Poohbah Dreams: 13 Days in Quetico
After picking up our permit we headed out across Inlet and Bayley Bays of Basswood Lake under mostly sunny skies and light winds. Before long we were at the North Portage to Sunday Lake, arriving with another group just ahead of us. We were packed for single portaging, with me carrying canoe, pack, and rod-case, and Everett carrying a somewhat heavier pack and our paddles. We passed the other group at the Sunday end of the 640 meter-long portage, and then headed across the tea-colored water of Sunday Lake toward the Meadows Portages a few miles to the NE.
We portaged 970m on a boulder-strewn trail with a couple of moderate hills, and arrived at the clear waters of Meadows Lake, where we could see some small, largemouth bass swimming in the shallows. A short time later, we were portaging again on the rocky, 560m trail to Agnes Lake. Gotta watch the footing there—especially carrying a heavy load!
After a short paddle we arrived at Louisa Falls, tied up the canoe along the lakeshore, and then soaked and washed off the sweat and grime of portaging in the “Bathtub”, an eight-foot-deep pool mid-way down the falls. Wilson was a bit skittish around the falls due to the noise, and was glad when we hit the paddles again.
By early evening we were camped in Agnes Narrows on a small point sticking out from a long, southward extending point, with a massive pine-covered ridge of granite forming its spine. Certainly, travelers have used this site for many centuries.
I set up the tent and cooked supper, while Everett collected blueberries and checked out the great view from the ridge behind camp. It was then that I noticed I had forgotten to bring my fire grate—a bit of an inconvenience when you usually cook on a wood fire, as we do. Around sunset after bear-proofing our food, we retired to the tent for the night as the mosquitoes were emerging from their daytime hideouts. The evening was very warm, and the forecast dry, so we kept the fly off the tent.[paragraph break]
July 10, Day 2: I was awakened before dawn by a quick growl from Wilson and the sound of paddles on the water, as a group of paddlers in two or three canoes was heading north past our camp. Talk about early risers! When the sun rose we got up, built a fire to heat water for coffee and oatmeal, and broke camp. I rigged up our fishing rods and set up the depth-finder for the paddle up Agnes, as we had no portages planned for the day.
While paddling north I caught and released a small lake trout just before the lake opened up beyond the narrows while trolling a wally-diver. Mid-channel depths in the narrows ranged from less than 30 feet in a couple of locations to over 100 feet.
Heading out onto the open waters of Agnes Lake, north of the narrows under blue skies and light winds, we enjoyed some great vistas of islands and shorelines many miles away. We also scoped water as deep as 200 feet. Not far from the Agnes-Silence portage we viewed the only petroglyph site in the park, a rarity on the Canadian Shield, where the vast majority of Native rock art is in the form of pictographs. My interpretation of these petroglyphs is that they represent woodland caribou, but they could represent other mid to large, four-legged mammals.
Nearly two miles to the NNE we viewed a set of nice pictographs on an island. These were of two canoes, one with two very simply drawn paddlers; the other with more detailed paddlers. There were also traces of much older images. Continuing north, east of the major islands, we crossed more deep water (up to 187 feet), passed through a channel into the last bay before the East Channel of the Agnes River exits the lake, and then walked the portage into Dack Lake. The trail was little-used, somewhat brushy, and passed by some enormous white pines and the biggest black ash I’ve ever seen. There were also fresh moose tracks, an increasing rarity.
Back on Agnes we scouted out some water in the north part of the lake and jigged up and released four nice lake trout. Later, after lunch and a swim, we set up camp on a small, very seldom-used site, and then went out fishing, where Everett caught a trout to keep for supper.
11 July, Day 3: Up to sunny skies, we broke camp, ate breakfast, and were soon on the water, heading for Kawnipi. After paddling down the scenic channel to the NE outlet, we portaged 400m to Bird Lake where the water stays clear due to the input from Agnes. Some large smallmouth bass were swimming near the end of the portage.
The entire eastern shore of Bird Lake is wooded with a thick forest of jack pine growing in the aftermath of a big fire in 1995. We passed through this new forest while portaging 360m to Anubis Lake, much of which was also burned over. From Anubis we portaged 180m to a pond, thence 90m to McVicar Bay of Kawnipi Lake. McVicar Bay is a scenic piece of water with many islands, points, small bays, and a mix of regenerating jack pine forest and older woodlands. This looked like fantastic water for big pike, walleyes, and smallmouth bass.
