Part 1 of 3
Kahshahpiwi Trip Report by Alan Freeland and Andy Freeland -August 26 thru Sept 3, 2006-
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.
Part 2 of 3
When we got back to Prairie Portage we asked the Ranger if she knew of anything. She radioed all the rangers and personal in Quetico, but when we came back the next day she said Shan Walshe would have been the guy to ask! She promised to try to get some info on it from the Quetico librarian in Atikokan. The latest I have heard from her is that no one knows its origin. Let’s see if QJ knows!
Today we tried my new 3 foil pan Dutch oven concept with corn bread. You start with 3 10” x 10” aluminum foil pans you can buy at the grocery store. I found that you better wash the pans initially – they stink. To pack them, you gently fold down the sides of the individual pans and squash them flat. You then fold them in half and squash them. You do this to all three and wrap tight with Saran Wrap. This ends up being a small, couple ounce Dutch oven that can be used multiple times. Here is how you get it to work. You need an old fire that has a nice bed of deep coals. You re-open the pans to their original size. You fill one with ½ diameter rocks, then place the inside - nested. You fill this pan with a box of corn bread mix – which requires only water – bought from Cub Food. You then invert the other pan on top like a lid – you crimped the edges together and gently place the contraption in a bed of coals and pile coals on top. Highly recommended! This with sausage gravy on it makes a super meal.
The corn bread mix does not stick to pan, even though we did not put grease in the inner pans. This is great, because we realized that we could use them again for this purpose. It opens up the possibilities of baked beer bread, cookies, cake, or anything you need to bake. We also found another excellent use for the pans – after the corn bread we took two of the pans and some bass fillet (not the ideal fish species for eating in my opinion, but we had not caught any walleye’s yet), and put in some olive oil and seasoning, sealed on the top, threw it in the fire and put some coals on top. Flaky white bass was not that bad!
I should mention that fires did flare up on the shore line again and the helicopter came to the rescue at this time. It looked like they had a canoe and gear strapped to the aircraft and dropped it to the lake while hovering. With a little portable pump they drenched the shoreline – this was evident with the low hum of a generator disturbing the peacefulness of a normal serene Quetico. We still figured that our firefighting skills slowed if not saved a good chunk of real estate on the lake.
Before we left the campsite Andy counted rings on a downed tree in camp – it was a mere 8 inch diameter pine with a total of 170 growth rings. That seemed astounding to me!!!! I also counted it to confirm before boldly making the claim. That means that that little 8 inch tree was a little seedling in 1836 – long before the Civil War, long before my great grandfather was born in Norway, long before cars, and planes, and just about all of the modern history we have. WOW! Slow growth in sparse wilderness. It was 76F today. Fish count was Andy 4 sm, Mike 7 sm, and Al 7 sm.
Wed August 30 – 80 degrees and Sunny
Kahshahpiwi, 88 r, Butterfly Lake (unnamed), 115 r, Joyce, 40 r, unnamed, 68 r, Marj, p, pond, p, Darky (Darkwater) River, 24 r, river, 40 r, Suzanette, Basecamp
We woke up to a chilly morning on Kahshahpiwi. The wind was probably the highest it had been so far, pushing at a ferocious 10 mph ?. We were hoping that is would stay at that speed with the amount of miles that we were about to traverse through the middle of Quetico that day. We packed up camp in about 45 minutes and set off towards the Darky River. I had heard from some of the members of Quiet Journey that there were a couple of nice campsites that were close to being 5 stars hidden along this stretch.
Our first portage from Kahshahpiwi to Butterfly was rather difficult to locate. At one point paddle north to find another series of portages into the lake, but that too was overgrown and non-existent. We went back to the southern portage and just as we were to give up and head out of Kahshahpiwi through the south end we spotted a rock cairn off in the distance (thank you brothers!). The portage was delightful and the hint of fall in the air made it a great portage to start the morning. Butterfly was very isolated and had extremely bog-stained water. I thought of Native Americans for some reason when I went through this area.
