The Quetico Journey - From Boys to Men
jour•ney noun \jer-ne\ “Something suggesting travel or passage from one place to another (the journey from youth to maturity) (a journey through time)”
This is the story of my Journey that began 31 years ago when at age 17, I took my last trip to canoe country.
Shortly after I completed my last trip in 1979, I enlisted in the Army National Guard and over time I received my Commission as a 2LT and went on Active Duty. During this time I had the pleasure of serving my country, but had to fore go many of my hobbies due to long stretches away from family. When I had time off one of the last things on my mind was spending more time away from my family and being in the woods.
After my retiring from the military as a Major, I began a career in the civilian world. I rapidly rose over the next few years to owning my own company, an executive home and driving my Porsche to the private country club for a game of golf. Then the dotcom bubble burst and I lost it all. Without warning, the company, the house, the car, my marriage, my pride, my self esteem – were all gone. I was now homeless and living in my brothers basement. I had reached the deepest and darkest abyss of my life.
Over the next several years I was able to build myself back up. During this process; I have happily remarried, took custody of two beautiful grandchildren and rebuilt most of what I had lost. It was during these years that I would take the family camping at local state parks and stare into the fire and remember my days in the Quetico and tell my family of its beauty. I never thought I would or could go back.
One day I was thinking back to my youth and did a Google search for “Hoare Lake” and I found an article from Boundary Waters Journal by Jim Carrier in which he described a canoe trip where he was thinking about making a bushwhack to Hoare Lake to see the reputed message cache. This message cache was one that we had posted to on all of our previous trips to the Quetico. I got more curious and I found a website where Jim posted on a Bulletin Board. I typed a message about Hoare Lake and said I was too old at age 47 to return but encouraged others to take the “Hoare Challenge” and record their names. “Ranger” responded and said that unless those numbers were reversed I should consider going back. Throughout the day I continued to search Google about Quetico and I found BWCA.com and read some trip reports from people with member names like “Ho Ho” and “Uncle Moose” and knew then that I had to go back - I would go back!
I had a 30 year High School reunion coming up in a few weeks and decided to pitch the idea of a return to Quetico to those that I had traveled with before. Many expressed interest but as the months passed none were able to commit. I decided to call two other people who had been on the Q-trips but had not been at the reunion and pitch to them. I hadn’t spoken to either one in over 25 years. The first person I called was Matt. Matt was a few years behind me in High School but had been to Quetico with me in 1978. After a brief conversation and him checking with his wife, he was in! My next call was to Steve. Steve and I had been to the Quetico in 1978 and 1979 together and also paddled many miles on numerous Midwest river trips together. After a brief conversation, he instantly committed.
Over the next several months I spent hours and hours on BWCA.com learning as much as I could about the “new” canoeing equipment, routes and techniques. I spent even more hours upon hours in the chat room with Kanoes, Kiporby, Mr. Barley, Izzy, GSP and Cowdoc to name a few. They helped educate me on what I had missed over the past 30 years and this resulted in many eBay purchases.
This would be more than a canoe trip.
~This would be a testament to life long friendships.
~This would be a reward for our life sacrifices.
~This would be a chance to bury some demons from a sometimes brutal past.
~An opportunity to honor and remember a friend as he starts his final Journey.
This would be our Quetico Journey!
August 9, 2010 (Monday)
150 lbs of gear shipped via UPS to a friend’s house in Sioux Falls, SD.
