Saturday August 26th After loading up the Duluth packs and tying down the canoe we left Andy’s place in St. Louis Park about 11:00 in the morning. From that point to the end of the line our Jeep was to travel 300 miles north to Williams & Hall (W&H) Outfitters situated on Beautiful Moose Lake at the end of the Fernberg Trail. With Mike “Two-Pack” Hart driving we meandered our way after numerous snack and tackle stops along the way. One of the more traditional stops we took was at Piragis Outfitter in Ely. Another detour at the last minute took us to Joe’s Red Rock Outfitters on Jasper Lake. We bought some “hot” walleye and lake trout lures from him and his wife. They both wished us luck on our Maiden Quetico Voyage with the Souris River LeTigre he sold us as the Sportshow in February. On we went to our destination at W&H by 6 pm.
It was fabulous arriving in the northland again but even more thrilling was the anticipation of the week long adventure on which we were soon to embark on. As the sun went down that first night I remembered a saying that my Norwegian Grandfather used to tell all of us kids. The saying went, “der er helst I skogluften”, which is translated, “there is health in forest air”. I would bet that most whom share a love for the canoe country also share the same realization that the pure oxygen in the forest air heals us at an accelerated rate compared to that of a smog-filled city. Think of those cuts that seem to be healed the next day!
After we arrived and stretched for a minute, Blake, one of the owners at W & H, greeted us and told us which bunk was ours and where the towels were. We unloaded what we needed for the night and brought the rest down to the lake so we would be the first out in the morning. Getting the little things out of the way like gluing in the lash-its and arranging all of our gear enabled us to focus on more important things like dinner and that last beer. It did take some time to get the Spring Creek lash-its secured considering the inside surface of the Kevlar is too rough to allow a good “bite” of the pressure sensitive adhesive on the lash-its. We bought a tube of marine, 2-part epoxy and toweled on a layer of the epoxy where we intended the lash-its to be. It made an excellent, clean surface for PSA – held up well throughout the trip.
With everything checked off on the checklist we headed to the dining hall. Jenny was the name of our very pleasant waitress. We learned that she was a student from Utah working at W & H as the kitchen manager. She kept the food coming and her acute sense of humor kept us on our toes throughout the 5 course meal! Everything was outstanding, and we were so full we almost needed help getting back to the bunkhouse. There was one thing that did not sit too well, but we did not mention it – the Pigs Eye beer. It was not the best thing in the world, but we keep quiet knowing there were limited options this far away from town!
Back at the bunkhouse we had our “last call” cocktail and turned on the radio hoping to catch the Twins one last time before heading out into the middle of the wilderness. It was hot in the bunkhouse so we positioned all the fans to cool us down. Ultimately we fell asleep with a Twins win and the sound of the cool breeze rustling through the White Pine!
Sunday June 27th – 80 degrees and sunny
Be on the dock by 7am, Tow to Prairie Portage, Bayley Bay (Basswood Lake), 84r, Burke Lake, 16r, pond, 48r, North Bay (Basswood Lake), 9 r, South Lake, 12 r, West Lake, 9 r, unnamed, 4 r, Shade Lake, 80 r, pond, 128 r, Gray Lake, 56 r, Armin Lake, Yum Yum Lake, 20 r, Shan Walsh Lake, 30 r, McNiece Lake
I was awakened by the intense flash of Andy’s digital camera piercing the calm darkness of the bunkhouse. That meant one thing; it was time to get up, get dressed and get rolling! That photo would be the first of many that would be taken over the course of our 8 day trip. It turns out that he captured 500 beautiful shots, many of which are dotted throughout this report. Also along on this trip was a mini camcorder. The video camera was our only luxury item considering we were packing ultra-light, but it proved to be one of the best assets taking into account the vivid images that it captured.
