Adventures West of Quetico
June 3- 4, 1995
The sudden sputtering of the straining Johnson 3 ½ horse snapped me out of my sleepy daydreams. I fumbled for a premixed fuel bottle, carefully opened the fuel tank and poured the contents into the empty tank. Our canoe drifted slowly sideways in the current on an endless Canadian Muskeg under vast cloudy skies. I fired the little engine up and continued heading East. Was there an ever an end to this stream? My son and I had been motoring upstream for over two hours and still the Muskeg wound its way through the awakening Spring marshes.
This Spring fishing trip had begun the afternoon before when we left Minneapolis with several heavily laden vehicles. All afternoon we headed North, finally stopping at a tiny motel in International Falls, sleeping 5-6 to a room.
Dawn came early as we backed the vans and canoe loaded trailers out of the motel parking lot, a quick stop at the local McDonald’s had us juggling coffees, cocoas and McMuffins as we crossed the Canadian boarder. We pressed on another 75 miles until we got to Nestor Falls, Ontario on the far Eastern shore of Lake of the Woods. My buddy, a veteran Camper and fisherman directed our twelve person party of dads and sons of a range of ages into the local bait shop to buy our Provincial camping permits, fishing licenses and leeches. We parked the vehicles down by the water and began unloading the gear and packing the canoes.
A total of six scratched and patched war horse Grumman canoes, a collection of assorted aging boat motors, numerous bottles of premixed 2 cycle fuel, uncounted Duluth packs, artillery sized fishing pole transport tubes and kids all got affixed or loaded into the old canoes. The canvas packs were incredibly heavy…at least to my mind. (I had been a confirmed backpacker and who had once cut off the handle to a toothbrush to save a few grams on a hike.) The sheer volume of gear these guys took for what was my inaugural Canadian canoe fishing trip was simply mind boggling. We looked more like an invading third world army than a group going camping.
Directly cross the bay several ‘fly-in’ bases were busy, with colorful float planes roaring in and out from their docks. Tiny Nestor Falls was humming that cool gray June morning.
Once loaded, our fleet of canoes headed off across an arm of that giant lake, motors straining against the wind and the waves. After 45 minutes of full throttle cross lake boating we reached the stream and endless muskeg I mentioned at the start of the story. We left the choppy lake and moved relentlessly upstream. The spring waters were high with a brisk current – this segment of the trip would have taken days were we paddling it. The green underwater grasses waved in the current as we pressed Eastward.
The end of the Muskeg found us at a short portage. I got out of the canoe, grateful for the chance to stretch my legs, and began to remove the heavy Duluth packs. My buddy, already down the shore, motioned me to put the pack back into the canoe and give him a hand. To my astonishment, the other guys were pulling and dragging a heavily laden Grumman up and onto a makeshift wooden skid. The skid – there must be another word for these – was constructed years (decades?) earlier from the looks of the decaying logs. Rusty nails stuck up out of weathered and slick logs – adroit and fancy footwork was required as we skidded the aluminum canoes on the elevated rack and over the short portage stepping and sometimes leaping from slippery log to slippery log. Keeping the canoes moving and sliding was the rule as we pushed and pulled the groaning Grummans and motors over the wet mossy logs and back into the water on the other side.
The first portage over, we fired up our tiny engines and continued up stream. The topography changed and became more interesting as we cruised deeper into the Canadian Wilderness. Occasional seaplanes could be heard overhead ferrying their clients to prime fishing spots. Another endless stretch of stream ended at still another small log skid portage. Again the canoes were dragged out of the water and across the wooden skids fully loaded, the small engines propped up and out of harm’s way. Again, amazingly, none of our party got impaled on the long rusty nails that stuck up out of the crude and fragile wooden racks as we pushed and pulled the heavy canoes over.
This time we entered a series of small lakes, with hills and towering pines – still we kept up the pace, pausing only when a shear pin broke on the hardworking motors. Jim, one of the other fathers and a skilled carpenter by trade, had the most shear pin infractions. Fortunately he and his son were cheerful enough in making these repairs while standing in still cold spring melt water.
