain to paddle across the bay. I was exhausted by the time we landed at Prairie Portage. The plan was to paddle back to the outfitter's resort, but we were not up to the challenge. We ended up flagging down a tow boat and purchased a ride back to Moose Lake. The outfitter greeted us with a cold beer upon our return to the dock. Finally something carbonated to drink!

My first trip was over and even though there had been excellent fishing I wasn't sure if I would ever want to go back and face those same negative experiences again. It wasn't until two years later while watching the Fishin' Hole show that I ever thought about going again. There was Jerry up in Quetico with guides Harry and Mary Lambirth catching big smallmouth on top-water lures. My juices started flowing and the wheels began to turn in my head. Something inside tugged at my soul to go back again. Even after all that I had been through on the first trip, I found myself still wanting to go back.

Planning was started, reservations were made and a partner was found for round number two. A list of necessary items was compiled to insure a good trip this time around. The best part about having the first trip was the invaluable lessons cultivated around things I should and shouldn't do to have a favorable outing. I've been building on these experiences after each trip to Quetico ever since.

On my drive back up to Ely it felt as if I had an elephant sitting on my chest. This was a bad case of anxiety caused by not being sure I knew what I was doing. It was scary thinking I might somehow get us lost out there and not be able to navigate a map to find our way around. It wasn't until viewing some maps with the outfitter that the anxiety went away. Since this was the first time ever really studying the maps, they didn't appear as difficult as I imagined. During this trip I didn't have any dilemmas navigating. The fishing was under par compared to the first trip, but the weather was more desirable. It's amazing what a little sun can do for an out-of-doors adventure. We encountered some new experiences such as the ruffed grouse that we thought were wild chickens back in Moose Bay, saw ancient rock drawings called pictographs while floating Basswood River and clouds at night that moved around like flames in a fire, which turned out to be northern lights. After this outing I knew I had to come back each year.

Had I not returned for a second go at it, I would not have realized over the years these trips are much more than being here for the fishing. Reasons for my revisits include solitude, soul searching, adventure, wildlife and being in a spiritual place of great beauty. Some special experiences would have been missed over the following years: spending 7 days by myself on my first solo quest, contemplating life and returning to a world that had ultimately changed while I was in the woods on 9 / 11 / 2001, looking a wolf in the eyes as it swam in front of my canoe not more than 10 feet from us, taking in the view from the many picturesque cliffs and falls, paddling a 14 mile long lake in 9 hours, fighting a strong head wind and white caps, breaking only to bail. On the flip side, paddling the same lake in a little over two and a half hours with a tail wind. Other experiences included a bear pulling on my food pack in a tree on the 3rd day of a 12 day trip, listening to Ojibwa Natives beat on a ceremonial drum on Quetico Lake, bushwhacking through parts unknown, observing a pair of eagles mating in mid air and breaking apart just above the lake's surface, catching a 43 inch pike on 9 / 11 / 2001 and having no one around to take the picture, trolling up a walleye close to ten pounds on the first day of a 13 day trip, and using a double willow blade chartreuse spinner bait to hook up with a five pound smallmouth. These are a very small sampling of experiences encountered after my initial run in the Quetico and I will live with these memories for a lifetime.

If it were not for Jerry McKinnis, I don't know if I would have ever gone back to Quetico again. Maybe something else might have triggered that tug at my soul and then again maybe not? I had a chance to thank him in person a few years down the road when he was in Dayton, Ohio for an outdoor \ boat show. I was never so nervous before to meet someone and I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe it was because I watched his show nearly every weekend. I was wearing a Boundary Waters sweatshirt at the time and the first thing he said to me was, “Ely, Minnesota, my favorite place in the world! ". Well, I had to agree with him. Jerry asked me if I knew Harry and Mary Lambirth, the guides from the Quetico shows. I told him, "No, that place is pretty big up there ". I thought to myself, what are the odds of ever meeting these people. In 1998, while waiting in line at the Prairie Portage ranger station, I met a lady who was first in line. We were both there a hour early. We sat and discussed fishing, Boundary Water politics and dog sledding for the next hour. It wasn't until the end of the conversation when we shook hands and told each other our first names did I realize she was Mary Lambirth. I asked her if she was married to a guy named Harry. She pointed him out down by the dock talking to his clients. I later met Harry. What a thrill it was to meet all the people who influenced my life with a fishing show one day. I am forever grateful for Doug Klees taking me up there the first time and to Jerry, Mary and Harry for producing a show about fishing in Quetico Provincial Park.

Quetico Provincial Park has forever changed my life. It is now part of who I am today and who I will be tomorrow.

THE END


 
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Bdubr
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09/13/2017 10:50AM
Great story Mike....thanks for sharing those memories! I can relate to many circumstances brought up in your first trip. My first "real" trip was out of Big Sag and consisted of a giant loop through SAK, Kek, Ogish, etc. I found the map with this very route last week and counted 38 portages.....oofta!!!! Wouldn't trade it for anything.

Now I average 8 trips a year to the BWCA and bring many folks who have never been themselves. We are truly blessed to have this playground on our soil!

Thanks again for the good read...
SaganagaJoe
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09/13/2017 12:35PM
quote Bdubr: "Great story Mike....thanks for sharing those memories! I can relate to many circumstances brought up in your first trip. My first "real" trip was out of Big Sag and consisted of a giant loop through SAK, Kek, Ogish, etc. I found the map with this very route last week and counted 38 portages.....oofta!!!! Wouldn't trade it for anything.


Thanks again for the good read..."


