Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Quetico: Prairie Portage to Cirrus and Back (Part 2)
by arctic

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 07/08/2014
Entry & Exit Point: Quetico
Number of Days: 14
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
17 July: The sun rising in the northeast was drying the dew when we got up. The sky had a milky tint to it from the smoke of distant wildfires in the Canadian northwest. After breakfast we packed up and prepared to leave the site. I lost the Velcro tab that held the canoe painter in place and could not find it anywhere, and after an exhaustive search we gave up and hit the water, headed for the Maligne Portages.[paragraph break]  The water was still high from a late snow melt and subsequent rains, so time on the water and at put- ins and take-outs had to take into account the strong current. The three portages (250m, 320m, and 210m) all went well, and the steady current and small rapids downstream had us down to the entrance of Poohbah Creek very quickly. Ascending the bullrush-filled channel at the lower end of the creek, we soon came to the first portage, a 190m portage carry on the north side (r.r.) around a rapids and severely degraded logging dam. Then, we paddled the creek channel through an open wetland before portaging 120m (r.l.) around more rapids, paddled a flat segment, portaged 180m around another unnavigable section, paddled a short distance, and finally, portaged maybe 100m (r.r.) to the outlet of Poohbah Lake. We could paddle through a short segment above that often requires dragging.

 A two-mile paddle down a narrow bay brought us to the main body of the lake, and headed for our favorite site on the lake. Seeing unnatural color there, we thought the site might be occupied, but upon our arrival found that the First Nation folks out of Lac La Croix had stashed three boats, motors, gas cans, and a rolled-up tent there. Also present were dozens of old walleye carcasses. We were not happy about it, and Everett was downright pissed. The fact that we could bust our asses off for several days to reach this wonderful lake, while others could pay to be flown in within a half hour to exploit and degrade it rubbed us the wrong way. Everett didn’t even want to camp there, but I stashed the gear into a small place and told him that it was highly unlikely that anyone would be flying in after mid-day, and that they had no right to occupy the site if we were on it anyway. I set up the tent and went for a swim. Then we ate lunch.

 Sometime later we headed off to fish. Starting at an island SE of our camp we caught and released several nice walleyes on chartreuse twister-tail jigs. Then we headed over to the reef extending eastward and caught more walleyes. Everett also caught his largest pike to date—a solid twelve-pound fish that I released boat-side, not wanting to risk shredding my hand on its teeth. After returning to camp we cooked and ate supper, and I went for another swim. Not long after we saw and heard fish thrashing on the surface off of a small reef extending SW from our camp. These turned out to be large smallmouth bass, and we both caught several on top-water lures and others. What a blast! We retired to the fly-less tent as the mosquitoes emerged after sunset.

 18 July: Our initial plan was to spend two days on Poohbah, fishing and exploring, but with the weather forecast predicting winds in the 15-20 mph range, it made no sense to do so. So, we packed up and headed for the Memory Lane Portages—those three, tough carries to Conmee Lake.

 The first, 970m carry was wet in places, meandered a fair amount, and passed through a flooded beaver pond area where I had to put down the canoe to find the trail before continuing the final couple hundred meters to the small lake at the end of the portage. The mosquitoes were pretty thick. Emergent vegetation covered the west end of the lake.

 The second portage, 1,670m long, climbed a short distance and then leveled out for several hundred meters before dropping into intermittent wet areas. Eventually, it ended on floating bog at a second, small lake. There, we encountered a group of teenagers from a YWCA Camp out of Ely or Grand Marais who were nearly out of sunscreen. We barely had enough for ourselves, so couldn’t spare any.

 The third portage was 1,220m long and passed through muskeg some upland forest. The trail was definitely wetter than it had been two years earlier, but not brutal. It was great to get to Conmee Lake, though, exactly two hours after leaving Poohbah.

 We paddled through Conmee Lake, noting only a couple of fair campsites, before portaging 150m to Suzannette Lake. The wind was increasing from the SW, so we had to deal with a crosswind until we stopped for lunch on a well-used campsite, midway down the lake. Afterwards, we were more sheltered, paddling along the shoreline enroute to the Darkwater River. We portaged 200m, then p. 125m around rapids, and after a lake-like stretch of river portaged 225m to a pond, and then p.200m to Marj Lake. Marj is a lovely, clear-water lake that has always intrigued me. We paddled around the south part of the lake looking for a campsite out of the wind. We ended up camping on a site at the south end of the large island in the northern part of the lake, fully exposed to wind and waves. Unloading the canoe was a bit treacherous and Wilson injured his foot exiting the canoe onto the rocks and brush.

 This was the site I camped on with a TSC group in 1984, but it seemed like it was far less used today. We may, in fact, have been the first to use it this year. We pampered Wilson in the tent, and he seemed to recover fairly quickly—he came out to check out our food while we ate supper. There was a chance of thunderstorms in the forecast, so I stashed the canoe in a low area well away from the shore. The wind let up some in the evening, but it was still too breezy to fish effectively. Bummer.

