Quick, 8-Day Quetico Paddle
26 July, Day 2: We awoke to clear skies and light winds from the south. After an oatmeal breakfast, we broke camp and went for a brief walk to explore the ridge just east of camp. The ground was untrodden and moss covered, with an open canopy of red pines overhead. I could imagine woodland caribou traveling these high corridors in centuries past, or Native Americans burying their dead on the high overlooks. No doubt, they did. We loaded the canoe and paddled north on Agnes Lake with the depth finder on. The lake was well over 200 feet deep over a large area. We stopped at the SE end of the large island at the north end of the south basin of the lake where we viewed a very faded pictograph, a canoe with two paddlers, the left end almost gone. Continuing on we paddled through the narrows, a cool area with high cliffs, points, and a few islands. I caught and released a lake trout of about four pounds in 35 feet of water just east of a narrow, south facing point in the narrows. As we emerged from the north end of the narrows the lake widened to nearly a mile, and a long vista of open water greeted us. Beautiful. We headed over toward the west shore, as the wind was building a bit, and I noticed water as deep as 175 feet along the way. When we got to the little bay leading to Silence Lake we were able to paddle up the narrow stream channel the short distance into Silence without having to portage. Saw some folks at the portage. Silence Lake is only about a foot higher than Agnes and has stained water. I bet big walleyes and pike travel up into Silence in spring to take advantage of the warmer water there, as Agnes has got to be a slow warmer. I found the wide area of the lake, NW of the portage from Agnes, to be in the mid-50-foot range, marginally deep enough for trout. I would guess that the best trout water in Silence is in the south part of the lake. We continued on to the NW end of the lake, and portaged a brushy, rocky 160m to an unnamed, T- shaped lake with good stands of old-growth white pines. Few people travel this route, and Everett got his first taste of the type of portage typical of many Quetico routes and those of the vast Canadian Shield outside of the parks. The next portage climbs along an inlet stream, with some of the stream water flowing on the portage. Brushy and rocky, it is 190m long, and leads to another nameless lake surrounded by nice pines. The third portage NW of Silence Lake is 110m long and is on the east side of the small stream connecting the lakes. The Quetico Park map shows it on the west side. A small rock point with a fire ring lies just to the NW of the portage terminus, and we ate lunch there. In a pinch a small tent could be pitched there. The next portage, also 110m, led to a small pond. From there we portaged 420m to another nameless lake, and then p. 460m to Trant Lake. This last portage climbed over a hill and then dropped into an area flooded by a beaver pond. I had earlier given Everett a bit of a hard time when I told him he could avoid getting wet feet on some portages by using some fine footwork, balancing on small rocks and logs. When we got to the flooded section of this portage he stepped aside and said, “Show me how it’s done”. There was no way to avoid getting wet to the knees, so I just plodded through. He laughed. Fortunately, the ground underneath was firm. We passed by the beaver dam flooding the trail, and then arrived at Trant Lake. A pretty brisk, SW wind was blowing, so we didn’t paddle down to see the pictographs on this lake, but instead portaged 370m to Hurlburt Lake. Another brushy, rocky trail, but more used than the ones between Silence and Trant Lakes. We headed up Hurlburt Lake, looking for a campsite. I set up the depth finder and found water deep enough for trout beginning about a mile up the lake. Campsites are scarce on Hurlburt, but we finally found a small one on a rock ledge on the west side of the large island about three-quarters of a mile from the N end of the lake. I had to cut out a couple of trees, which had fallen on the only tent pad. We went for a swim in the stained water to rinse off the day’s grime, and then built a fire and cooked supper. Afterwards, we cooked up some pudding for dessert, letting the pot cool in the lake, so the pudding would thicken.
