Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Man Chain July 2008
by immgr

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 07/11/2008
Entry & Exit Point: Quetico
Number of Days: 5
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
Returned to the BWCA area from Houston after a 25 year absence, this time to take my 16 yr old son to Quetico for his first wilderness experience.
July 10:

Flew into Duluth and rented a car for the trip. Enjoyed Gooseberry Falls on the way up. Along the Gunflint Trail, stopped at Trail Center for a tasty hamburger and milkshake. Saw 5 moose, 2 deer, and 1 apparently tame fox.

Arrived at Seagull Outfitters during a beautiful summer evening for an excellent route planning and orientation session. Planned route was to base camp at Other Man Lake, along the Man Chain in Quetico, for all 4 nights. This would mean a hard push on the first day to reach the camp, which was about 18 miles away. 6 of those miles would be covered by motorized tow, but the remaining 12 miles (and 9 portages) would be hard work.

July 11 (1st day):

Woke up to a beautiful early sunrise and a 7 a.m. tow to Hook Island (#1 on map). Black flies and mosquitoes made us feel welcome right from the start. Deb from Seagull Outfitters welcomed us, gave us a few words of encouragement, and we were on our way. Saw many loons along the way.

Overcast skies and a brisk northeast wind greeted our arrival to Hook Island. We proceed to load the canoe and head out to Cache Bay.

Both of us were nervous (well, that’s an understatement) during the paddle across open, wind swept water, knowing that a spill would be dangerous. Balance of the canoe was poor due to my vertical loading of the two packs – this would be one of many lessons learned on this trip. Stopped at the Ranger Station on the Cache Bay island (#2 on map) for our customs processing and met the famous Janice, the Canadian Customs Ranger.

She is quite a lady. Learned that she raised her family on that island, which explained the swingset in back of the cabin. I told her that she was a bit of a celebrity now with the internet postings and the fact that she has been there so long. She said that, speaking of the internet, she was a bit embarrassed because her recent dumping at Silver Falls had been discussed on the internet. I explained to her that I felt that was a good thing, since it was a warning to the rest of us beginners to be very careful, if someone like herself had been dumped. I also learned that I had been pronouncing the word “portage” wrong – Janice emphasizes the last syllable and pronounces it as “odge”.

After further discussions with this fascinating lady, I was sad to hear that, despite her 25 or so years of service, she is not eligible for a pension because her posting there is only considered “part-time” work. It is a shame that this person, who has been so passionate about protecting the wilderness that we so enjoy, has to worry about her golden years despite so many years of dedicated service.

Finally, we discussed the reduction in visitors to Quetico in the past few years. We discussed the usual suspects – higher gas prices, higher park fees, barbless hooks, no live bait, etc. But Janice was adamant, and I think she has a valid point, that the main reason for the reduction is that the younger generation is not coming out like they used to. She used the example that, the day before, she had three "parties” come through – a 40 – 50 yr old party of three, a 60 yr old solo, and a 72 yr old solo! She was thrilled to see my son there and was hopeful that he would have a good time and return with his friends or children someday.

We left but said that we would try to stop by on the way out. We were on our way by about 9:00 a.m. across Cache Bay, after I loaded the canoe in a more stable manner than our initial crossing. We began to hear a long rumbling in the distance which lasted longer than a minute, as if someone was dragging their canoe across a rocky stream bed. My son said that it sounded like thunder, but I said that it couldn’t be thunder since it wouldn’t last that long.

The first of 9 portages for the day, bypassing powerful Silver Falls (#3 on map), was a tough one but the scenery was beautiful.

We tried the single portage route (carrying multiple packs on one trip), but quickly concluded that we weren’t into that much pain. The terrain was much rougher than I had anticipated, especially when carrying a canoe overhead. The bug heat nets came in handy, since the mosquitoes and flies would accumulate in the upside down canoe around one’s head during the portage. After completing the longest portage of the trip (almost 0.5 mile), we found the dangerous current crossing downstream of the portage (where Janice spilled) to now be relatively safe if approached in the right direction and with speed.

The next portage of the day was a float-over, since the water levels were about a foot higher than normal for this time of year. We crossed Slate and Fran Lakes, and with each subsequent portage the previously mentioned rumbling grew louder, soon to be accompanied by bright flashes of light and darkening skies. Apparently I was wrong, my son was right, and it was thunder. By the time we reached Bell Lake (#4 on map, after our 6th portage of the day), the rain, thunder, and lightning began in earnest. Our initial hope was that it would pass by quickly, but soon we decided to break out the lunch to make the best of a bad situation. In the downpour I grabbed the first lunch I could reach in the bear barrel, which was the PB&J. After a while I had the brilliant idea of breaking out the tarp to protect us from the rain, but unfortunately by that time we were already thoroughly soaked. After two hours of drenching (now 4 p.m.) I was becoming worried that we would not have enough time to reach our planned site on Other Man, make camp, and obtain shelter from the cold and rain. Just when things were reaching their worst, the hail started coming down hard – first in dime size pellets, then after 15 minutes reaching nickel size.

