There is nothing quite like paddling through the shallow waters of a beaver marsh in the Canada's Quetico Provincial Park, an area that encompasses 1,797 square miles north of Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Rush grass abounds on both sides of a winding stream about one lane in width. The lead canoes or kayaks have disappeared behind the reeds. Water lilies hold center court, with species of lily pads as bridesmaids. Then there are those beaver houses and shallow dams.
Oh, to be there on a sunny, 80-degree day with a book, legs over the side of the craft. Just close your eyes and let the dragonflies alight on you. How easy it would be to blot out the rest of the world.
Our trip started on the Minnesota side of the Quetico-Superior Wilderness area with a water taxi that carried our boats and gear to the ranger station in Canada. It was a half hour escape amongst diving loons, encircling eagles, granite islands and sky blue waters. One quick portage and we landed on Basswood Lake.
Six of us made up our party. Dan DeLang, Rick Smith and Mark Anderson, all 53-year-old Rockford, Illinois, residents; Dan's brother Mike DeLang, 56, of Coal Creek Canyon, Colorado; Dave Vieth, 60, of Wausaukee, Wisconsin, and finally me, of indefinate age, from Wallace, Michigan. Dan was Rick's best man when Rick married some 25 years ago. During the reception, Rick looked up to see Mike walk into the hall with an expedition canoe on his shoulders, a collective present from his outdoor buddies.
After 7.5 hours of paddling and brutal portaging that first day, we found a campsite on granite some 20 feet above the water on Point Lake. It was the reprieve we needed. As soon as we set up camp, Rick Smith caught a bass. The fish were surfacing everywhere. His move inspired the fishing spirit in the group.
We continued onward the next day with several more vigorous portages during a 6.5 hours of effort until we reached Sarah Lake and pitched our tents 50 feet above the water at the end of an island peninsula. We took off our clothes, slid on a slab of granite that slanted into the water, and immersed ourselves in a 70-degree bath.
When the boys went fishing, I stayed behind with my book and sat in the shade just above the water line. Engrossed in the book, I thought I might be hearing people talking. I looked up to see four loons swimming in a tight group right in front of me. "How often has this ever happened to me?" I thought. "Never before," I whispered.
It rained that night and Mark Anderson reminded us that the roots of trees would be slippery. I found his warning worth remembering. During that first day's portage, I was carrying gear and stepped on a trail root. My foot slid the length of the root until it touched solid ground. Six hours of paddling and portaging on day three took us to Lake Isabella.
Lake Isabella is about two miles long and a paper-thin narrows divides the lake into two parts. The waters of Isabella are hemmed in by granite walls, some of which rise 150 feet above the water. Our camp spot rose some 60 feet above the water and the hill behind us rose again that much. We were on one side of the narrows and a 100-foot granite cliff greeted us across the channel.
While we set up camp and prepared for supper, Dave Vieth left in his kayak to catch some bass and northern. Successful, he cleaned the fish along our shore and deposited the entrails across the narrows on a rock at the bottom of the bluff. Then we ate, sitting on a slanted hillside and watched the sun slip behind the bluff's evergreens. We studied a bald eagle that alighted in one of the trees on the opposite bluff. We watched a beaver swimming down the center of the narrows. We sensed calm and discussed how much easier day three was compared to day one and two.
As dusk was ready to make its appearance, our piece of paradise became a nature preserve, something right out of a National Geographic presentation. The guys all left to fish while I boarded my kayak with a camera. I didn't get far before I realized that I forgot my water by my tent. When I climbed back to the top I was startled to see the eagle sitting on the rock and eating the fish that Dave had left there. I sat down and watched his stabbing and ripping act for 10 minutes. Every so often he would flap his wings and change positions. I never moved an eyelid.
When the eagle finally flew off, I grabbed my water bottle and camera, descended the hill and started paddling. That's when one of my all-time-favorite dusks took focus. I noticed a beaver on the side of the lake. He had a reed in his mouth. He started swimming across the lake and our paths crossed. Once he realized I was getting close, he slapped his tail on the water and disappeared. I continued paddling and soon I met another beaver. This time the bow of my kayak snuck up on him. When he finally had enough of me, he also slapped his tail and dove. The water from his splash flew in all direction, some landing on my kayak. In total, I experience seven tail splashes and dives that early evening.
After my stint with the beavers, I decided to head in the direction of my fishing comrades. When I first noticed them, dots above the lake's surface, a second piece of heaven took hold. The sky was turning pink, loons were singing and a crescent moon appeared, just like it had 2,000 years earlier when Paleolithic Indians fished and trapped here.
We spent two nights on Isabella, dining with the eagle, listening to the loons and watching beaver work the shorelines. During day two, I explored the entire lake and counted six beaver houses and two dams. The other guys portaged to Point Lake and the bass that school up on its shoreline. Our campsite didn't have a faucet, just lots of water. It didn't have an electric stove, just a great rock chimney fire pit. There were no lights, just lots of stars.