27 July, Day 3: I awoke at 4:20 AM to flashes of lightning and the low rumble of distant thunder to the SW. I suspected that we would be pounded by these thunderstorms about the time we would get up. Fortunately, the storms never arrived and we emerged to a cloudy morning a little after 7:00 AM. This was my 49th birthday, the fourth I have spent in Quetico, and my twelfth in the Canadian bush. We cooked breakfast, broke camp, and headed up the lake. The narrow bay at the north end of Hurlburt Lake has some cool rock formations, including massive blocks, which have fallen off of the crags over the millennia. Under one overhang we could see the stick nest of a raptor or raven. We portaged about 15m (river left) around a bouldery stream channel leading to an unnamed lake, and then p. 60m (r.r.) around a rapids/cascades that must drop five or six feet to Payne Lake. We paddled into Ahsin Bay to check out the pictographs on a large rock face, but in keeping with the request of the Lac La Croix First Nation folks, didn’t photograph them or any other pictos we would visit. Continuing on, we passed by the well-used island campsite about half a mile SE of the pictographs where I had camped in 1984 and 1988. It’s pretty much the only site on the lake. We passed through a narrow channel into Williams Lake. A portage is shown there on the map, but I have never had to use it. Maybe in a severe drought year… Williams, like Payne, is a lake with plenty of rock and evergreen forest. We heard a moose crashing through the bush along the west shore as we headed south toward the next portage. Portaged 100m, fairly rugged, to another unnamed lake, and then p. 200m to Hurlburt Creek. I went back part way for the small pack that Everett had dropped along the way. Fairly brushy, rocky trail. Mosquitoes were bugging Everett quite a bit. After paddling along the open, bog-lined creek, we portaged 200m to Keewatin Lake. We scoped some suspended lake trout, rigged the fishing rods, and started jigging. Everett had on a nice fish for a while before it got off, and a bit later I caught and released a small laker. We put the fishing gear away and headed to the portage into Kawnipi Lake, aided by a light south wind. At the Kawnipi end of the rocky, 390m portage, we met the first people we had seen since the Agnes-Silence portage. They had come down through the Cache Lake portages. We shared a few choice words about those portages... We headed north on the stained waters of Kawnipi, one of my favorites, and stopped for lunch and a swim on a small island just south of Rose Island. A well-used, very nice campsite exists there. By then the sky was partly cloudy, and the warm sun and breeze dried us quickly after our swim. After lunch, with the sky cloudy again, we rode a steady tailwind up the narrow channel on the west side of Rose Island. Everett really enjoyed that area and all the rock-lined channels leading up to the NW end of the lake. So did I. In some areas we noticed a steady current flowing through. Lots of cool places to explore and camp. Looks very fishy. We set up camp near the outlet of Kawnipi on the east side of a narrow channel swift, created by an island about a mile up from the outlet rapids of the lake. Not exactly a spectacular site, or one where you would want to swim, but a good one for fishing. Everett spent a lot of time fishing from shore, catching a bunch of smallmouth bass and a couple of walleyes, one of which we kept for supper. Chartreuse twister tails were the ticket. Occasional rain showers occurred until the front came through and the wind shifted to the NW in the early evening. We fried up the walleye in butter on the stove and ate it with rice cooked on the fire. Then, I prepared the instant, cherry cheesecake I had brought to celebrate my birthday. We ate about half of the cheesecake, saving the remainder for breakfast. We retired to the tent as the sky darkened and the mosquitoes emerged.
28 July, Day 4: We awoke to sunny skies and a light NW breeze. After our cheesecake breakfast, we broke camp and paddled down to the outlet rapids, a class-2 set that I have easily run every other time. But now with a Kevlar canoe, we chose to portage 15m (r.l.) over a steep rock ridge. Had to make sure the canoe was secured below the rapid (Everett held it, while I loaded). Continuing downstream we passed through narrow, rock-lined channels, a poorly defined mix of lake and river that is the Maligne River as it passes through the “Poet’s Chain” of lakes between Kawnipi and Sturgeon. One of these narrow channels was over 50 feet deep, though we expected it to be ten to twenty. We ran a class-2 rapids along an island with a nice campsite, dropping into Shelly Lake. We very nearly damaged the canoe as we just missed a big rock. Everett nearly panicked. Then we passed through the south channel of Shelly Lake, noting that part of the area had burned in recent years. We arrived at Have-a-Smoke Portage, a place of sentimental value for me. The 300m trail bypasses Snake Falls and a couple sets of rapids below and lies in one of the most scenic parts of Quetico. A large bur oak grows on the Shelly end of the portage, and numerous other bur oaks of all sizes are sprinkled through the area amid old-growth white pines. Snake Falls roars as it drops perhaps 15 feet over a rock ledge, with a couple of smaller ledges and large pools occurring downstream before ending at Keats Lake. It was here that I camped for two nights in 1979 with Chris, a fellow Boy Scout, and a group of five Canadian Boy Scouts (including two adults) we met at the portage. I celebrated my 18th birthday there, a wonderful time of sunshine, good fishing, and northern lights. Everett and I checked out the falls, picked lots of blueberries, and really enjoyed the area. I noticed some poison ivy growing along a rock outcropping near the falls. A boys group from Camp Widjiwagan near Ely, out for 14 days and heading upstream, was passing through while we were there. We headed out onto Keats Lake, paddling over to see the south channel of Snake Falls, before heading past some islands and through a narrows enroute