We headed up to the entrance to Kawa Bay on an increasing SW wind. On the cliffs along the west side of the entrance is supposed to be a pictograph site. We didn’t find the images, despite some very suitable rock conditions. This was the third time I’ve failed to locate pictographs here since I passed through here as a teenager in 1979.
We stopped for lunch and a swim at a campsite less than a mile west of Kawa Bay where a bunch of trees were recently blown down in a storm. We would find blow-downs from this late-June storm in many locations over the next week. While entering Kawnipi I put on my mask and snorkel to check out the bottom. Kawnipi is a dark lake, and I’m always leery about swimming in water with such low visibility, because you never know what’s down there that might injure you.
We headed west and NW down Kawnipi and up through the steep, rock-bound channels west of Rose and Kasie Islands, until we found a place to camp on a small island wooded with centuries-old white pines. The surrounding forest was much younger, and those old sentinels must have seen many fires bypass them. The campsite was small, very seldom used, and buggy. The ankle-biters would not leave Wilson alone, and unlike the horseflies, he could not snap them out of the air and chomp them down. It was a hot evening, but we built a fire to cook on and help keep the flies and mosquitoes down. After another careful dip in the lake to wash of the day’s sweat and grime, we retired to the fly-less tent at sunset, as clouds of mosquitoes emerged from the bush.
12 July, Day 4: The mosquitoes were still thick when we awoke this morning, and they motivated us to pack up even faster than usual. After hot cereal and coffee, we loaded the canoe and were on the water heading for the portage to Montgomery Lake a short distance away. The portage was a brushy, fairly easy, 470m carry that ended on calm, stained water under old white pines. A beautiful lake, there were islands, shallow areas carpeted with lily pads, and scenic bedrock shorelines—all under a clear, blue sky. After viewing a single pictograph on an island cliff we paddled westward toward the Shelly Lake portage, an easy carry of about 150m, which ends on a slab of bedrock.
A short time later we portaged 340m on a decent trail to a small lake connected by stream channel about three-quarters of a mile long to Alice Lake. Along this stream we had to portage about 20m on the bouldery streambed to bypass an unnavigable spot, and just before entering Alice Lake, pulled over a beaver dam.
We paddled to the west end of Alice Lake and then portaged an easy 180m to the NE part of Chatterton Lake. We could hear the roar of Chatterton Falls at the lake’s outlet to the west. The eastern shore had burned in recent years, and I suspect that this might have been from the same fire that burned parts of Shelly Lake.
A steady wind was blowing from the SW, and we paddled against this all the way down to the south end of the lake where we portaged an easy 80m to McDougall Lake. We were amazed at not seeing anyone on Chatterton, as this can be a very busy part of Quetico; two summers earlier there were at least four groups camped on nearby Keats Lake.
We arrived at one of our favorite campsites in the early afternoon, ate lunch, and swam in the clear waters. The surface water temperature was in the upper 70s, and swimming and snorkeling were luxurious. The day was a hot one—probably in the upper 80s. A fairly strong south wind was now blowing.
Later in the afternoon we went out fishing in search of lake trout. I caught and released two nice ones of four and six pounds after a fair amount of searching. My impression with this lake, having fished and scoped its depths on a couple of occasions, is that the laker population is fairly small. Catch and release is probably the best choice here. The maximum depth I have found is 124 feet, but at least two-thirds of the lake is not deep enough for trout.
Back in camp we prepared supper, swam, hung the food, and at sunset—hit the sack as the skeeters emerged. For the fourth night in a row we slept without the rain fly under just the nylon bug screen, which comprises the inner roof of the tent. Another warm night, I don’t think I entered my sleeping bag until long after midnight.
13 July, Day 5: Awoke to sunny skies and a wind increasing from the south and southwest. I jumped in the lake as soon as I got up, as the day was already warm. After breakfast we packed up and were soon paddling south to the 580m portage leading to the small, unnamed lake next to Eag Lake. The portage starts on floating bog, but log corduroy has been placed in the wet segment leading to higher ground. It then climbs and descends three midsized hills before ending at the dark-watered, unnamed lake. The insect life was invigorated by our arrival, so we didn’t linger.
Next, we portaged about 10m to Eag Lake, and then veered westward toward Camel Lake, portaging twice (80m and 160m) before arriving there. I hadn’t been to Camel since guiding a 33-day canoe trip through there in 1984, and it was good to be back on that scenic lake.
