Quetico: Prairie Portage to Cirrus and Back (Part 1)
Everett and I, along with or dog, Wilson, headed up to the canoe country for our fifth annual Quetico trip. We would be on the water for 14 days and paddle to the northwest boundary of the park and back, exploring some new country for me—and a lot of new country for Everett. 8 July: After driving up from Two Harbors we put in at Moose Lake, east of Ely, and paddled the six miles up the busy and motorboat-ridden Moose Chain against a steady breeze through a section of the Boundary Waters Wilderness to the Canadian Border at Prairie Portage. By the time we arrived there (just before noon) the Quetico Park ranger who issues permits was about to take his hour-long lunch break, but he decided to issue our permit anyway when he noticed that the wind had died down a bit on Inlet Bay of Basswood Lake. We were grateful.
We headed across Inlet Bay, through a channel by Green Island, and on to the North Portage, where a bi-national portage crew was doing some extensive reconstruction of the trail, including crushing rocks to make gravel. The quality of the work reminded me of similar work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the US back in the 1930s, and that it would likely remain for decades.
After crossing the 640m portage in a single trip we continued on against a northerly breeze under partly cloudy skies across Sunday Lake, stopping for lunch on the NW shore about a mile-and-a-half west of the portage to Meadows Lake. Then, we portaged the rocky, 970m portage to Meadows Lake, followed soon after by the 560m portage to Agnes Lake. Both portages are rocky, but not difficult.[paragraph break] Agnes is one of our favorite lakes. The deepest in Quetico (284 feet), it has very clear waters, ragged cliffs and headlands, and long vistas. We paddled north, passing Louisa Falls, which was roaring with water as full as I have ever seen them. Later, we passed through the narrows and set up camp on the tip of the long point that makes up the west side at the northern entrance. The site is nice, and fairly small, considering the prominent location. The wood was damp from recent rains, but we built a fire and cooked supper over it as rain showers passed to the north. We hit the sack before it was dark, tired from the 21- mile paddle against a steady wind.
9 July: Up to a clear morning, we heated water for oatmeal and coffee over the fire, broke camp, and headed north up sprawling Agnes Lake. We crossed over to the west side, a fairly straight shoreline of mixed forest, with no campsites all the way up past the Silence Lake portage. We were able to ascend a short segment of creek to Silence Lake, bypassing the portage, then after continuing down the NW bay of lake, portaged 160 brushy and rocky meters to a small lake surrounded by high, rocky terrain and old- growth white pine forest, thence, p. 190m to another small lake, and p. 110m to yet another. We did another 110m portage into a tiny lake, then p. 420m largely through beaver-flooded woods. The next portage was 460m to Trant Lake, and was it also largely flooded. I scraped the side of my shin on a submerged rock along there. All of these small lakes remain unnamed and lightly travelled, but they pass through some of the best old-growth white pine forest in the park.
We had a floating lunch on Trant Lake and checked out the Native American pictographs there. Then we portaged to Kahshapiwi Lake. Long ago, there were two portages via a beaver pond. Then, there was one long portage, largely through beaver meadow. Now, there was a rocky, 200m portage to the beaver meadow, a float down a stream to a beaver dam, a drag over the dam, a float on a shallow, mud-bottomed stream, and another rocky, 200m portage to Kahshapiwi. After paddling to the north outlet of the lake, we portaged perhaps 30m along poison ivy to Keefer Lake, paddled to the well-used island campsite in the northern part of the lake, and set up camp. We hung out and swam during the afternoon, and later, after supper, fished off the south and west sides of the island to the south, where I caught three lake trout, and Everett caught several smallmouth bass. We carried a weather radio with us for the first time this year, and with clear weather in the forecast, slept without the rainfly on the tent—always a delightful experience.
10 July: Up to a clear morning, I built a fire to heat water for breakfast while listening Minnesota Public Radio—a new experience, as I have never travelled with a radio of any type, and was clueless regarding what was happening in the rest of the world until we returned to civilization. After breakfast we broke camp and headed north to the outlet and portage to Sark Lake. The 320m carry is rocky and a bit brushy, and certainly receives less use than it did in years past.