to the McDougall Lake portage. Several groups were camped on Keats Lake, a destination area for folks coming down from the northern entry points of the park. The Keats-McDougall portage starts as a very steep hill with some poison ivy, and then levels off before descending more gradually to the lake. 350 meters long, it is a nice trail, much easier than we had anticipated. McDougall is clear in contrast with the stained waters of Keats Lake. We headed out onto McDougall after setting up the depth finder and fishing rods. The lake is known to contain lake trout, smallmouth bass, and pike. We found the entire northeastern part of the lake to be quite shallow, around twenty feet, tapering down to about 35 feet toward the rock bluffs on the northwest shore. The lake is scenic and much less used than the nearby “Poets Chain”. Heading south and west, we ate lunch and went for a swim on the SW shore of the lake, looking for potential camping sites enroute. Afterwards, we headed east across the lake, finding a fantastic site on a west-facing point. This was probably the best on the lake, and well used. We set up camp and swam once again. Later in the afternoon a group of nine girls from the Ontario MNR Junior Rangers Program came by. These 17 and 18 year-olds were using a GPS unit to record campsite locations and doing some portage work. We headed out onto the lake to fish for a short time, but had no luck, although I had a hit and Everett had a fish on earlier. Everett was a bit impatient, as he was spoiled by the unusually good trout fishing we have had on ***** Lake in recent years, so we headed back to camp, collected firewood, built a fire, and cooked supper. Everett caught some small bass off camp. After supper we made some pudding, cooled the pot in the lake, and enjoyed eating it as the sun sank below the horizon. We stayed up by the fire for a short time before hitting the sack. Out came the mosquitoes.
29 July, Day 5: A broken, low cloud deck and fog was burning off when we awoke around 6:20AM, revealing another sunny day. I built a fire and heated water for breakfast and coffee/hot chocolate as Everett emerged from the tent. Then we packed up, ate breakfast, and were on the water by around 8: 00AM. Heading south, we passed another nice campsite on a small, pine covered island as we entered the southern bay. We portaged 580m to a small, unnamed lake. The start of the portage passed over muskeg for about 70m, but was filled with corduroy to avoid sinking into the muck. The rest of the trail passed over a couple of hills and rocky areas, but was way better than we anticipated from looking at the map. After quickly crossing the small, low-shored lakelet, we portaged 5m to Eag Lake (over a beaver dam, if I recall correctly). Eag was scenic, with rocky shores, and felt very remote. The local relief was pretty low. We entered a wide, lily pad-filled section of Cutty Creek, hoping to see moose, but we saw none. Then we portaged 20m to Cub Lake. One or two decent campsites occur on that scenic lake. Next, we paddled up another section of Cutty Creek toward the Baird Lake portage, the creek closely lined by spruce forest. Very intimate and a nice cool break from the sun. We portaged 20m uphill to Baird Lake, a scenic lake with hilly shores and old, super-canopy white pines standing above the mixed forest. A couple of nice campsites occur there. Lightly stained water. I had done the next portage with my buddy, Greg, in 1981, but I don’t remember the deep muskeg that Everett and I encountered. It was thigh deep for about 50m, and I had to put down the canoe, place my pack in it, and drag it to high ground. Everett floundered as well, but didn’t drop his packs, thankfully. The portage is about 225m long and goes from a small bay on the south shore of Baird Lake to a nameless lake between Baird and Metacryst Lakes. After crossing the nameless lake we portaged 390m, fortunately muskeg-free, into Metacryst Lake, a long, narrow lake surrounded by a mixed evergreen forest. The lake appeared to get little traffic. After portaging 150m to Cutty Lake, we stopped to eat lunch on the same small island where Greg and I camped in 1981. Another campsite is located on the point adjacent to the island. Everett was exhausted and fell asleep. Some moose bones were stacked by the fire ring. Back on the water we paddled into a couple of bays before portaging 600m to Sark Lake. The trail is rocky, climbs a fair amount, and passes through a short wet stretch, and ascends to a ridge before descending to Sark Lake. The water of Sark is stained, and a high rock ridge, probably the edge of an ancient fault line, runs straight as an arrow along the east shore of the lake, extending likewise along the east shore of Keefer Lake to the south, and on to Kahshapiwi. Some fantastic vistas must be had from those lofty crags. We paddled south with the depth finder on, noting water deep enough for trout (>60’), but a surprising lack of campsites. Where the lake opened up, exposing several rock points and bays to the west, we found water to 85 feet, but our survey was so scant that much deeper water no doubt occurs. We portaged 320m around the west side of an un-navigable segment of Kahshapiwi Creek that flows from Keefer to Sark Lakes. I damn-near wiped out with pack and canoe when I started the portage, with Everett up ahead. Keefer Lake is lightly stained, but much clearer than Sark. For it’s size, it too lacked campsites. The best one is on an island where the lake opens up, but it was occupied. We checked out several cool, rock points, where campsites were marked on our map, but found none. The Fisher maps poorly depict campsites north of the border. We camped on an open jack pine site on the west shore, where steeply sloping rock entered the lake. After swimming and setting up camp, we fished from the canoe for a short time. I jigged up and released a four-pound lake trout. Back in camp Everett caught some bass from shore. We built a fire, cooked and ate supper, and as daylight faded, entered the tent for the night. Clouds increased from the west during the late afternoon and evening.
