Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

A Month in Quetico-October 2011

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 10/03/2011
Entry & Exit Point: Quetico
Number of Days: 27
Group Size: 3
Part 2 of 3
Part Two: Atikokan,ON to Ely,MN 10/12/11 Day Ten and Eleven This morning started out beautifully, with a simultaneous sunrise and moonset. The morning quickly deteriorated into gray skies and drizzle. We packed up camp and headed for Atikokan. It took us a little over an hour to reach the landing at Nym Lake. We stashed the canoe and walked through an empty parking lot down to the Trans Canadian Highway, a mile to the north. It only took ten minutes of standing on the highway before we were picked up by two residents of Nym Lake. After watching the woods move by at the pace set by our arms for a week, seeing it whiz by at 60 mph was dizzying. We had decided the prospects of showers and a bed was too good to pass up, so we broke down and rented a hotel room for the night. After cleaning up we took off for town, quenching our thirst for beer and poutine deluxe at “The Outdoorsman”. Groceries and a few odd supplies were picked up for a reasonable sum. We spent most of the afternoon repacking food and trying to get a better idea of what the next week’s weather would bring. We went out for pizza and drinks at “The Union Pub”. The next morning brought a steady rain, and a hangover. Aspirin and orange juice cured the hangover; there was nothing we could do about the rain. Reluctantly we packed up and walked out of town in the rain. We had almost made our way back to the highway when we were picked up by the Ontario Provincial Police. As we rode back to Nym Lake in the back of a police cruiser under respectable terms the rain picked up. After thanking the officers for the kindly lift we found the canoe where we left it and pushed back into the wilderness under steely skies. Fortunately the rain slowed enough for us to set up camp on the same spot we had spent the night two days prior. The tent and both of our rain flies made for a nice gypsie camp. Little did we know at the time we would be spending the next two days wind and rain bound there. Apparently Batchewaung wasn’t done with us yet.

10/14/11 Day Twelve We are still stuck in camp today. It has been raining for 48 consecutive hours, and now the wind has picked up, which has us truly marooned. We have passed the time reading, drinking tea, and stoking a smoky fire. This is the weather we expected at some point in October. It would be impossible to travel a month within Quetico and not experience gales from the northwest, the preludes to winter. Now that it is here were all getting a little restless. As we sit out this massive, slow moving low pressure system we are depleting rations and seemingly squandering the precious time we had set aside for a trip down the Darky River. Alas, so it is in the northern wilds of Quetico in October, wind bound.

10/15/11 Day Thirteen Progress was made today, but not much. We finally broke the stranglehold Batchewaung had on us by striking off into 25-35 mph winds from the northwest. Waking up this morning after listening to the winds blow all night, we knew we had to make a move. With the rain tapering it seemed it was now or never, with a forecast predicting persisting winds throughout the week. The narrow bit of water we paddled back to Batchewaung Bay made no hint to the monstrous waves we would come to know when we turned west into the teeth of the wind. It was tough paddling, as we dug our paddles into the churning waters, and inched closer to the McAlpine Portage. The so called “Garden Walk” is properly named as it offered little challenge to our well rested portage legs. Upon reaching McAlpine we realized we could hug the north shore for a trace of protection. We still paddled into a headwind, but fortunately the trees offered some shelter from the constant gusts. A short portage around a logging dam, now mostly a beaver dam, brought us to McAlpine Creek. The creek would be the only moderately calm waters we would paddle all week. As we rounded the last bend of the creek the long east to west giant Kasakokwog came into view. We were at the mercy of the lake. Kasakokwog’s six mile length allowed the waves to build into ocean sized rollers. There were few options at that point. We had to move forward. Somehow the strength was mustered and we paddled into the largest waves I’ve ever seen from the back of a canoe. We were aiming for a point about halfway down the lake, but we soon started taking on water as our bow crashed into four foot walls of water, and quickly charged for shore. Luckily there was a site just around the point we had stopped at, and easily decided to portage through the woods and stop for the day. After setting up camp, we looked out at the lake and sat in wonder at how we managed to gain even one mile considering the conditions. Massive four foot rollers would lumber by our camp all afternoon and evening.