A light tailwind made the paddle down Sark Lake quick and easy. Although I have passed through the lake on several occasions, I have never camped on or explored it. The northern three miles of the lake are a very narrow bay, parallel to ridges on both sides—especially the east, where it rises in places a couple hundred feet above the water. Almost certainly, this is an ancient fault line that extends from Side Lake (or maybe even Basswood) to Kawnipi Lake (or even Montgomery and beyond).
We portaged 470m to Cairn Lake. Some of the trail was flooded by Kahshapiwi Creek. Cairn is a beautiful lake with scenic islands and stands of old pines. Next, we portaged perhaps 200m to Heronshaw Lake, another beauty, where we saw a single canoe in the distance, headed for the portage to Metacryst Lake. From there we portaged 250m to a long, flatwater stretch of Kahshapiwi Creek, which we followed up to where it merged with the Maligne River below the outlet rapids of Kawnipi Lake.
After passing through a narrows on a strong current, we came to a rapids dropping into Shelley Lake down which I lined the canoe. In the past with other canoes I have always run this class two rap, but with high water and a Kevlar canoe, why risk it?
We ate a floating lunch on Shelley Lake, before portaging 300m on the Have-a-Smoke Portage around Snake Falls. Keats Lake was flooded, and there was a good current flowing all through the lake. One or two low-lying campsites were actually under water, so it was no surprise that we saw no people on the usually popular lake.
At the outlet of Keats Lake lies Split Rock Falls, which is actually more a steep rapids flowing through a gap in the bedrock. We portaged around it, 420m, river right, into Chatterton Lake. I hadn’t done that portage since a day after my 18th birthday in 1979. After paddling a couple of miles we portaged 50m to McDougall Lake where we had planned to camp, but upon seeing two sites occupied—including our favorite—Everett wanted to leave, so we portaged back to Chatterton, and then portaged 410m to Russell Lake over a hill that seemed a lot easier than the last time I went over it—again, in 1979.
We headed west to the south tip of the horseshoe-shaped island, where we camped on a large and fantastic site of bedrock and pine. I took a quick bath in the dark waters near shore, while Everett explored the deep fissures in the bedrock, filled with lake water, along the shoreline. After the long day we didn’t feel like fishing, as an increasing breeze blew from the SW, so we built a fire; cooked a good supper; rigged up the tarp, as there was rain in the forecast; and hung the food pack. Wilson found interest in a local red squirrel. By 9:00p the usual horde of mosquitoes emerged, driving us into the tent.
11 July: We awoke to cloudy skies after a couple of light, early morning sprinkles. The weather radio spoke of thunderstorms and strong SW winds by later in the morning, so we packed up, ate breakfast, and hit the water as soon as possible, heading to the west end about two and a half miles away. We crossed an open fetch of the lake, but fortunately, the wind was only about 10-15 mph. Saw some common terns, probably nesting on some of the tiny, rock islands in the area.
The 540m portage to at the west end of Russell climbs over a decent-sized hill before dropping back down to Sturgeon Lake. It seems to get steady use, but isn’t pounded to a pulp. Continuing west, we passed a scout troop moving opposite our direction, and then came to the entrance of Lonely Creek. The creek tumbles in scenic rapids, which are bypassed on the west side (river right) by a 100m portage. After paddling through an open bog-lined section of the creek we portaged 120m to Lonely Lake, then paddled west down a narrow bay to the main body of the lake, where we veered northeast riding a steady tailwind. Lonely is a lovely lake that holds a spectacular, point campsite just west of the big island in the NE end of the lake.
After portaging uphill 120m along the west side of a creek to a small pond, we portaged another 35m to the narrow, southern bay of Walter Lake. From there we portaged 510m on a lightly used, rugged trail to Draper Lake, a dead-end lake that has captured my attention for a few years, and a favorite of former Quetico Park naturalist, Shirley Peruniak. The mosquitoes were thick by the time we reached the lake, so we hightailed it to the campsite at the west end of the western big island where a nice drying rack was built along the fireplace, and a middle-aged stand of red and white pines offered hospitality during our stay. We set up the tent and rainfly, ate lunch, and watched as thunderheads building to the west bypassed us, and in their wake left a new air mass with clear skies and a light west wind. With the threat of rain gone we headed out fishing and exploring. Of course, the main fish of interest was lake trout, but we could not connect with any and scoped very few on the sonar.