Eager, rested and ready to head up to Prairie Portage (PP) we rushed to get through breakfast. The huge plate of blueberry pancakes Jenny brought us must have tasted good since we inhaled everything in sight. Obviously they were filled since it wasn’t until Burke Lake Portage that we complained of hunger. Our tow left W & H at 7:30 sharp! The 6 mile route took us through Moose Lake, Sucker, Newfound and Birch. The wind whipped our now civilized, clean hair, clothing, and bodies. We were filled with expectations, but couldn’t imagine the fantastic adventures that would unfold. Soon PP was in sight and the Moose Lake chain was behind us. What an excellent way to get into the gut of the wilderness – a 30 minutes tow ride shaved off probably two to three hours! If you are not familiar with a wilderness tow, it involves a flat bottomed Alumacraft duck boat with a 25 horse motor (the maximum allowed on these border lakes to the BWCAW) and a top rack that holds the canoes down securely.
Our stop at the ranger station on Prairie Portage was brief. We had our Remote Border Crossing Passes in hand and when asked if we needed to purchase fishing licenses we told her that we had already bought our 8 day conservation license on the phone a month earlier. She was impressed to say the least and proceeded to finish up the rest of the work to get us on our way. We were briefed on the current fire dangers, current regulations and upcoming regulation, then were excused to head into the wilderness. In a nutshell the 8 day conservation license allows one to harvest fish in limited number to protect population. This is sold at a reduced fee compared to that of the standard issue license. Some of the new regulations coming for 2007 entail a total ban on the use of any organic bait, and a ban on barbs and lead head jigs. It will also be unlawful to seine or capture natural bait anywhere in the park by any visitors or residents. As an experiment we left the worms behind this trip and tested the use of artificials as our only means to capture our dinner (or did we forget the worms…)! This made it a lot tougher for catching fish, but I guess it also made us more creative in capturing the wily creatures of the deep.
We arrived at PP and noticed immediately an enormous culvert in the lake sucking in water, and the large man-made concrete dam. The dam was constructed during the logging era and was erected to create a large sluiceway from PP down to the nearest roads to get the logs to the mills in Winton. The culvert was actually the start of a generator that created energy for the ranger station through the use of hydroelectric energy. We knew that these man-made intrusions would soon be a distant memory.
The whole concept of finding a ranger station, gift shop, concrete dam, and motor boat portage seemed somewhat anachronistic this far into the wilderness. One has to keep in mind that it is a mere 30 years ago that the fight was in progress to kick out the loggers, boaters, miners and exploiters and classify this whole area as a “hands off” area and open it only to future generations that want solitude and beauty of nature. I constantly breathe a sigh of thanks to these brave hearts that worked so hard to make this happen. Men like William Rom, Sigurd Olson, Miron Heinselman, Don Fraser, Bruce Vento, Charles Dayton, and George Selke are all accountable for putting everything on the line to protect what we take for granted in this day and age. From the Early 60’s to the Late 70’s they were radical pains in the neck to many, but today we look at their work and marvel at how they defied all the critics and passed one of the most important piece of legislation in the history of the US forest service. Muir would have been very proud of these men!
The information signs around the area at PP were very helpful in explaining the flora and fauna, geology and history of the area. As you can guess, we learned of the moose, otters, martins, and bears of the area (we were informed that this has been a good year for bears, meaning of course that there had been no reported bear attacks or nuisance visits in camps – this was good to hear since over the last 21 years we observed bears 5 times, and have had 3 bear confrontation in camp, and we still have the ripped up packs and bear claw mementos to remind us of these adventures).
While we are on the subject of bears, this is now our second trip with our “bear barrel.” It is actually a PETCO Vittles Vault – a strong plastic container with a screw on lid. It is the one that holds 55 lb of pet food, and can fit perfectly into a number 4 Duluth pack. These can not be broken into by the bears. You put all your food in the container, screw on the lid, and let it sit. No need for ropes, pulleys and finding the proverbial food tree, that never exists. Our last food tree on Knife Lake had our pack up 15 feet, out on the limb 10 feet, and all we could do about 4:00 in the morning was to WATCH the bear swinging our pack like a pinnate and eating all of our food that flew through the hole it had managed to claw. The only thing remaining after numerous attempts to get the bear to leave was coffee and cigars. Smart bear!
