Quetico 2013, Part 1
17 July, Day 1: Everett and I, along with our dog Wilson, headed north for our fourth annual Quetico trip, this time putting in at the end of the Gunflint Trail instead of at Moose Lake near Ely. The weather was warm and humid as we left Two Harbors, but a cold front was slowly sagging south into the Border Country, a boundary that would bring the risk of storms before transitioning to cooler conditions. This year’s trip would loop through the eastern and northeastern parts of the park. After loading the canoe and parking the car we headed out onto Gull Lake and down the cabin-lined Seagull River to Saganaga Lake. A brief shower and rumble of thunder kept us close to shore, but soon dissipated as we left the detritus of civilization behind and veered northwest across the island-studded lake. The water was calm, and it felt great to glide with ease past American Point and through the channel into Cache Bay after less than three hours of paddling. We stopped briefly at the tip of Cache Point at the former site of one of Benny Ambrose’s cabins, before stopping at the Cache Bay Ranger Station to pick up our permit. We chatted for a while with Janice Matichuk, the seasonal park ranger who has worked at Cache Bay since 1985. Learning that we were from Two Harbors, she noted that we were the first paddlers from that town that she could remember—a surprise owing to the town’s close proximity to the Quetico-Superior. She also confirmed that the Ontario canoe camp I guided for in the 1980s still sends groups to the park on annual, five-week long trips. We continued our visit under the outside pavilion while Everett and I ate lunch, and then headed for Silver Falls and Saganagons Lake. After portaging the well-used, but rocky portage around Silver Falls, we paddled eastward down Saganagons, past Deadman’s Portage toward the lightly traveled eastern portion of the lake. We had seen several other groups of paddlers since Cache Bay, but left them behind, likely to head down the busy Falls Chain. By late afternoon we were camped a short distance south of Boundary Point, where we swam, cooked supper, and fished a bit. By then, the earlier overcast had been replaced by hazy sunshine.
18 July, Day 2: Thunderstorms moved in during the night and continued to pound us with periods of heavy rain and lightning throughout the day. Wilson would shake with fear during every rumble of thunder, and at times the bottom of the tent felt like a waterbed. Fortunately, we stayed dry. I had hung one of the packs--filled with our food and wrapped in a pack cover--from the branch of a red pine over the lakeshore the night before, and this, too, stayed dry. Breakfast, coffee/hot chocolate and instant oatmeal, was prepared under the tent vestibule, as was lunch. We spent the day talking, recalling previous trips, reading maps, and occasionally napping. In the late afternoon there was a lull in the rain and a period of sunshine, so I moved the tent back into the woods where the ground was softer and water would not pool. A rock ridge would also protect us from falling trees, if one of the big storms building to the west should roll in. I also lowered the rain fly covering the packs down to about two feet to reduce wind exposure and tied down the canoe. Just after 6:00p a severe storm did strike, and we found ourselves in the tent, pressing against the tent poles so they would not snap in the wind, which I guessed to be at least 60 mph from the west, and a short time later, equally as strong from the southeast. Glancing under the tarp fly I could see shoreline trees being thrashed and small branches, hail, and other debris flying through the air. Then above the roar we heard a loud “crack”. After the storm we could see that the top half of an ancient red pine had broken off and fallen onto a cedar, snapping that tree, too. Our tent was covered with pine needles, twigs, and bits of bark, but it and our rain fly were undamaged. Moving the tent had been a good move. Far to the northwest we could see a bit of clearing, and that along with a wind shift convinced us that tomorrow would see much improvement in the weather.