After checking out a second campsite on the lake, rugged and seldom-used (on the mainland NNE of our site), we returned to camp and did some cliff-jumping from the crag at the west end, and then searched for the message cache known to be near this site. It didn’t take long to find it, as we only had to follow small rock cairns along the shoreline and a short distance upslope to the cairn that held the plastic Folgers coffee jar that held the notebooks. Everett read the notes and left a message while I cooked our supper. Later on I also placed an entry and then returned the notes to their home.
12 July: As usual, I was up before Everett—it’s good to see him able to relax away from the stress and distractions of the “civilized” world. I took down the rain fly and heated up some water for breakfast over the fire, and when Everett emerged from the tent we ate, packed up, and hit the water. After portaging the 510m back to Walter Lake we paddled about a mile down a narrow bay to the main body of the lake. Walter is a scenic place, well worth visiting again. Open vistas, high shores, and a feeling of depth.
We portaged 250m to Elizabeth Lake, where we saw a couple of canoes and four men at the start of our next portage, the 740m carry to Jesse Lake. On the map Jesse seems to have two outlets—one that drains roughly southward toward Lonely and Surgeon Lakes, and the other out the west end of the Lake toward Quetico Lake. No doubt, the western outlet is the dominant one.
Jesse is a beautiful lake, and a popular place for paddlers looping out of the Nym or Beaverhouse entry points. There are many islands, stands of large pines, and plenty of nice campsites. We saw several groups there. Cirrus clouds were moving in from the southwest, and the wind began increasing from the west, and against us, toward mid-day as we approached the end of the lake. We portaged less than 100m around the south side of a rapids (as I recall), and then carried 680m on the Cedar Portage, bypassing a long segment of rapids on the north (river right) side of the stream before ending in a short stream section just before entering Oriana Lake.
It was immediately on Oriana that we began noticing evidence of past logging. There were deadheads in the shallows, numerous, old stumps along the shoreline, and the telltale lack of older trees between the water’s edge and the forest above it—a result of artificially raised lake levels from dams that held water back until it was needed to wash logs downstream. The old dams are now dilapidated and often go unnoticed by the casual observer.
We had lunch on some massive boulders along the shore, and then continued on to the outlet where the remains of an old wooden dam at the head of a cedar-choked rapids no longer hold water. We portaged 100m around it, and a short time later portaged 160m around a set of rapids before entering Quetico Lake on a short, marshy creek terminus that was in contrast with the high-shored, rock-rimmed lake beyond. For the rest of the day’s paddle, another eight or nine miles, we would buck a strong west wind that funneled down the long, near-linear channel that composed that part of Quetico Lake.
We finally set up camp on a point about two miles east of the SE end of Eden Island. Actually, there were two campsites on adjacent points, the eastern one seldom-used and rough—but with a reef extending outward —and the western one well-used and spacious. I think I camped on the latter site back in 1984 while guiding a Taylor Statten Camps trip, and we camped there again this time due to the better storm protection, as thunderstorms were in the forecast.
We set up the tent away from hazard trees, and built a fire for cooking supper along the shore on the lee side of the point to get out of the wind. It was a nice place to hang out and relax. After supper I noticed a storm building to the west, so we quickly set up the rain fly back in the woods along with the canoe, and then retired with Wilson to the tent. There was thunder and lightning with a bit of rain, but the main storm missed us, and we drifted off to sleep after a 22-mile paddle.
13 July: Up to sunny skies with a steady wind already blowing from the west, we soaked up the morning sun from the lee side of the point, drinking coffee and eating oatmeal. Then we packed up and headed upwind toward Eden Island. The original plan for the day was to veer northeastward to McAlpine Creek and Kasakokwog Lake, and then camp near the east end of Cirrus Lake, but the forecast was for strong west winds and rain showers during the afternoon—and the next day—meaning we would have to bust a strong headwind all the next day on sprawling Cirrus Lake to get back to Quetico Lake. But Everett came up with the brilliant idea of reversing the route, which would give us a tailwind on this day and some protection from the wind the next.