Two very short portages bypass very shallow rapids on the small stream draining toward Nan Lake. Some people drag through there, especially if they have aluminum or Royalex boats. Ain’t gonna happen with the Kevlar, though.
On Nan we saw a group of paddlers from Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, heading for Camel Lake, who identified us as Minnesotans by seeing Everett’s Minnesota Twins cap. We then portaged over two more small rapids in quick succession at the lake’s outlet, and soon saw two more groups of young adults from some sort of outdoor program in Indiana. We were amazed to see three groups in this fairly remote part of the park, having not seen anyone since Kawnipi two days earlier.
The last portage of the day covered 460 meters, was easy, and ended in a sand-lined segment of the stream just above Fred Lake. We had a quick swim and filled the water bottle on Fred, before continuing on through a narrows leading to Heron Bay, Sturgeon Lake. A MASSIVE boulder lies on a tiny island at the Heron Bay end of the channel, and is visible all the way across the large bay. I’m certain that such an object would have been of significance to Native People’s of the area, but have no evidence to prove it.
We stopped for lunch on a well-used campsite located on a granite point at the north end of the channel connecting Heron Bay with Sturgeon Lake proper. Great views. Afterwards, we rounded the corner near Scripture Island and paddled SW into a steady, but manageable wind. There was a noticeable current in a channel between the mainland and a large, linear island a mile SSW of Scripture Island.
Sometime later we arrived at the Sand Point, a well-known campsite amid large red pines that has been used by travelers for countless centuries, and where many artifacts have been found. We swam off the sand beach, as thunderstorms were building and an increasing wind blew from the SW. Before long, we were hunkered down with Wilson at the interior of the point, as a thunderstorm pelted us. When the rain stopped a wind of what I guessed to be around 35 to 40 mph blew up large whitecaps and swells on the lake, making it impossible for us to get on the water. Fortunately, the wind did taper down enough for us to proceed, but progress was slow and the waves still pretty big.
Of all the lakes in the Quetico-Superior, when it comes to wind I think of Sturgeon. The prevailing winds in the summer are often from the SW, and that about matches the alignment of this lake. Most of my memories of this lake since I first paddled here as a teenager are of bucking a headwind.[paragraph break] The wind continued to mellow out, and by early evening we were camped on a small island less than a mile from the Maligne Rapids where the Maligne River exits the lake. That area gets a lot of use, and it wasn’t hard to find human waste on our island, so we camped on a small, secondary site that most folks probably aren’t aware of. We cooked on the stove, but built a small fire to burn some garbage we found on the site and smoke out some insects.
14 July, Day 6: A shower or two passed through overnight, but by morning the sun was out and a light wind was blowing from the west. A couple of groups passed by our camp as we were packing up, and we soon caught up with them at the first portage around the outlet rapids.
The first portage as one heads downstream from Sturgeon Lake is river-right, flat, heavily used, and about 250m long. It starts a good distance from the lip of the rapids, which is a good thing, as there can be a lot of current here when the water is high. At the terminus we met some young men training to be councilors at a camp north of Toronto. They were traveling pretty heavy, carrying big two-burner Coleman stoves, etc. We also met another group of middle-aged men who had been fishing on Sturgeon for five days, and were head back to Lac La Croix for their tow.
The second rapids is bypassed by another easy portage of around 300m, also river-right. This portage can be shortened or lengthened, based on water level and the comfort level of paddlers. After running an easy, class 2 rapids, the third portage (river right) bypasses another set of raps and has a cool campsite at its upstream end, perched on bedrock. It’s about 200m long.
It’s hard to travel through these portages and not think of the long history of the area, and the countless Natives, voyageurs, settlers, loggers, and recreational paddlers who have portaged here. Some of the old pines along here are old enough to have witnessed the first Europeans through the area.
One final, easy rapids was paddled before we were on flat water with a slow current. This took us to Tanner Lake. Just as we entered the lake we veered east into a weedy channel where Poohbah Creek enters. The water was getting noticeably clearer as we approached a little rapids bringing in clear water from Poohbah Lake upstream. We portaged about 300m on the left (r.r.) and came out onto a large open, boggy area that had once been flooded by a logging dam, the remains of which lay at the end of the portage.
The wide channel of Poohbah Creek meanders through the open area, and during drought years this would likely be a torturous way to get to Poohbah Lake, as muck would replace water. Here, we passed a couple of middle-aged men, heavily loaded, on their way out.
