2014 Quetico solo: Beaverhouse to Burntside and back again
Up about 4:30 in Canoe Canada’s bunkhouse. Drop a can of Monster on my bare big toe and cut it open. Great start. Grab a coffee at Robin’s and eat a couple granola bars driving to the LLC Rd. turnoff. LLC Rd. okay with very little “washboard.” Close call with a logging truck, but no other vehicles. Signs of brush hogging along some edges and possibly new gravel in places on the Beaverhouse Rd. BH lot pretty full and of course, buggy. After triple portaging my gear and the rented red Wenonah Encounter, I shove off into water higher than ever seen before and a light south breeze. Recite Mantra #1: “2 packs, 2 paddles, 3 poles & yoke.” Check, check, check, check.
See my first bald eagle and loon before making the “left turn” heading for the Quetico portage. Good to be back! Campsite on left before portage occupied by at least two men with a big dome tent like I’ve seen at Cabela’s. They ignore my passing. A torrent of water from Quetico Lake dumps into BH. Normal takeout area under water. Meet four guys on the Quetico end coming out. We talk a little – they had based just past Eden Island.
I paddle into the Quetico River channel and east breeze at 9:15. After entering Quetico Lake proper, I see one canoe east of Eden Island. (No one else – no canoes or tents – all day.) Breeze is now more southerly. At the end of the long club-shaped peninsula south of EI, I decide to turn south and check out campsites on the peanut-shaped island to the east. (Never paddled this path before.) The middle site (#44) has a nice rock slope and grassy areas – maybe a “3-star.” The site on the eastern end (#4C) looks so-so from the water and I don’t stop.
At noon (+/-) I stop at another campsite for half a small summer sausage, cheese, carrots, hot pepper from my garden, and an apple. This site is ugly and I would not camp here unless hard up. Lower back starts to knot up so I take a prescription muscle relaxer. After another two hours of paddling almost calm water I stop at a site about 10 miles from the BH portage. This site sits up high, has a pine duff carpet, and a good fireplace and seating. I settle in from 2-4, including a 20-minute lay down in the Kelty Grand Mesa 2. Did Joe and I camp here once? I can’t be sure.
After a mix of clouds and sun all day, it gets mostly cloudy with occasional sun. I eat the rest of the summer sausage wrapped in a tortilla, and then get the night stuff into the tent. Finally decide on the “best” tarp location as the breeze picks up and gets northerly. (From 2-4 the wind went every-which-way.) About 6:30 I eat my “Thanksgiving” concoction of foil chicken, stuffing and cranberries. Get in the tent about 8, pretty beat and immediately start drifting off. Awake at 1:30AM it’s raining pretty steadily. Back to sleep. At 4AM there’s thunder loud and close, with heavier rain. During the night I find my bag liner and add it to the Big Agnes “Lost Dog” which is only rated to 50F. Recite Mantra #2: “Always bring the down bag in June.”
Day 2, Thu. June 12
Lay in the tent for a long time. Out about 7:30. Drippy. Everything wet, including gear in the vestibule and some stuff hung under the tarp. Via coffee and “oatmeal plus.” Crap. Wearing raingear and three shirts is about right for these conditions. NOAA: storm warning now, maybe heavy rain later, tomorrow clear. I plan to stay here today and be re-charged for tomorrow.
After breakfast I get in the tent and go back to sleep until eleven. More thunder and lots of rain. At midday I eat an energy bar and some other snacks. Back to sleep 1-3PM. Guess my body knows what it needs. Crossword puzzles. Strong N/NE winds. Send my SPOT message around 6PM. At 6:30 the temperature under the fly is 46.6F. Supper is an easy “dirtbag” ramen noodle soup with beef jerky and a cup of hot tea. At 7PM it’s 50F. on the tent floor and there’s “seepage” too.
Day 3, Fri. June 13
Friday the 13th! 46F in the tent. Up at 5:30 – it’s clear. (Sometime during the night, I get out the “emergency” space blanket and wrap it over the bag/liner and me. After the usual oats/coffee and dealing with packing up wet, I get underway about 8:30, and reach the portage to Conk Lake about 11:30. (Spot a mink on a small rock “island” near the Quetico Lake turn for Conk.) Lots of water on the portage. Mud, mud, mud, roots, slick rocks, more mud and more water. Conk looks good. Poor name for such a pretty little lake, I say.