The portage over to Joyce was rather easy as well except for a boggy area that needed extreme balance to get over. After that the trail fed us into Joyce. What a gem of a lake. Large, and sprawling, its shores were very inviting. Interesting enough, it looks as though this lake is just a big open lake, but the island produce a neat effect that actually breaks the lake up into smaller segments. We stopped for a bite at a campsite and it was one of the best sites I have ever been on. There was only room for one tent, but plenty of exploration and fishing was to be had only if we had more time. The giant White and Red Pine were sure welcoming and it seemed as though they were inviting us to stay there. Unfortunately we had to bid farewell to the island and head towards out next camp.
The portage out of Joyce had some mammoth White Pine – Wow! There were also some very old cedars in a stream bed near the portage. Marj was up next. She had Caribbean-colored water that tasted excellent, but not as good as North Bay (which had a clove taste). We stopped at a pretty island site for recon, headed over to our next portage. The portage was near a nice sandy white beach and it was kind of tricky to find. Once found, the portage was simple and brought us over to the Darky River on the other side. We had planned to stay here and meet up with another Quiet Journey party (Maverick and company), but once we saw another group on one of the sites we were targeting we decided to move on to seek the solitude we had not experienced since North Bay. Our next decision took us to Suzanette. I had always wanted to stay where, but did not realize that it would be on this trip. We scouted out all the campsites and found a gem on a long island in the North body of the lake. This is where we stayed for the next two nights.
After seeing a 7 pound walleye floating on shore I got the itch to try for one of the live specimens lurking underneath Suz’s gin clear water. Gin clear was the problem though. It was Late August and this water color probably has pushed the big boys pretty deep this late in the summer. We tried everything we had in our tackle boxes to no avail. Fishing plain stunk so far this trip. We were hoping a day trip to dark-watered Conmee would solve this problem.
Sitting around the campfire that night having our Maker’s Mark cocktails, we talked about life, death, eternity, and then back to trip issues - the first of these being the ease of the portages so far. We had heard they were suppose to be fairly challenging, but I guess the dry weather had made things easy going so far. One thing we did notice was that the portage crews were out working hard to make sure the Tag Alder was kept in check, but on some on the portages deep in Quetico they had not had a chance to get their machetes out! With brush so dense and you have a Kevlar canoe on your head have you ever noticed that the branches brushing up against the canoe sounds a lot like people or spirits talking or sighing or crying? Really – listen some day. I kept hearing Andy calling me – but it was the branches.
After pouring another Maker’s Mark, conversation was serious and we started logging down some equipment improvement ideas, some general thoughts, and wise aphorisms. One of the main issues plaguing us was that of drink mix. We noted that Crystal Light is a killer on the stomach. It caused heart burn and made me in particular have a feeling of very high blood pressure with the sound of my heart pumping in my ears, and beating radically at times. All it took was a sip!! No more of that stuff. In fact, I swear that anything artificial is bad news. Stick with butter, olive oil, sugar, and so forth. I have a hunch we are killing ourselves slowly with so much artificial stuff in our society.
Also another disturbing thought – what on earth are we doing with pollution and the wilderness. This global warming is becoming a mind boggling event. We are perceptibly melting the ice caps, making the cold north to have maples and oaks and possums, and other flora and fauna changes that are just a sad commentary on our greed and selfishness! This damage is slow, but I think you will all agree that the damage has started and will only move in the wrong direction without a firm attempt by all to stop it! I just read in the paper that the petroleum companies are actually happy about the ice caps melting, because that will only make it easier for them to drill for more oil - CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT!! What’s next? reversing the 1978 wilderness act allowing mining in the heart the BWCAW for copper? Fish count, Andy with 2 sm, Mike 2 sm and Al 2 sm.
Thursday August, 31 – 78 Degrees and Sunny
68 r, Conmee, 40 r, then go back to Suzanette, eat fish and drink Maker’s Mark ?
We all come up to canoe country for its sheer beauty, but I tend to think that we all have select unique characteristics that keep us pouring over maps in the dead of winter. I know that Andy loves his three W’s – Walleye, White Pine and Whisky. Mike has a love for fishing, exploring, and for building a good fire and relaxing with a nice Everclear concoction. My personal quests are somewhat different. These include the message caches that are set up for passing on info and history to fellow travelers, hidden ice caves (those proverbial areas I have heard about for years that are deep cavernous areas in the rocky shore that hold winter ice well into the summer time (I found a small one finally on this trip – see the picture – but unfortunately - it’s locations is a secret), interesting rocks for my rock tumbling obsession, unique features of the wilderness as outlined in books and made famous in wilderness lore, and of course walleyes!