We paddled up the east side of Eden Island, protected from the wind, passed through a narrows that held a steady current from the nearby inflow from Cirrus Lake, and then portaged 360m (r.l., east side) around several sets of rapids and the remains of an old logging dam just down stream from the outlet of Cirrus Lake. We stopped to check out the dam site.
Once on Cirrus Lake we could see whitecaps blowing east to west, as well as a sky that was quickly clouding over and beginning to form rain squalls. I pulled out the depth-finder, as we both had long been curious about the depth of the lake, but a worsening short in the transducer wire provided only a brief sounding of the lake (173 feet), and as we were crossing a long east-west bay perpendicular to the wind and waves I couldn’t mess with it without risking dumping or swamping.
We passed through another narrows and then headed out onto the middle of the three long basins of the lake. Stopping in the lee of an island we put on rain gear and set up our fishing rods for trolling. Then we headed down-wind on some pretty big seas during intermittent rain squalls. Along the way I hooked a three or four-pound lake trout, which was a bit of a pain to land under those conditions. I released it. There appeared to be a decent campsite on a small island off the north shore of the lake about two miles NNE of the lake’s outlet, as the crow flies.
We stopped for lunch at a well-used campsite on the east side of the narrows between the middle and eastern basins of the lake and fished the narrows without any luck. It’s probably a great place in the spring.
Continuing east, I was able to scope the lake bottom intermittently, and found depths to over 220 feet. We cruised along on a strong tailwind until we arrived at a rough campsite about a quarter mile west of the pictograph bay on the north shore to ride out a rain squall and look for a place to camp. We unloaded the canoe and overturned the canoe on land, in case it turned out to be a real soaker. There were deadfalls and uneven ground across the site, and the only flat spot for a tent had a dead tree hanging over it. After huddling under some dense evergreen branches, we checked out a cool, nearly brush-free, pine-covered ridge behind the site. Then, we paddled the short distance east to the north-south finger-like bay that has some pictographs on a low rock face. There were several red-ochre discs, as well as a few faded images that seemed to be much older. As is typical, their meaning is unknown…
We camped on a fairly rugged site on the east side of the mouth of the pictograph bay, an uneven, rocky location with a loose scattering of middle-aged red and jack pines. Our three-person tent just fit on a flat spot underneath some low, jack pine branches. The rainfly was set up nearby. I didn’t bother building a fire, as conditions were cool and damp, and we wanted the protection of the tent. I heated water for supper and warm drinks on the stove under the vestibule.
One could spend many days exploring and fishing Cirrus Lake. Much of the original pine forest was logged off in the 1920s (I believe), and the forest is still recovering nearly a century later. There are stands of mature jack pine growing in areas that burned in the wake of the logging, as well as much mixed forest consisting of aspen, birch, balsam, spruce, along with white and red pine. Most camping tends to be concentrated on a few site, the rest being rugged and lightly used.
14 July: The wind was calm a when we woke up—and there were even a couple of “sucker holes” in the overcast—but Paul Huttner, the MPR meteorologist we listened to on the radio, indicated that we were near the center of a low pressure system that would bring strong winds again later in the morning, as well as record-low maximum temperatures and rain. Both the Environment Canada and NOAA weather radio stations were predicting the same. Knowing we would have a long east-west fetch on Kasakokwog Lake, we decided it was in our best interest to get moving as soon as possible. So, while heating water on the stove we started packing up, and after a quick breakfast, were on the water headed for the Kasakokwog portage.
We could hear the roar of Sue Falls entering the bay that opens up to the north at the east end of Cirrus Lake, but we decided not to check it out, our priority being to get as far as possible while it was still nearly calm. Looking at the high southern shore of Cirrus Lake, one would think that any portage in that direction would be hellacious, but the 980m portage to Kasakokwog passes through a bit of a gap, and although it does climb a fair bit, is not brutal. The trail gets regular use, and the toughest part for me was the slick mud on the steady descent down the south slope.