Portage from Conk to Jean is more of the same and soon I am on Jean Lake for the first time since 1997. Good to be back! Sun getting things warmed up. Paddling Jean there is almost no breeze. I wish for some but remind myself to be careful what you wish for. I eat a Spam wrap lunch at campsite #G5 (sand beach, great seating/FP, etc.) in the narrows and don’t want to leave. Have a hard time finding the portage to Burntside (“Budside,” if you prefer). Guess I aim a little too far down towards the end and have to paddle back north to find it. Portage is a Bitch! Think maybe I made a wrong turn and this is the Badwater portage. Ha-ha. (My sense of humor is not impaired.)
On Burntside about 3:30. Two “best” sites are occupied. As my brother would say, “Bummer, dude!” By now the sky is partly cloudy after being sunny since daybreak. Have to accept a campsite on a point on the east shore (#35R?) where bugs are worse (at first) than on the portages. Send my SPOT message. Wash up in the lake (64F water thermometer says – I don’t believe it) Change into some clean clothes and feel much better. Supper has to wait until almost 8PM. (Pad Thai – a lot of work but worth it.)
No time to fish. Back hurting. BUT . . . I’ve gotten back to Jean -- and beyond. I’ve finally seen Burntside, which I’ve heard and read so much about. I’m content. Get a good tarp rigged up about 8:30. Long day! (No photos all day because the camera is “lost” in my rain jacket pocket. Maybe that’s for the best.) NOAA comes in loud and clear but it’s the US version, not the bilingual Canadian version that covers Quetico. Dang! In the tent at 9PM. After midnight (I think) there’s rain. Not heavy, and with no thunder or wind that I notice.
Day 4, Sat. June 14
At 9:30 I sit in my Alite chair at the front of camp, screened from S/SE wind by cedars. It’s very wet but not too buggy now. Dressed in a long-sleeve polyester tee, l/s regular shirt, vest and rain jacket it’s comfortable. Slept shitty last night. Up at 6:45 the temperature was 50F in the tent but with the wet breeze felt much chillier. Oats, coffee. I see a solo (I think) canoe on the water to the east. Think I could go out in the canoe, but “paddle or battle” (the wind) is the question. I fish a little from shore and catch a nice pike just under 30 inches on a jig and tail.
Collect some kindling – there’s plenty of that – but find no firewood. Clean fireplace. Sky is totally ugly gray with wind blowing straight into my canoe landing. About to think this trip is jinxed. Then start thinking about my trip goals and maybe revising them. 10am NOAA forecast: rain, then rain, and then some more rain. Lunch of foil tuna salad on tortillas – very good – I feel better. After lunch I mess around camp until the wind chases me to the tent.
Around 3PM I catch another nice pike about the same size (Same fish?) and another smaller one on a Flicker Shad. Shaking it off, I snag the lure about 12 up a small pine. Spend a half hour getting it back. Supper early today – pasta primavera freeze dried meal with dehydrated burger and veggies added – way too much for me. Make a small piss-the-bugs-off fire. Funniest thing: six or so young mergansers appear at the “gull rock” off my point and do this head-bobbing stuff near the nesting gull. Gull worship? (Sense of humor still not diminished.) South wind gusting as much or more than all day at 7PM – what does that mean? 50F in the tent at 7:45 as I straighten up and reposition my bed to avoid some rocks. A sprinkling rain falls at 8:30 and I close the tent fly.
Day 5, Sun. June 15
Think it didn’t rain much last night. Wet and grayness again, but the sky appears brighter with no ominous look. I make the call: bug out! Underway about 8:30 after my regular breakfast and packing up. South wind means tailwind, but not much. At portage to Jean by nine. I meet a couple portaging towards Burntside, then notice a tandem canoe coming behind me and wave them in. (There is plenty of room and I’m triple portaging.) I make two of my three trips then stand and talk with the two guys from the Twin Cities for probably a half hour on the Jean side. (They are headed for Oriana.)
By the time I make my third trip and load up, it’s 10:30 and the tailwind I had on Burntside is a headwind on Jean. I head out. Paddling north I see the two guys fighting their way up the lake. I see their plan of aiming east of the target “narrows” and using the wind. As I continue I see their plan isn’t working and they (are forced to?) veer far to the right, but then they turn and use a cross tailwind to make it to the narrows. Can I pull off the same trick?