30 July, Day 6: We awoke to the sun shining through a high, thin overcast. I climbed up to the ridge just behind camp to get a photo of the lake. After breaking camp we headed south down the lake . At the south end of the lake we fished at the inlet from Kahshapiwi Lake. It looked like fantastic walleye water, but those fish were likely scattered in the deeper waters of the lake. Everett caught a bass there. We portaged 20m to Kahshapiwi, avoiding the extensive amount of poison ivy that grew at both ends of the trail. We found deep water, over 65 feet, in the northernmost bay of the lake. Passing through a narrows we entered the main body of the lake and quickly found water well over 100 feet deep. Then we stopped on the high nearby island where in 1981 Greg and I made a very rough camp with barely enough room for our tent on the bedrock summit. Everett and I found some of the best blueberries we had ever seen up there. We paddled on, looking for a campsite. Some of the east shore had burned in recent years, exposing huge amounts of granitic bedrock on this lake already known and named for its cliffs. We ended up stopping for lunch and then camping on a great site with a ten-foot jumping cliff, and a much higher cliff nearby. Enroute, a mile to the north, we had found water to 173 feet in depth. We jumped of the cliff, swam, and ate lunch under a now overcast sky. After we set up the tent a light rain began to fall, so we spent the time reading and checking out the maps. When the rain stopped three hours later, we pulled out the stove and cooked supper. While the water was heating we heard and saw some wild splashing along the reef that extends from the south end of the island. Evidently, predator fish were cornering ciscoes from deep water to the east of the reef, up against it and were on a feeding frenzy. I cast out a silver sonar and immediately caught a 26-inch walleye, my biggest to date. Then I caught a bass, and even a small lake trout when I cast into deeper water. Catching a lake trout from shore is a rare event in summer. I released all of the fish. Then they shut down. The bass had spit out a very silvery cisco. We saw some “sucker holes” in the western sky, which gave us confidence that the rain was over for good, and that the sky might clear overnight. Soon after, we hit the sack in the fading light.
31 July, Day 7: The sky was overcast in the morning, but showed no sign of imminent rain. We broke camp and paddled south and east toward the McNiece Lake portage. Along the way we kept looking for the old Kahshapiwi fire tower on the high ridge overlooking the western shore of the lake. Eventually, we saw it, but it appeared that the enclosed area that housed fire rangers had been dismantled. Perhaps the tower was now just used to raise a radio antenna for the Kahshapiwi ranger cabin, located near the shoreline far below. We portaged 1,120m to McNiece Lake on a trail that passed over a rolling landscape, with some wet spots, steep areas, and old pines, but wasn’t overly difficult. On McNiece someone had forgotten a paddle at the end of the portage. The lake is surrounded by stands of old-growth white pines. A wildfire burned through the area a few years ago, mostly as a ground fire, leaving the pines towering above an emerging broadleaf forest. We didn’t stop to look for pine regeneration. In a couple of areas the fire burned through the pine canopy, killing the old sentinels. We portaged 150m to Shan Walshe Lake. The portage passes through ancient white pine forest that had an under burn and ended amid cedars on the shore of Shan Walshe. In 1991 the lake was named for the great Quetico naturalist who died of cancer shortly before that time. I had met and spoken with Shan Walshe at French Lake in March of 1983, when I and a couple of friends were on a late winter road trip from Bemidji, where we attended college. Shan Walshe Lake was surrounded by burned over areas, exposing the bedrock, and areas of tall pines. We portaged 100m to Yum Yum Lake and paddled a very short distance to the next portage, a short carry to Armin Lake. Next we portaged 275m to Grey Lake, a scenic lake with some nice campsites. From there we portaged 720m to a narrow, un-named lake. This portage passed through an area of muskeg for at least 100 meters, but scattered logs, root wads, and brush kept you from sinking into the muck, if you were careful. The last portage before lunch was a 410m carry to Shade Lake on a well-used trail, with the treadway worn well into the ground in places. I wondered how many scout troops passed through there over the years, especially in the days when low fees, lax border crossing rules, and higher (or no) entry quotas saw many more paddlers