Jan and I drifted in close to the cliff. The red markings on the stone told a story. A story of the waters, the animals, and the people that have lived and still live here. An elk appeared from the paint made of red ochre and sturgeon fat; his antlers swept back just as they would have looked when this species still walked these woods. Bull moose were clearly visible. As was a man sitting back smoking a pipe. Red hands covered parts of the cliff face. Interestingly, some instantly recognisable language was also visible on the wall of stone: a date – stating when some Europeans; probably voyageurs; had travelled through this way. All in the same red paint.
We were looking upon the Painted Rocks, found on the eastern end of Lac La Croix, and were on our way to well-known Bottle Portage where Jan was dropping me off and leaving me to my own devices with a canoe, some fishing and camping gear, and a desire to head south. Like many of the creatures known from their summer presence, I was making my own short journey ahead of the approaching winter. It was the end of October, and I was taking ‘the scenic route’ from Lac La Croix to Ely, Minnesota: through Quetico Provincial Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).
Day 1: Leaving Home
It’s a slightly funny feeling watching your link to civilisation idling away from you as you stand alone on a rock in the woods. There goes the last option for a simple way out. No one is going to be around to lend a hand from here on in. But that brings a refreshing sense of purpose. A pack is slung over the shoulder and the first portage begins.
The water had dropped since I came this way ten days ago on a fishing trip. The channel linking Bottle to Iron lakes was just a trickle now and I would have to carry the gear across the boulders. I took a moment to savour standing on the imaginary line – taking to the Canadian shore I arranged a few rocks into a little Inukshuk to mark my way. It felt like the right thing to do.
Snow buntings flitted about me now and then as I paddled into a gentle breeze, crossing Iron and portaging up to Curtain Falls and into Crooked Lake. The paths were silent now and spent needles and leaves masked the many prints left over from summer explorers. I looked for whatever may be left of Bill Zup’s original fishing camp in the bay back of Curtain Falls, but found only the hint of what would once have been a road or path. The forest was taking it back now.
Following on along the southern shoreline I stopped to look at some more pictographs before crossing the waters leading into Sunday Bay. Then it was across Saturday and Friday bays, snow buntings and a pair of mallard the only life to be seen under the ominous blanket of cloud. The canoe country has a different kind of feel when the loons have gone for the winter. I pulled into shore on an island just beyond Friday Bay – this was where I would spend the night. As I moved to stand and step onto the rocky shore something caught my eye in the water. The molar of a moose lay by where my paddle rested. How long had that been there?
I set up camp the way I liked it. Clouds still threatened rain and I wanted to be ahead of the game, so I tarped up a solid awning off the entrance to the tent and stacked the firewood I cut onto a frame beneath it. At least I’d have a dry store for the morning. Pine cones and birch bark were stuffed into a ziplock bag for emergency firelighters, and this stayed in my pack for future use. With a ruffed grouse and bacon sandwich in my belly I set up the rod and pretended to fish for a little while, but I really didn’t mind whether I caught anything. That was just as well because I didn’t. The fire and food and coffee were calling me back to my home for the night. No sunset for me – the clouds were here to stay.
Darkness came as I ate steak and sat on a log. As birch and pine burned down in front of me I traced the line of travel on my map and marked a cross on my camp site. I’d done about 11 miles in six hours of paddling – useful information for gauging where I should plan to camp during the following days. A ruffed grouse drummed me to sleep.
Day 2: The Walleye Day
Light rain during the night didn’t bother me and I was warm enough – but I did have to do a bit of rolling around to share the heat trapped against the Therma-rest by about 5:30 am. Crouched by the fire eating porridge I decided to keep on moving through and just fish a couple of pinch points as I made my way to Lower Basswood Falls. Before I went too far though I stopped by another point of interest that Mark Zup had told me about. Near that camp remains a Cadillac – I suppose someone drove it out there on the ice one winter. Now it sits up on shore amongst the trees – another reminder of a time before the creation of the Park.
I made decent time in paddling through Thursday and Wednesday bays and was lucky enough to see a mink taking a breather on a rock. It ran back into a crevice on my approach but I squeaked a few times and it came back out to see what all the fuss was about. I caught a pike in the first set of narrows I came to – nothing big but a fish all the same. Smallmouth bass were getting about in the next pinch point. It was simple fishing. A Berkley Gulp! minnow on a quarter ounce jighead – a couple of casts here and there as the wind pushed me through, and on to the next one. I found some more pictographs on one cliff as I meandered past. These weren’t marked on the maps I had, and were old and very faded. I was pleased with my small discovery.
The third narrows I came to looked like a promising place. The jig told me that the pool below the pinch was deep – maybe 30 feet. I let the lure sink as it drifted into the deep with the current. A twitch in the belly of the line signalled some interest, but no one was there when I jabbed the rod upwards. The next cast I was ready – another twitch – I set the hook this time. The fish was heavy and straight away it veered across to my left while rising through the water column. ‘A bass’ I thought; but then it went back down and stayed there. The constant pressure began to tell after a little while and the fish started coming back up again. Then there were a series of slow, deliberate head shakes – thump! thump! thump! I knew what behaved like that… a huge walleye materialised beneath me and glided past before peeling drag away in another dive!
Trying to keep the nerves from making me do anything rash, I got the fish back up and gently moved it alongside the canoe; somehow getting a finger under the gill plate. A one-armed paddle got me over to the shore where I could get on a rock and grab the tail of the fish. She was heavy. Her right cheek was scarred and she had a half digested burbot hanging from her mouth. A formidable looking predator. I laid her against the paddle for measurement. This turned out to be 29 3/8 inches. As her tail waved back at me she slowly cruised back to her pool and I decided I was done fishing for this trip: it doesn’t get better than that.