  10/16/11 Day Fourteen The wind blew all night. We awoke this morning to even heavier winds out of the WNW. Kasakokwog was becoming our nemesis. We had just spent two days wind bound and had no intentions of spending another entire day in camp. The packs and boats we portaged through the woods the back side of our point where we hoped to find a little protection from the gusts. Little protection was found. Today’s two mile paddle may have been the most challenging of my life. Yesterday’s waves seemed to be of a more mature type, long sets of rollers with valleys that our boats fit into nicely, very imposing indeed, but not slowing us very much. The waves today were erratic and the winds interminable. Every ounce of strength I had was put into every paddle stroke. We hid behind an island for a break before striking back out, quickly we found ourselves in terrible conditions. The water at this point was being affected by wind from two directions. Rollers from the west met up with choppy whitecaps blowing in from a bay to the north resulting in roiling chaos. Typically strong headwinds from one direction can be handled with pure grit and determination. These were waters that took every ounce of strength physically and mentally. The proper line our boat needed to take towards shore was changing constantly. If not for the week prior spent getting used to the undulations of our MNII, the irregular waters we paddled that morning would have surly dumped us. We eventually horsed our way to the leeward side of the island creating the mess. The paddle from there was still a challenge, but not in a life threating way. Again we had been bested by Kasakokwog, and set up camp a scant three miles west of the previous night’s spot. Beyond the point to our west that protects us from the gales is two miles of big, open water. There is no real possibility of us leaving under the current conditions. It has been consistently gusting up to 40mph for the last three days, even throughout the night. We really need the winds to calm, as we are now 4 days behind schedule.  As we sit out the rain, and now snow I feel we are paying dividends for the spectacular weather we basked in during the first let north. Never have I seen the wind blow this hard, for this long. Our route has us moving through Quetico Lake and Beaverhouse before entering the Quetico River. If we can’t make our way across a two mile stretch of water, something needs to change if we expect to move across those monstrous bodies of water.

10/17/11 Day Fifteen Finally, we made respectable progress today. The decision to move off of Kasakokwog was not made easily considering the waves still crashing into the point to our west. It was something that had to be done. We packed up in the rain knowing when we rounded the guardian point to our west, there would be no protection for two miles. Immediately upon skirting the point we met a barrage of wind. We fought for the north shore, and calmer waters, with everything we had. As we gained access to the north shore it was pretty easy paddling. It felt great to be making progress while exerting little energy. Most of the paddle to our portage was accomplished in surprising ease. The 76 rod portage was a fine one, as it meandered through a lush cedar grove. The low water made for slow progress down the creek. We walked/lined the boats most of its length. Sections of water too shallow to paddle, but mud too deep to stand in made for vulgar remarks regarding the creek. The open waters of Quetico Lake presented more head winds. It didn’t last as we rounded a point and pointed our bows to the southwest. Along the easiest paddle in days, we passed pictographs and the most interesting shoreline seen yet. One last section needed to be crossed before we gained final protection from the northwest gales. A ½ mile of water lay between us and our turn to the south, and Eden Island. In the past days we had paddled into larger waves, but the consistent gusts on this stretch were the worst yet. There was no chance for a break in those conditions. We made our way south along the east shore of Eden Island before deciding the rain and wind had taken its toll on our vigor, and found a site. It turned out to be a nice beach site actually. It seems strange to be camping on a beach in such un-beach conditions. Tomorrow will bring us to the last great challenge before reaching the westernmost point of the trip, the giant known as Beaverhouse. Rations are starting to become a concern. We need to make it to Ely within the week. Also, we are out of booze.