August 18, 2010 (Wednesday) Atlanta, GA to Sioux Falls, SD
I had booked a ticket on Delta Airlines that would take me from Atlanta, GA to Sioux Falls, SD via a plane change in Minneapolis, MN. My wife dropped me at the airport at 8:30 AM with the remaining gear that I had not shipped prior. I was travelling on a Delta “Buddy Pass” therefore I was in Standby Status for all flights. I got a seat on the plane that I had hoped for out of Atlanta and was in the air by 10:30 AM. Arriving in Minneapolis at 12:00 AM I had a shot of getting on the 1:30 PM flight to Sioux Falls. I was issued a seat! I got in the plane and things started to go bad from there. They made an announcement that due to weather they had needed to change the route and that they now had too much fuel and needed to remove some bags and/or people to lighten the load. YEP, you guessed it, I was asked to leave the plane due to my low priority as a non-revenue passenger travelling on a “Buddy Pass”. I then went to the gate for the 3:00 PM flight, nope they were full. 5:00 PM flight – Yep full too! Next flight was at 7:30 PM and I finally got a seat. After a very painful 7.5 hour layover in Minneapolis I finally arrive in Sioux Falls, SD around 8:30 PM. Free tickets are not free!
August 19, 2010 (Thursday) Sioux Falls, SD
This day was devoted to food shopping and packing with the team. We did hit a bar later that night with several of the guys that had been with us on previous trips. They came out to wish us well on our Journey. We discussed our route and goals. I could see in their eyes they wanted to be going with us, but circumstances prevented them from going. I expect a few will be with us in 2011.
August 20, 2010 (Friday) Ely, MN
The long drive to Ely, MN began at 6:00 AM. We arrived in Apple Valley, MN around 10:00 AM and made stops at Milo’s Subs for a sandwich and on to Von Hanson’s Meats to pick up some goodies and a quick trip next door to the liquor store to buy some spirits.
Back on the road we rode through the cities and continued our trek to Ely with the slowly changing scenery reminding us where we were heading. Around 3:30 PM we arrived in Ely - The gateway to Canoe Country. We made our way through town without stopping as we planned to come back in later to do some shopping and have dinner. We arrived at CBO and checked in with the staff. We asked for a MN III canoe to test our load plan and spent the next hour or so, discarding about 10 lbs of gear and testing our load.
After returning the canoe, we headed in to Ely. Our original plan was to buy dry ice, booze and have dinner. But we had decided to just freeze some things in the CBO freezer and skip the dry ice. We had already bought booze, so this trip was mainly to get us back in cell coverage for a final phone call home and pick up some beer for that night and some snacks (we still had ½ our sandwiches left from earlier)
Later that evening after eating our remaining sandwiches we walked down to the dock at CBO and drank a beer and enjoyed the bantering of some intoxicated gentleman from Indiana who had just returned that day from a BWCA trip. After finishing our beers we returned to our CBO hotel room and set the alarm for 5:30 AM.
The Journey Begins.
Day 1 - August 21, 2010 (Saturday)
We woke up late this morning. I had set the Alarm on my new Digital Compass/Altimeter/Thermometer/Kitchen Sink Toy without realizing it had two time setting and two alarm functions. It was 6:00 AM. Oh, well……
We still made it to the CBO dock for our 6:30 PM tow. We jumped in the boat with the gear and we were off! As we rode in the boat I sucked it all in… the sights, sounds and the smells. I was heading back into the Wilderness.
We soon landed at Prairie Portage and began the first of many portages to come. I started to get an odd feeling. It wasn’t excitement. I had also expected it to be a bit emotional, but I’ll admit it…It was fear. All kinds of self doubt and worries came through my mind. Was I really up for this after all these years?
We had to wait for one other group to get their permits and then it was our turn in the saddle. We quickly paid our fee and listened (sorta) to the Park Rules pitch and something about water fleas and headed back to the water. We took time for our first picture of the trip.
Left to Right: Matt, Bojibob and Steve
As we paddled through Inlet Bay heading towards Bayley Bay the nerves subsided and a new feeling emerged, my arms were using muscles they hadn’t used in awhile and I was hopeful I would work through this.
As we approached Bayley Bay we had our fingers crossed that it would be somewhat calm. In our 1978 crossing we had a white knuckle crossing that included high winds and waves. I was hoping this was an event would not have to repeat.
