Quetico - 17 Day Solo (Part 1 of 2)
This past winter was excruciatingly long. But summer has finally arrived and it's great to be alive! I planned a fairly rigorous 3-week solo adventure, looping from Prairie Portage through Shan Walshe, up the Kahshahpiwi chain to and Baird, west on the Cutty Creek to Camel followed by a bushwhack into Hoare. After a couple days of ultimate solitude and trout fishing, I’d bushwhack back to Camel and then turn south to Delahey and the famous Olive Jar which would begin a more relaxed second half trip pace that would take me back to Prairie Portage.
I decided to first complete a 6-day solo up to Marj starting July 1 to test out some new gear and see how my surgically repaired knee would hold up. The November surgery removed a painful bone spur under the kneecap and numerous “floaters” of cartilage. Afterwards, the doc said the surgery went well, but most the cartilage in the knee was pretty much gone. No more high impact activities like jogging and running stadium stairs. I spent a couple months wearing a brace and strengthening the muscles and tendons above and below the knee. I wondered how the knee would do on portage trails with 80+ pounds of packs and canoe.
The 6-day trip went poorly, the knee swelling up on Day 1 as I made my way toward Sarah Lake. Never made it to Marj, and even after laying over on McIntyre on Day 4, the knee never recovered. I exited Quetico frustrated, disheartened and physically hurting. As I drove the 4+ hours to Eagan to rest and visit my sister and her husband for a couple nights, I tried to think of alternatives to the 3-week solo. With the knee throbbing on the drive down I-35, I wasn't sure what I should, or could, do.
Still determined to make something of my longer solo, I cut it down to 17 days, with ample layover days to rest the knee. This revised trip would be about lounging, exploring, fishing and enjoying the sight and sounds of the great Northland, bad knee and all. I’d head to Kahshahpiwi and then turn west into Marj, up to Suzanette, and back down to Prairie Portage. I pared down the food pack and left behind the McKenzie maps and other info for the northern route to Camel and Hoare. They'd have to wait for another year. As I finished loading my gear into the car, the last thing I did was grab my knee brace and put it on top of the pack. Prior to leaving Ohio, I had tossed it in the trunk (in the back of my mind, I suspected my knee would have problems). As it happened, $20 brace from Walmart became the single-most important piece of gear during my 17-day solo.
Day 1. Prairie Portage to Shan Walshe via Shade
Total Miles: 14.2 12 Portages (2880 yards)
My adventure begins. It's almost 5:30 as I wind my way up Highway 169 into Ely. The morning mists are slowly dissipating as the sun begins its climb above the treeline. It looks to be another calm, sunny morning in canoe country. I just love driving into Ely at sunrise.
First stop. Britton’s for a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage, wheat toast and orange juice. There's a group of 6 guys getting ready to eat and a couple of younger men at the adjacent table. I eat rather quickly, then hop in the car and call my wife. The last thing I tell Jen is to watch the SPOT on Day 3 or 4. I should be on Kahshahpiwi and heading west from there. If I head north, that’ll be your sign my knee must be feeling better for the run up to Camel. Last thing I tell her is “I love you” and I turn the phone off and begin the drive to LaTourell’s for my tow to Prairie Portage. I feel different. Not excited as I normally am for my solo trips. Anxious is more like it. All about the knee, which actually feels better today than it has since entering Quetico back on July 1.
My route for Day 1 is the same I had done with my son a couple years ago. I expected to stop at Shade or Grey, but with little wind and temps in the 70s, I pushed it a little further.
View 2011 Day 1 in a larger map
I park on the packed gravel in the front of LaTourell’s, unload the canoe and all my stuff (and there’s a lot of it) onto the dock and reach Prairie Portage at 7:30. I busily attach the yoke pad and lash the spare paddle, camp chair, fishing rods, net, butt pad, water jug and tow rope into the Northwind. It's all downhill now to the beach at Inlet Bay. I’m out of the Ranger station and on the water by 8:15. It’s a gloriously clear blue sky with just a hint of northwesterly wind. I slide onto the beach for the portage to Burke Lake in less than an hour and notice wet areas on the first part of the smooth trail. The creek to the left is nearly overflowing, some of its water trickling downhill and drying out before reaching Bayley Bay. A couple of horseflies buzz around me at the put-in on Burke and follow me back to Bayley Bay to help with the canoe. I really hate horseflies.
