Arctic's June 2011 Quetico Trip
21 June, Day 1: Everett and I headed up to Quetico for a nine-day paddle, while my youngest boy, Philip, was in the Twin Cities for his gymnastics camp. We left Two Harbors around 6:30a on the morning of the Summer Solstice, and were on the water at Moose Lake, east of Ely, by 8:30a. Our dog, Wilson, came with us.
A huge, slow-moving, low pressure system was moving in from the SW and threatened a soaking rain and wind, so we wanted to stay ahead of it as long as possible. The wind was light from the northeast, and the sky increasingly cloudy, as we headed up the Moose Chain. I’ve never liked the motorized zoo of this reservoir, but it offers quick access to Quetico via Prairie Portage, and we arrived at that entry point in less than two hours, despite an increasing headwind.
Everett stayed with the dog while I picked up our permit. Alex, the permit issuer, remembered me from last year, and I was out of there in about ten minutes. We crossed Inlet Bay of Basswood Lake in a stiff cross-wind, and a short time later as we passed by Green Island the wind increased greatly, and we watched a twenty-foot top of an ancient white pine break off and crash to the ground. We snuck along the shoreline as the lake was whipped into whitecaps and ripped water off these and into a spray. Any paddler out on the open waters of Basswood in these conditions would certainly be in peril.
Fortunately, the high winds, likely topping 40mph, did not last, and we were able to get to the beech at the start of the portage to Burke Lake, passing several groups on their way out along the way. One of these consisted of two guys about my age who were traveling in an old aluminum canoe, with well-worn, faded Duluth Packs. I suspected that they had been canoe tripping since the 1970’s like myself, and saw no need to “upgrade” to a bunch of expensive, high- tech gear. I imagined, for a second, drinking whisky and swapping stories around a fire with those guys.
We crossed the portage to Burke in one trip – Everett carrying his 55-pound pack, two paddles, his PFD, and a rod case – and me carrying my 45-pound pack, 44-pound canoe, and PFD. This turned out to be a reasonable arrangement for the entire trip, and our load only got lighter as food and fuel were consumed. The portage is 450m long, virtually flat, and on packed sand, making it among the easiest average-length portage in Quetico. It ends as it starts on a sand beach.
We ate a quick lunch before setting out across Burke Lake, and were grateful that the wind had surprisingly tapered off significantly. After quickly paddling the length of Burke Lake we portaged perhaps 75m around an outlet rapids to a slow, shallow stream, and then portaged another 150m to North Bay. We headed due west toward the narrow channel between Neil and White Islands, passing the steep rock shoreline of Cigar Island along the way. The long fetch of North Bay was rolling enough with whitecaps to keep us alert.
Getting into the channel between the massive islands provided shelter from the wind. Much of the area had burned in recent years, and a vigorous re-growth of jack pine, birch, and aspen was occurring. The steep, granite shores and narrow channels reminded me a bit of the NW part of Kawnipi Lake far to the north, even though we were only a few miles from the crowds along the Basswood River.
As we approached the two portages to Nest Lake we saw a solo paddler fishing for bass along the shore, his campsite nearby to the south. Two short portages lead to Nest Lake via a tiny pond. The first is a bit less than 100m long and fairly brushy. The second is even shorter. Nest Lake has clear water and nice bedrock shores.
We camped at the campsite near the portage to Point Lake in a grove of red pines where a layer of pine needles in the fire ring suggested that we were the first to use the site this year. We quickly set up the tent, as rain was moving in and retreated to the tent to read for a bit. An hour later the rain tapered off and I cooked supper on the stove. Then, we headed out onto the lake to fish for trout. I scoped some fish near the bottom in 50 to 60 feet of water, but the wind was blowing hard enough to make fishing more of an effort than it was worth, so we headed back to camp. Soon after, daylight began to fade, with more rain on the way, so we hit the sack.
22 June, Day 2: We awoke to the sound of a steady rain on the tent. I fired up the stove under the vestibule and heated water for oatmeal, coffee, and hot chocolate. During a short spell when the rain tapered to a light drizzle we took down the tent, packed up, and hit the trail. Conveniently, a short trail of maybe 30m led from our campsite to the portage to Point Lake, so we didn’t have to load and unload the canoe right away.
The carry to Point Lake is 880m long and passes over granite ridges and through low, wet areas. Some red oaks grow on the ridges, as well as the usual mixed evergreen forest. The trail is brushy, and passing through the overhanging mountain maples and other shrubs in the soaking rain had Everett referring to the place as a rain forest. I put down pack and canoe to take a photo of some lady slippers along the way.
