Quetico, June 2009; In Bottle - Brent - Darky - Minn (
My son-in-law Joe and I arrived Crane Lake, MN, checked in at Scott’s Marina, and got a 4:00 pm tow to Zup’s on Lac La Croix via jet boat to Canadian customs and then to the Dawson Portage – a 4-mile/45-minute trip in an old beat up Chevy Suburban – and then another boat ride. At Zup’s, we had a beer, found our room – real beds/no bunkhouse – and went to dinner announced by the big ringing bell. Dinner was salad, steak, fries, asparagus and strawberry shortcake.
After dinner we met with Mark Zup and discussed our trip options, campsites, fishing spots and pickup time/place. Final plan was to get to Brent Lake via Bottle-Iron-Crooked-Gardner Bay-Elk-Cone lakes and loop out for our pickup at Black Robe portage on LLC via William-Darky River-Darky-River-Minn-McAree lakes (in eight days). Went to bed early and slept like a log.
Day 1, Sunday June 21 (Fathers’ Day/summer solstice/longest day of the year) 6:00 am: Zup’s staff served a breakfast of French toast, sausage and fresh fruit. Clear skies prevailed for our 7:00 am tow to Bottle Portage, which, as predicted, was muddy but easy. (All portages on this trip were double-portaged. Our gear consisted of my Granite Gear Superior One pack, an old Lowe backpack that perfectly fits my blue food barrel, a small pack of cooking stuff, a daypack with fishing tackle, raingear, etc. and Zup’s 18-foot Wenonah Champlain canoe.)
We paddled Bottle Lake, right along the U.S./Canada border, noticing the distinctive markers. On Iron, we left the border for the channel north of Four Island. We passed one group camped on an island a short paddle from Rebecca Falls. It seemed a little early in the trip for sightseeing, so we did not visit the falls. Turning south and then east, we went point-to-point toward Curtain Falls.
Approaching the area below Curtain Falls, we scoped things out and then paddled easily between the island and main shore to the take-out. Took some pictures and then portaged our stuff over to the top where a group of two adults and several youth were having a snack. (This group leader was the last person we spoke to for three days.) We took some more pictures from the top of the falls and headed on.
Hoping to make it across Crooked, into Gardner Bay and on to Elk lake by late afternoon, we paddled point-to-point down the west (U.S.) side of Crooked to a place where we could make a pretty straight crossing east towards the “Guides’ portage” into Gardner Bay. Before locating the portage we began to doubt our map and navigation skills since it was not very “obvious.” (We would find this repeated often on this trip. Portage distance is not shown on my McKenzie map.)
By the time we got to the portage out of Gardner Bay at about 3:30 pm we were having second thoughts about going all the way to Elk so we paddled back to a campsite we had noticed and called it a day. (PCD site “DR.”) After we pitched the tent and put up the rain fly, the weather was changing and my watch barometer was falling. We cooked our steak and garlic potatoes supper, secured canoe and food, relaxed, and went to bed anticipating a wet night.
Day 2, Monday June 22 (layover day) It had rained hard during the night and continued steadily this morning. We stalled around after our bacon and eggs under the tarp, hoping for a break in the rain, but none came. Since this trip was planned NOT to be a marathon or set records for miles traveled, we decided to rest our sore muscles, collect some fresh rainwater, stay dry and move on tomorrow. The rain stopped in the afternoon. After supper I paddled Joe around for our first attempt at fishing and he caught a 24” pike and a few smallmouth. At dusk we saw the resident beavers swimming near camp.
Day 3, Tuesday June 23 Day broke clear and rather warm/humid and we got an early start towards Elk-Cone-Brent. The route to Elk Lake had poor landing areas, dense vegetation, narrow trails and was very buggy. We wondered if anyone had been through here lately. Joe wore his headnet on every portage today as we encountered a never-ending nuisance of mosquitoes, gnats, flies, and ticks.