“Awesome” was the word I hollered out as we paddled past Green Island and the Bay was calm. After a short paddle across the Bay we saw the familiar sandy shores of the northern beach. I was now pumped up; this is what I had dreamed about for years. We had arrived at the unofficial Quetico Gateway also known as the “Yellow Brick Road” (435 meters)
I asked for the honor of carrying our canoe across the portage and my crew kindly granted my request. I threw on the Wenonah Minnesota III and began the first leg of our double portage across. Man did I feel alive!
We were soon on the water and paddling beautiful Burke Lake and heading towards the famous Singing Brook portage that I had admired in many trip reports.
Upon arriving at the portage it was just as beautiful as I had imagined...
We unloaded our gear and then realized the “better landing” was on the other side of the creek. So we opted to cross the creek. I tossed the food pack on my back that weighed in at a whopping 80lbs and I began to step from stone to stone….oooops! One rock was a little wobbly and as I got off balance the 80lbs took control and placed me in the turtle position in the center of the creek. Ummm HELP! Matt came to my rescue and got me out the predicament and we were soon on our way. The only damage was to a skinned knee and my pride.
We had a nice leisurely paddle across Sunday Lake and we were all totally pumped and enjoying being in the Q. We were heading for Meadows portages also know as the “Beast and the Bitch”. I had remembered these from my 1978 trip and the memories were not fond.
These two portages, the first leading from Sunday to Meadows - “The Beast” (786 meters) and Meadows to Agnes – “The Bitch” (443 meters) are defiantly a reminder to you Toto, that you are not in Kansas anymore. The Beast rises steadly and has many ups and downs that caused this out of shape fat boy to do some serious huffing and puffing. Doing this as a double, it took us well over an hour and half to complete. Who needs a health club anyway…..
After a very short 3 min paddle, we unloaded the canoe and attacked "The Bitch". This is a rock garden/Army obstacle course! I almost felt like it was there to cause you pain and discomfort and only the strong could get through this wilderness gate. After completing The Bitch I will admit I was pretty gassed. We then got back onto the water after 3+ hours.....of in my opinion one of the toughest stretches of portages in the Q.
As we angled toward Louisa Falls and I could hear the sounds of this impressive beauty. We would stop here for a bit and snap some photos.
Zen Moment – after purify our bodies and souls in the “bathtub” of the falls I took some time to reflect on my personal journey. It was time for me to let some things go….. I did and I was re-born.
It was time to move on and find a camp site for the night. We had planned to get about a third of the way up Lake Agnes to the narrows area and setup camp.
We found the site I had preselected based on comments from the Paddlers Campsite Database (PCD) and we stopped at Site 1FK based on the site rating of 4 stars. Don’t believe everything you read! This site turned out to be the worst one of the trip but we were too tired and it was getting late so we set up camp.
The site is very small and really only has one good tent pad, the fire pit is just OK. We pitched the REI TAJ3 for Steve and Matt and I set up my Eureka Solotaire aka “The Coffin” and began to cook the gourmet meal of Ribeyes, Lobster Tails and fresh hash browns. After a 13 mile opening day and a 30 year wait. It may have been the best meal I have ever eaten. Yes, the 80lbs of food was coming in pretty handy!
Start Time:6:30 AM
End Time:4:30 PM
Total Portage Distance:2003 Meters
Total Distance Traveled:19.5 miles – 6 by tow boat and 13.5 miles by canoe
Lakes Traveled:8 - Moose, Newfound, Sucker, Basswood, Burke, Sunday, Meadows and Agnes
Day 2 - August 22, 2010 (Sunday)
I was the first up and had gotten up later than I had planned, it was almost 7:00 AM. I could hear the sounds of snoring coming from the TAJ and figured they would be up shortly. I decided to take a shore bath and try to revive my stiff and sore body. The mist was rising off the water, it was a beautiful day! I walked back to camp and there was still no movement from the TAJ so I decided to take down my tent and pack my sleeping gear (Eureka Silver City Bag and Exped SynMat7 DLX) after packing up my gear and struggling to repack my personal pack and make everything fit (Why does everything pack so well at home?) There was finally movement from the TAJ. “Good Morning Boys, Did I tell you I love you today?” After the eye rolls and few grunts we set out to cook up a great breakfast of Eggs from the Egg Store, Bacon and Fresh Hash Browns. After enjoying the meal and packing the gear up and we were on the water at 10:45 AM, hardly a stellar performance this first morning.