As I head north through North Bay and into the scenic creek leading to South portage, I pass 5 canoes heading the opposite way. I find the nice campsite on the NE side of South Lake open, so I tie up the canoe, grab my chair and food pack and sit down to a leisurely PBJ sandwich. One of the new food items this year is powdered peanut butter. Just mix the powder with water and voila! Instant JIF! As I munch away, three canoes with 6 guys come from the creek and across the lake. I wonder if those were the same guys from Britton's? I hear the clunks of other canoes at the portage leading into West Lake so I pack up to get moving along the S-chain highway. As I near the take-out from West Lake, I see 3 canoes at the mouth of the creek about 30 yards west of the landing. They appear to be confused as to where the portage is. As I unload the gear and hoist the canoe on my shoulders, the three canoes paddle up to the landing. I make the quick up and over portage, drop the canoe in the water and head back for the other packs. Two adults and four teenage boys. We talk for a minute or two and find they’re starting a 5-day trip up the S-Chain, east to Agnes, south to Louisa Falls and back to Prairie Portage. Their maps show a portage at the creek entrance, but I tell them this is the only one I've ever used. I give them a couple of fishing spots to try out and wish them well. They are the last paddlers I’ll see until Kahshahpiwi on Day 3.
I feel strong as I paddle across Shade to the portage leading to Grey. It’s sunny, mid-to-upper 70s, with a light westerly breeze. Looming ahead is the infamous 720 yard “Boggy Portage”, which I describe in 2 simple words: IT SUCKS! This would be my third trip over the portage, and it gets harder each time. Old age I guess. Not only was Boggy Portage tiring, but I also had horseflies and deerflies up the wazoo the entire time. I absolutely HATE horseflies!! I tell myself I will not take this portage again for several years. The only good thing about it was when it was over!
Many people I’ve talked with somehow take a wrong turn on this portage and end up back at the unnamed, and from there either head to Dell or back to Shade. So I decide to take some pictures this afternoon to help navigate this tricky area. The portage starts from the unnamed climbing rather steeply up some rocks and boulders. It continues uphill and begins to wind incessantly through a thick, overgrown trail. Easy enough with packs, but a pain in the butt with the canoe. Several times I had to struggle backing up the Northwind when I’d run the bow into the thick forest during sharp turns. After about 150 yards, the path levels and winds down a gradual slope until the forest opens to a grassy bog area. Stay to the western side of the bog. There’s several different “foot” paths on this western edge, some wetter than others. After about 50 yards, you’ll reach the NW edge of the bog where you either turn right (eastward) and cross the bog or turn left (westward) and head back into the forest.
I call this point the junction where I’ll drop my load and head back for the canoe.
Here's the wrong path to the left of the junction that leads back into the forest and returns to the unnamed lake. Looks inviting, doesn't it? Don't go this way.
From the junction looking eastward, you’ll see the huge amount of corduroy for about 50 yards that ends next to a 15 foot high cliff of rock where the portage trail hits hard ground and continues up and over to Grey.
You have to cross the bog to get to Grey. Instead of using all the corduroy, I start left of it and hop along the tufts of waist-high grass until I’m about 15 yards from the rock cliff. Then I maneuver back onto the corduroy and carefully step my way to dry land. Last year, my son lost his balance and went over his knee in the muck. Others I’ve heard have gone deeper. Here’s a photo from near the cliff wall looking back across the bog with the junction at the far treeline center-right.
It’s late afternoon as I enter Grey, a pretty little lake with numerous islands. I check out a campsite on the western side of the large island and it just doesn’t have any appeal. I decide to take the 580 yard carry into Yum Yum, but I have some trouble finding the take-out as there is no apparent path on the shoreline. The only possibility from the map appears to be a large sloping granite slab. I park the canoe and walk up the granite slope and sure enough, there is a portage path. You just can’t see it from the water. This portage goes up and up and up and then steeply down into Yum Yum. It will definitely get your heart racing. The two shorter portages from NE side of Grey into Yum Yum via Armin seem much easier in my mind. Once on Yum Yum, I check out the clifftop campsite, but the horseflies and deerflies are all over the place. So, despite my growing fatigue, I paddle up Yum Yum and take the final portage into Shan Walshe. If the island campsite is occupied, I’m not sure what I’ll do.