We had lunch at the southern campsite on Elk, took some pictures then moved on and negotiated the two portages and “pond” south of Cone. (We found Cone, like Elk, to be one of those really nice lakes you hate to be just passing through.) When we reached the much-discussed Cone-Brent portage, we stood at the take-out, looked up the trail at what seemed like a 60-degree slope and thought “Oh, brother!” When all was said and done though, it was difficult, but very satisfying, at least for this 65-year-old. We both got chewed up pretty good here, and I tripped and fell to my knees once, but fortunately it was a soft wet spot.
We paddled the narrow twisting southwest entrance to Brent and where the lake opens up we found a campsite that was fairly close to some of our marked fishing spots. This was a very nice campsite on a long peninsula with a “spine” of rock outcrop. In spite of the fact that the fireplace and tent area is towards the back (mainland) and that there are bays/low areas on both sides – tending to favor the bugs – it is a very nice site. (PCD site “DW.”) I don’t remember much about this evening, but I know I was pretty beat. I do remember that Joe’s bitten forearms looked like he had the chickenpox and that he said the top of my left ear was really swollen up! (Dang bugs!)
Day 4, Wednesday June 24 We were up early and paddled to fish a nearby spot. Here Joe boated a walleye that measured 27 inches. He swung the fish, which was really fouled on both treble hooks, to me and after struggling to free them I turned it loose. Then I heard, “What are you doing? I wanted a picture!” (Oops!) My only excuse was that I was afraid we’d had it out of the water too long. Later we stopped for a leg stretch and snack break at a high campsite with one of the best views I’ve ever seen! (PCD site “FV.”) We then paddled north and east and fished spots along the course of Brent as far as the tight “pinch point,” catching only some smaller fish, before heading back to camp.
At camp, we lunched and then with the temperature and wind rising we aired out the bags, bathed, napped and lazed away the beautiful afternoon. We saw our first people since Sunday at midday, when they took a break on a very small rocky island nearby. (One canoe in the party paddled over and asked if we were staying for the night, which we were. They had come from the east and had paddled past some empty sites.)
In the evening we fished in the narrows back towards the Cone portage. Joe caught several 2 to 3-pound smallmouth and I lost a very large fish due to knot failure. Joe saw it under the bow of the canoe just before it got off and said it was one of the biggest smallmouth he’d ever seen. Losing this fish was a bummer, but at least I didn’t also lose my rod and reel. At one point, while trying to loosen my drag, this fish made a sudden jerk and everything went over the side! I reached under the water where I’d last seen it and miraculously came up with the rod and reel, fish still on. What a video this would have made! This was a great day!
Day 5, Thursday June 25 Moving day dawned beautiful. Paddling out northwest Brent, we saw many fishable areas and moosey-looking bays and coves. We definitely would have liked to spend more time here. (Hindsight: We should have left Gardner Bay in the rain on Monday.) We portaged into William Lake over another little-used trail that ends steeply. After putting in on William, Joe fished as we headed north. As the sunny morning waned, the wind picked up and I had trouble holding the canoe, so we drifted some, fished a little more, then headed to shore for lunch about 11:30 am. About this time a mature bald eagle made an awesome “power dive” to snatch a fish from the water ahead of us!
Our lunch spot on William could be called the “deer skull” camp. This campsite was huge, with room for many tents amid tall pines, one of which had a permanently attached deer skull with antlers. There was also a large “picnic table” constructed of logs and thin rock slabs. As we landed, we photographed a large turtle that apparently had been ashore laying eggs. This site also had a resident pine squirrel, so we had to keep an eye on it while we had the food barrel open.
After our summer sausage and soft cheese on tortillas, and with the wind picking up from the west, we headed into the wind towards the Darky River. We had to pull over a very old, solid beaver dam, then paddle across the “pond” (or was it part of William?) but were soon in the river, where we had anticipated seeing moose. We saw lots of ducks (at one point a mother blue-wing teal tried to lead us away from her baby for about a half-mile) but no moose.