I paddle on and the wind gets worse and the waves bigger. Never paddled in anything like this. I remember wondering where’ll I wind up if I capsize? Two or three times I miss a beat with the paddle and the wind blows the bow about a foot to the left. I pray. The rest is a blur. I try my best to “tack” but finally just take what the wind will allow me and finally make it past the point that campsite #G5 is on, then let the wind blow me sideways back into the deep cove. (At the time I really didn’t know there was a campsite here.) Didn’t make the narrows but I’m safe for now.
Of course my forced landing is on the deep side of the point and I have to grab bushes near a large rock outcropping and get out in crotch-deep water, but I’m alive. Nice campsite. Fly up. Ramen noodle soup and Spam. The sprinkling starts. I sit for perhaps two hours in varying degrees of rain, downpour, rain blowing in under the tarp, and just plain drizzle. I wrap myself up in the space blanket and still shiver. (A “mist” off the rain is blowing under the tarp.) Finally during a lull, I throw down the ground cloth, unfurl the tent on it and quickly get the tent up and fly on. Mantra #3: “Always bring a quick-to-setup tent.”
Around 2:30 I get into the tent, mop up some water from the setup process, change into dry clothes and get warm. Sending the “OK” SPOT message feels really good! Later, I think -- “weather has to improve, right?” -- when I hear a song sparrow sing it’s namesake tune. Life is good! When the rain stops -- but the wind is still rocking -- I move the canoe by “lining” it to where I can horse it up out of the lake, dump out about ten gallons of water and secure it. (Almost fall in lake in the process.)
After an early supper I get in the tent after adding a couple of extra guy lines to the windward corners. Wind has switched to S/SE and monstrous whitecaps are rolling into my shallow side. Tent is rocking as I sit in one front corner for ballast and I’m thinking I may be in for a long night. About 7:30 the insane wind eases some and bits of blue sky appear.
Get out of the tent to survey the skies. Decide to have a Backwoods cigar and a walk around with my camera while I wait to see what Mother Nature is planning next. Sure enough, in a half hour ¼ of the downwind sky turns ugly looking and is moving my way. At 9:15 I finish writing today’s notes in the tent, feeling really beat. I note that the fireplace seating has a “flattened-sided” log with a freshly hatched dragonfly, an 18’ dead tree near by, and the perfect camp filter hanger. I retire hoping for more pleasant weather tomorrow.
Day 6, Mon. June 16
At dawn it’s clear and breezy. Up at seven, it seems warmer -- 60F in the tent when I get out. Whitecaps by ten. There’s a crazy wind with erratic gusts, and I move the canoe and tie it up as a windbreak for the tent. May have to stay here again today. Get all gear dry. Tighten all tent guys and keep an eye on the widowmaker. Send my SPOT message early today. Straighten up the fireplace area and eat a late lunch of tuna salad wraps, cheese, hot peppers and half a Three Musketeers bar. (Insert smiley face.)
Take a nap in tent from 12-1, and then while away the afternoon with crosswords, and some Nina Simone on the iPod. (Might as well listen to some Blues as anything else.) Wind blows and blows until a brief letup around 4, then blows some more until about 6. During this lull I see three(!) canoes come out of the narrows heading for the Burntside portage. No one else seen today. Take a nap in tent from 12-1, and then while away the afternoon with crosswords and some more music. For supper I have a new version of "Old Mike’s Rice" with foil chipotle tuna instead of chicken. Very good, but one cup of rice is not enough. Photos below show lee and windward sides on my peninsula.
Minnesota NOAA says NE breeze tomorrow so I am keeping all digits crossed and am all packed up except for tent and contents. Cigar and photos end the day. Long, long day but a great spot (except for wind) to spend it. Sunny all day today with continued cloud buildup and rising barometer. Very few mosquitoes (or they were blown away) but gnats are fierce tonight. Lots of green blueberries! Hoping I sleep well tonight, there’s no breeze now and it’s very warm in the tent. That’s more like it! Before going to sleep I write a campsite review.
Day 7, Tue. June 17
Woke up at 2:30 then tossed and turned until about 4:30. Get up, get packed and am paddling (finally) at 5:35(!) under clear skies and calm to lightly rippled water. Breakfast is a 5-hour energy drink, Rice Krispies bar, and a protein bar. Surely my earliest start ever! I breeze down Jean. Take photos of "Spider Island" and a bald eagle. Stop for a snack at campsite #35M on the point before the Conk portage. It has the best tent pads – tucked away back in the woods – you will find, but the fireplace sucks and the seating consists of one rotten log and a store-bought 2X6 board. What a pity. (It seemed much better in 1997.)