The info signs also told us about the underlying Canadian Shield, a granite slab now visible that once was scoured by glaciers and was covered by the ancient glacial Lake Agassiz. The granites in this area of course run the gamut of salt and pepper to every color you can imagine – depending on the minerals present during the molten formation of the mix. The typical shield granite up here is salt and pepper. On top you can find red jasper, meta-sedimentary rocks (the gray shale-looking rock that usually layers itself on top of the shield), basalt, rose quarts, white quarts, hematite, mica, obsidian, and some pretty astounding quartz crystals. There are outcroppings of greenstone but not as common as down toward Ely. The greenstone is 3.8 billion year old igneous rock, green because of a chlorite present during formation – some of the oldest rock exposed on the surface of the earth. I started tumbling up some of the trip stones in my rock tumbler almost immediately when I got back from the trip. It will make some pretty jewelry for the wives when winter rolls around. It takes over 40 days to tumble these kinds of stones into a lustrous state. I found that there is only one place in Minnesota to buy lapidary supplier and findings (jewelry hardware) that that is from Minnesota Lapidary Supply in Princeton, Minnesota – 763-631-0405.
The area in Quetico we were entering was called Hunters Island – so called, because the area is actually ringed with a paddelable and portagable ring of lakes and rivers, creating a mammoth quasi-island. Parts of this series of lakes and portages were originally used by the voyagers as part of the 18th Century fur trade route from Saganaga Lake to Crane Lake. Additionally this 204 km ring is the scene of an occasional paddling time trial. Teams or solos see how quickly they can do the loop. The Quetico Ranger info boards have multiple articles about teams that have done the trek – 24 hr non-stop paddling and portaging of course. The stories are unbelievable, even more so when you portage and paddle and TRY to do it in the day time, let alone, doing it in the pitch dark – NO WAY!!! Sorry!!! The fastest this has been done officially is slightly over 28 hours by a father son team a couple of years ago.
This “canoe racing” thing is a big deal to a lot of people. I worked with a fellow who raced for about 20 years of his life. He told me about the legendary old Aquatennial race from St. Cloud to the Cities on the Mississippi, as well as the great triple-crown canoe races held each year – the General Clinton Canoe Regatta in New York, the Weyerhaeuser AuSable River Canoe Marathon in Michigan, and La Classique de Canots de la Maurice in Quebec. Later I learned of another old classic that has now been cancelled. This race was a challenge race few years ago between Atikokan and Ely, with paddlers such as Don Beland, Joe Meany, and Gene Jenson.
Before we starting paddling, we stopped by the gift store at PP and talked with one of the rangers on duty. Carrie was her name and she was certainly a very interesting character – she has spent many year working for Ontario Parks and talked highly of her experiences in the northern Quetico especially the Beaverhouse area. For many years Carrie knew Shan Walshe personally (the Park Naturalist who inspired a generation of wilderness servants, who died in his late 50’s of a brain tumor). Every word associated with Shan was a good one and we all could feel that it was her job to tell us all about him and spread his legacy! Do not forget to buy his Botany Book and better yet try to identify some plants when you get to Shan Walsh Lake. It is sure a beautiful area!
Bayley Bay was very tranquil. I was hoping this would hold on through North Bay as we all know that Basswood can get pretty chopping with even a small breath of wind. Our luck did hold and North Bay was glass. This was unbelievable in itself, but if we would have known our whole trip would provide us with gusts over 10 MPH nor a drop of rain we could have left back a ton of gear! We made great time through the smaller chain of lakes that lead to Shade. Portages were easy and the dry conditions enabled us to avoid some of the problem areas that I had been warned about by many of the Quiet Journey guys. Once we got past Shade the forests really started to turn into heavy White Pine. Each little portage was beautiful in itself and all the small lakes had a unique beauty all their own. The only blemish on this days travel was an area as we headed into Yum Yum Lake. The water levels were so low and the muddy mess we encountered at the end of the portage was very smelly. A rotting beaver decomposing made the area seem quite rancid. We figured the beaver had probably died in the fire that had come through the area. We paddled fast and broke into open water and fresh air as Yum Yum opened a bit.
