by Ho Ho
This year, David and I decided to get a Sarah Lake entry permit for our annual Quetico trip. We had never entered by that route before (although we did exit via Sarah in 2005). We had 10 days for this trip, but beyond Sarah Lake, we did not have much of an itinerary. We were just going to go where the spirit moved us, through the lakes in the south central and southwest part of the park. We had been on most of the lakes in the area before, but we would explore them from new angles and no doubt have a completely different experience. Before the trip we also started thinking about including a loop over the "Memory Lane" portages to Poohbah Lake, down the Maligne River, and across the "Eat 'em up" portage to the Darkwater River. But we would wait to see how the first part of the trip shaped up before deciding on that more ambitious addition.
There was an exception to our wait-and-see approach. We had arranged to meet up on Robinson Lake (where we had not been) on the eighth night of our trip with Chris, an Internet canoeing buddy. He was entering via Sarah Lake too, but five days after we did. So meeting up toward the end of our trip would allow maximum flexibility earlier on.
A few days before the trip, on my 50th birthday, we flew out to the Twin Cities and drove to Willmar, Minnesota for the wedding of David's niece. Although the focus was on the nuptials, David's mother did make a tasty yellow cake with chocolate frosting (my favorite) to mark my becoming older than dirt.
After the wedding, we headed up to the cabin outside Ely to get ready for Quetico. David's brother and sister-in-law, the parents of the bride, came up to the cabin too for some much-needed post-wedding R&R. And some friends and friends of friends from Chicago happened to be vacationing in Ely, so they came by with their kids for an afternoon of swimming off the dock.
One of the Chicago couples had gone on a beginners' overnight trip with their daughter on Lake One a few days before and got a little more adventure than they were bargaining for. A bear came into their camp at night and played piñata with their hanging food pack, which the bear eventually made off with. I've been hearing more and more stories about that happening in the BW, but so far I haven't heard similar stories about Quetico. With fewer and more experienced paddlers in the Canadian park, I'm guessing the bears just don't have as many opportunities to learn bad habits up there. (Although our own food pack has sometimes dangled like low-hanging fruit of ursine temptation - fortunately never plucked.)
Against that backdrop, we made our final preparations and embarked on our trip.
Day 1 (September 1, 2010) -
After a hardy breakfast at the cabin, we loaded up the Jeep (which was just big enough for all our gear) and got the show on the road -
We drove to Moose Lake and launched at about 9:45. Heading out -
Today's route would cover familiar territory, paddling up to the border at Prairie Portage, then on to North Bay for our first night in Quetico. As we started out, the prevailing wind was from the southwest and helped push us up the Moose chain. Little did we know that this would be virtually the last tailwind we would see for ten days. Looking back south on Moose Lake -
When we were halfway to Prairie Portage, I realized I'd forgotten to fill out our self-issued BWCA day-use permits for the beginning and end legs of the trip on the U.S. side of the border. We weren't turning around now, so we would just have to hope we didn't get checked before we got to Canada. I'd fill out the day-use permits after the trip to atone for this sin.
Motor traffic was lighter than usual on the chain of lakes, and we had a pleasant paddle up to the big point that bisects Sucker Lake. Once we rounded the point and pointed our bow westward, our tailwind became a stiff headwind for the last mile to Prairie Portage. That was okay for now, but I wondered if the strong southwest wind would make for some nasty cross swells out on Bayley Bay.
We got to Prairie Portage just after 11:30. I headed straight for the ranger cabin to get our Quetico permit before they closed for lunch at noon. We didn't want to repeat last year's mistake of having to wait until 1:00 when the ranger station reopens. A group of three was ahead of me in line, and when they were done with their permitting, the ranger did "orientation" for all of us before issuing my permit.
This orientation was new, and somewhat comically involved the ranger flipping through a booklet with cartoon graphics while going over the rules. I took note of the recommendation to clean water filters well up on dry land to avoid moving invasive aquatic species between watersheds. I hadn't heard that before. Since I knew that spiny water fleas had invaded some of the border lakes, I followed this advice during the trip when cleaning the prefilter for our new Steripen.