19 July, Day 3: We awoke early to clear skies and light winds from the NW. Before long, we were packed up and on our way, headed for Mack Lake. Beyond Boundary Point Saganagons really opens up and has a completely different feel than the island-studded channels to the west. The north shore is high and covered with young jack pine/aspen/birch forest growing in the wake of fires that swept through the area in 1995 (I think). We portaged five meters over a narrow point, bypassing a small beaver dam where Ross Creek flows into Saganagons, and then paddled a wide, scenic channel to Bitchu Lake. Paddling into the west and northwest breeze, we soon were across Bitchu and entering the winding channel of Ross Creek. The creek was plenty deep and navigable. After pulling over a beaver dam we continued on to the 200m portage to Ross Lake. At the Ross Lake end of the portage were stashed three or four fishing boats with motors. I suspect that locals, probably staying on Bemar Lake, motor through Bemar and Bitchu Lakes and Ross Creek, and then walk the portage to Ross Lake and fish for the day from the boats on Ross. Ross Lake is a beautiful piece of water surrounded by burned-over hills. It looks deep. It’s a shame that it and the numerous other lakes east of Mack Lake and north of Saganagons were not included in Quetico, as they are a natural extension of the Quetico-Superior Canoe Country and share many of the natural attributes of that area. The 1,280m portage from Ross to Cullen Lakes climbs steadily for most of its length, and part of the trail seemed to follow a small stream bed, but this may have been just a result of the recent heavy rain. The trail seems to get only light use. Once on Cullen, one of the highest lakes in Quetico, we headed west to the outlet where a beaver dam marked the beginning of the 150m portage to Munro Lake. The shoreline timber was flooded on Munro from a beaver dam at that lake’s outlet. We portaged 750m to Mack Lake. To avoid a swampy stretch near the Mack Lake end, we veered left at the base of a hill and put in on a tiny, finger-like bay 100m to the west. Both of us really liked Mack Lake, with its high, hilly shoreline and regenerating forest. We found a decent campsite, and set up camp. After lunch and a swim, I set up the fly to dry it out and protect our gear from the post-frontal showers that were developing to the NW. We spent a short time in the tent during one of these showers and then paddled over to an island campsite to check it out. It was well used, but still a decent site with a good view. Back in camp we cooked and ate supper and then headed out onto the lake in search of lakers and walleyes to finish off the day. We soon found the walleyes in 30 feet of water or more off the end of our point and both caught several in the 20 to 22 inch range on 3/8th ounce twister-tail jigs. Everett also had one of about six pounds get off at the canoe. We also caught a few smallmouth before darkness sent us back to camp to retire for the night. Great to have the lake to ourselves.
20 July, Day 4: Up to a glorious, clear-sky morning, we heated water on the fire for oatmeal and coffee/hot chocolate as the overnight dew accumulation evaporated from the tent. Before long, camp was broken and we were on the water, headed for Mack Creek and the Wawiag River. We portaged maybe 100m along the west side of Mack Creek to a pond. Near the Mack end of the portage were the remains of a small log cabin, probably an old ranger cabin from the early days of the park. Chunks of rusted metal within were likely from an old wood stove. The next portage, at the outlet of the pond, is maybe 200m along the east side of the creek. From there we meandered the mile or so to the confluence with the Wawiag River. The creek was scenic and lined with spruce and jack pine. I found myself wondering about the countless people who have traveled this important waterway since time immemorial. We found the Wawiag River to have a slow, but steady, current as it meandered within sand and clay banks on its way to Kawa Bay of Kawnipi Lake. The water was stained and murky from the recent rains. The river flows through a wooded landscape of spruce, jack pine, and alder swamp in its mid and upper regions, but opens up as it approaches Kawa Bay, where it flows through rich, alluvial deposits, dotted with large ponds. A couple of bedrock ridges can be seen from the river, burned over and regenerating to jack pine. In this lower reach we noted silver maples and an elm or two—almost non-existent in the canoe country, but a mainstay of the river bottoms 200 miles to the south and the memories of my youth. The several former logjams along the lower river have washed out in recent years, so there is only one portage along the Wawiag River between Mack Creek and Kawa Bay. It bypasses an unrunnable rapids along the south side (river left) about two miles downstream from Mack Creek. During periods of high water the takeout here could be dangerous, as it occurs at the brink of the rapids and the takeout goes up a steep bank-typical of the river systems farther North. A campsite lies in a stand of cedars at the upper end of the portage. The site is atypical of Quetico-Superior campsites, but would be snug and comfortable during the cool, bug-free season. We stopped to check out a rocky, red pine- covered campsite near the mouth of the Wawiag River on Kawa Bay where an old, aluminum canoe from Powell Lake Lodge was abandoned. There was no sign of the former Indian settlement in the area, although I assume it was located on the strip of land between Kawa Bay and the tiny bay at the mouth of the river where there was some fertile land for growing food. The lower end of the river was long known as a diverse source of plants for food and medicine, as well as great hunting for moose. We stopped again on an island campsite about a half-mile to the SW where we ate lunch. By then, the sky was mostly cloudy with altocumulus, and a cool breeze blew from the northeast, but there was no threat of rain. Perfect paddling weather. Most of forest along Kawa Bay was regenerating from fires that burned within the past fifteen to twenty years. I noted little or no old growth forest. By the time we arrived at the mouth of the bay—and the well traveled main stem of the lake—the clouds were breaking up. Once again, I failed to find the pictographs that are said to occur on the rock faces along the north side of the entrance to the bay, despite the suitability of the rock to preserve them. Continuing on, we were soon heading into McKenzie Bay, arguably the nicest of the lake’s long bays. We stopped to check out the small island where a buddy and I built a campsite back in 1979, and it seems by the presence of a fireplace that the place still gets used on occasion, even though it is far too small to support more than a couple of people at a time. Back in the day it was the perfect respite for two teenagers on the trail for two weeks without a tent… Everett and I camped on a well-used point nearby that had a small jumping cliff and lots of rock to hang out on. The late afternoon temp was 63 F, but the sun was plenty warm, so we swam for a while before setting up the tent. Then, we fished for a bit off of a nearby island and caught a walleye to add to the rest of our supper and released one or two more caught from a reef a few hundred yards to the north. Everett also caught a couple of small pike from our campsite. Back in camp we searched for firewood. The decades of use left this campsite area somewhat devoid of it, but the view was well worth the extra work required to collect it. Before long, we were snacking on walleye fillets while the rice and cheesy broccoli soup simmered.