On Suzanette my quest for a message cache came into fruition. We found it on a high bluff!! We spent over an hour reading every single message in the cache; messages that have accumulated over the course of 5 years. We all thought it was very fascinating! It is great to see so many people enjoying the wilderness and appreciating it for the good things, and not getting discouraged by the bad. In fact, if I have learned anything in life, it is what I call the Bill Murray philosophy of life (ala Meat Balls) – IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER, IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER!!!! It is a bit of an existential thought, that if you assume “stuff” happens in life, then when it happens it does not come as something unexpectedly bad. It just happens. Like black flies, no-see-ums, mosquitoes, bears, cold rain and sweat! It is obvious that this view was held by one of the avid campers who wrote in the cache, “the weather was blistering, the flies were terrible, but is this ever beautiful here – I wouldn’t pass this up for anything in the world, and I hope my kids, and their kids and their kids can stand on this same spot and feel my presence here – going on before them in the eternal wilderness”.
An interesting message in the cache had to do with Quetico Joe. So here was the message – someone noted that he had been at our campsite a couple of years before with the ashes of someone he called “Quetico Joe”. The only person I knew who could have had that name might have been Joe Selliga the canoe maker out of Ely. Only Joe died in 2005 and I believe his Moniker did not include Quetico. Evidently this was another Quetico Joe? In any case, his ashes were integrated into the rigolith of the campsite that we were staying in – hence we were very respectful of his name while camping and even asked his favor in catching some walleyes ?
After a fantastic side trip to the cache was finished, we marched on to Conmee. I had always wanted to stay on Conmee, but it just was not in the cards this trip. We tied on some crankbaits at the portage and decided to troll to an area indicated in Rom’s book where the Delahay flowed into Conmee from the Death March Portages. This was noted as one of the best walleye spots in all of Quetico - but that is for you find out. We also had quite an interesting experience with that lake giving up one of the two biggest fish that we got on the whole trip. As we passed to the North of the narrows on the east end Mike snagged into a fighting machine that was big enough to scare anyone. It was a 20+ lb Northern that took close to a half hour to bring in. The fish was exhausted as was Mike. We nursed it back into the lake of course and massaged it in the water until it slowly swam away. After we released the brute we headed down the narrows into a very “fishy” area. I would bet that this area would be worth checking out sometime in the future(-:
On our way back from Conmee we stopped by the survey marker pegged right on the portage trail. It designates the three way divide of the land into the major water sheds. It has an interesting notation about anyone taking this marker will be in the penalty of serving a 7 year imprisonment!!! Yikes. Who on earth would do such a thing – but of course we can not forget the creeps that stole one of two canoes from a party of 4 portaging near the Man Chain. I always thought there was honor among outdoorsmen!
With no Walleye in the boat yet this trip, we headed out after one bowl of very hot chili! The habanera pepper Andy brought out of the garden ripen to perfection after 5 days! We hit all the great points, drop-offs, and humps, but did not coax one marble eye to nibble. The silver lining came when I caught a huge Smalley right as the sun went down. I had to be a few ounces over 5 pounds. She was a beauty!
We had a cocktail and hit the hay……very tired!
Fish count was Mike 4 and one was a 20 lb NP, Andy 4 SMB, and Al 2 - one was a 5 lb SMB.
Friday September, 01 – 75 degrees and sunny
Suzanette, 15 r, pond, 38 r, Brent, 18 r, pond, 4 r, McIntyre, 24 r, Sara (no h in Sara to honor Mike and Andy’s wives names).
The morning sun embraced the opposite shore in splendid fashion as it so often does in canoe country. It was our last hour on Suzanette and we were reluctant to leave such a beautiful lake. Still we had to push forward and start our journey south towards Sarah. Our initial goal was to stay on one of the islands on Tuck, but we figured we would cut a couple hours off our next day’s travel time if we were to veer east instead of west. Considering we were exhausted from all the paddling and portaging we have done so far on this trip, a couple hours extra to relax sounded just fine to all of us! This decision to bypass Tuck left me with a desire to revisit the area one day, but I am sure glad that we experienced Sarah because she sure was one of the most beautiful lakes on our loop if not in the Quetico.