There are some pretty spectacular pictographs on the Basswood River. The cliffs themselves are enough to make any passer-by stop and stare. When you do the paintings are next to marvel at. They show the animals, people and supernatural beings integral to the region’s history. I set up camp not far upstream from the cliffs.
Day 3: Shallow Waters
A beaver swam back and forth in front of me as I boiled the billy and got a quick glimpse of the sun rising. I portaged over Lower Basswood Falls and stopped for a second above them to say goodbye to the Canadian shore for good – from here on out I would be travelling through Minnesota. The Horse River was low and sluggish, but full of ducks and geese. These took off in clattering clouds each time I drew close. The scenery encouraged me to take my time and I hoped to run into a moose around every bend. I made quite a few portages along this leg; around rapids and little waterfalls; as well as over and around sections that were too shallow to paddle any more.
I had to put the rain gear on as I paddled through Horse Lake and a misty shower set in about me. By the time I’d portaged across into Murphy and then on into Sandpit it was getting late in the day and I was starting to feel the two trips across each portage to bring gear and canoe over. The weather was still pretty bleak and I found a campsite that would do me for the night. Getting some wet wood dry enough to catch and burn gave me something to do for the evening, and another mink played around on the shore in front of me as I ate. Mice scurried about at the door of my tent as I listened to a grouse drumming away during the night.
Day 4: Last Leg into Little Long
Morning came with some rain but it gave me a break to pack camp. Following the former railway track that once linked the logging camps on Horse Lake to Winton, I portaged into Range Lake and on into Range River. It was here that I left the BWCAW. Beaver dams on the Range provided plenty of water to paddle through and I made good time, giving two otters a fright as I snuck up on them. An eagle and some ravens took flight from the sedge ahead of me and I got excited – wolves had killed something! Edging the canoe into shore I jumped out wielding my paddle and hoping to scavenge some meat; but the yearling moose had been picked clean. I also came across a racoon in a leg trap by an old trail – someone’s trap line was working.
Low Lake reminded me that I was out of the woods now – there were cabins on these shores. The weather turned bad again as I carried through to Bass Lake and I was glad to get under the canoe and out of the rain and sleet. It didn’t take long to cross this lake and meet my last portage for the journey – which was also the longest. I had my first human encounter on the Echo Trail when a car drove by.
The sun shone for a second as I pushed off into Little Long Lake but that was momentary. As I neared my final destination I was reminded that things could have been much tougher – snow started falling thick and fast and I beached the canoe in a proper flurry. But by then Kathy Zup was leaning out of her kitchen window and asking if I’d like a coffee.
Quetico Provincial Park (Canada) and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (USA) adjoin along the Ontario/Minnesota border. Many access points (and outfitters) are located on the Minnesota side and travellers can move through to Quetico from there. From the Canadian side you can get into Quetico in the Atikokan/ Thunder Bay region.
If travelling from afar it is probably easiest to fly into Minneapolis – Saint Paul (MN, USA) and make your way north to the Ely area which is a great place to get kitted out and into the woods. From the Canadian side Thunder Bay is the nearest big place with an airport; and from there you can get to the town of Atikokan which is located on the northern boundary of Quetico.
Outfitting is big business in this part of the world and if you don’t have the gear this is definitely the way to go. Outfitters can provide food, packs, camping equipment and canoes; and offer or arrange boat tows to park entry points. They will also provide you with valuable trip planning, travel and fishing information.
Quetico and the BWCAW are non-motorised access wilderness areas – so other than getting dropped off on their boundaries you make your way under your own steam. This is canoe country – and that’s the best way to get around. Knowledgeable outfitters can set you up with everything you will need. For overseas visitors, prepare to have your eyes opened to this simple way of doing!
Permits, Licences and Customs
You will need a permit to travel within both Quetico and the BWCAW. Outfitters can help you out with organising these, or you can go to ontarioparks.com (for Quetico) or recreation.gov for the BWCAW . Plan well ahead so as to ensure you can get in through your chosen access point when you want: some entry points have restrictions on the number of groups allowed through per day. Additionally, there are restrictions on the number of people allowed at campsites; and the number of people allowed on certain lakes. Make your bookings early!
Fishing licences will need to be obtained prior to fishing within Quetico/BWCAW: an Ontario licence for Quetico and a Minnesota Fishing Licence for the BWCAW. These licencing systems differ in some ways so ensure that you have the right ones before you go. Be sure to obey all relevant size and bag limits.
Don’t forget that if you travel from Quetico into the BWCAW or vice versa; you’re crossing an international border. Ensure you have all the right stamps and paperwork, and that the relevant Customs authorities are notified of your plans so as to avoid complication. As some of the Customs offices located on the boundaries of the parks are not classified as official points of entry, and aren’t open all year, it’s best to get things sorted out before you venture out.
Several targetable species call Quetico and the BWCAW home, but those most commonly sought (and that comprise the Quetico ‘Grand Slam’) are: smallmouth bass; walleye perch; Northern pike; and lake trout. A welcome but elusive addition to this list is the largemouth bass.
Unless specifically targeting trophy pike and/or lake trout, a 2000 or 2500 size spin reel matched to a 1-3 kg rod is fully capable of handling these species. I use a 3000 size reel on a 4-7 kg rod when fishing for big pike and trout but this is most useful in allowing me to throw big lures. As for lures, I’d carry a selection of spoons (pike and trout); diving hard bodies of various sizes and running depths (for everything); and a mix of soft plastics including fish and jerkshad patterns (walleye) and worms (bass), as well as some big and brightly coloured ones for pike and trout. It’s amazing to see experienced backcountry travellers turn up with one or two combos (a backup is handy) and a small tackle tray of time proven lures. Space is a premium here and fishing is simple and to the point – the way it should be.