Paddling and portaging in Quetico Provincial Park
By Dave Foley
For me, vacation means, “Getting a way from it all.” By that I mean an escape from all trappings of our civilized society.
A trip to Quetico Provincial Park absolutely guarantees that will happen.
Within this 1.2 million acre park, there are no cellphone towers, motorboats, cottages, roads or outhouses. Canoe travelers can explore the 600 lakes and two dozen waterfalls undisturbed by the outside world. The only features that make this different from true wilderness are that portage trails are maintained, but you still have to find them; there are no bright yellow “portage” signs to show the way. Campsites are marked with fire pits made with piled up rock. These areas are open enough to pitch a tent.
Quetico Provincial Park lies about 110 miles west of Thunder Bay, Ontario, where you’ll find three entry points on the north side of the park. Adjacent to it, on the south, is Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), a 1.1 million acre wilderness area. We’ve often started our trips at the end of the Gunflint Trail, 50 miles west of Grand Marais, and from Ely. When beginning from these Minnesota entry points, we spend the first several hours paddling in US waters through the BWCA before checking in at Canadian Ranger Stations on the border. Although we have enjoyed our visits to the BWCA, Quetico appeals to us because it receives fewer visitors. Some days you won’t see another human. On one September trip, we went nine days without encountering another canoe or occupied campsite.
It is the solitude that keeps us coming back; we’ve made 31 trips since 1984. Once we paddle a few miles from the car, we hear nothing but nature’s soundtrack. The white contrails of silent airliners flying high over the park are the only signs that there still is a world going about its business out there. At night we sit out and gaze up at a pitch black sky filled with stars, horizons undimmed by ambient light. It’s a night sky that residents of cities or even those living in small towns never see. On occasion, the night air fills with the chorus of wolves; their eerie howls sending a shiver up the back of even the most seasoned outdoorsman. More likely our good-night and wake-up calls come from loons, which seem to reside on every lake.
This is moose and bear country, but the bruin population tends to shy away from humans; Cyndy and I have never seen one here. We discover their tracks and scat on portage trails, but not often. Still if I am awakened in the night by noise outside the tent, my first thought is bear. Moose sightings in recent years are rare, as surveys show their numbers are in steep decline. I read where more were being seen in the last year so perhaps we will begin to come across them again.
Encounters with insects are unavoidable. Hordes of the little winged -biters greet every park visitor from May until September. While mosquitoes hang around all summer, swarms of black flies may be on the attack from mid-May until the end of June. It’s not a 24-hour assault, however. Most days, especially when the sun’s shining or the wind’s blowing, you may not even know they’re around. A light coating of Deet or a wind shirt effectively repels them.
What I find especially appealing about Quetico is the fishing. Although we’re on the move most days, evenings I’m out in the canoe seeking walleye, pike, bass, or lake trout. Fish dinners aren’t guaranteed, some nights I have to work for them, but invariably something will strike my Rapala or five of Diamond spoon pattern. It’s not unusual to hook into pike that are over three feet long or four- to five-pound bass, so be sure to have a landing net ready. Park regulations make fishing a bit more challenging, as the use of live bait is forbidden and all hooks must have the barb pinched flat.
The lakes – although some of them are huge – are predictable. When you paddle away from shore, you’ve got a tailwind, headwind, crosswind, or the water is calm and you can plan accordingly. With that first stroke, you know what’s going to happen until you get off the lake. The suspense comes with the portages. Most of the time, it’s these walks overland you’ll remember, not the lakes you paddle.
The fun often starts with the landing. If you’re from the Midwest, you’re used to shorelines that are sand or earthen banks. Not here; Quetico is in the Canadian Shield and that shield is made of rock. Unloading bulky packs while wading knee deep with your feet trying to find purchase on boulders covered with a layer of slick algae is ugly work.
Once you’ve got the packs and canoe on shore, it’s time to see what lies down that path heading into the woods.
The portage crews from the park staff take care of the big problems – clearing away deadfall on the path or building a plank walkway over a swamp – but the rest is left to you. The boot-sucking muck, the billions of rocks, many of them slicked with a layer of moss, as well as climbs and descents, some of them steep, that’s all left for you to manage. The wild card in the mix is the beaver. While you’ll marvel at the huge dams they construct and their lodges, sometimes as big as travel trailers, your appreciation will be quickly tempered if their work has flooded your portage trail or blocked your passage down a stream. Trying to unload a canoe at a beaver dam, while balanced on shifting ridge-top sticks, is not something you’ll quickly forget.
Although, when you’re in the middle of an arduous portage, struggling to push your canoe through whitecaps or getting drenched in an all-day rain, you may not be happy; it’s these times, not the easy portages and tours down calm lakes under sunny skies that provide the most poignant memories.
At the end of some days, we’ll be so glad to settle into a campsite after enduring long hours of paddling and some particularly gruesome portages. We might joke about choosing a vacation trip that’s a bit less rigorous next year, but after a satisfying dinner, we’ll settle down to watch a sky bathed in the reds, oranges and purples of a Canadian sunset and know there are more trips to Quetico in our future.