21 July, Day 5: Up to clear skies and calm waters, a beautiful morning. After eating breakfast and packing up, a friendly couple from Georgia, who had recently moved to Tennessee to “get away from the heat and humidity” (What!?), stopped by to chat. Their kids were still asleep on the nearby site to the NW. Before long, Everett and I were gliding across smooth water, heading for the McKenzie Lake portage. Unlike many of the other long bays that form the spider-like shape of Kawnipi, McKenzie Bay has not burned over in many decades, so the forest is well developed. Campsites become much more scarce as one proceeds up the bay, reflecting the lower use of the area. Several bur oaks occur on the Kawnipi end of the Kawnipi-McKenzie portage. These trees are near the northern edge of their range. We portaged the 670m to McKenzie Lake on a somewhat brushy trail over rolling terrain. I had not been to McKenzie since guiding a 33-day trip way back in 1984, and it felt good to be back. This part of the park has always had a different feel to it than the rest of the park—less used, more remote, and a bit mysterious. Once on the water we could see a couple of canoes far ahead, moving along leisurely. We would encounter them again later on. After pulling out the depth finder and fishing gear, we trolled up the lake, checking out two sets of pictographs along the way. The first site, on a tall, fractured cliff on an east-west island, contained two canoes with three paddler in each. The second site seemed newer and contained a small “X” and an abstract object reminiscent of a thunderbird. Continuing on, we stopped to visit the surface grave of a native person who died early in the 20th century. The skeleton has weathered significantly since I first visited the site in 1981, and the bones were somewhat scattered. We left a small offering of cedar twigs as a token of respect before paddling to a campsite to eat lunch. At the northern end of the lake we veered west toward the entrance of Ferguson Creek, and soon noticed the folks in the two canoes we had seen earlier, stopped for a swim break off the big island east of the creek entrance. After some time they noticed us, jumped in their canoes, and started paddling like crazy for the creek. It was immediately obvious that we were now in a race to get to Ferguson Lake to grab the only site that I was aware of on the lake. Before long, we were entering a tiny, dark water creek that I knew right away was the wrong stream, so we backed out, leaving the other group to bushwhack around deadfalls. I mentioned that it was the wrong stream, but the others kept at it. A short time later, Everett and I were entering the weed-choked mouth of Ferguson Creek and winding our way upstream. The channel of Ferguson Creek is about 15 to 20 feet wide, has a slow current, and is lined by black spruce bog. Back in 1981, just before my 20th birthday, I could still see the remains of an old logging bridge sitting in the water, about three-quarters of the way up the creek. Now the site is the location of a large beaver dam that floods a lot of timber along the creek and raises the water level of Ferguson Lake itself. I saw no sign of a logging road or bridge. When we arrived at Ferguson Lake we found the entire outlet bay to be around ten feet deep, and deeper water didn’t occur until we passed the island just east of the narrows. After passing through the narrows, we camped on a tiny, red-pine-covered island about a third mile to the SW. The site is so small that it can really only support the occasional use of a one-tent group, and the site is a definite no-go in stormy weather. The last time I was on Ferguson we were just passing through, so this time I wanted to check out the fishery. Evidently, the group we had raced earlier had found a site east of the narrows, as two of them now paddled by our island, ready to fish. Everett and I were soon fishing and scoping the water to the SW, as well. The lake SW of the narrows seems to have just about all of the deeper trout water. Our jigs stuck to the bottom a bit with every bounce, indicating a muck bottom. We talked briefly with the guys in the other canoe. They were from St. Louis, MO, and had been coming to the lake for many years. We were both amazed to find anyone else on the lake, but that has certainly seemed to be the trend over the past couple of years, at least for me, to find people in the remote places where you least expect them. Go figure. The fishing was slow, but I did manage to jig up a four-pound laker, and Everett a couple of smaller pike, not far from the portage route to the Cache River. We released them and then returned to camp to cook supper. The evening was mostly clear, so we decided to leave the fly off the tent. The roof is made of nylon mesh to keep out the bugs, reduce weight, provide excellent ventilation on warm nights, and allow for viewing the surroundings.
