Quetico June 2015: Argo, Brent, Conmee, Minn
by Mad Birdman
Mark Anderson from Anderson’s Outfitters always takes good care of us, and he had arranged for a 7am tow-out for us. We meet with him at the outfitters to talk about our route, and he wishes us well as we get dropped off on the Crane Lake dock. As luck would have it, the Sun Prairie teens/dad group is in our boat, and they are getting dropped off before us at Bell Island (Maligne River/Twin Falls area). They are heading up the Maligne which we did last year (no thanks on doing that again in the spring!). If they are going to make it to Sturgeon, I think to myself, those kids better be good paddlers! We had stops at the usual places: Sand Point customs, the two mechanical portages at Loon Falls and Beatty Portage, the Canadian Ranger station, and then one extra one, at Campbell’s resort for a couple of their group to buy fishing licenses. I had never been there before, so we walked around a bit as we waited. It took longer than it should have in my opinion, and this delay was a minor annoyance since my group had all of ours beforehand.
Before too long, we were back in the boat, dropped them off at Bell Island, and headed down towards Bottle Portage, our entry spot. I recall thinking that it took longer to get from Bell to Bottle than I would have guessed, but I was getting impatient with the other delays and just wanted to get our trip going. The anticipation of a new route coming into view when you’ve been looking at maps all winter is one of the feelings I cherish each year. Bottle portage is muddy as usual, but we take the high-land route that is a bit less so and make our way down the trail. We see a group of older guys taking out on the Bottle Lake end, and as we greet them, we hear that one of them was from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin as well. Small world. We are anxious to get our paddles in the water, and finally do so at around 10:15am. We scoot through Bottle and Iron Lakes, seeing a few groups camping on Iron in the distance (closer to the US side). We paddle past Four and Three Islands and are moving up towards the portage to Curtain Falls when I see some paddles flashing quickly in the water ahead. It appeared as if some kayak paddlers were moving quickly down the white water at first, but as we got closer, we could see that was not the case. An aluminum canoe had flipped heading up the chute below the portage and were splashing around trying to get to shore. Brian and Pete move up to them first and help town them to the left shore. I have heard that this chute is the spot in the whole park where canoes dump the most often, and we are seeing that first- hand. It’s a younger guy and his father, but both are OK. It was a warm sunny day which helped a bit, but of course the water was very cold. They are apparently camped nearby on Iron, so they headed back that way once they got righted. We stop at a small point just before the portage around the aforementioned chute to grab some food before portaging, when Brian asks Pete where his tackle bag is. They search their gear and don’t have it, but they know it was taken off the towboat at Bottle. A dilemma: did they leave it at Bottle Portage? If so, did the guys we saw there who were taking out notice that it was left there and give it to Anderson’s? Have others been along since we were there and noticed it, and hopefully left it there? We were so cranked up to get going after our tow delays that maybe we were too hasty? We decide that Greg and I will finish lunch and move along, to try to secure one of three campsites on Argo Lake that I had marked, while they went back and at least checked. We could have lent Brian enough fishing gear, but his raingear and some other essentials were in there as well, and after the trip we had last year weatherwise, we were loath to leave without raingear! So, the day is not starting out as smooth as we would like it, but that’s life. Rolling with the punches, whether from poor fishing, iffy weather, or whatever else might occur is part of the deal in canoe country. Pete and Brian grab a Clif bar and some water, unloading the rest of their canoe on the point, and make tracks back to Bottle Portage. Greg and I finish lunch and pack up, hitting the portage over the island that avoids the chute. You make the first portage, then have to put the boat in for about 40 yards, then get out again and do the Curtain Falls portage. In low water, I am guessing you can just make that all in one shot, but that was not an option for us. At the put-in before the short paddle, we came upon another group. These were all guys in their 50’s probably, and were very nice as we chatted with them. They were looking for their other two guys, who set off around to the south of the island, hearing that there was a portage there that joins up with the Curtain Falls portage without having to do the short paddle between them. We told them that we’d keep an eye out as we went, and then one of the guys asked us where we were from. After I tell him that I’m from Madison, he replies “I’m from (wait for it) Sun Prairie!” I can’t believe that I have now seen three different groups from one small town in Wisconsin…good stuff! Ironically, one of usual group, Brett, is from there too, but he wasn’t along this year. As we walk the portage with the big pack and the food pack, we see guys coming at us from a trail to our right, a ways away. We head on down the portage and don’t see them again. As we walked back, we saw their gear that they had set down at the junction of the two trails. When we made it to the start of the portage, we described the gear to the other guys, and they then followed us. The two groups met up, so I guess there is a southern portage access that avoids doing the double take out method. We snap a few pictures of the always-stunning Curtain Falls, which was quite photogenic on this bluebird day.
We decide to get going pretty quickly because we feel pretty decent headwind gathering from the east/southeast. We had been enjoying the calm up to that point, and now we were about to cross the largest expanse of open water we had seen. So, we made sure the gear was tucked down tight and set out. As we set out for the eastern shore of Crooked, I had to keep turning the bow slightly southward to point it right into the whitecaps that were coming up on us now. We’re white-knuckling it a bit now, but make it into the “wind shade” of a sizeable island. We grab a sip of water and hope our shoulders are up to the task. The wind comes up even more as we get out again, and now it’s all I can do to keep the canoe tracking into the waves, and lose my bearing on the eastern shore. When we finally make it to the leeward shore, I breathe a sigh of relief as we head on towards Argo. Except, as we paddle ten more minutes, I realize things aren’t looking like I would expect on the map. We see a bay mouth opening to the east—that must be it. So, we head that way, only to see a long stretch of water spanning east where I expected to see the dead-end bay that leads to the Argo portage. I have the decent sense to stop and take a break since I was getting dehydrated and pretty tired. When I get out to the canoe to stretch my legs and regain my bearings after pounding a whole bottle of water, it becomes clear that we missed the bay by going too far south. I should have guessed that all of my efforts to quarter us into the headwind meant we had gotten off course, but on a big lake like Crooked with lots of islands, it’s pretty easy to do. So, we backtrack and get our way back to the northeast, and see the entrance to the Argo portage. This is an honest carry when you’re fully loaded and tired, about 1000m, a lot of it uphill. The reward is seeing the beautiful blue waters of Argo, but it’s buggy so we set back off for our second load. As we load up, we hear a shout, and there’s Pete and Brian back from their sidetrip. Good news—the tackle bag was still there, and the group was back together again. Our relaxed lunch and then getting turned around in eastern Crooked was nearly equivalent to their backtrack. We rig up to troll for trout on our way northeast to where the campsites are, but Pete and Brian have had enough paddling for now and want to make camp. We send them ahead to check out a couple of options, and they will radio us with whichever is open. Greg catches one eater-size trout, our first fish of the trip, and the other two let us know that both of our first two choices were taken. So, we head to a site on the south end of Birch Island and set up there. It’s been a pretty long day, and we cook some pizza’s and the one trout in the stone “oven” we make.
When it was time to hit the sack, it didn’t take long for sleep to settle on everyone.