After the portage into Conk (very wet and muddy) I paddle up the “inflow” from Jean, looking for what I remember as a “flume” that you could paddle or walk in 1997. No sign of anything like that, just a jumble of trees and logs where I have to stop paddling and turn around. (Maybe I dreamed the flume?) Conk is beautiful this morning and I consider paddling into it’s western bog area, but decide against it. (Think I’m afraid it would delay me and I’d regret it later if the weather turns bad. Pessimism has gotten into my head, I know.)
On the wet, muddy, slick portage to Quetico I slip going down a rock and root “stairs,” go down to a squat and somehow manage to straighten back up with no harm done. (Big smiley face.) I dally a bit around the outflow with my camera before loading the canoe, which is made more difficult because of high water. Paddling by one of the several camps on the left, I see a man and two canoes, the first of the day. The last campsite on the left (main point, #CR) is open so I ease in and take a protein bar break there. (Upon returning home, I see that this nice site is “unrated.”)
I get easy paddling for a couple miles down Quetico Lake, then get breezes that can’t seem to make up their minds which way to blow. I see two canoes heading up into one of the big northern bays at mile 10 and decide not to explore there. (They apparently are camped at my night one spot.) Not knowing how far I want to go back towards Beaverhouse today, I start checking out campsites at about the 8 mile area, and don’t see anything very good, except for the cabin remains and HUGE ancient pine at campsite #93, on the point of the cove before the eastern Robin portage. I’ve known about this cabin location for over 15 years, but had not stopped before. What’s left of the cabin is pretty cool, with one old window, lots of names carved in the logs, and the pine and old cedars are awesome. As for the campsite, forget about it. Little used, heavily overgrown, and very low, I get a eerie claustrophobic feeling.
I paddle another 2.5 miles or so to the cove heading back to the western no-name portage when hunger calls. I paddle back out and have lunch – Spam wraps and cheese – at an easily accessed site (#8N I think) that has about 8 widowmakers and looks like it hasn’t been used for years. I know I’m probably dehydrated now so drink almost all of my liquids. (I started the day with over two quarts of various flavors of treated water.) At lunch I make the decision to head for “Peanut Island” and see if the so-called 4-star “grassy knoll” site about 3.5 miles from Beaverhouse is open.
After checking out the eastern site first (just in case) I arrive at site #44 at 1:30, so that’s 8 glorious hours and 14-15 miles paddled, soaking up the best day of the trip. Two hours of sun to dries the gear I spread out or hang up here, and I take a long rinse off in the cold lake water. The best (only real good) tent pad has 6-9 inch grass that’s still wet when I set up. Two men in a tandem come by about 4PM headed west. At 6:30 I’m settled in and my belly is full of half a grocery store “side” of rice plus foil chicken, a handful of dehydrated veggies, and curry powder. It’s okay but not great and I feel like Man vs. Food trying to eat all of it.
All my remaining dinners and lunches now fit into the “vault” and the yellow Quetico garbage bag has swollen considerably. Daydreaming while I consolidate food, I think of “lembas” the Elves’ bread in Lord of the Rings. It would be nice to have a magical food that was light weight, super nutritious, kept well for months and was offensive to evil creatures. Bears wouldn’t eat it! Back in the real world, I give thanks for this beautiful, cloudless day.
Miscellaneous pics, including small waterfall with unknown source:
My back is achy, but why not? I’ve rethought my trip goals that originally focused on fishing, mainly at Burntside, but that’s out now. I think if my back holds up and the weather stays reasonable I’ll try for western Beaverhouse. NOAA is predicting storms tonight and tomorrow, but I think I am too far north for that to apply to me. (Still not getting the Canadian broadcast.) Around 8PM the bugs start biting and I’m not up for battling them or making a fire just for smoke, so I hit the tent. A really great day in the Q!
Day 8, Wed. June 18 (No notes were made this day, so I made this all up. Ha-ha.)
Up early again to a sky that doesn’t tell me much about the weather later. Barometer is steady though. Eat a good breakfast with strong coffee and pack up. Breeze starts kicking up a little from the east, making me think I will get a boost towards the Quetico River and Beaverhouse Lake. (Wrong!) Starting around 8:45 I leisurely paddle with the breeze towards the end of my island. Only about three miles of paddling to the Beaverhouse portage.