We were soon paddling up Lake Agnes with a goal of stopping and seeing the Pectographs and Pictographs sites on the midway point up on the Lake.
The pectoglyph site (theses are chipped into the rock vs. painted)
After snapping a few photos we continued our trek up the length of Lake Agnes heading toward the center islands and the location of some pictographs.
We continued the journey and paddled through the narrows of the islands in the northern center of the lake. We made our westerly turn towards the big water for our push to the very top of Lake Agnes. After rounding the corner we saw a very nice campsite on a small island but it was only about 1:30 PM and we needed to get further this day. (Little did we know that this campsite would be important later in the trip). Hunger was setting in and we decided the pull off on a nice granite slab for a quick lunch. We sampled some of our of homemade jerky, trail mix and Hudson Bay Bars. We all took a little dip in the water to cool down. The weather was perfect. Low 80’s and a supporting southwesterly breeze.
We were all starting to get a little tired as we paddled up the lake; we still hadn’t fully recovered from Day 1. We had set a target of a campsite that Journeyman had detailed in one of his trip reports that was unmarked on either the Fisher or McKenzie Map but was listed on the Paddlers Campsite Database (PCD Site 1GT). We made a small detour to check out an alternate site that was listed in the PCD as 1J3, this had several positive reviews and was rated as a 4 Star Site. I wasn’t impressed it looked very “camped out” to me and we decided to paddle another ¾ miles across the Lake to the target site. It was well worth the trip.
The site has a large sloping granite landing for easy unloading and the fireplace is built into a cliff with great seating surrounding it. We quickly set up the tents on two of the many available tent pads.
* Note the tree stumps in the tent photo. Some idiots had cut down a dozen or so small pine saplings and left them laying on the ground. These saplings would have made a nice sun and weather screen in the years to come. I guess they thought they were improving the view. Some people just don’t get and never will.
There was an unbelievable amount of fire wood that was available! Someone had brought down 15-20 logs that were 8 or 9 feet in length and the perfect thickness for cutting logs. We used the Irwin Marathon Saw to make quick work of them.
It was time to post the colors in honor of our soldiers serving so far away in our defense
Dinner this night would be fresh Lemon Pepper Chicken Breasts that we had purchased at Von Hanson’s in Apple Valley (with the Ribeyes and Lobster Tails) and fresh Buotoni’s Three Cheese Tortellini mixed with Knorrs Garlic Herb Sauce and rehydrated Mushrooms. This was an incredible meal and did I mention our food pack weighed 80 lbs?
As night fell, we all were very tired. We had travelled another 10 miles (All paddling) and felt that the route we had selected may be more than we wanted to take on. Ho Ho had given me some advice before the trip to be prepared to adjust the route and make sure we enjoyed ourselves. I think he knew something we were just starting to realize. We needed to slow down and enjoy ourselves more.
We huddled around the maps and I proposed to cut out the Falls and Man Chains from our planned return route. We would continue to travel up to Kawnipi via the West Channel of the Agnes River and layover one day in McKenzie Bay and get our batteries recharged. We would then take the Agnes River East Channel back into Lake Agnes and push the “S-Chain” of Lakes home. I had studied these two routes extensively from trip reports and had exchanged a few emails with Ho Ho for some missing info. Ho Ho had become my informal guide and as I kept mentioning his name, my crew said “Who, Huh?” So Ho Ho is now forever known as WHO HUH!
*Note: We saw no people today, the last time we saw people was the night before on Agnes just past Louisa Falls. Even on popular lake over a weekend, the Quetico still provides a wonderful remote wilderness feeling.
Start Time:10:45 AM
End Time:3:30 PM
Total Portage Distance:N/A
Total Distance Traveled:10 Miles
Lakes Traveled: 1- Agnes