Point Lake is another scenic lake with clear water and plenty of exposed bedrock. It seemed to have a couple of decent campsites, but like at Nest Lake there were no people there. After briefly mistaking a beaver trail as the next portage, we portaged 250m to an unnamed lake to the north. Although short, the trail was brushy and passed through an area of muskeg toward its end. Here Everett slipped off a wet log and up to his crotch in muck. I put down my pack and canoe and removed his pack, and eventually he was able to get out. Fortunately, his rain pants kept water from getting into his rubber boots.
There are two ways to get to the south end of Side Lake from the unnamed lake north of Point Lake. Each requires two portages, but as the western route follows along streams, I suspected them to be swampy. So we took the eastern route through another small, unnamed lake. The portage to this lake starts on steep bedrock, but the trail is only about 175m long and not difficult, as it gets just about all the traffic passing through Isabella Lake to Sarah or Kahshapiwi Lakes. I doubled this carry due to the steep, slippery start.
The next portage, 330m to Side Lake, is also well used. The outstanding feature here is the 100-foot plus drop in elevation through a cool, red pine stand before the trail merges with another portage coming in from the south (the western route from Point Lake). I doubled this portage too, and Everett got to enjoy the company of numerous mosquitoes as he waited at Side Lake.
Side Lake is a clear water gem, small and linear, with steep shores. The water has a bluish hue. A group of men was camped at the nice campsite along the west shore in the southern part of the lake. They were standing under a tarp in the rain, and I wondered what they thought of us as we quickly paddled by. From my perspective, hanging out in the rain makes for a long day. Might as well travel.
There are two ways to get to Sarah Lake from Side Lake. One is along a stream via two short portages and some dragging. The other is via a single, longer portage. We chose the latter, as the single carry allowed us to drain the canoe of water and reduce the number of times we had to load and unload the canoe. The portage passes over a moderate hill, but is well used and not too hard. The Chrismar map lists this carry as being 630m long, but it seemed shorter to me, more like 500m.
The steady rain continued as we rode a strong NE tailwind down Sarah Lake toward the portage to Tuck Lake. There were some whitecaps on the lake as well as some fog in the air. Neither one of us was dry, as the combination of sweat from portaging and water leaking down our sleeves as we paddled, slowly soaked us. I recalled to Everett a 33-day canoe trip I did in Quebec many years ago, during which we had 21 days of rain. Travel in the northern wilderness is as much grey bleakness as it is blue skies and crystal waters.
The take-out at the Sarah-Tuck portage is shallow and rocky and can be unkind to Kevlar or wood-canvas canoes. We did the short, 100m portage to Tuck Lake amid cedars along the outlet stream from Sarah Lake, and ate a quick lunch of bagels and sausage at its terminus.
We quickly crossed Tuck Lake, another vacant, beautiful place, with pine covered islands, and then portaged 75m to a small, unnamed lake that is sometimes called “Doe Lake”, and soon after portaged 410m to Cecil Lake. We hugged the shoreline and bucked the wind, as we were now traveling east and north into it. Both of us liked Cecil, though it was the kind of place where there were no campsites and paddlers only passed through. Cecil seemed to drain toward both “Doe” and Deer Lakes.
The portage to Deer Lake is labeled as 42 rods, or about 200m on the Fisher map, but is in reality maybe 40m long. It ends at Deer Lake on sloped granite, and in wet weather offers an excellent opportunity to slip into the lake while loading the canoe.
We crossed the clear waters of Deer Lake, and I was thinking that I should stop and camp there sometime and fish for the large lake trout and walleyes known to inhabit the place. The lake seemed deep. It appeared to have one campsite.
At the north end of Deer Lake we portaged across a strip of boulders to McIntyre Lake. Then we headed north, looking for a site to camp for the night. I had labeled my map with some potential sites from the online “Quetico Campsite Database”. From my observations from this and other trips, fully half the sites listed don’t in reality exist and never have. This was the case for McIntyre too, so we headed up over rough water to the northern part of the lake, where I knew there were some cool sites, and camped on an island in a stand of red pines and no underbrush, where a fireplace was built against a massive boulder. The other site at the opposite end of the island was occupied by another group.
By this time the rain had tapered off to occasional sprinkles, but the wind was still strong from the northeast. Everett was soaked and chilled, so I made him change into his long underwear, and he quickly warmed up. I built a fire and heated water for hot lemonade, and then strung out a clothesline to dry out the tent and some wet clothes in the wind. Then I set up the rain-fly, and soon we had a cozy camp. We set up the now-dry tent later on.
Everett collected firewood while I cooked a macaroni and cheese supper, followed by pudding for desert. As daylight faded we headed to the tent, along with Wilson, who was exhausted, for a dog will travel several times the distance of a person while on land.
23 June, Day 3: Up to cloudy skies, with scattered rain showers, it appeared that the day might be somewhat wet, but likely not a washout. I heated water on the stove for breakfast, took down the tent, and we moved everything under the rain fly where we could pack up. We were on the water by 8:30a and soon saw two groups: one headed south, and the other headed up to the portage to Brent Lake. We were headed to the far NW end of McIntyre to explore a little-used route to Fishhook and Ted Lakes.