The sound coming off the Kevlar canoe was not pleasant. Hail eventually covered the ground and I should have taken a picture of it, but I was shivering and more focused on survival than taking pictures at this point of the trip.

Finally the rain let up and a family of otters came out to play in front of us. We quickly started off in the canoe and followed them down Bell Lake. We saw our first (and only) group of the day camped on the western end of Bell. We made good time on the next two portages, eventually coming to our last portage (#5 on map) before reaching Other Man Lake, our destination. It was about 5:30 p.m. and we were thrilled to be this close and still have daylight left. The portage went steeply up a ridge at first. After we struggled to reach the top of the ridge on the first of our two portage trips, we looked out to see a pond in front of us that we were apparently supposed to cross. I have a strong faith, but I haven’t yet developed the ability to walk on water. After some investigation, this appeared to be a swampy bog which one was to cross by walking on tree limbs and small logs which had been laid down on the bog mud surface. However, after the fierce rainstorm, the top of the bog was now covered with almost a foot of water, covering the tree limb path so that one just had to shuffle through the water, guessing where to step on the logs below the water surface and hoping for the best. We made our way slowly along, stepping/sliding carefully, until my son fell through up to his waist in muck (with a 45 lb pack on his shoulders). I scrambled to help him escape the mud pit and we eventually got him out. We then continued making our way to the other slide of the bog. The remainder of the portage was a steep descent to the lake. The second portage trip across the bog (this time, with the canoe) was a bit easier since I floated the canoe ahead of me through the bog while hanging on to the end of it for support for the times that I would slip off the tree limbs and into the bog. The best part was knowing that we would have to eventually return the same way.

We finally reached Other Man and quickly canoed towards the large island, which held a five star island campsite (#6 on map). I was hoping that the campsite would be open, which it was, and should have been given that we only saw one other party on our 18 mile trip in. It truly was a five star site – located on a peninsula sitting above the lake, with beautiful vistas in all directions.

It even had a few logs set up for sitting, and, unbelieveably, a big rock with a perfectly flat top for a table. We hurriedly set up camp, eying another approaching storm, and finished just before the next storm hit. We gulped down turkey sandwiches for dinner and hunkered down in the tent through the storm. Sitting out a storm in a tent is much more enjoyable once you have experienced the alternative. The rain and lightning passed quickly. But it now felt that a cold front came through, as the wind picked up briskly (where it would stay for 36 hrs). According to the weather service, the high temperature this day was 64 F and the maximum wind gust was 30 mph. The wind was magnified by the fact that the campsite sat up above the lake, and that the wind was from the southwest which is the same orientation of the lake. The long fetch meant big waves and funnelled winds hitting our island.

Sleep was difficult the first night with the tent whipping and flexing in all directions. I was impressed that the tent would remaining standing through all of the wind, although I did secure it with many extra cords. The wind in the trees sounded like trains running by all night.

July 12 (2nd day):

We slept in since the ferocious wind would keep us from fishing in the morning. The official maximum wind gust today was 45 mph. This gust may have happened at the same time that I decided to take the canoe out by myself to get drinking water away from the lake shore. I forgot how much different a solo canoe is from two people, with all of the weight in the back. As soon as I left the shore, the wind turned the canoe around quickly and flipped it over, dumping me in the lake. Fortunately I was wearing my life vest and I was able to collect the canoe contents quickly and push the flooded canoe back to shore. Of course, this meant that both sets of my clothes were now soaked, but the one benefit of the high winds (aside from fewer bugs) is that my clothes would dry out fairly quickly.

In early afternoon, the party that we saw yesterday camped on Bell Lake was making their way upwind the length of Other Man. There were 3 canoes and they really struggled against the wind and white capped waves. I think they were Scouts – I respected the fact that they had an American flag flying in the lead canoe despite the additional drag it created. It took about an hour for them to pass our island and they moved on out of Other Man.