The next portage and rapids was reached .. and there was no magical wooden skid built. Instead one by one the fathers and older boys waded waist deep into the rushing stream and hauled and dragged the canoes up stream, over rocks, small waterfalls and fallen and trapped logs. At one point we lost one of the smaller boys to the raging current but retrieved him at the bottom of the falls, wet and shivering but cheerfully unhurt.
Finally we reached Lake Kishkatina and set up base camp on a medium sized island. First we engineered a huge blue tarp roof. Old and aged plastic sheeting had previously been stretched horizontally between trees to block the gusting North winds. Generations of fishermen had pounded in nails, now rusty and corroded, in exactly the right locations to hang pots and tie off lines to control our flapping blue tarp roof. The kids had been struggling to carry up the packs from the canoes – when opened these packs discharged their load of tents, sleeping bags, pads, nested pots and pans, a cast iron five burner stove with attachable legs, a 5 gallon propane tank, and full sized chain saw and food. Apple boxes and banana crates were opened to display bags of potatoes, canned food, frozen steaks in oversized Coleman coolers, two liter bottles of soda, bags of candy, fruit, dozens and dozens of eggs, bottles of oil, pancake mix, butcher shop sliced thick slabs of bacon, loves of bakery bread, butter…. and this is just what I could see on the top of the boxes. I was astounded. This looked more like a rustic cruise ship than a camp! This was certainly a far cry from our stoic backpacking trips where my sons and I huddled over a small stove fixing Raman noodles for dinner carefully rationing the food!
The day was drawing to a close, as tents were erected and sleeping bags were spread out. Soon four nylon tents were staked out and ready for the evening. One of the fathers who on the trip, evidently camping for the first time with his teenaged son, went out to the point of the island to try his luck at fishing from shore. We soon heard a shout and found Harl with a beached Northern Pike. If memory serves me correctly, this fish was easily 36”. A team of fathers, acting like battlefield surgeons, carefully removed the deeply embedded Rappela from the mouth of the monster, and held him in the water moving him back and forth before finally letting him swim off into the black waters of that lake.
My youngest, who was about seven at the time, watched from the sidelines. He now gazed out at the darkening lake with some trepidation.
The rest of the older kids and fathers set up the fishing gear. Huge plastic tubes of rods and reels of every make and description were emptied and hands were busy setting up the rigs. Tackle boxes appeared out of still more Duluth packs. I carefully assembled my pack rod and took the kid sized ultra light rigs I have recently purchased for my sons and loaded new 4# test mono onto their reels. The leeches were checked and a few of the older boys went out on the dark lake to catch few Walleyes for breakfast.
Darkness came late, and one by one fathers and sons headed off to their tents for a weary sleep.
Day Two June 5, 1995
My boys and I awoke to the roar of a float plane taking off – it sounded like it was about 30 feet from my tent perched way out on the point. I peeked out the tent door, the plane was indeed close taking off from the lake just behind our tent – it left the water and banked hard to port, its wingtips just a few feet off the sparkling water.
The morning was sunny, I heard pans clattering and smelled bacon in the pan. I wandered over to the busy kitchen, all burners were alight and the walleyes caught the evening before were filleted and ready to join us for breakfast. More and more campers woke up and rubbing the sleep from their eyes, were served a breakfast of thick pancakes, butter, syrup, extra rations of bacon, walleye pieces and mugs of steaming cocoa.
Cleanup was efficient and brisk as the teams paired off. The morning was bright and cool, the sunlight danced off the waves as boats were refueled and lures and bait were made ready. I took my assigned boat with my youngest son, planning on observing my buddy’s spring fishing techniques. He didn’t disappoint, tracking his canoe parallel to shore about 50 feet from the rocky lake edge. Running the canoe motor at a fairly brisk pace he proceeded to punish the shoreline casting and recasting his black and gold Rappala into the shallows and across the waiting Smallmouths hovering over their nests. Fishing was hot as following his lead as best we could we caught Bass after Bass. In the course of the next two hours we must have covered six miles of shoreline.