The first portage west of William was hard to “see,” on the LEFT, and a pretty nasty 60-70 rods. The second portage was also hard to see, with no sign of recent use, on the RIGHT, not the left as one of my two McKenzie maps shows. We finally made the third portage – very obvious/short, at an old beaver dam – into Darky about 5:00 pm and by then it was pretty windy. We took the first campsite we came to, on an island, a bi-level site with “steps” from the super firepit area up to the large tent area with penthouse views of the lake. We noticed it seemed lightly used, perhaps due to a large dead pine standing over the rear of the tent area. (PCD site “BE.”)
After setting up camp and having supper, we rested and later had some Yukon Jack (“the Black Sheep of Canadian Liqueurs”) and cigars around the firepit. Sometime this evening, we saw eight men in four white canoes paddling west as if they had just come off the Darky River portage. (We later learned they camped at the so-called “Hilton” site on the other end of the island.) I woke up once during the night and saw millions of stars. This is a really sweet spot!
Day 6, Friday June 26 Darky was smooth as glass this morning. Not a cloud in the sky. Got up pretty early and after breakfast we leisurely paddled the calm water south to the pictographs. Compared to others we had seen in the BWCAW and Quetico, these were outstanding! We saw another party’s canoes on the shore at the portage to Argo, but otherwise we were alone except for a tolerant pair of loons.
We paddled and fished our way back up the east shore of Darky, with no luck. At camp, we had lunch, then lazed around and napped, aired out bags, etc. while the temps rose, eventually to 87 degrees on my watch thermometer. Later in the afternoon, we began to see the four white canoes, as they prowled the lake, apparently trolling. After dinner, Joe and I went out to try the smallmouth spots marked on our map. (Our neighbors seemed to have claimed the Darky River bay.)
We fished within sight of our island, with little luck at first. I kept switching lures, finally putting on a Heddon torpedo, and that did it. I started catching smallmouth, including one we guessed to be four pounds that put up a terrific fight, and another one that was longer but lighter. Joe switched to a topwater lure too, and we both caught several more smallmouth and a couple of pike before they seemed to just stop biting. We returned to camp for a fire, some cigars and “Jack” while the white canoes were still working the river mouth bay. Another great day!
Day 7, Saturday June 27 Moving day -- very gray morning, calm, but rain coming soon. Got going before the rain started and paddling toward the Darky River outlet, saw that the white canoe guys were breaking camp too. The rain – drizzle, really – started about the time we entered the “narrows.” We paddled steadily but not so fast as to create the raingear sauna effect. The first obstacle we came to was a sort of logjam, and as we slowly approached, we saw a small opening that we were barely able to drift through. After that came to a couple of swift areas that reminded us of the Ozark streams back in Missouri. We could read the water to find the best spot to paddle/steer through the riffles.
Next up was a real portage (on the left) around an area where the river crashed down through a narrow gorge – a really picturesque setting – too bad our cameras were packed away out of the wet. This portage really got the “sauna effect” going! Further downstream we came to a small rapids, and without looking at the map to see that there was a portage trail around it on the right, we noticed an opening on the right side that looked like we could walk the canoe through. We both got out and were able to carefully guide the canoe through the narrow passage in knee-deep water with a rocky but pretty solid footing.
We paddled and floated on downstream – again seeing no moose – and finally stopped in a still water area to take a break and have a snack and some good old Darky Lake water. Here the river widened and began to take many twists and turns. Finally, we approached the portage take-out to Minn Lake. Coming off the portage, headed our way, was a couple who were the only persons we had seen other than the white canoe guys, since Wednesday on Brent Lake. We asked them about campsites on Minn and they said they thought all would be open.
We did the easy portage and began paddling on Minn, where the wind was starting to blow pretty strong. Getting tired and hungry, we began looking for a lunch spot and possible campsite. We stopped at a site on an island south of the portage that had a long sloping rock point but did not like it and decided to go further. (PCD site “7W”) After paddling south and then southwest we found what seemed to be a decent site and decided to stop. (PCD site “7B.”)
