Woodland Caribou 2013: Dunstan, Wanda, Royd
by Mad Birdman
The alarm on my phone was set for 4:45am, but truth be told, I was awake before it. I get geeked up before a trip, with all of the unknown ahead: would things be the way you imagine them all of those nights poring over maps and researching routes. It's curious when your body is so tired but your mind is wired.
Anyway, we hit the continental breakfast at the Super 8 and were at Viking Air outpost right before Harlan. The long days of June meant that the sun was already well up and we were glad to see calm winds and blue skies as we unloaded the truck. We got together for our annual pre-trip photo, which Harlan snapped for us.
Brian, Steve and Greg loaded Brian's canoe, and got in the yellow DeHaviland Beaver (piloted by Will), as Harlan and I watched the scene from the dock.
Harlan and I waited a bit more before Hugh showed up in his Cessna, which was to take me and our second canoe in to Dunstan. We had rented a boat from Harlan, and this one was a brand-new Souris River. I thought I would snap a quick shot of the bottom of this boat, so that its hull, now-pristine, could be immortalized in its scratch-free state.
Hugh and I loaded up and taxied out, and I was again thankful for the calm conditions, which meant a flight into Dunstan was possible after all. Dunstan is a long, skinny lake that lies north-south, so it is not flown into a lot. I knew this was true when Hugh (with all of his years of experience) mentioned that he had never flown in there.
It was a gorgeous, bluebird day, great for flying.
I love the feeling of looking down at God's country from the air, and it's great to recognize lakes with distinctive shapes and the feeling that you know exactly where you are at that moment. It just never gets old. I saw Dunstan's form in the distance, and we soon touched down in the northern basin, and Hugh taxied me to a spot dear the western creek inlet to unload. With two tandem boats, it was a bit odd to go 3 guys in one plane and 1 in another, especially so when the pilot doesn't let you off at the same spot as the others. In fact, I hadn't even seen where they were as we landed, but at least all of the lake lay south of me, so there was only one choice as far as which way to go.
I loaded the bit of gear that I had up in the bow, kneeled down ahead of the stern thwart, and paddled solo to find the guys. We had two-way radios, so they told me of their position in the northernmost island grouping. We rendezvoused soon, packed up the canoes, and got to a midlake island campsite (on the island shaped like the letter "Y") which looked like it would fit the bill just fine. We set up camp and decided to have "brunch" before getting serious about fishing. That is one great advantage of WCPP: if you only have a week like we do, you fly in and are on your lake of choice right away (weather permitting), without a day or two's worth of paddling in. Here we were, with camp set up and a hot meal in our bellies, ready to fish hard by 10:00am the first day.
A heavy, wet snowstorm had hit WCPP last October, followed by some strong winds, and Harlan had informed us of the damage we would see. It was not hard to see from the air, but on land you could appreciate it further. In every direction (and through the week), we saw trees snapped off at various heights.
Our camp featured some tiered rock plateaus, and we had southern exposure, which made the breeze on this warm day a welcome thing.
We loaded up to target the walleyes of Dunstan, and worked our way south, hitting bays, pinch points, and likely-looking structure without much luck. The water there was tannin-stained, and the thick yellow pollen from the trees added to the lack of clarity there. We talked to the other guys and found out they weren't on to the 'eyes in any numbers, even though they had worked over some very likely looking structure just on the south side of the large midlake island. A bit of a south wind had gathered, so we worked our way up the east side of the lake, ducking out of the wind a bit into a "dog-ear" bay to the east. As we fished that bay out of the wind, I saw Steve pointing at the shore and putting his finger to his lips, motioning to be quiet. It took me a second to see what he was looking at, but on the shore, out on some low rocks, was a wolverine! It looked like a small bear, dark brown with two blondish stripes on its back. The south wind had meant it hadn't smelled us before we saw it at 75 yards. I put the telephoto lens on my camera as quickly and quietly as I could, but was only able to manage two blurry shots of its backside as it ambled back into the woods. Right after the sighting, Greg caught a decent walleye...maybe it was an omen? We had a sense of how rare they are, and now know that they are endangered. We later gave Harlan the exact location and time of day to send in to Claire at the park office.
I'm not sure if it was the slow fishing, the lack of sleep, or paddling into a southern headwind most of the morning, but all of us were ready for an afternoon nap. We headed back to the site and sacked out on the beautiful sunny day.