The campsite’s open and I thank my lucky stars. All that is left of the moose skull from a couple years ago is a few vertebrae. I take some time to sit and relax before setting up the tent and washing out my Abyss boots and socks. It’s a simple Mountain House chicken stew for dinner that really hits the spot. As the sun dips below the treeline, I secure the canoe, arrange the packs and gear under my poncho, and lay the SPOT out on the ledgerock to send the message that I’m ok after a long day of travel. I had planned on staying here on Days 2 and 3, so I’m already a day ahead of schedule. No need to do anything else tonight. My body is really tired and a little sore, including my knee. I hit the sleeping bag as the stars begin to shine. I wonder how I’ll feel in the morning as I drift into a hard sleep.
Day 2. Layover on Shan Walshe
I wake about 7:00 and lay there a bit, yawning and stretching, hearing the pop and crack of a couple bones and tendons. I actually feel pretty good, better than I thought I would. The knee doesn’t seem to ache at all. I stumble out of the tent and lazily boil some water for coffee to go with some Special K cereal and powdered milk. Then I eye the firepit. What a sickly sight! The previous occupants had stuffed rocks all over the pit area, probably trying to build a rock grate to hold the foil for their baked fish. Only they were too lazy to take the foil out with them when they left. Pigs! After cleaning up the mess and rearranging the stones to make a good reflecting firepit. I scrub the black soot from my hands and put up the tarp to provide some additional shade and protection from any possible rain. I simply love my 12X12 CCS tarp.
It’s late morning when I finally gather my fishing gear and hit the water. The wind has become quite brisk from the west, which makes the fishing on Shan and Yum Yum challenging. A couple hours yield only a few smallies and pike and no lake trout. I tie the canoe up on the shore near a burn area and grab several small seasoned pine logs to cut and split for an evening fire. I drift back to the island campsite and carry the logs up near a blown down jack pine on the edge of the campsite. Yesterday’s long haul from Prairie Portage has caught up with me so I crawl into the tent for a well-deserved nap. Not sure how long I slept, but I’m rudely awakened to the screeching of a raven and the chattering of a red squirrel arguing about who knows what.
The westerly wind is still blowing waves across the lake, so I go ahead and cut and split enough wood for a long evening fire. I hope the wind dies so I can bake a pizza or laker tonight. As the sun begins its late afternoon descent I head out to try for a trout again. The wind makes it difficult to control the canoe even while trolling, and after 30 minutes with no strikes I say heck with it and paddle up to the northern reaches of Shan Walshe for the first time. The eastern shoreline is still scarred from a massive fire that obliterated many of the large pines a few years ago. But many pines survived and the understory is finally starting to green up with a new forest. At the northern end, I head to the protected western shoreline where I land several nice smallmouth, the largest at 17.5 inches. By the time I return to the campsite, I’m tired of battling the wind which is still too strong to use the reflector oven. I instead boil up some hot and sour soup with veggies, melba crackers, pistachios, tootsie rolls and a vodka/gatorade. A few mosquitos buzz by every now and then, but not enough to ruin a relaxing dinner with a great evening campfire. I sleep really well tonight.
Day 3. Shan Walshe to Kahshahpiwi via Yum Yum.
Total Miles - 7.4; 2 Portages (1360 yards)
View 2011 Day 3 in a larger map
I wake up about 6:00 am to the screeching of the raven and the chattering of 2 red squirrels that seemed to be right above my tent. “You guys sound like my students!”, I yell out! It became quite cool during the night which caused me to fully zip my new Montbell ultralight down bag. I really like this bag, which is about half the size and weight of my previous synthetic bag. I’ve never slept well in mummy-style bags, but Montbell said this bag has a patented stretch system. It actually works as advertised, stretching when I roll from side to side, making it feel more like a regular bag. And, it’s toasty warm.
I actually thought about laying over here for another day, but as I roll out of the tent to start the morning coffee, I decide to head over to Kashahpiwi. As the coffee brews, I take down the tent and fire up the little Primus stove and quickly fry two fresh eggs with pre-cooked bacon. It’s a cool overcast morning that hints of possible showers. I’m hoping any rain will hold off until after the Yum Yum portage because I’ve heard the steep cliff wall is hard enough to scale up in dry conditions. Just before loading up the canoe, I take in the nice view to the north of Shan Walshe.
And next to the canoe is this pretty wild blue iris that’s just about finished blooming.
The portage back into Yum Yum is really cool. Large old cedars and pines shadow the entire portage along a creek, making it seem darker than it really is and primordial in feel. I notice wolf scat along this portage every time I come through here.
As I paddle down the length of Yum Yum into a light breeze, I’m amazed at the steep cliffs that line both sides of this narrow lake. The pines and cedars cling to the slopes and I’m always amazed how the roots of the trees can be strong enough to latch onto the cracks and crevices of the rock to keep the tree from crashing down the steep slopes.