The first of three portages between the NW end of McIntyre and Fishhook Lake is 580m long, brushy, and passes over a high, rock ridge after a 150-foot climb. At one point I had to put the canoe down and just carry my pack, because the trail was extremely steep and wet. After crossing the open forest and exposed bedrock of the ridge top, there is a small cairn that marks where you drop down a four- foot ledge into the brush again and descend toward an unnamed lake.
The second portage is an easy, 150m carry through scenic woodland. The third portage, ending at Fishhook (or Earl) Lake begins where a beaver dam is built on open ledge-rock at the lake’s outlet. After following the edge of a small rock ridge above the north side of the outlet stream for a short distance, the trail drops into an area of brush and boulders and seems to disappear. I put down pack and canoe here to scout ahead, and found a small rock sitting on a boulder sticking out of the brush. This was all that marked the way, and after crashing though maybe 50 to 75m of low brush and boulders, we found more of a tread-way and continued on to Fishhook Lake. The total length of this portage is around 375m, and extra attention should be made to avoid injury there amid the brush- hidden boulders.
It was raining when we reached Fishhook Lake, and we ate lunch at the end of the portage. Fortunately, the rain stopped, and when we got to the main north-south part of the lake we pulled out our fishing gear and depth finder and trolled for lakers. Within two or three minutes Everett had one on, and pulled in a three- pounder. A short time later I caught one that was a bit over four pounds. We released both of these fish. The deepest water we found on our quick transect down the lake was 77 feet.
We saw the disk of the sun through the clouds for a bit as we got down to the “hook” part of the lake, and then portaged 300m to Ted Lake, partly along the south side of the small stream that flows from Fishhook to Ted. There is a stand of nice cedars and a small cascade along the creek, as well as a fair amount of brush overhanging the trail.
We saw right away that the best site on the lake was occupied. That site lies midway up the east shore of the lake and is said to have a message jar hidden nearby. So we checked out the pictographs on the big cliffs above the SE bay of the lake, trolled around the islands in the SW part of the lake -- where Everett caught an 4-pound pike -- and then talked briefly with the guys on the message jar campsite. They knew nothing of the message jar, but had caught some lake trout while trolling around. They had been there for a couple of days and would be heading out the next.
We camped at a small, but decent site on a small point across from the pictograph cliffs. The site seemed seldom used and really could only handle one or two small tents. We liked it. There were red pines; massive boulders; pink lady slippers; and a steep, granite shoreline. We set up the rain fly, as those pesky showers would appear out of nowhere, heated up some hot lemonade on the stove, set up the tent, and collected firewood on the ridge behind camp. Wilson was exhausted and slept in the moss on the lee-side of a giant boulder.
After supper we fished a bit from shore without success, and noticed a slightly orange fringe along the western horizon. Was this the end of the clouds and rain? Soon after we hit the sack. As in the old days, the end of daylight drove us to bed.
24 June, Day 4: We awoke as the sun was rising in a clear, but smoky sky. The sun had a reddish tinge, and I suspect the smoke was from massive wildfires in Arizona. The wind was light from the NW. I hung out our raingear to dry on the point, and then we ate breakfast, broke camp, and hit the water. We trolled down the lake without luck, but I scoped a fair number of fish near the bottom in deep water. The SE bay drops to at least 92 feet, and the main body of the lake is a trench, with depths to 120 feet north of the islands, and probably deeper elsewhere.
We wore rain pants on the portage to Hurn Lake, as the forest was still dripping and the landscape soaked. The portage is 360m long and fairly brushy, with some wet spots. The insect life was more than happy to keep us moving, and when we arrived at Hurn Lake we quickly paddled away from the swarm.
Hurn Lake has clear water. I saw no campsites, although there were places where you could bivouac without much problem. I scoped water to 106 feet in depth as we passed through the lake, before packing away the graph and fishing gear at the next portage. A massive rock ridge, sparse with trees, rises on the north shore of the western part of the lake. It would be way cool to climb up there some time.
We portaged 200m to Elk Lake, where the water was again beautifully clear. A couple of very nice campsites occur there. Next we portaged maybe 50m to a small pond, and then p.175m to Cone Lake. Cone has some of the most beautiful water in Quetico and has an aquamarine hue to it. I only know of about half a dozen lakes in the Quetico-Superior that have this trait.
The next portage was 830m long, from the west end of Cone Lake to a small, unnamed lake NE of Argo Lake. The treadway was clear and well worn, but there was plenty of overhead brush. Midway down the trail it does a switchback up a hill. Some ancient red pines grow near the western end. The nameless lake is clear.