After some much-needed sleep to recharge, we were milling around camp shaking the cobwebs out when we noticed a solo paddler heading up from the south past our site through the narrows. With a tailwind, he was making pretty good time, and moved silently along. Whenever you see anyone in WCPP, it's a bit of a shock since it's so remote, but it really was no big deal. It's funny- we've been to WCPP only twice, and each time the only time we saw any other people was on the very first day.
We later fished our way up the eastern shore and northern island grouping with only spotty results, and found that the solo paddler had camped on one of the islands. We greeted him from the boat, and he was a nice guy from Georgia (I think).
Dunstan has plenty going for it, looks-wise, but where were the fish? We worked over several fishy looking areas but it just wasn't happening. The long days of mid-June meant we had a lot of good daylight to explore and we agreed to meet back at camp for a "happy hour". Harlan had sent us in with some beer (a first for us) and we were able to have a refreshing sip, which was awesome with the warm day.
Rejuvenated, we hit the lake for one more session of fishing, with the same sporadic results, and since our steaks were frozen solid still, we did pizza night, with the Boboli crusts, Italian sausage and pepperoni.
The stars were blazing on this cloudless, moonless night, and we headed off to bed feeling pretty darn good about Day 1, despite the iffy fishing results.
Day 2: Dunstan to Wanda
Our frozen omelet had thawed in the Nalgene, so it was time to cook up some breakfast burritos before another day of fishing. Good stuff.
The two boats split up again, and again a south wind blew in our face as we worked our way down to the extreme southern end of Dunstan. Steve and Brian spotted the portage while Greg and I fished all around a tiny island and some emergent rocks--a perfect spot, or so we thought. The fish just seemed a bit off for whatever reason, even though my locator showed that they were there. The original plan was to stay two nights on Dunstan, but we just had the feeling that it wasn't happening, so we decided to head back up North to camp, pack up, and head for Wanda to get the travel day out of the way. In Quetico, we wouldn't have thought of moving mid-afternoon without a "sure thing" as far sites go, but the people just aren't there in any numbers in WCPP.
We landed at the "Enchanted Forest" portage at around 3pm, and were about to get our first taste of the real damage done inland by the storm. We knew Harlan's crew with Martin Kehoe had cleared this one just a week before, and thank goodness they did. The "Enchanted Forest" is not so enchanted anymore, and I think it will be awhile before it regains some of its charm. Without the chainsaw work done ahead of us, that 750 meters would have been impassable. We double-portaged it, and I had my camera on the second pass through. You really can get a sense of the mess that must have been there.
It is a mostly level carry that ends in a boggy area into a small unnamed lake. South of that, we entered a stream that meandered quite a bit, with several switchbacks and narrow going so that you were forced to slow the canoe down to make the next corner. The day was starting to become overcast, and we rounded one corner to see a tree bent over in the shape of an arch, and sitting on top of it was the largest owl I have ever seen, a Great Grey. I was able to get my telephoto lens on it for several pictures.
It had to have been 2 and a half feet tall, and didn't seem too bothered by our presence. We watched as he turned his head nearly all the way around to look for his next meal (he didn't look like he had missed too many). After we passed him, he finally flew off, and I was struck by how silently a bird that size moved. We were hoping that this sighting was another omen and that the fishing would turn on.
The 175 meter portage that is marked on the west side of the stream had been moved to the east side, due to the damage there. It was cut out and marked with pink flagging tape just fine (thanks to the crew) and we continued on through more small stream sections, where we had to get out a few times to lift over some beaver dams. We were glad to see Wanda Lake open up ahead, despite a decent headwind.
We checked out the point campsite on the eastern shore not far after we entered, but this site was pretty much rendered useless by the number of downed trees. Moving westward, we easily found the peninsula site that projects westward into the large western-most bay, and pulled up. We could see that despite some saw-work, this site was a dandy and would fit the bill just fine.
A view from the north side (where the better canoe landing is):
Tent pads required a bit of clearing, so the Sven saw came out and things were looking better a short time later. We wondered if we might have been the first visitors there of the year, and near the firepit, we found an interesting looking poker: the shaft and grip of a golf club. Flying that item in must have gotten some strange looks from the pilot!