10/18/11 Day Sixteen We paddled in the snow today, definitely a first for me. Making our way off of Eden Island early we made it to the portage into Beaverhouse in under an hour. The portage out of Quetico Lake seemed ancient, as it was littered with old water heaters and frames from what must have been Model-T’s. Beaverhouse is an enormous lake. We were relieved to receive little in the way of wind. Light breezes out of the northwest made for easy, albeit frigid paddling. It felt good to make serious progress again, as the last week saw us travel as much as we did just today. Lunch at the mouth of the Quetico River was quick and cold. Our “Indian Summer” seems so far away now. It is definitely fall.  Anytime we stop moving the cold seeps in swiftly and saps our energy. A recurring question at lunch seems to be “What the !@#$% are we doing out here?”. The first set of rapids was run by both boats before having to portage around two unshootable sets. The portages along the Quetico seem very overgrown compared to most. Most of the paddle down the river was beautiful with numerous waterfowl sightings, including Cygnus Buccinator(Swans). The final portage out of the river around WaWa Island put us into a shallow, beaver ridden creek. We had grown weary and wary of any creek at this point. Most of them were low, or choked with the work of beavers. This creek would be no different; in fact it would be the worst yet. The water soon turned into a trickle, and then to mud flats. This resulted in us portaging almost a mile along the shore to the Namakan River. It had been one of our most challenging days and we all yearned for a roaring fire, hot food, and a dry place to lay our heads. The first site we stopped at, which we had seen on the map, was abysmal. No tent spot and the cold wind moved through it unimpeded. We continued on, cold and tired, to an island site about a mile up river. Temperatures will dip into the 20’s tonight. It’s remarkable we were swimming earlier in the trip. Once warmed up by the fire at night, it is a lot easier to say I’m glad fall is back. We traveled 17 miles today for the first time since being blown up the Kahshahpiwi Chain over a week ago. 

10/19/11 Day Seventeen Back in America! Weve made it back onto big water today. After a 12 mile paddle down the Namakan River we came out onto the colossal Lac La Croix. We saw our first people today in over a week, a group of MNR researchers studying sturgeon in the river. The morning started cool and cloudy. By the time we hit the water the sun was making cameo appearances through gaps in the clouds. Our last two weeks has brought us through some of the most pristine waterways in the world. Today’s paddle would be quite the opposite. At the mouth of the Namakan River there is an Indian Reservation, and they have a serious issue with controlling their trash. For the past few days we have been envisioning Ivy Falls as a beautiful wilderness waterfall, which it could have been, if not for the multiple junker boats and abandoned outboard motors strewn about on shore. Junk food wrappers and a whole lot of seemingly freshly drank Pepsi cans littered the river and portages. The portage around Snake Falls may have been worse. More boats in disrepair, gas cans, and outboard motors. At one point we came upon an actual pile of garbage. It made for a disgusting scene, and made us wonder, are they even trying? Following the trail of Pepsi cans we came out of the woods above Snake Falls and hurriedly paddled for respite from the mess. We came out onto big beautiful La Croix in time to watch the sun hitting a myriad of distant islands, truly a sight for sore eyes. It was a calm evening and the light on the islands gave us a good sense of depth and size to the beast. We stopped at the island we would eventually camp on, making it our first time back on American soil in 17 days. It seems we are in for another cold night. Tomorrow is forecast to be clear for the first time in a week, with light winds, which will make crossing big water much safer.