At the east end of the navigable channel we portaged perhaps 300m, paddled a very short distance, portaged another 300m, paddled a narrow channel for several hundred meters, and then did a final portage on the left (r.r.) of maybe 100m around the small outlet rapids of Poohbah Lake. I have never seen a map that depicts Poohbah Creek accurately—not even the Chrismar park map.
Once on Poohbah Lake we dragged across one final shoal between the outlet bay and the long, east- west channel leading to the main body of the lake. We both wondered just how much of this lake had been logged over, and if it was really worth the cost and effort to build several logging dams, flumes, etc., along Poohbah Creek to float those logs out.
Once on the main part of the lake I pulled the depthfinder out of my pack and set it up. Almost immediately, we could see that Poohbah is a deep lake, and crossing eastward toward a group of island we measured depths to 180 feet. We checked the islands for a decent place to camp, but the ones we checked had either campsite furniture, and recently chainsaw-cut vegetation, or poor swimming opportunities. The fact that the Lac La Croix Band has right to fly anglers into this lake has brought in some people for whom the “Leave No Trace” ethic is not a good fit.
We ended up camping on a smaller island with deep water right offshore, no abuse, and stunning views. It was also the kind of place where you could be killed by lightning, so we set up the tent in a lower, less exposed location near the center of the island, and set up the rain fly in the higher, more exposed area with the great view on the point. We ate lunch and had a great swim and snorkel--and sure enough--by mid-afternoon thunderstorms were rolling in from the west.
We hunkered down in the forest at the center of the island, well away from the tall pines of the island, and rode out the storm. There wasn’t a lot of rain, but the cloud-to-ground lightning was impressive. As the tail end of the thunderhead passed over us we watched a streak of lighting flash from high on the side of the storm, pass over our island at a 45 degree angle, and strike the shoreline on the south shore of the lake. A tremendous, rolling crash of thunder followed. From what I’ve experienced at home and in the canoe country, the tail end of the storm is the most dangerous when it comes to lightning. Just because the rain has ended doesn’t mean the storm has…
Everett caught some nice smallmouth in the 2 to 2 ½-pound range while casting from shore, and I caught an 18-inch walleye when we fished briefly near our island and scoped the depths.[paragraph break]
15 July, Day 7: Having paddled all the way to Poohbah our plan was to stay an extra day to fish and explore. The morning was clear, with the faint smell of distant forest fires in the air. We smelled this on several other days during this trip.
After breakfast we loaded the dog, camera, depthfinder, and fishing gear into the canoe and headed out to explore. The lake was deep all the way our island and its associated reefs, with depths quickly dropping to 165 feet off one side. We headed to a set of nearby islands and fished a couple of reefs without success—probably because they were a bit too shallow to fish during bright sunshine—and then found a deeper reef where we caught and released numerous 18 to 22-inch walleyes. Lots of fun.
Back in camp we ate lunch and hung out a bit before exploring in another direction. We found a fantastic reef emerging from deep water (up to 224 feet) where the big smallmouth and good-sized walleyes were really stacked up. The high overcast that moved in probably helped the fishing too. Everett caught smallmouth bass up to four pounds, and we both caught numerous walleyes in the 20 to 22-inch range on everything from the 2-oz white buck-tail jigs I usually use for trout to 3/8 oz jig/twister-tail combos. We kept one walleye to eat with supper.
I’ve never had much interest in walleye fishing, because most walleyes are just too small to be exciting to catch, unlike the lake trout I spend at least 90 percent of my fishing time pursuing. These walleyes were exciting, though, as they ripped out the drag and fought to stay on the bottom. These were real predators. No doubt, many BWCA lakes once had fisheries like this, but have since maintained fish sizes and numbers well below their potential due to excessive harvest.
The evening was calm, overcast, quiet, and a bit surreal. There was once an Indian village on Poohbah, as there was on Kawnipi. I don’t know where it was located, but this was the home of many people over many generations, and the bones of those people must lie on many points and islands. What stories could this place tell? Not being prone to superstition, I still find myself with the nagging feeling that to tread here demands respect and humility. I comply.
Wilson was being bugged by ankle-biters, and not being able to nap much during the day as all dogs do, I put him in the tent, where he gladly fell asleep. I went into the lake for an evening dip, as the evening was again warm, and Everett fished for a while until the fading light and waxing mosquitoes forced us into the tent.