After the work was done, we were ready for a nip, so we set up the bar and had happy hour.
We saw lots of likely-looking walleye spots to hit, so it was time to give Wanda's waters a try, and she didn't disappoint: we found the 'eyes in decent numbers very near to camp and fished them as long as daylight allowed. The steady action confirmed that our decision to move out of Dunstan a day early was confirmed, and we now faced three nights here, which was sounding just fine. Greg and I were fishing our way back towards camp, when we spotted a dark figure on the southern shore. Boy, that looked a lot like a bear, and just seconds later a small cub bounded out of the woods after its mother. It was too far for a picture, but the wind was favorable so we saw them before they saw us, and I would say the distance was 200 yards or so. Wow, had we been blessed with the wildlife sightings already, and it was only day 2!
The steaks (NY strips) were broiled over a nice bed of coals, and were enjoyed with potatoes and onions that I had dehydrated at home weeks before---yum. The stars popped out, and after polishing off the box of Cabernet, it was bedtime.
Day 3: Wanda Lake
This was a day that I will remember fondly. After a pancake breakfast, we traded canoe partners for the day fishing, so Steve moved over to my Souris River, which had only some very modest scratches on it to this point in the trip.
He and I started working the northwest bay nearest camp, and as soon as we started, it was on. Walleyes were biting about every third cast, and we were throwing crankbaits into rocks and shallow water. After that, we'd turn and fish the outside with jigs and Gulp, with similar results. A few small ones were had here and there, but mostly these were in the 16"-19" range, and lots of fun. A marauding Northern Pike would happen by occasionally, but it was good steady action for the better part of three hours. We moved around to likely-looking spots and would often pick up fish on the troll between spots too. On the western shore of Wanda is a decent stretch of sand beach (I think there is some on the southwest shore as well), which could serve as a swimming/cleanup spot. I was trolling a clown-colored jointed Deep Shad Rap, when my rod doubled over, and after a few minutes, I had a peek at this guy, a 24" walleye, which proved to be the biggest of the trip.
Not after landing that one and getting my lure out again, a nice pike nearly ripped the rod out of my hands.
That one measured 33" and I was glad to have a rubberized fish glove to help land him. I had lost one slightly larger at the boat the night before, mostly from failing to get a good grip, so I made sure this time.
Around early afternoon, the action cooled off, but I can say that our boat caught at least 60 walleyes that morning--awesome! We headed back to camp to meet up with Brian and Greg, who had steady action, but not quite what we were experiencing.
Steve had decided to bring a pineapple since it would be a fruit that travels pretty well, so we cut it up, grilled it, and basted it with maple syrup.
After lunch, both boats headed together to check out the eastern part of the lake, since we hadn't been that direction before. A narrows leads from the main lake basin into the three bays of the east end: one in each direction. It was interesting that east of the narrows, we found that the lake had a different character: the sides were higher, with cliffs and drop-offs much more like you'd expect to see in a lake trout lake. My depth finder showed depths down to the 70's at times, and as we worked the northern-pointing bay, the drop just off shore was often down to 15 or 20' right away, unlike the sandy and rocky shoals of the west end.
The fishing was not as good on that end, either. We gave it a good several hours, deciding to skip the skinny, south-facing bay since some clouds were starting to gather to the west, and gave us our first real threat of rain of the week. Steve picked up a 20" 'eye on our way back west.
Large drops started to hit the water (and us), so we pulled up onto an island for a break to wait it out a bit. As we had some Wasa crackers with salami, these huge swarms of small black bugs were forming around our heads. Luckily, they were not a type that bit, but you could hear them humming around and generally just added an annoyance factor.
We waited out the hardest of it, and then paddled back to camp to get a fire going and get some dryer clothes on. It proved to be a perfect night to have some fish chowder, so we cleaned a couple of the walleyes that we caught and got the stove going. I added dehydrated veggies to the Cache Lake mix, and it tasted great to have something warm and hot on the now-cool night.
It was great to know we had another full day to spend on Wanda, as we again agreed that we had made the right decision to move there before the original plan dictated. It was off to bed, and a nip of Root 100 helped soften the granite a bit that night.