We were starting to see signs of the McNiece Lake fire at this point. As we pushed into Walshe Lake we really noticed how the shoreline was charred and more than 50 percent of the lake had succumbed to the heat and flames. I was hoping to see less damage on McNiece, since this trip was planned with this lake as the main attraction with its ancient White Pines. Sadly enough the lake was pretty “crisp”. It looks as though McNiece will now go through the natural regeneration process just as Cavity and Turtle lakes of the BWCAW have done. I just hope that the White Pine will be able to grow in the small amount of soil that has not washed into the lake. It seems as though the fire was very hot in the duff layer on the forest floor resulting in heavy damage to the underground network of roots holding the ground intact. We all envisioned the devastating effect this will have ultimately on the area, making it prone to rapid erosion. I expect many of the living trees to die from lack of support as well. The surprising discovery for us was that we did not discover the massive old growth that was reported. We saw some “monsters”, but nothing that made my jaw drop. None-the- less I was not disappointed!
The “duff” mentioned earlier, is where a fire can spread in a subterranean way, for miles, burning off the dry materials under the surface of the forest floor. The duff fires can not usually penetrate the thick bark of the bases of the pine. It is only when the fires reach the canopy of the tree line, creating a crown fire that would destroy the trees.
Andy told us some interesting facts that I thought it best to pass on – in the shallow humus areas up north, since the tree roots can not grow down, they grow horizontally along the rock line, joining up and “grafting” with their neighbors. This explains the reason that some destitute tree hanging over a cliff can still exist. It is receiving its nutrients from its neighbors further from shore. This makes the whole landscape a living, organic WHOLE!
The collage of burnt rusty needles against the living green made a very pretty backdrop from the vista on our first campsite on McNiece. We set up camp, made some food, tried for some bass, and hit the hay after a small fire. We were beat and our early bedtime indicated our extensive travels form Moose Lake to McNiece. We could have made it to Kahshapiwi, but to get to the North end of the lakes would have been accomplished only during the long days of June.
Monday August 28 – 75 degrees and Sunny
165 r, Kahshapiwi Lake, North to far end and stay on 5 star island site.
I had fallen asleep so fast it was hard to believe that it was morning already. With an action-packed day slated on the itinerary we broke camp and got on the water by 9:00. Our trek down McNiece was slowed when we decided to take a peek at a hotspot mid-lake. The lack of water over the past weeks had made it hard to believe that Ontario Parks had not put the ban back on in the park, it was lifted only a couple weeks before now. Trying to keep on schedule and knowing that the next portage into Kahshapiwi would be the most difficult to date, we headed to the West end of the lake. This end of the lake had less fire damage and as we started to portage we saw some specimens much larger than any we had seen to this point. There were no larger pine at the Kahsh side and I was surprised when I got to the other side and marveled at how most reports had noted this as such a hard portage. To me it was a beauty and a nice warm-up before the long jog up Kahshapiwi.
As we entered Kahsh we did see the fire tower high on the hill but didn’t have time to go to it. It would have been quite a hike – keeping in mind that when you are on the lake the tower stands over 500 feet above the shore! About half way up Kahsh we ran into a solo traveler. He asked if we had a satellite phone as he wanted to report a fire burning on an island just up the way (ironically, I was campaigning with our group to rent one from the outfitter just for emergencies. If “be prepared” means a survival kit, then why shouldn’t it include an emergency phone?). We checked out the fire and spent an hour extinguishing the flames that were carelessly started by a camper that had not put out the campfire. The next day we saw some fire fighters come in on a helicopter from headquarters in Atikokan and land to put the fire out. They were there for about 4 hours, but we took some credit for their short trip considering their work might have been futile if the whole island was in flame! We just might have saved the entire island! Who knows?