I hadn’t been on Kasakokwog in 30 years, and like the last time, was passing through in a hurry. That was unfortunate, because the lake is very scenic and probably has some great trout and walleye fishing. A mixed, second growth forest grows surrounds the lake. We paddled a short distance down the outlet stream before portaging 580m (r.l.) along the side of the valley where McAlpine Creek flows in a series of rapids and through the remains of an old logging dam. Below the rapids the stream flows over a bed of sand for about half a mile before reaching Quetico Lake. This was a fun stretch to paddle.
We stopped for a break on a nice campsite at the western tip of a large island a mile-and-a-half from McAlpine Creek, where we found some old relics from the logging days. The weight of these metal objects has pretty much ensured that they will remaining in the park…
The partial sunshine of the morning looked to end as we paddled southwestward on Quetico Lake. Clouds increased and veils of rain fell in the distance, moving our way. I caught and released a nice walleye while trolling. We checked out three pictograph sites along the north shore of the lake, the eastern-most ranking as one of the best I’ve ever seen anywhere. There was a caribou with wide antlers; a moose; several human figures; a canoe carrying several people, including one standing; a smaller canoe with two paddlers; and several abstract figures.
The next picto site to the west had a couple of abstract figures—a zig-zag line and a seal-like figure— their meaning lost to the ages. We visited another site, less distinct, before heading through a narrows at the north end of Eden Island to visit a fourth picto site that consisted of handprints and discs. Like the other sites there were traces of older images, very faded and unreadable. These specific rock faces, among many others in the North, seem to have been important to aboriginal artists over long periods of time, many generations.
We noticed the wind starting to pick up from the north as we started down the west side of Eden Island. Before long we were riding whitecaps and swells on a tailwind that would be downright dangerous on cold water. I did manage to get the depthfinder working for a bit and scoped depths to 200 feet. I would guess that even deeper water was is found farther west and away from Eden Island. We pulled into the lee of the long point at the SW end of Eden Island and decided to camp on the open site there. Thick shoreline vegetation kept us fairly sheltered from the wind. We set up the tent, hung our food, and heated water for hot lemonade in the tent.
Early in the evening we could hear voices toward the south and soon found that a group was headed toward our site, bucking the wind. I soon found out they were from the Ontario camp (Taylor Statten Camps) I had guided for during my college summers, and were out on a 35-day paddle, the same trip I guided 30 years earlier! I invited them to camp with us, as there were no nearby campsites, they were fairly wet, and the wind was still strong. It was fun visiting with them and comparing my experience with theirs. They carried all kinds of electronics that were not even imagined back in the day, but many of the old camp traditions remained the same. After dark they mis-identified the northern twilight shining through a large break in the clouds over the northern horizon for the northern lights.
15 July: We awoke to a beautiful morning of blue skies, light northwest wind. The TSC group was busy taking down their camp, while we heated water for breakfast. They were in a hurry to get on the water, as they had a food drop at nearby Beaverhouse Lake, and would meet up with the other groups from camp. Everett and I headed in a different direction—south toward Badwater Lake.
We portaged 20m across a sandy isthmus and continued on down into West Bay, from where we portaged 1410m to Badwater Lake. The portage was generally flat, with some wet areas and stretches that crossed muskeg on log corduroy. I think a fair amount of work has gone into this portage, because it once had a reputation for being a tough, swampy carry. Now, it’s just fairly long. Badwater shows a lot of evidence of past logging—stumps along the shore, a formerly higher water level due to logging dams—but it is a scenic lake with several very nice campsites midway down its length. There is a good amount of second-growth pine along the lake.
On the north side of the east end of Badwater Lake is a meadow that looks like it was probably the site of a logging camp back in the 1920s. Across from there we portaged 140m around the south side of a tiny stream to a small lake, and then portaged another 70m to Fair Lake. Fair Lake had also been raised during the logging days, and after entering a shallow bay with dead, standing trees, we portaged about 130m to Your Lake along the east (r.l.) side of a stream. Campsites were seen on several small islands in the lake. We ate a floating lunch midway down the lake before portaging about 780m to Boulder Lake on a seldom- used trail. The maps show two carries there, but a now-dry beaver pond requires portaging through the hummocky sedge meadow that separates the two former portages.