Day 4: Wanda Lake
We had settled in nicely to our camping “rhythm” by now, so the morning routine was well established: I tend to get up first and start the JetBoil for coffee. By the time mine is ready to go, one or two of the others typically are up and out and start the second one. Breakfast is started and the smell of coffee and the general camp sounds make sure whoever is left to get up rouses now. By now, you know where everything is “kept” at the site, and you feel at home. You know where to head for a cache of firewood, you know roughly where everyone has headed to use the “facilities”, and you know where you can get a rock just the right size for leveling out the stove so that it burns evenly. You’ve probably got a favorite canoe landing spot and know the proper angle to bring your boat in “just so”, to preserve precious Kevlar.
Our day started off as another pretty one. Some high clouds dotted the sky, but it was generally sunny and warming up quickly. Temps got to their high by early afternoon (mid 70’s), and we worked our back to some of the same spots that had produced before, as a building west wind gathered. The fish were there, but not in the numbers or size as the day before. We changed up presentations to slow down accordingly, but something had certainly switched them off. By lunchtime, we needed a break from fighting the now-gusty wind, and moved back to camp. After we ate, Steve laid down for a nap, as Greg, Brian and I decided to fish from shore at the rock point just north of camp that had been such a producer. Shore fishing in the wind adds the element of “no snags or else”, and I decided to continue throwing a crankbait to stay out of trouble.
On my second cast, a decent pike grabbed the bait.
Brian caught a nice ‘eye, and Greg followed suit with another snot rocket.
We caught and released several fish for awhile, and then that spot slowed a bit so we walked our way around the point, fishing and talking along the way. Steve got up to join the action, and it was a fun way to spend time with the whole group fishing and laughing together.
The jug was passed, and since the wind was still pretty heavy, we decided to eat dinner early. This night is one of my favorites: fish taco’s. We fry up a couple of walleyes, make up some Vigo Black Beans and Rice, and grilled peppers, onion, burrito-sized tortillas and salsa complete the meal. The wind finally laid down after blowing steadily for several hours, but Greg decided to hit the hay early. The rest of us wanted to fish to make use of the rest of the daylight, so we put Brian in the duffer spot of his own canoe, and went out for a three-man fishing session. We were trying to get a “triple” where all three of us had a walleye on, but it was not to be. We had several doubles but the third guy couldn’t get hooked up. It was fun trying, and another great memory was made. As we paddled back towards camp, we got a great view of moonrise through a few clouds.
Day 5: Wanda to Royd We had our usual moving day quick breakfast of oatmeal, coffee, and Clif bars and began to pack up camp. We knew we would be heading out of walleye waters and into lake trout country, so we were sure the next couple of days would have a different feel than the previous few. The two boats moved back out of the northern exit into the creek again, heading upstream this time. The current is not really a factor, but going this way you had to get out a time or two more due to liftovers/beaver activity that were more easily negotiated going downstream. We did the “new” portage again, and moved into more heavy switchbacks as we saw our tracks coming from Dunstan and moved eastward into new territory again. It was a bit hot paddling in the stream with no breeze to speak of, and my hopes that we would get a peek at a moose were unrealized. It was another bluebird cloudless day—we certainly owed the weather Gods one for this trip—and we were glad to see the creek open up into bigger water. Soon, a very pretty falls came into view.
As our second portage trip finished, we were hot, tired, and relieved to know that our carries for the week were behind us. The northern section of Royd is island-studded and very pretty, but we were focused on finding a camp, since we knew of only a couple of options. We checked out the first one on the eastern shore (just north of the “heart-shaped” lake entrance) but decided to move on to see if there was a bigger one to be had. The eastern-shore of the midlake narrows had a site that was small but was good enough to call home, and we were ready for both a break from travel, and a chance to start fishing for lakers. After we made camp and had a snack, Greg and I worked the basin just north of camp with our trolling rigs and my first hookup was this 28” trout, the largest I have ever caught:
I picked up one other one (in the low 20’s) but that was it. Greg and Brian had caught a couple as well (of good eating size), but we were losing daylight (and energy), so it was time to get a fire going and get their two trout ready for the coals. We seasoned them with lemon, pepper, olive oil, and a bit of ghee, and then made a thick foil pack to wrap each one in. We find that nearly 30 minutes of cooking in the coals of a moderately hot fire gets them to turn out just perfect. With full bellies, it was off to the tent fairly early, after this honest day of travel.