Our trek out of Lake Isabella may always be my favorite. We found ourselves paddling a small beaver stream that lasted for two miles. The rushes were so high along the banks we became engulfed in them. We had to take out and pull ourselves over five beaver dams. After one dam we walked our crafts for 200 yards until the water was deep enough to get back in them. At one point in the marsh, the bow of my kayak was moving side by side with a beaver until he finally dove under. Dave had a loon surface right next to him in his kayak. Mike and Dan DeLang and I were entertained by a big snapper as it explored the lily pads in the clear water.
That day we pitched camp on an island in North Bay and hoped that the wind and waves would settle down before our paddle to the ranger outpost the next morning. An eagle's nest shared the island with us and three immature eagles either sat on the branches around the nest or practiced their flight patterns above us. We listened to them squeak all day and heard them first thing in the morning when we pushed off early, in calm water, for out trip back home. Were we ready to go back to our homes in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois or Colorado? Of course not, why would anyone even ask?
Jerry Harpt is a retired schoolteacher and coach who now bides his time as a travel and outdoor writer. He's an avid cross-country skier, hiker, cyclist and kayaker.
Kayaks complicate things in the Canadian wilderness
It was our first day in the Quetico and we had misread directions to our destination, Lake Isabella. We had already negotiated several portages between lakes, over rock infested paths and through beaver marshes. The temperature was 85 degrees and the sun was baking us. We were getting tired. That's when David met Goliath, an obstacle course that wallows in blood and guts.
We were moving from the Nest Lake region toward Point Lake. We had just negotiated a beaver pond and were heading toward a 100-foot granite cliff with a 45 degree slant to it. I studied both sides of the cliff looking for our portage entry. Uh oh, I stopped paddling as I caught sight of an eagle scout carrying his canoe on his shoulders and gingerly working his way down that 45-degree brute of granite. Yikes.
We put packs on our backs and started walking up the mass of Canadian-shield rock looking for the top. That may have been the easiest part. Then, as Dan said, "We delved deep into Mother Nature's bush."
It was a half mile of gnarled roots, jagged rocks that could impale you if you fell down, a pumpkin patch of granite boulders decorating the trail, booby trap pits, muddy swamp bog, corduroy logs that ran lengthwise and were slippery, fallen trees blocking the trail, uneven hillsides, a tricky downhill, vanishing calories, mosquitoes, horse flies, fire warnings, rogue bear warnings, beauty, self doubt and compressed discs.
And five of us had had back surgeries. "We've enough medicine in our backs to kill an elephant," Dan reminded us. Dave actually has metal in his back, so we decided to stay away from him during lightning storms.
This would be the longest of several portages that day and lasted nearly two hours. We negotiated that path three times with all our gear. That factors out to a hike of 2.5 miles. No 15K I've ever run ever felt that hard.
There was some comic relief along the trudge. Dave was scaling a log with his backpack on when he slipped off and into the mud. He sank to his knees, but that was the easy part. It took him five minutes to get his legs out of the sucking mud and he almost lost his shoes in the ordeal. This became the worst part of the trip for me from a medical standpoint. I almost got a hernia from laughing so hard.
Dave was just the warm-up act. Dan soon came along with his canoe on his shoulders. He slipped off the same log and sunk down to his upper thighs. He flipped off the canoe during his free fall, grabbed for the log, fought off the gravitational pull, and began wiggling free of the quagmire.
Kayaks & camp chairs
Our story may depress some purists. Dave and I decided we would do Quetico by kayak. We may very well be the first to do so and probably the last. Dan emailed us a few weeks before the trip and gently encouraged us to get a canoe instead because of the hills and portages. We envisioned the hills to be maybe 20 feet high and portage lengths to be maybe 50 feet. We never dreamed we would portage 13 times in the first two days. Each portage meant unpacking the gear from the kayaks, placing it in backpacks, and when the portage ended, repacking the kayaks.
We figured we could carry both kayaks at once, side-by-side, with Dave in the back and me in the front. Dave even thought we could carry them both with all our gear in them. So we stuck with the kayaks. We were even bold enough to include folding chairs with our gear. My chair was the smallest, weighing six pounds. Dave's was so long he should have floated it alongside his kayak. And to think we were both teachers.
We didn't know until later that the rest of our gang was discussing the lameness of our venture into the rocky wilderness with kayaks. A mutual friend from Ely, Minnesota, told them that it just wouldn't work. He suggested we rent a canoe but they didn't relay that to us until later.
By the end of three days, after 20 hours of paddling and portages, we found a spot on Lake Isabella. Day one lasted 7.5 hours and I was convinced that the gods of the Superior-Quetico region were on the attack. Ironically, the second day, a 6.5-hour ordeal, seemed easier. By the third day, when it took six hours to reach our destination, I had stopped wondering if I would need a heart transplant.
Eventually, teamwork kicked in. The four canoeists never complained about our heavy camp chairs and always helped us carry our kayaks to the next site. In time, we all joked about our gear choices. And throughout our ordeal, the group only lost three toe nails, suffered one ankle sprain, and lost one cap.
I had overpacked, clearly. I never needed the cold weather gear. I weighed the camp chair and my unused gear when I got back home. It came to 16 pounds my comrades should not have had to carry. Even the extra hanky was excessive.
Sometime on that third day, a boy scout paddled by me in a canoe and said, "I want that kayak."
I responded, "Better carry it up a few bluffs first."