 19 July: There were a few sprinkles of rain in the morning, after which we got up broke camp, and headed back over the same portages we came in on the previous day. The sky was partly cloudy; the wind steady from the SW. We portaged 200m to Paulene Lake, and then p. 390m to McIntyre Lake. After bucking the wind that had increased in strength during the morning, we arrived on the west shore of the lake, off of which I had read there was a great trout reef. On two nearby locations we found old, stone furniture. At the northern site, WSW from the broad point in the middle of the lake, were a couple of stone stools and a table/fireplace (?) arranged in a circle within a few feet of the shoreline. These were heavily covered with lichens, and the location, though flat enough to be a campsite, looked as if it hadn’t been used in at least 50 years.

 A few hundred meters to the south was an even more elaborate display of camp furniture—a stone bench with backrest and a fireplace with a built-in wood cache. Again, it looked as if no one had camped there in decades, as a dense growth of juniper was covering much of the fireplace. The only flat spot for a tent was either on open bedrock, or on saturated moss just inland. My guess is that this was a site used for its close proximity to great fishing. Why else would such effort go into making rock furniture that, if left undisturbed, would likely last for centuries?

 Everett wasn’t thrilled to camp on the site, but I was intrigued and wanted to clear out the old fireplace and put it to use. The ankle-biter flies were pretty thick on the site, and Wilson suffered mercilessly. Although we were on the lee side of the lake, out farther it was too windy to fish effectively, so we swam in the clear water, admiring the clear water over a bedrock bottom. Later in the afternoon we did fish for walleyes without luck, the fact that the depth-finder was only intermittently working for short periods of time certainly didn’t help matters.

 During the day the weather seemed ripe for thunderstorms, the air being very warm and fairly humid. But by early evening the sky was clearing and the weather radio was predicting a dry night. So, we set up the tent on the hard bedrock. Then we went out fishing again, deep jigging this time. Before long Everett had a hit, and then I caught and released about a four-pound lake trout. By then the sun was down, so we headed back to camp to get into the tent before the nightly mosquito swarm emerged. By the time we got into the tent the buzzing of thousands of mosquitoes surrounded us. Being a warm night we were glad to be able to do without the rain-fly.

 20 July: Up to overcast skies, the forecast called for fairly strong southerly winds and hot temperatures in the mid to upper 80s. A bald eagle landed in a tree overlooking our campsite as we packed up to go after breakfast.

 Paddling down along the west shore on McIntyre Lake as the sky clouds burned off, we passed a nice, but well-used campsite; and just south of the narrows leading to a canoe route to the west, checked out an area of large boulders and shattered rocks in the lake. After portaging 120m to Sarah Lake, descending a steep hill toward the end, we bucked a steady wind while encountering another group or two along the way. Fortunately, we could tuck in behind islands and points along our way to the SE outlet.[paragraph break]  I prefer to make the one longer portage to Side Lake from Sarah, but we missed it in our haste, and ended up doing three short portages along the outlet stream instead. The first one was actually quite scenic, passing high above the creek for perhaps 100m; the next two were much shorter. At the south end of Side Lake we met what appeared to be a middle-aged dad and his kids ho had just come into the lake. We portaged 330m, taking the left (east) fork to an unnamed lake via a long uphill climb, and encountered another group that was taking a lunch break on the campsite at the SW end. Then, we portaged 150m downhill to Isabella Lake, where we stopped for lunch on the elevated site at the mid-lake narrows.

 We portaged perhaps 75-100m (r.r.) around an outlet rapids to Isabella Creek and had a delightful downstream paddle to the unnamed lake (also known as Lilypad Lake) that lies just upstream from North Bay. Wilson jumped out and ran along the hummocky shoreline, probably regretting his choice. I suspect that in lower water levels we would be doing a lot of dragging.

After paddling some down some small, shallow rapids below “Lilypad” Lake, we passed through an extensive wetland before stopping for a break at an open, heavily-used campsite under towering red pines on a point in the lee of an island at the NW end of North Bay.

 North Bay is a cool place, but its alignment with the SW to NE wind that often blows during the summer frequently challenges paddlers with strong winds and whitecaps. That was the case for us. Fortunately, we could island-hop the two-and-a-half miles down to Burke Creek. The islands didn’t break the wind very far from shore, but they did provided opportunities for a brief rest.

 We portaged 150m on the heavily pounded trail to Burke Creek, then p. 80m to Burke Lake. After bucking the wind with no protection toward the south end, we stopped at a favorite site where we usually stay on our last night in the park and had a swim. The weather radio was broadcasting a good chance for severe storms, and with this site being very exposed, we continued on to Basswood Lake, camping just inland from the sand beach near the Burke-Basswood portage. There was a good surf crashing into the beach, so we had to wade out with the canoe, jump in, and paddle out beyond the murk to collect clean water for drinking and cooking. After cooking supper on the stove, we hung out in the tent before retiring for the night.

 21 July: Up to a sunny morning with light winds, we cooked a leisurely breakfast, broke camp, and headed out onto sprawling Basswood Lake. We encountered several other groups of paddlers while on our way to Prairie Portage, and when we arrived there I chatted about park management—especially the with issue of First Nation motorized access—with a park official who just happened to be there. We then portaged to Sucker Lake above the Prairie Portage Dam, and paddled the final six miles of our trip to Moose Lake landing, past numerous groups of paddlers, usually Boy Scouts, as well as motorized tow boats. Another great, but often windy trip under our belts.