Back to camp for lunch, Bass were quickly cleaned and filleted, and quart bottles of soda were gleefully consumed by the boys as the fish were prepared on the large griddle. Sandwiches of sausage (and a few Peanut Butter and Jelly for the picky eaters) were also prepared. Stories about the ones that got away and favored lure colors were exchanged. My sons, who had never caught much under my inexpert tutelage, were excited and energized by the experience.
Fathers and sons alike retired to their tents and hammocks for afternoon naps. I went to work cleaning up the campsite, washing dishes and started to make some of the prepackaged desserts for dinner, using the coolers to chill the mixture.
Mid afternoon brought the crews out and once again the fleet of canoes left the camp heading to all parts of this large Canadian lake. Shore fishing had slowed, so we began to fish deeper with the leeches. In my boat, I was forward and my buddy was aft running the motor.
My oldest son Brent who was probably nine at the time, was perched on a tackle box in the middle of the canoe. We entered a quiet bay with sheer rock walls and house sized boulders lying in the dark water. My friend had just tied a leadhead and a large leech onto my son’s delicate ultralight setup. Brent was told to cast over towards a particularly large boulder.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw it. A giant Northern – 40-45 inches is my best guess – was rocketing toward my son’s bait like a torpedo on final approach. Steve yelled at him to flip his bail NOW! In the second it took for Brent to process the command, it was over. The ultralight rod bent almost in two, the end snapped and his line was parted – the Northern, annoyed by the tug, slapped his enormous tail on the water, soaking all of us. It was over. Brent looked up and said “What happened?” Fishing stories to tell for years.
The evening fishing picked up and the dinner of fire grilled steaks was complemented by golden fillets, fresh salads and chilled desserts.
After cleanup, the boys chased around the island until it got too dark to safety move about. A bonfire on the point was ignited and we huddled close in the gathering crisp spring evening. By 10:30 or so it was quite dark – but suddenly one of the older boys saw totally astonishing Northern Lights begin to light up the sky. Red, green, gold, yellow the colors were a luminous riot as bands and swirls shifted across thousands of miles of sky in split seconds. This sight transfixed children and adults alike until late into the evening.
Day Three June 6, 1995
Again I awoke early and helped fix the big breakfast for the guys. A repeat of the day before, more calories for breakfast than I usually consumed in an entire day back in the City.
My older son Brent, who was working on his fishing merit badge for Boy Scouts was out on a rock by the beached canoes. One of the older boys was instructing him on the finer points of casting a buzzbait with a baitcasting reel. His first cast brought in a thrashing 24” Northern!
Today we were going on an adventure. No trip with my friend is complete without at least several brushes with death. Today the teams were heading over several lakes and this trip would involve some serious portaging. Several of the campers who were more experienced at camping with Steve than was I, wisely stayed behind. I looked skeptically at the aluminum thwart of the canoe (Yokes and pads were for sissies on this canoe) and stripped the bag off my Camptrails external framed backpack. These seasoned canoe campers looked at the bare Expedition frame lying in the bottom of the canoe and shrugged. Not how they traveled!
We headed off, roaring – or at least as close to roaring as you can get with small two cycle engines – across the lake under partly sunny skies and warming weather. We crossed into another lake and tried our hand at Walleye fishing. Bouncing leeches off the bottom produced only one large Walleye and a couple of Bass. A quick shore lunch was prepared and the fish were fried up and quickly consumed.
We headed further out trying to find a long lost portage to Slender Lake – a fabled and hard to find Lake Steve had been to once years earlier.
Several tries finally got us to a portage – or what may have once been a portage in the days of birchbark canoes! Motors were taken off the canoes, paddles and life vests were used as portage yokes and we were off up the steep, warm, buggy (and often very muddy) portage. I took the motor off my canoe and strapped it to my backpack frame and found that this was indeed the better way to move a hot motor across a portage. However, I came back and staggered under the weight of my 85+ lb. canoe as the thwart dug into my shoulders, clouds of mosquitoes swarmed around my head and sweat dripped into my eyes. Up and up the 160 rod portage trail went until we broke out onto beautiful…. and aptly named Slender Lake.