Here we would only be a 2-hour or so paddle/portage from our pickup at Black Robe portage tomorrow at 1:00 pm. Since the weather seemed to be turning ugly, we quickly set up camp on this small, overused island. Tent and tarp options were few, and the east end was basically a toilet, but we made the best of it. The wind continued to blow stronger, and rain continued off and on through the evening. Our “pizza” supper was cooked on the stove and eaten under the tarp.
Day 8, Sunday June 28 We did not sleep much during the night and when we looked out of the tent this morning, it was pretty obvious we would not be paddling anytime soon. Our small island was pretty exposed, first to the west and then the northwest winds, and what we could see of the lake was nothing but whitecaps. At one point, the wind gusted so hard that the canoe, which was turned over and tied with one end to a tree near the firepit, would flip over and back. (I guessed 35 mph winds.)
We did NOT make the pickup time. When the wind began to blow more northerly we moved the canoe up close to the tent and tied it to trees on both ends, on its side, in a way that acted as a windbreak for the tent. At the same time, I re-guyed the windward side of the tent fly to keep the poles from wanting to buckle. To make a long story short, we spent most of the time from Saturday night until Monday morning (36 hours) in the tent waiting for things to calm.
Day 9, Monday June 29 Around 8:30 am Monday, we made our escape. We packed up everything and headed south on Minn. The wind was not too bad now, and in fact may have favored us down the lake. We found the portage to McAree with no problem and portaged across. Putting in on McAree, we found the paddling to be somewhat harder – straight into a brisk west wind. We went point-to-point across the northern part of McAree, and actually made good time. (We passed one white canoe on McAree, but could not tell if it was one of the ones from the other day or not.)
After finding the Black Robe Portage (it’s pretty obvious, compared to most of the others, what with having a few boats/motors cached on the shore) we carried the last of our gear over to the Lac La Croix side at about 11:00 am. About 15 minutes after we arrived, the Zup’s towboat appeared! (Bringing two guys there to start a trip and keeping an eye out for us as well.) The driver called Zup’s on the radio and said he had found us. Later, Joe told me he heard Mark Zup say something like, “You got ‘em? OK, bring ‘em home!”
The ride bay to Zup’s was slower than when we came in, the big water still being pretty rough. When we got back, we talked to Mark and Kathy and had a soda and a hot shower. Kathy had been in contact with my daughter (Joe’s wife) who had naturally been worried about us. Kathy had told her about the weather and said that we were most likely being smart and staying put until it broke. (Or, like Mark said, we could have broken a leg.) I left an old hat for Zup’s collection on the lodge wall with the inscription “36 Hours: Certa - Mook 2009” and said we’d be coming back.
The tow back to Crane Lake was more interesting than the one coming in, since we went back via the two mechanized Beatty Portages, the Loon River and Loon Lake. We even saw quite a few deer along the river. (We have never seen a deer in Quetico Park.) We arrived at Scott’s marina on Crane Lake and were greeted at the dock by a very nice young U.S. Customs lady. Then after paying for our parking and getting our keys, we loaded up and drove over to the T. Pattenn Cafe in Orr, MN for our traditional post-trip meal: bacon cheeseburgers, fries, and an ice cold drink.
EPILOGUE: This was a great trip, in spite of the bugs being brutal and not seeing moose(for the third straight year!). We saw new territory, had complete privacy most of the time, caught some quality fish, and for the most part enjoyed nice campsites and fine weather. The areas with tall old pines, deep clear lakes, interesting landscapes, and a variety of paddling water were very appealing. We especially enjoyed Brent and Darky Lakes and even enjoyed the Darky River from Darky to Minn, in the rain. This was my fourth and Joe’s third trip to Quetico, but first to the southern part, so we probably will return here next time, maybe in late summer or early fall. (Actually, my partner Joe has more than earned the right to decide that!) Zup’s and their staff were First Class; and finally, missing our pickup – by twenty-two hours – was just another one of life’s many unexpected “adventures.”
Thanks to the many members of this and other forums who knowingly or not contributed to the success of this trip! --Goose