Our last portage of he day was about 200m long and ended at a small beach on Argo Lake. The water of Argo is crystalline and sparkled in the sunshine. We pulled out the depthfinder and fishing gear and headed out onto the lake, trolling and looking for a campsite. Between the NE bay of the lake and Birch Island we found depths to 152 feet, although I suspect the lake is much deeper. I caught a small, silvery lake trout, and as it was bleeding we kept it for lunch.
We found a fantastic campsite, large and sprawling, with a jumping cliff; user- friendly fireplace overlooking the lake; easy landing area; and flat, shady tent sites. After unloading the canoe, I set up a clothesline to dry and air-out raingear, socks, and anything else that might have gotten damp during the last few days. Then, we went for a dip in the cool (61 F) lake to rinse off the sweat and grime of the trail. After drying off in the wind and sun, I fried the lake trout in butter on the stove. Lunch was sausage and cheese on bagels, lake trout, and lemonade.
The mid-afternoon was spent lazing about. Everett caught several smallmouth bass from shore. Before long, tent and packs were bone-dry, and sleeping bags aired- out. I pondered that folks like Sigurd Olson and other interesting characters had certainly camped on this site in the past century, not to mention native peoples who no doubt had used it for millennia.
Late in the afternoon we headed out in the canoe to jig for trout in deep water off a point. We each caught and released three or four, all in the two to four- pound range, and all from 60 to 80 feet of water. Lots of fun. Wilson just laid in the bottom of the canoe, free from bugs, and content to rock with the waves.
Back in camp we collected firewood, cooked and ate supper, and then ended the day fishing again. We each caught and released a couple more trout before returning to camp near sunset. As high clouds had been moving in from the SW all day, and the wind veered to the SW also, we wondered if our brief dry spell was coming to an end. So, we set up the rain fly and stacked our gear and some dry firewood underneath, just in case.
25 June, Day 5: It didn’t rain overnight, and in the morning we rose to partial sunshine and a sky mostly filled with high cirrus clouds. I folded up the rain fly, and then opened up the tent door to let in the mosquitoes, so that Everett would get out of bed.
I heated water over the fire for malt-o-meal, coffee, and hot chocolate. We added a good-sized chunk of butter and brown sugar to the malt-o-meal to liven it up a bit, and then ate out of the pot to save on the dishwashing. Soon after, everything was packed up and in the canoe, and we were on our way. Sometime later, I discovered that we had left the green nylon dog leash on the campsite where it had been spread out to dry on a rock. Oh well. It was the only thing we would lose, and I never use it anyway.
We headed NW to the Darkwater (formerly Darky) Lake portage and heard the sound of girls talking and laughing in the distance. They had just broken camp.
The portage to Darkwater Lake is 730m long and starts on a coarse, sand beach with some poison ivy at its ends. The carry is pretty easy, and I kept imagining the early people traveling this portage since the last ice age, and the countless moccasins, snowshoes, birch bark canoes, and probably the pigments used to create the stunning pictographs nearby on Darkwater.
The portage also ends on a beach, and there is poison ivy there, too. We checked out the pictographs NW of the portage, and then the much more vivid, and probably newer, ones to the NE. Some or all of these latter images were created after contact with Europeans, because there is a man firing a gun and the projectile flying forth. In addition there are two moose with holes in their shoulders, dripping blood. I imagined the thunder and killing power of a musket in the eyes of someone who had never experienced such a thing. It was a story to be painted on rock for the ages. For the modern traveler these places demand a sense of humility, and nature itself must agree, as there is a sprawling carpet of poison ivy all over an adjacent slope.
We paddled up to the NE end of Darkwater where a route to William Lake caught my eye years ago, and was now ours to explore. No map that I have seen depicts this route correctly, in terms of portages. The first portage leaves the far NE bay of Darkwater Lake, heading up a small creek on the south side of a small rapids. It is about 125m long, brushy, but more used than I thought it might be.
After paddling on a wide, flat reach of creek with lots of emergent vegetation, you come to the second portage, a 360m carry on the west side of the stream. The portage is brushy and rocky, and climbs before dropping to a swampy section of creek again. A short distance later you reach the third, and last portage, a 310m carry on the east side of the stream. This portage is also brushy, but not bad. There were a lot of wood ticks, though.
The creek opens up to an unnamed lake, sometimes called “Cloverleaf Lake”, due to its shape. This whole area looked like fantastic moose country, though we saw none. From the lake the route veers east on the wide, flat, marshy creek, before it comes to another small, shallow lake. From there you lift over two beaver dams on a wide channel, and then enter William Lake.
A couple of the small islands in the western end of the lake have campsites, and we ate lunch on one of these where a well-built fireplace stood. I suspect most paddlers come to William Lake via Brent Lake to the south, an easy and direct route. The campsites seemed to get regular use, but were clean and not pounded to death. This part of Quetico is big pike country.