Post-orientation I got our permit and joined David back at the beach, where he had stacked our gear after carrying it across -
Your intrepid voyageurs about to launch out onto Canadian waters -
By the time we left Prairie Portage around noon, the wind was shifting around to come from the north. Thus began the pattern on this trip: constant headwinds no matter which way we paddled. That was okay with us at the moment, though, because we preferred a headwind to a southwest crosswind out on Bayley Bay.
As expected, when we got the narrows between Inlet Bay and Bayley Bay, we could see that Bayley was really whipped up. We ducked behind some shelter at the narrows to put on our PFDs. They would get a lot of use this trip. Then we ventured out. We really had to dig in against the headwind, which was sending white caps in our direction, roiled by cross swells remaining from the earlier southwest wind. We were already happy we had brought the Champlain on this trip. It is amazingly imperturbable in these kinds of conditions.
It took us a bit less than an hour to paddle the three or so miles from Prairie Portage to the "Yellow Brick Road" leading to Burke Lake. From the wind-sheltered beach it looked deceptively calm back on the nearby waters of the bay -
We had lunch on the beach before carrying the portage. The trio who had been ahead of me at the ranger station were already there carrying their gear across. They had a ton of stuff and must have been triple portaging at least.
After eating we got ready to cross the portage too. As is our custom, we double portaged and took pictures on the trip back between loads. Here's the big ash tree at the Bayley Bay end, already showing its autumn hue -
A beaver had been at work further along the portage. This pond wasn't there the last time we came through in 2008; fortunately it did not inundate the portage path itself -
Lichen usually grows on rocks or trees, but this patch along the trail was growing directly out of the ground -
On the beach at the Burke Lake end -
The other group was loading up as we finished our second carry. I commented that the early fall colors surprised me, since I thought August had been warm up here. One of the other guys said that bright fall colors are caused by a good growing season, like the summer that was ending. I had not heard that before, but maybe it's right.
We parted ways with the trio, who were heading to Sunday Lake, as David and I continued northbound to North Bay. Looking up Burke Lake from the portage before launching -
Despite the direct headwind, it was beautiful out on Burke Lake. We could not have asked for a nicer day to start our trip, with warm sunny conditions. (Just don't get used to it.) We made good time up the lake. This picture looks back down the narrow, sheltered north end of Burke -
We quickly crossed the short portage into the unnamed pond and creek between Burke Lake and North Bay. This is a favorite spot of mine -
The creek had just enough water to paddle all the way through without jumping out on the way to the second portage into North Bay. This is the view from the portage landing down part of the creek the portage bypasses -
I've never been a fan of the footing on this particular portage -
At one point the portage path skirts the creek. I liked the way the light played on the rocky creek bottom through the gentle ripples of flowing water -
After 30 rods, we arrived at North Bay. Looking eastward from the portage -
And westward -
As you can see in the picture above, the landing on North Bay can be pretty mucky, but we escaped with our boots still on our feet. We paddled around the west side of the big island that stands between the portage and the main part of the bay, then headed out into open water.
The wind had died down now. It was quiet out on the big bay. We didn't see anyone else except a lone canoe in the far northwest corner, near the entry to Lost Bay. We had been thinking about heading up that way to camp. But as we crossed the calm open water, we took advantage of the absence of other people here and now and aimed for a campsite on an island in the middle of the bay. We got to there about 4:30 and decided to stay.
After a swim, David went to set up the bear rope while I set up the tent and gathered wood for our steak dinner. After a while I checked on David. He was having a tough time getting the rope set up well. We were mindful of our friends' bear incident on Lake One, but sometimes you just can't hang the pack as high as you would like. This was one of those times. Low-hanging fruit.
With that delay and the time spent getting a cooking fire going, the rest of the short day slipped away quickly. But we had a great first dinner of perfectly grilled ribeyes, basmati rice, and asparagus.
The work of setting up camp and cooking dinner made another swim inviting, so we took a dip after sunset. Then we settled in with a nice helping of Maker's Mark on a perch looking out over the bay. A few bugs came out, but not too many. And there was no sign of other people.
As we finished our nightcaps a bank of clouds started moving in from the west. The forecast when we left the cabin called for rain overnight, so we put the fly on the tent before getting in, something we almost never do unless it's actually raining. We read for a while, then turned out the lights around 10:00. Soon I fell into a slumber as deep as the Quetico silence around us.