There the breeze sends mixed messages as it swirls through the gap ahead. I turn northwest and as I leave the lee of my island I start getting stronger winds from the east. As I reach the water near the end of the long peninsula (the one with the long sand beach south of Eden Island) I start getting heavier crosswinds and big rolling waves. The wind wants to swing my stern so at times I have to paddle a few strokes, then brace and correct my bearing. This continues until I get can turn west at the top of the peninsula, when the tailwind becomes less of a problem. I get to “rest” a bit, but not for long.
With about a mile to go to reach the Quetico River mouth the winds are northeast and stronger where the lake widens. I struggle with quartering tailwinds. It’s really blowing and the waves are huge rollers. I paddle hard trying to use the wind much like a sailboat, but keep getting forced too far south, away from the river mouth. If I try to correct my bearing too much I risk getting sideways to the rollers. The last quarter mile or so I paddle as hard as I on Jean days before into that headwind. Finally I manage to break out of the wind’s grip and enter the river channel where the wind is funneling westward and I can pretty much steer and coast. Whew! The Encounter comes through again. My back feels like bone on bone with each paddle stroke.
I relax. Enjoy the last ¾ mile to the Beaverhouse portage. Reflect on the difficult crossing. Water is still high at the takeout and I can maneuver the canoe sideways by the ancient timber there and step out dry-footed. I unload one pack and chug about a pint of fluids. A pain from the back of my right knee that goes halfway down my calf is a surprise. I unload the canoe and am pulling it out of the water when a man comes over from Beaverhouse.
We stand and talk. And talk. His name is Scott from Traverse City and he’s on a 37-day trip that started the last week of May and ends July 1. We talk for about a half-hour. He’s headed for Oriana today and I tell him about the winds I battled and then we part ways. I snap a picture of him as he paddles east. (Back home I “Google” Scott from Traverse City, MI and find quite a bit about him.)
Paddling away from the BH put-in heading for the main body of the lake, I start thinking maybe I’ve had enough. (About this time I see a weird bright light out on the lake. What the heck? Then I hear the engine noise and see a float plane climbing up ahead.) The wind is from the northeast, so paddling the 5-6 miles to the west end doesn’t sound appealing. Like the old song says, “know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em” I decide to fold. After that I paddle even more leisurely (except at one place where the wind was bad) and really enjoy every bit of Beaverhouse back to the take out.
Continuing on along the east side I notice a rocky point that I’d never paid attention to and wonder if there’s a campsite there. Getting closer, I can see the usual telltale signs of human use. After a dicey landing on a sloping rock shelf, I get out and can only find a boulder to tie up to. Grab a water bottle, protein bar and the camera. Up the pretty steep slope I go. Nice campsite. Pine duff, good fireplace with lots of firewood stashed, good seating and a “relic” graniteware pitcher. (site #24) Leaving here I notice a red tandem canoe also heading for the landing.
Up in a cove I’ve never been in I come upon a nervous, curious beaver that finally does the tail slap thing for my camera. Paddling on I come to the old trestle remains and take some photos of that and photos that show – if you know what you're looking at – the old road grade north of the trestle. Finally back at the take out, I sit for probably 25 minutes for the guys to come back and move the red canoe and their other gear. Eat a beef jerky stick.
After they leave and I’ve unloaded, I shoulder the canoe and at the “footbridge” point of the trail, they have their vehicle blocking the path with the doors open. While the canoe is almost being blown off my shoulders I ask, “could I get through?” and they close a door on one side. Thanks for coming! After making my three trips and talking a bit with a couple of guys who were a bit late putting in for Cirrus Lake I head back to Atikokan.
Afterthoughts: This trip didn’t go as planned, but that’s common. It was really disappointing to not fish and explore the Burntside area. (The number of people there was also a disappointment.) Honestly though, I was probably overdue for having bad weather on a Quetico trip. I had the pain from behind my knee down my leg until I reached Rochelle, IL the next night and worked out in the pool. What a fun night that was – thunderstorms all night -- knocking the power out for a few minutes one time and an hour and a half around midnight. I guess I brought the rain home with me because a couple nights later we got 3 ½ inches. I think my future solo trips will be less aggressive in terms of how far “in” I go. Probably should stick to trips like I’ve done from PP to Carp, and French to Rawn. Can't wait for my September trip with my son-in-law! -Goose