22 July, Day 6: When the sky started rumbling around 4:00a, I was out with my headlamp putting the fly on the tent and another one over our gear. I really do need to get a weather radio for these trips. Fortunately, the lightning was cloud to cloud, and the rain fairly light and short-lived, so when daylight came, we were up and packing, and after eating a quick breakfast, headed for the portage route to the Cache River. The sky was overcast, and a light breeze blew from the south. The first of the two portages leading to the Cache is a bit brushy and leads over a modest hill before descending to a pond less than 100m away. The next portage is a lot tougher and extends for about 1600m through alder swamp and spruce bog to the Cache River. The woods were dripping and the mosquitoes active as we passed through there, and by the time we reached the river, we were especially glad to be single-portaging. Along the way I had tripped on a stump hidden among sedges, and fell with pack and canoe, but a gathering cloud of insects convinced me not to linger. I would feel the bruise for the next few days. It appeared by the amount of overhanging brush that the portage hadn’t been maintained in years. Wilson shed some blood to the mosquitoes and flies, and was as glad to get back on the water as Everett and I were. The water level was a lot higher than when Greg and I paddled through 32 years earlier. On that trip we got so thirsty in the hot sun that we were forced to drink from the river, and wondered what kind of parasites we would end up with. Fortunately, we picked up none. The Cache River is a bit smaller than the Wawiag and has a totally different feel to it. The landscape if less fertile, often fairly open, and more boreal. After traveling through broad meanders, we portaged maybe 50m (river left) around a rapids that produced a large volume of organic foam below. A couple of miles farther downstream we portaged about 150m around another set of rapids (river right) where the river passes through some higher terrain. A few miles downstream the river makes a sharp turn to the right where a bedrock outcropping occurs. One could camp there (river left) in a pinch, as there is a place large enough to hold a tent and a bit of jack pine overhead. The wind shifted to the NW and the sky partially cleared with the passage of a cold front. Farther downstream the Chrismar map shows a series of four portages in quick succession along the final drop of the river into a long bay of Kawnipi Lake. The first of these portages does not exist, and is not needed (a rare inaccuracy on this map). It was her that we saw a bull moose crash inland from the shoreline after sensing our presence. Wilson was very excited. The first actual portage in this lowest section of river bypasses a rapids (r.l.) and is about 75m long. The next portage, also river left, is also 60-75m long and bypasses another unrunnable rapids. The last portage, about 550m long, is on the right side, bypasses several sets of rapids, and ends in a small bay just NW of the terminus of the Cache River below the 10m-high Cache Falls. This portage follows very close to the river along most of its length. We found a huge amount of foam floating in the river below the falls. Paddling across the outflow to the south side, we tied up the canoe and went in search of the campsite where Greg and I had camped. The whole area is a bit different than I recall—the result of three decades of data degradation in my brain, as well as changes in the canoe route itself. Back in the day the falls were bypassed river left, and the rapids upstream were ran or dragged. The falls themselves are more scenic than I recalled. Just downstream we found a cool campsite that almost certainly was the one were Greg and I camped back in 1981. It is high above the water, has a view down the bay, and is backed by fairly dense black spruce and jack pine forest towering over a mossy substrate. We climbed back down the steep slope to the canoe, untied it, and headed south down the narrow bay to the main body of Kawnipi. A steady wind was now blowing from the northwest, and the clouds were again on the increase. When we arrived at the main stem of the lake we were greeted by whitecaps and scattered rains showers could be seen in the distance falling from the clouds. We paddled hard, taking on a splash or two of water, crossing to a small island off the east side of Rose Island where we ate lunch. Afterwards, we headed down to the south end of Rose Island and through the channels leading down toward Keewatin Lake. The steep, granite-lined channels of this part of Kawnipi are a favorite part of Quetico for us. Before long, we were portaging the bouldery, 390m portage to Keewatin Lake. I have always liked this lake, although the camping options are surprisingly limited. We did find a site, though, and set up camp. I didn’t set up the rain fly over our gear, as the NW breeze suggested dry weather for at least a day or two. By then it was early evening, so we went out to fish for a while from the canoe. I scoped water to 87 feet in depth and caught and released a nice four-pound laker on a white, two-ounce buck tail jig. Before long, we were back in camp cooking a late supper over the fire. Later, we watched the moonrise over the lake through breaks in the cloud cover, and then retired for the night.
(See Part 2 for Rest of Trip)