Boulder Lake has fairly clear water and is scenic, with a campsite along the east shore. From there we portaged northward 125m around a tiny outlet stream to an unnamed lake, thence p. 10m across boulders to Jean Creek as it meanders through old beaver meadow, and p. 90m (north side) to a navigable creek segment through another beaver meadow. Finally, we portaged 165m to a shallow, weed-filled bay where Jean Creek enters Jean Lake.
Soon, we were paddling on the clear, rock-lined waters of Jean Lake, heading in an east and northeast direction in search of a campsite. One promising point had no flat area for a tent, but provided a great view and some nice swimming. We rested there. A nice site on a narrow island east of Ivy Island was occupied, and a very tiny island just west of that site would have been cool to camp on, but would have been embarrassing so near the other site. No privacy there, either. We ended up camping on a point on the west side of the of the narrows leading to the Conk Lake portage—a large, well-used site with a great view down the lake. A large garter snake lived under a bedrock slab along the shore.
We set up the tent without its fly, as the forecast was for a cool, clear, and dry night; then swam to wash off the day’s grime, ate supper, and retired to the tent around sunset to read, relax, and drift off to sleep.
16 July: I woke up and went outside to take a leak as the eastern sky was brightening. The sky was cloudless, and some steam was rising from the lake. After sleeping for a couple more hours I got up and heated water for coffee and oatmeal. Everett remained in the tent, reading “Digital Fortress” by Dan Brown. After he emerged we packed up and headed eastward down Jean Lake, trolling for lake trout. I caught a nice (20-plus inch) walleye that was suspended over deep water, but that was it.
After stopping briefly in the narrows in the eastern part of the lake where several campsites occur, we veered SSW to the portage to Burntside Lake. I caught a small lake trout over what must certainly be near the deepest part of the lake, where I scoped depths to over 220 feet on my intermittently working depth finder.
The portage to Burntside Lake is about 400m long. Unlike Jean Lake, Burntside appears to have been spared by the early pine loggers, as I saw no evidence of past logging. The lake is very scenic, and has old pines, and several fine campsites. I trolled up a chunky, 3-pound smallmouth, and I suspect there is great fishing for all the major gamefish there.
We paddled through a narrows into Rouge Lake, beneath what is probably one of the finest stands of old-growth white and red pines in Quetico. I consider them superior to those at McNiece and Shan Walshe Lakes, where fire has decimated many of the old trees. The ancient forest is well-stocked and intact, save for farther south on Rouge where wildfire has thinned or eliminated parts of it in recent years. After eating lunch on a campsite that was burned over a few years ago across from the outlet, we portaged 80m to Jean Creek near an abundance of poison ivy, then p.5m, and finally, p. 100m along the creek. At the last portage we met a Boy Scout group, guided by an attractive young woman from Sommers Canoe Base. The adults looked pretty sullen, and it was hard for me to tell if anyone was really having that much fun. Light and fast, we were far past them in a short time. The Chrismar map shows an additional portage along Jean Creek before reaching Sturgeon Lake, and the Fisher map shows two more. In reality, there are no more portages required—only a flat paddle down the bog-lined stream, and a quick passage through a gap in a beaver dam.
Apart from a site on a point near the mouth of Jean Creek, there are surprisingly no campsites along the west shore of Sturgeon Lake, but between the inlet of Bentpine Creek and the Maligne River outlet of the lake there are at least half a dozen—most heavily used. We ended up camping on a seldom-used site a mile-and-a-half NW of the outlet. There was some old cable from the logging days on the site, and a good view to the east. We fished between our campsite and a narrows that had some current from Bentpine Creek and caught several bass, walleyes, and pike. We ate a good supper and then retired to the fly-less tent just after sunset when the hordes of mosquitoes appeared, hungry for blood. You could set your watch by this event.
CONTINUED ON PART 2