Day 6: Royd Lake
After another day of pancakes and coffee, it was time to switch canoe partners again, so Brian and I paddled south from our site. We hit two of the three southeastern bays without finding the water depths we were looking for consistently (or any fish), so we moved towards the main southern lake basin. As we trolled by a point, it got shallow very quickly, so we grabbed our reels to crank our baits in to avoid snagging, and Brian called out “Fish On”, and soon we got a peek at a nice laker. So, it turns out that the lakers were still quite a bit shallower than we thought, in 20-30’ of water. The ones that we had caught the night before over much deeper water must have been suspended and we more or less got lucky to have caught them.
My preferred method of trolling for lakers now involves a ¾ oz. – 1 ½ oz. bead chain sinker tied on to a thin superline, with a 20lb. fluorocarbon leader tied to the plug or spoon. The bead chains have a built-in swivel, and are really nice for avoiding the line twist that used to be a thorn in my side when I would use rubber core sinkers.
At any rate, we spent most of the next few hours working this point over thoroughly. As the wind picked up, we could get a really good drift going without having to paddle much at all to keep things moving. We had a few doubles but one or the other of us would hook up on nearly every pass. Lakers are such a great fish to catch because they are just solid muscle and give you a lot of fight for their size. You never get tired of the sound of your drag singing as the fish pulls “down-down-down” on each run. Using a landing glove helped keep the fish under control while unhooking, since they love to roll around in the line. It was just a great morning of trout fishing, with good action for both boats.
Right near our campsite, a mother eagle sat on a nest, and was constantly being pestered by seagulls, who would dive down at her, and our theory was that they were trying to get her to leave the nest to chase after them so that others could swoop in and grab the eggs. She held her ground and constantly screeched at them.
The afternoon fishing session produced a few more takers but lacked the steady action that the morning held. One bad omen was that I lost my Magnum Hellbender to a snag, the first cast after tying it on to try to shake things up a bit. A few small pike were also taken, and I am sure that Royd holds some monsters if you target them. We worked around most of the points and islands in the southern basin of the lake, and were taken by how pretty Royd is. It has the clear water, high sides, and steep drop-offs that laker lakes are known for, and it was another pretty day to enjoy it.
A campfire and a nice sunset were enjoyed back at camp as we baked one more trout, which we knew would be the last of the year.
Day 7: Royd Lake and Out As I woke up, I got the familiar somber feeling that is expected on the last day of the trip. We changed up the plan a bit this year by arranging for an early afternoon pickup (1-2pm-ish), meaning we would get some more time to fish before the plane came. It was another sunny day with some puffy clouds, keeping the string of awesome weather intact. We were able to take some more trout, but with only spotty action, like we had the afternoon before. We paddled back to camp to eat lunch and pack up a bit before Noon. We got a small fire going to burn our trash and began pulling down the tarp and tents, when we heard a float plane flying low. When we saw that it was a yellow Viking Air craft which was preparing to land, we were forced to get camp packed up as fast as possible, without as much time to organize everything the way we like to. We paddled over to the meeting spot as Will was tying up, and he explained that he was early because he had a window in his schedule just then, and if we wouldn’t have been close by or ready, he would have had to leave and come back after 4pm. So, it was good fortune that our camp was near the pickup spot, because missing the pickup would have set us back quite a bit. Hugh was close behind in the Cessna, and although the wind made it a bit bumpy, it was a nice flight on a sunny day, giving us a chance to follow our progress on the map. Civilization awaited us back at the dock of Viking Air, and they had my truck backed down waiting for us, which was a nice touch.
We packed up fairly quickly and decided to have lunch in town before heading to Dryden where we had a hotel room reserved for the night. We quickly got up to speed on the Stanley Cup playoffs, where the Blackhawks were up 1-0 on the Boston Bruins after a triple-OT game that we missed while in the park. It sure was good to hear our wives voices again on the phone, and we drove the rest of the way back Saturday without incident.
This trip will be remembered fondly for its good fishing and good weather, as well as a chance to check out another part of WCPP. Solitude is there to be had in spades, but having the portages cleared before this trip was an absolute necessity since our route would not have been possible without it. Harlan at Red Lake Outfitters did his usual good job of taking care of us, and his business seems to be growing. There are lots of other areas of the park to explore, so I’m sure we’ll be back (but not soon enough!).