It’s mid-morning when I reach the take-out in the far SW cove of Yum Yum. I first grab the heavy pack and small front portage pack to see how long it is to the base of the cliff wall. The path itself is fairly nice and begins a gradual ascent for a couple hundred yards. The narrow path becomes a shallow gorge about shin deep, created by the years of footsteps and water than compacted and eroded the soil. Then, the base of the cliff appears. I drop the small pack and pause a few moments to assess the rock face. Beginning with a few small steps, I realize the traction is quite good and simply walk up the rock face about 40 feet. The path then continues to rise and wind up and over several more large boulders veering to the right. I drop the heavy pack on top of one of the boulders and head back down to retrieve the canoe. I find going down the cliff face is more demanding than going up and I fear a slip will lead to me cartwheeling out of control down the rock face. But I make it down without incident. I retrieve the canoe and when I return to the base of the wall, I drop the canoe and take a picture (which doesn’t do justice to the steepness of this rock wall).
I grab the two smaller packs and leapfrog past the heavy pack and up to the crest of the portage, where it overlooks a meadow valley. Blueberries are beginning to ripen and I gorge on a couple handfuls. As I continue to leapfrog my gear, the path rises a bit more and then descends into a boggy area with several areas of mud and corduroy. At one point, I carry the canoe past the packs for a ways when all of a sudden, the path simply stops and I find I’m surrounded by numerous fallen birch trees. I stand dumbfounded with the canoe perched on my head. I don’t recall reading anything about a bushwhack through the bog? After a few more confusing seconds, I drop the canoe and head back towards the packs.
After backtracking about 30 feet, I notice the path has a sharp 120 degree fork to the left as you’re coming from Yum Yum. I completely missed it with the canoe on my head. From here, the trail rises for a bit more before mercifully beginning its very steep lengthy descent into Kahshahpiwi. When I finally get everything to Kahs, I’m pretty beat and thinking that was one long 1230 yards. Total time was about 3 hours, which included about 30 minutes resting and extracting the canoe from the dead end. I’ve heard people say the portage from McNeice into Kahshahpiwi seems longer and more difficult, but I beg to differ. The Yum Yum portage is the harder of the two, although the famous cliff wall seems a bit overrated. Then again, on a wet day, the Yum Yum portage would be a real monster.
Once back on the water, I take in the view of the SE bay of Kahshahpiwi and notice some blue sky trying to break into the overcast skies.
When I paddle into the main body of Kahshahpiwi, I unlash my fishing rods and start trolling the western shoreline into a freshening northerly breeze. How is it that I paddle SW into the wind on Yum Yum and then when I turn north on Kahshahpiwi I’m still paddling into the wind? Within 15 minutes, I land a couple of nice smallmouth, a walleye, and a northern pike. I continue northward and round a point which borders a small cove. I stay in the deeper water just outside the cove. The pole bends sharply, a nice strike! For a minute or two, I think it must be a walleye as it tries to stay deep. But as I get him near the surface, I realize it’s a fat 18-inch lake trout, a perfect size for dinner! I park the canoe and carve out two nice fillets and put them in a ziplock bag. Looking at the steep shoreline, I notice several small red pines blown down on the upslope. So I tie off the canoe and scramble up and down the slope collecting a few seasoned pine logs for cutting and splitting. Baked lake trout here we come!
Wow. Four different species in about 30 minutes on the same lure – a Rapala deep husky jerk, glass perch. As I begin trolling again, the north wind has increased noticeably, so I reel up and paddle hard to the mid-lake island. I rest a few minutes and then battle again to the next island that hoolds two decent campsites, one with small coves on the north and south side of the campsite. As near the leeward southern cove, I hear voices and a white tarp comes into view. I sit quietly and mull whether to continue on to the north or head to campsite on the other side of the island. “North”, I say to myself. I struggle into the wind for another 1/3 of a mile and ease my way into a protected cove where a rocky point juts out from the steep eastern shoreline. I chew some Slim Jims and peanut M&Ms and pull out the map. I see a campsite another 1/3 mile to the north. For some reason I thought earlier this was the one that was burned over, but realize that one is further north. As I pull back into the wind, I eye the area and it appears to have escaped the fire. When I get closer, I see a nice ledgerock landing almost totally out of the wind. I tie the canoe and walk up the steep slope for about 60 feet. WOW! I find a grand campsite, high above the water, with a great view to the south. The firepit area sits on a large, flat, s