+1, my first route also, with the exception of Kek. I did however get a big bass on my first or second cast ever near American Point, the only fish I caught on that trip. I'll never forget that. And I kept going back also. This is the first year in 5 years I haven't gone. But I'll be going back, Lord willing.

Thanks for writing that up QM.
mastertangler
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09/13/2017 01:42PM
Great lunchtime read, thoroughly enjoyed that.

CGriff
member (41)member
 
09/13/2017 04:31PM
Well done, gets the juices going for my upcoming trip.
overthehill
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09/13/2017 05:45PM
Secondd what Master angler said except suppertime. Great writing. Enjoyed it as well.
Only made it up to top of wheelbarrow falls my first trip. Teenager in early 70's. I can still remember that last portage on left before falls a mile or so..:) had a canoe rack and sign.
It was a major dream for years to return. I knew I would eventually. I should do a report someday; but forget where we went exactly. The pictures of alot of it are STILL embedded like it were yesterday.

Thanks for this story and jogging memories of magical first impressions. oth
Thwarted
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09/13/2017 06:16PM
Thanks. I also recall my first, which I lead. My wife, brother and his buddy all complained about being too ambitious. How was I supposed to know that the wind would blow against us out of the east for four days? What a great time that was. Moose everywhere From Round to Vista. Bugs too. Ha, maybe I'll go back there.
Bumstead
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09/14/2017 07:58AM
Great story. Thanks for sharing about your first canoe experience, QMike. And also for sharing your fishing knowledge learned over the years with so many on this board.

My first trip was 3 years ago with my wife and 3 boys.....a brave undertaking. But I've been hooked by these waters also and since that first trip have returned every year. If possible, I intend to continue this yearly trek to the BW, introducing new people to this experience on each run. Finding a place like this, that combines all the favorite hobbies (fishing, camping, backpacking, paddling, relishing the creation), it's easy to see how the experience becomes part of my annual planning.
bfurlow
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09/14/2017 12:12PM
Thanks for the good story Mike. I think it describes a lot of first time trips, it's the lucky ones among us that stick it out for trip 2 and beyond.
jeepgirl
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09/14/2017 12:24PM
It rained almost every day of my first trip. Sawbill to Beth. We even came out a day early. As much as it rained, all we talked about was where we were going next year. I have gone every year since and my trip number is above 20. 2 weeks ago I had the chance to bring a friend on her first trip. The weather was perfect and we have 4 star campsites. She loved it and I loved watching her get so excited to see loons. The only issue was that we had issues getting a site on Boulder Bay and ended up right across from the picto's on Lac La Croix. Plus I did not bring enough food. We never went hungry but I could have brought more food. Lessons learned, relax and don't be such a time keeper and bring more food. Let the newbie help more with planning.
DrBobDerrig
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09/14/2017 02:02PM
Learning to Relax.... It seems to take about 3 days to decompress and begin to RELAX> My first trip was 5 days 4 nites as part of my WoodBadge Ticket (Scouters know about this). I worked my butt off making this go and I realized soon that 5 days was too short for all that prep work.... since then every trip has been 7 days-6 nites in addition to staying at a campground or outfitter the day before we go in and overnite again after we get out to drive home the next day... that seems to work for me
dr bob
09/15/2017 08:56AM

Great story Mike. Made me reflect on my 1st trip I took into Quetico in 1979. Those early trips into the Q were a hoot.

Like you I am a fan of Jerry McGinnis and his show the Fishin' Hole. I got the opportunity to meet Jerry and Indiana coaching legend Bobby Knight at Canadian Border Outfitters back in the 1990's. They had just come in from fly fishing for topwater smallies in Quetico. I think they told me that they had been on Crooked Lake. Jerry couldn't have been nicer giving us some fishin' tips over a cold beer.

Mike, I hope you keep posting on this forum. I really enjoy your pics (especially the 34 inch walleye you caught on Basswood) and the information you share on "how to" catch fish has helped me become a better smallmouth bass fisherman.

Tight Lines ...
jeepgirl
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09/15/2017 12:11PM
I can really relax when I am with others who have been to the bwca before. I just wanted the newbie to have a really good trip and I think I worried about it too much. Now she knows what to expect and next year if we trip together again, I will be much more relaxed about it
QueticoMike
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09/15/2017 04:18PM
quote Wally13: "
Great story Mike. Made me reflect on my 1st trip I took into Quetico in 1979. Those early trips into the Q were a hoot.


Like you I am a fan of Jerry McGinnis and his show the Fishin' Hole. I got the opportunity to meet Jerry and Indiana coaching legend Bobby Knight at Canadian Border Outfitters back in the 1990's. They had just come in from fly fishing for topwater smallies in Quetico. I think they told me that they had been on Crooked Lake. Jerry couldn't have been nicer giving us some fishin' tips over a cold beer.


Mike, I hope you keep posting on this forum. I really enjoy your pics (especially the 34 inch walleye you caught on Basswood) and the information you share on "how to" catch fish has helped me become a better smallmouth bass fisherman.


Tight Lines ..."


That walleye was 32 inches, but thanks! I really enjoy helping people with fishing up north :)
QueticoMike
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09/15/2017 04:20PM
quote jeepgirl: "I can really relax when I am with others who have been to the bwca before. I just wanted the newbie to have a really good trip and I think I worried about it too much. Now she knows what to expect and next year if we trip together again, I will be much more relaxed about it"

Whenever I have been with a new person in the past I always worried about fishing for them and that they did well. They always see pictures from me and I know they have high expectations.
 
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