We trolled on our way to camp resulting in Mike catching a nice Lake Trout of about 5 lb. We stayed on a near 5-Star campsite on Kahsh. We were told by Quetico Passage that this was a super site and it lived up to its reputation. The smooth landing area for the canoe was non-existent, but all the rest was perfect – a 4.75 star in all. It had a super fire pit, excellent tent pads, virgin pine, and numerous vistas where one could sit and daydream! A unique characteristic of this trip is that we saw a great many eagles in the trees – usually at the very top of the stateliest White Pines in the area. Often they would swoop by us in the canoes, and if you are really quiet, you can hear the beat of their wings in the air as they glide so effortlessly by.
It was that point in the trip; the time when everyone decided that a good cleansing is in order! We had a great jump-off dive-board area in the lagoon side of camp. It was quite fun and the water was rather warm this late in the summer. Next was food! Andy made us very tasty fish corn chowder for supper. It was only after we had eaten the chowder and praised him so freely that he told us about the strange rice-like flecks found attached to one of the organs of the fish. He felt it was not a threat and wanted to wait to tell us so that it did not ruin the fine quality food! We were certainly happy he waited because it surely was one of the best meals the whole trip!
I should mention that a challenge of this trip was the “packing light” idea. We worked diligently to get every ounce out of our camping kits. It is surprising how little one really needs to survive in relative comfort. We went with powdered everything for food. That included powdered milk, cream, shortening, peanut butter, food mixes, and many dehydrated foods and meat that Andy dried himself. Andy planned our food list for us three down to the candy bar – literally – he did a super job of projecting our needs, cutting the weight, and now working toward the sizing of our trips to a total of 2 Duluth packs for 3 people. Think about it – it works. One note is that the perfect pack for max capacity yet hoist-ability to us seemed to be the #4 Granite Gear Quetico Pack. It has the extended apron on the top with a draw string to hold in the extended contents – a great bag.
We did look for a recently created message cache that was purported to be at camp. For those not familiar with the idea of message cache – they are hidden containers holding scraps of paper with messages or fishing information. Usually they are very discrete and not obtrusive to the wilderness. It is a little like “we passed this way” connections between friendly paddlers. We found one on our trip that I will mention later, but know of at least 6 more throughout the route we were on. Unfortunately, we could not find the message cache on our camp site. It appeared that the rangers had dismantled it in attempts to rid the land of such an intrusive object. The fish count for the day was: Al caught the first fish. Al – 4 bass, Mike 1 laker, and one bass (he said it was a walleye), Andy - none. It was 75F today. Another perfect day.
Tuesday August 29 – 76 degree and sunny
Kahshahpiwi – layover. Fished Keefer.
We got up a little earlier than yesterday. It was apparent we had another perfect day on our hands. We went up north on Kahshahpiwi and portaged to Keefer Lake. I personally thought this lake, with its high bluffs and pine filled shore lines, was the most beautiful of all the lakes I has seen so far. As true in life, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for me, it had a “Pine Lake” look ( in the eastern BWCA off the Arrowhead Trail). We did a bunch of trolling on Keefer all day. After catching a plethora of Smallmouth Bass we started to make our way back to camp for Supper. Believe this or not, on our way back we found an old dock on a small island on the north end of Kahshapiwi – a DOCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Where in the world did this come from? Our suspicions were that the dock was from the earlier logging days, from a trapper’s cabin, or that the dock was on Kahshahpiwi and serviced float planes coming to the bring rangers to the fire outlook post there. Not sure….but I did get an old spike from it that was lightly stuck into the platform. We also got some humorous pictures of Mike fishing from the dock.