Later in the afternoon, the winds subsided to the 20-25 mph range and we took advantage of that to quickly sneak out and canoe to the leeward side of our island. We wanted to finally start fishing on this trip. Strangely enough, the wind swirled fiercely in all areas and even the leeward sides of shores had gusts which made fishing difficult. We used primarily Rapala lures to troll and cast for smallmouth, northern, and walleyes, concentrating on 10-25 ft of water. My son caught a nice smallmouth while trolling and we caught numerous other smallies and northern. We almost got into trouble while trolling while the wind. We were trolling at a good pace when he had a nice fish on. It took about 20 seconds to realize that it actually was a snag, and that he was running out of line, and that we had to turn quickly in the strong wind or lose the rod. The Powerpro strong line that we used has many advantages, but one downside is if the line has to be broken quickly. I was paddling too furiously to find the scissors and cut his line. We turned into the wind after nearly capsizing twice - to my son's credit he kept his weight centered and did all of the right things. Pulling through this gave us confidence for our canoeing skills for the rest of the trip.

We made our way back to camp without incident and ate steaks, freeze dried green beans, and garlic mashed potatoes for dinner. After dinner we fished again with some success. We returned to camp and had our first roaring campfire of the trip, which felt good.

We also enjoyed S’mores, which were very tasty. The wind again howled and rattled the tent throughout the night, making sleeping difficult.

July 13 (3rd day)

We again slept late because of the wind, although the wind seemed more reasonable today. According to the weather service, the high temperature this day was 62 F and the maximum wind gust was 35 mph. After we had our normal great tasting blueberry granola and powdered milk for breakfast, we assessed the situation. We decided to change our plan - we would backtrack and move our camp back to Slate Lake (#7 on map) for two reasons. First, if the wind got any worse, we might never make it back on the last day to make our flight. Second, Slate is a smaller lake and is more protected for winds from the Southwest. So we broke camp and said goodbye to our island.

We weren’t looking forward to that first swamp/bog portage out of Other Man. But, we were fortunate in that we landed on the wrong spot for the portage (too far west) and somewhat accidentally took a much less travelled trail which was more rugged, steeper, with brush that needed to be cleared, but no bog. We were happy with the tradeoff.

We paddled back through rain and mist. On the portage to Fran, we noticed something that we hadn't seen 2 days before - a huge tree blocking the trail. It must have come crashing down during the high winds of the past day. We struggled by it, since it positioned itself horizontally at the most inconvenient height (about 5 ft off the ground).

On Fran Lake (just before Slate) we found an interesting piece of vegetation floating in the lake (see picture). It has lilypads growing out of it, so perhaps it was the root system of a normal lilypad, but the roots were very large diameter and seemed the texture of a colorful firehose. I had not seen this ever before.

We arrived back at Slate by mid-afternoon . Even though there are no official campsites on the map, our outfitter marked two sites which were excellent. We took another island campsite, and this turned out to be a five star one just like our previous. It sat high above the lake with good views. By the time we had camp set up, the wind started to subside somewhat. We fished and did well. I caught a large northern while trolling (in 30 ft of water) and we caught numerous smaller smallmouths and northern.

This was the first time we had to deal with serious bugs – black flies, mosquitoes, and biting house flies. The head net was invaluable – best $3 I have ever spent. The clothing and skin bug treatments also worked well, as did the smoky fire at camp. All in all, the bugs were not that big of a deal.The rest of the day proceeded relatively smoothly, with some fishing success in the evening followed by a great meal of freeze dried spaghetti with vegetable marinara, macaroni and cheese, and dark chocolate cheesecake for dessert. Freeze dried food has come a long way in 25 years. Rain and wind developed throughout the night again.

July 14 (4th day)

For the first time, we are greeting in the morning by sunshine and no wind. Being this far north in summer is interesting because of the long amount of daylight before sunrise and after sundown. The bird calls are incredible with many that we haven’t heard before. Taking advantage of the conditions, we make a few casts from the island before heading out in the canoe. On my first cast, with a jointed firetiger J-9 rapala, a fish sucked it down and took off. I set the hook on a big smallmouth and had fun pulling him in.

The rest of the day brought excellent fishing, with many smallmouth and northern caught. My son caught a large northern close to the canoe and reeled him into the boat fairly quickly. I told him, “You’ve still got some work left to do.” He didn’t know what I meant and looked at me quizzically, but as soon as the northern saw the canoe the fish took off and stripped 10 yds of line off of his reel. This repeated itself two more times. He then knew what I meant. We only kept 2 fish all trip - smaller northerns - for dinner on this day. I was anxious to try northern since I had never ate them before. They were difficult to fillet around the bones but they tasted delicious.

We then saw our 2nd party of the trip - a 2-canoe group who was passing through Slate down the Man Chain. After dinner the good fishing continued, but of course we needed our daily dose of rain. This time we were relatively lucky, as the storms build all around us.