10/20/11 Day Eighteen It was a bright cold day today. We paddled 16 miles through a puzzle of islands along the length of Lac La Croix, and a bit of Iron Lake. Last night the wind picked up and blew from the north until morning. We assumed, lying in the tent, that today’s paddle would be rough, but by the time we launched winds had mostly subsided. We paddled in t-shirts (for the first time in over a week) in brisk conditions under partly cloudy skies. The sun was very warm, making the paddle around the south of Coleman Island bearable. The passage through “Fish Stake Narrows” resulted in in zero fish taken. Along the Canadian side of Lac La Croix we found a large group of pictographs on a 60 foot rock wall. Dozens of hand prints made for a very thought provoking afternoon. We had lunch atop “Warrior Hill”. The climb was quick, albeit steep, considering it was one massive rock. What a view. Low water extended our portage around Bottle Rapids. This was quickly becoming a habit along our route along the border. We powered our way through the narrows north of Four Island west of Rebecca Falls, our destination. The campsite on the island had had our attention for weeks, as we poured over maps. It was even better in person, as they always are. It sits high above McAree Lake with falls on both sides. After thoroughly exploring our options we camped on the lower side of the island, just above McAree. Adam landed a nice 28” Lake Trout soon after setting up camp. To top off an almost perfect day we were treated to a modest display of Aurora Borealis. Decent bands of light were seen moving across the opposite shore from east to west. Most of the light was faint, but a few good bands moved by over the course of an hour. It was the best day of travel since pre-Atikokan days. During the last week one wonders if bearing the dreadful conditions is worth it. Is a constant onslaught of wind and rain really why I came out here? Days like today make it worth persevering. Days like today are why we paddle into head winds for days on end. Days like today are why we wait in camp for a break from the rain. I do love the edge October has on it though; it makes the good days stand out. They almost seem too good to be true, too perfect. I think after spending a lengthy amount of time outside you start noticing different sorts of dimensions within a trip. It does not seem like something one can experience on shorter trips. It is going to be hard to let this go.

10/23/11 Day Nineteen-Twenty One The past few days have offered little in the way of journal entries. I will make an attempt to recall most pertinent happenings. Upon leaving our magnificent site next to Rebecca Falls we made a short paddle under clear skies to Curtain Falls. The rest of our day would be spent paddling, so we took some extra time to fish and take pictures of the area. It was a long day in the boats as we made our way through the countless islands and bays of Crooked Lake. After a late lunch we pushed hard for the site at “Table Rock” on Wednesday Bay. It’s nice to know you’ve got something left in the tank after paddling 16 miles. The site at table rock had clearly been used for hundreds of years. It truly was a natural wilderness campsite. As for the rock itself, it seems better left to the imagination than to try and describe it. The next morning started gray and calm. Originally the plan had been to set up on Basswood Lake in order to make landfall in Ely on Monday. Being it was Saturday we needed to be mindful of the fact we could not purchase alcohol on Sunday. Within minutes after starting the paddle we decided to push for Mile Island on Fall Island and get into Ely that night. It was a tall order, with 22 miles and 5 portages between us and Fall Lake. We would need to single portage to have any chance of making it to Zup’s before 7pm. We paddled hard and stopped for lunch about 10 miles out, with 4 hours before we would be denied access to groceries. We had a goal. The five miles down Pipestone Bay was taken care of in workman like fashion. We carried packs and canoes past Newton Falls at 430, and had attained a site on Mile Island by 530. It would be home for the next two days. After reorganizing packs we paddled over to the campground and started walking towards the Fernberg Trail. Shortly before reaching the Fernberg we were picked up by an acquaintance of Paige’s. We made it to Zup’s with 45 minutes to spare. Dinner at the Ely Steakhouse was huge. We each had a pitcher of beer and left fat and happy. A stop at Mikes Liquor was had before attaining another ride back out to Fall Lake Campground. After arriving back at Fall Lake we found a contingent of college students with liquor. We spent an hour or so conversing, drinking their liquor and have a good time all around. After narrowly avoiding rocks and shoreline we navigated the MNII back to our camp in the dark. It had been a long hard day. I felt as strong as a mountain, but drunk as a skunk. The next morning I awoke fuzzy and sore. We were in no shape to be paddling. The decision to head back into Ely for a rest day was not hard, as we managed to forget some crucial items at Zups, mainly toilet paper. After getting another ride back into town we had coffee at The Front Porch, and breakfast at Brittons, before settling in for an afternoon of watching football at the Steakhouse. Tomorrow will bring a return to our routine of paddling and portaging. We had a great time in Ely but are looking forward to pressing on in our journey and getting back on the trail.