Steep hills and towering rock cliffs lined this very deep, clear and narrow lake. Evidently a dam had been built somewhere on this watershed years earlier as the water level must have been raised 4 feet. The skeletons and stumps of dead pine trees lined the shore for miles. We fished and fished this obviously perfect fishing environment and caught …….absolutely nothing. Nonetheless the beauty of this lake was undeniable…. if I close my eyes I can see it even today.
The return trip, and even the now downhill and muddy death portage, seemed to take less time and our exhausted party collapsed soon after dinner.
Day Four June 7, 1995
This day started off with the boys piling into several canoes and heading across the lake to a small waterfall to bathe in the cold water. They didn’t seem to mind the chilly water temps as they splashed around and played in the falls.
Later that morning my friend showed me an island cabin. We cruised at a respectful distance around the island. The red painted deluxe wood cabin built high on the small island was complemented by a full sized water level float plane hanger painted to match. The owner, a wealthy trader from Chicago, owned this island and remote but luxurious cabin and would fly his float pane up for weekends! This trip takes 14 hours from Chicago by car to our entry point and 8-10 hours by boat after that, but this guy had it down to a matter of hours of travel by private plane. Lights came on in the cabin and I could hear the muffled drone of a Honda generator back in the trees. If you’re going to be rich, this guy absolutely has it figured out.
We used the rest of our leech stash and fished for bass in the shallows and Walleyes out deeper. We caught our collective limit and had fish for dinner – running out of food on this trip was not going to be a problem.
A strong wind the evening before brought a delightful visitor. A tiny duckling obviously separated from its mother and siblings had taken shelter behind some shoreline plants. The boys huddled closely around the duckling, taking turns feeding it crumbs. They had to be convinced that taking it back to the States to raise would be problematic. That’s right; our departure was set for the next day!
Day Five June 8 1995
We broke camp, fired up the motors and headed back into a quickening and cold West wind. The endless muskeg went faster now that we were running with the current. The wooden rails again did their job – can you even imagine using Kevlar canoes on these? – and the sturdy canoes and redlined motors literally roared down stream as the cold drizzle started. Apart from the occasional sheared prop pin we made good time.
We entered a smaller lake and were caught off guard as a float plane came around an island and headed in our direction on the water, engine roaring ready for take off. These things look really big when you are in a canoe directly in front of them hoping the pilot sees you!
Eventually we broke onto Lake the Woods and now we really got cold as the drizzle increased and the temperatures dropped further. We wrapped ourselves in whatever we had and hunkered down – the armada of boats began to spread out as we motored across the lake for the waiting vans and cars.
We reached the vehicles and began to pack. I was still somewhat recovering from a January hospital stay, so I tried to assist with the heavy canoes, but did defer to some of the other experienced fathers as they hoisted the aluminum craft onto the welded steel racks. The top spot was especially tricky – suddenly Jim the carpenter, manning on one end of the canoe, felt a sharp pain in his chest. Alarmed he sat down as the pain persisted. Acting on instinct, and knowing that for all of Nestor’s Falls attractions, there was no hospital, we assumed the worst and figured that he was having a heart attack.
Into one of the cars Jim went, Harl fired it up and shot out onto the main highway to Ft. Francis gravel flying. I watched anxiously as Harl’s Taurus tore down the road disappearing over a hill.
As we drove back far more slowly with the vans and trailers, we looked for Harl’s car at every medical clinic we passed. Somehow we couldn’t raise anyone on the cell phones, I think there was a coverage problem.
The return trip was somber, with exhausted kids tucked everywhere, even the floor and worries about Jim over riding everything. In the end it turned out that Jim had actually cracked his sternum, which while painful for a while, was not fatal.
What an introduction to canoe camping for backpackers like my boys and me!
At the end I asked my boys what they remembered most from the trip…. The youngest thought and said “Dad, the thing I liked the most were the skies”.