We managed to keep fishing until dark, when God put on a 360 degree panoramic lightning show for us that was spectacular. A firefly also showed up on our island. After going to bed, severe lightning hit us again, but by this time we were getting used to it and slept well.

July 15 (5th and last day):

Woke early to another beautiful morning. Went fishing for two hours before having breakfast and breaking camp. Again caught many smallmouth and northern. By this time, over the last 3 days, we had tried trolling deep (50 ft) for lake trout, using Gulp Alive leeches to fish for walleye in 15-30 ft of water, jigging for walleye and trout, casting lures to shore and across points, and trolling across all parts of the lakes. The only success of these techniques was trolling and casting lures. We lost a number of large fish which broke off after hookup while trolling. By the last day, my son and I decided to focus on using spoons for northern, since we had good luck with that and they were my son’s fish of choice because of their size. So, naturally, after a short time casting with a red & white daredevil, he hooks up with 2 walleyes! After releasing them we hooked up with a few more smallmouth and northern, and hung up our fishing gear for the trip.

After breakfast, we packed up camp to begin the relatively short trip back to see Janice at the Ranger Station. We passed many more parties on the way out (4) than we saw during our entire week (2). While waiting for a party to clear the Silver Falls portage landing, we snuck up on a brown vulture who was sunning himself on a rock. Just as we reached him, my son turned around and pointed behind me. There, flying low over the trees into our lake, were two loons, followed quickly by a bald eagle. I spun around to take a picture of the eagle but struggled to get one, when my son said, "Just take a picture of the one behind it!" Two bald eagles proceeded to circle the lake for a few minutes, but I still struggled to get a decent picture with the cheap camera I had along.

With the wind behind us, we reached the ranger station quickly. Janice was a bit surprised that we had taken the time to stop on our way out. She felt bad at the poor weather we had for the first part of our trip. She said that, the day after we entered, only 2 of 8 parties scheduled to canoe in that day through that access point actually made it to her station. And one of those capsized shortly after leaving her island, requiring her to rescue them and their equipment. So I guess we were fortunate. We told Janice about the newly fallen tree on the portage back into Fran, but she was much more excited about the fact that we recorded a depth of just over 100 ft in Slate Lake with our depth finder. I didn't see that as a valuable piece of information, but Janice treated me as I had discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls.

After wishing Janice the best, we were off again. The paddle back to Hook Island was exciting, since it started to rain again and clouds were starting to build, but Seagull Outfitters came by to pick us up an hour early after Janice called Deb from her ranger station.

Once back at Seagull Outfitters, it felt good to shower and get back to civilization. We stopped in Grand Marais for Sven and Ole’s Pizza (highly recommended) before returning to Duluth to stay overnight for our flight out the next morning.


Final tally:

- Moose – 5

- Otter – 3

- Fox – 1

- Deer – 2

- Bald Eagle – 2

- Black flies, mosquitoes, and house flies - lots

- Loons – lots

- Northern and Smallmouth – lots

- Beaver dams - 10

- Walleye – 2

- Trout – 0

- Firefly - 1

Things which worked out well:

- Bringing bug head nets

- Using Seagull Outfitters

- Bringing a fish finder (Humminbird PiranhaMAX 215 Portable)

- Freeze dried food was great

- Flavored lake water was great

- Bringing a ”fish gripper” and not a net

- For bugs, using Permethrin on clothing and using Ultrathon on skin

- Minimizing use of cotton clothing

- Kevlar canoe worked out well

- Use of Powerpro fishing line and children’s Fiskar scissors to cut it. - Dinners at Trail Center (Gunflint Trail) and at Sven & Ole's Pizza (Grand Marais)

Things which did not work out so well:

- Rain every day

- Thunder/lightning 4 of 5 days

- 3 days of winds > 30 mph are never good for a canoe trip

- Too many portages (18) for the number of days we were there

- Never used the coffee pot, saw, many of our lures, and half of our food

- Took Gulp Alive leeches in but never really had a chance to prove them

- Never saw as many stars as hoped with all of the clouds, much less the aurora borealis

Our favorite moments:

1. Catching big fish

2. Catching any fish

3. Spending time with each other

4. Discussions with Deb (Seagull Outfitters) and Janice (Canadian Ranger Station)

5. Enjoying the campfire

6. Bird songs in the morning

7. Surviving the storms

Our worst moments:

1. Slogging waist deep through the water-covered bog

2. Capsizing in the canoe in 30 mph winds

3. Huddling under trees during a driving rainstorm, surrounded by lighting and continuous thunder

4. See bullet point above, plus 15 minutes of hail