in Quetico than today. We paddled down to check out the pictographs in the NW bay of the lake. They were abstract images that I could not interpret. Afterwards we ate lunch on a heavily used site on the west side of the long point sticking southward into the lake. As the overcast was breaking up, and we were grimy from a morning of portaging, we went for a swim in the clear waters. We saw smallmouth bass and sunfish as we swam. After lunch we paddled down into the narrow bay that leads to the lake’s outlet. Several groups were camped on the lake. We portaged 20m around a small outlet stream, which Chris and I dragged up when we came through here in July of 1979. You really can’t drag a loaded Kevlar canoe, though. We passed through a small pond with a large rock face, before portaging perhaps 100m to West Lake. After paddling partway down this narrow lake, we portaged 60m to South Lake. The portage is located just east of the lake’s outlet; the maps show it to the west. After paddling under the now mostly cloud-free sky to the portage, we carried 70m to a long, narrow stream channel, flowing through a wide lily pad-filled channel, enroute to North Bay of Basswood Lake. A beaver dam still existed in the same place where it was in 1979, and we had to pull over it after getting out. Several great campsites exist on the points and islands near the mouth of the channel from South Lake. Tall pines, open under-stories, and great vistas of big water greet the paddler who camps there. We headed toward where the creek flowing from Burke Lake enters the SE shore of the bay, behind a large island, thankful that the SW wind was light. I found a dead rusty (non-native) crayfish at the portage start. They are bigger than native crayfish and have bigger, stronger “pinchers”. We portaged a quick 150m to a long, wide, pond-like section of creek. The water was nice and clear. About a third of a mile farther, we portaged 80m to Burke Lake. Surprisingly, no one was there, and the several fine campsites on the lake were vacant. We camped on the southern of two small islands off the east shore, three-quarters of a mile north of the portage to Bailey Bay. The site looked to have been very heavily used in past years, but less so recently. A great rock point extended to the west for swimming, and the site was high and open and wooded with red pines. Very little firewood was to be found, so we used the stove to cook. We swam with the masks on in the late afternoon sunshine, and then set up camp and ate supper. Afterwards, we went out fishing. I scoped water to 114 feet deep, south of our island, off of the long, narrow point where Craig T. and I winter camped in late March of 1994. Through we scoped several fish down deep, they were not biting. Then I saw a mark at 40-some feet over 111 feet of water and dropped a tube-jig down. I soon had a large fish on, and after a good fight, landed and quickly released a lake trout of about ten pounds. We headed back to camp shortly afterwards and went for another swim, a skinny dip, as there was not enough sunlight left to dry out our swimsuits. A short time later we retired to the tent for the night.
1 August, Day 8: I went out of the tent sometime after 4:00AM to tie down our light canoe near the tent, as I heard the rumbling of thunder and saw lightning flashes to the SE. Fortunately, the storm would miss us, and the night was pretty spectacular with the moon illuminating the landscape and the stars shining in patches of sky that seemed black in contrast with the bright clouds drifting by. Distant loons were calling on the lake. The real world was alive. We awoke sometime after 7:00AM to sunny skies and leisurely packed up camp on this, our last day in Quetico. Before heading out we went for one last swim in the lake. Saw a group of paddlers heading for the Singing Brook Portage to Sunday Lake. We portaged a nearly flat, 450m to Bailey Bay of Basswood Lake, ending the portage on a sand beach. This must be the easiest average length portage in Quetico, and it’s no wonder that groups paddle a bit out of their way to avoid the tougher North Portage to Sunday Lake. We encountered several groups of paddlers as we headed toward Prairie Portage. The light, southerly wind didn’t hinder our speed, and we got there pretty quickly. Quite a few parties of fishermen were in boats, fishing at the inlet. We picked up a new map of the park, as well as a book on Quetico history before portaging to Sucker Lake. Several boats were arriving, carrying canoes and paddlers. We paddled down the busy Moose Chain, and arrived at the public landing on Moose Lake in under two hours, ending a fantastic trip. After stopping for lunch at the Subway in Ely and checking i