In route to Sarah we skirted the eastern shore of Brent Lake for about an hour. Too bad we could not have spent a night there and tried for one of its beefy walleye. In 1998 we really did well on this lake, but that was in June and now that we were fishing clear water lakes in August it felt like we were fishing lifeless lakes! After one very pretty portage entering the lake we, unfortunately, were soon landing at the start of a pull-over heading towards McIntyre.
McIntyre was an intriguing lake with its heavily pine-studded islands and shoreline. There is a campsite west of the main basin that is known to have a hidden message cache detailing where some of the Lake Trout hotspots are. Rumor has it that many messages were originally written by many of the old-school local guides. Just to think that Beland, Rom, Olson, Latourelle and many other were sitting around smoking a cigar at the very same site where we camp today! Perhaps McIntyre’s reputation has spread since the days of the old guys because we all felt as though it had become a destination lake and somewhat over-used.
The portage south of the “goat portage” was very pleasant. I found it to be refreshing to see such a grand stand of new growth White Pine in a land that is slowing converting to aspen, birch, maple and jack pine. It is evident that the deer population in the area is very low or else this tender shoots of this new growth would have been considered a delicacy to a white-tailed deer. Through the pine the portage opened up to a very beautiful bay looking out into a very inviting lake.
Sarah Lake is an irregular lake with it twisty corridors and numerous islands providing a unique base camp option. Someday I will bring my family back to this lake to swim along its white sand and explore among its inviting virgin pine forests. The fishing is supposedly excellent for Lakers and Smalleys, but we decided to explore more than fish.
We camped at the North end of Sarah’s narrow channel. The emerald blue waters created the feeling of being in the tropics surrounded by a blue lagoon. I emphasized the blueness of it only because it truly was the most beautiful emerald color that you could imagine. We all noted that the water color changed so dramatically on our trip. We had blue/green colored water in Kash, coffee brown in Conmee, Caribbean blue in Marj, Mountain Dew yellow in Shade, and emerald blue in Sarah. Sarah is Mike Prouty’s favorite lake – a die-hard outdoorsman and writer for the Boundary Waters Journal. His detailed descriptions and routing of this trip after our weekly racquetball hour made me want to get there sooner after each time we looked over our maps! This site was one recommended by Mike and it was a rather interesting camp site with a steep slope; it would have been bad news in a downpour – the only decent tent pad was at the bottom of the hill. My theory is to ALWAYS plan for the worst, but expect the best, which reflects my years of Boy Scout and Explorer Scout memorization of the motto – “Be Prepared.” That and Davy Crockett’s admonition to “Make sure you are right then go ahead and do it” are bits of advice that can make your life oh so much better in the wilderness. Hence in camp, I always look where the tent should be placed in case of a downpour, plus I map out an escape route as to where to hide or get shelter if there was a tornado or straight line winds (in a rocky shelter – cleft in the rocks, etc).
This far along in our trip we had managed to only get in the water once and that was on Kahshapiwi. We all came to the conclusion that a thorough scrubbing was in order to rid ourselves of the retched stench we had acquired. As we bathed in our lagoon we spotted fish swimming very close and on one occasion we witnessed a solitary loon darting past in search of a quick meal. Around the fire pit we had our share of the typical voles, mice, chipmunks, and squirrels that frequent such densely populated Red Pine habitat. The mice literally crawled around our feet and up into our pants and the squirrels loved to chatter at us to get out of their territory.
I noted that we had worked out a good routine for camp set-up and tear-down as well as for paddling. As soon as we landed at the spot we wanted, I put up the tent, Andy got the food prep area set up, and Mike did the unloading and organizing of the gear. Thee same for tear down, but in reverse order of course. For paddling we are all ambidextrous but we did seem to fit into the nature placement in the canoe, and the strong side for us to paddle. As for paddling, I just have to tell you that the Souris River 18.5 we bought MUST be the best canoe ever made. Of course I am prejudice, but we have paddled 17 foot Alumacraft for 21 years and when I first paddled the canoe, and when I finished paddling the 70th mile on our trip, I knew we made the right choice. I singly could paddle the canoe as fast as 3 could paddle the Alumacraft. It stayed on course straight as an arrow (something I didn’t think possible without a keel – but then I did not know about the canoe rocker idea).
The temperature today was 72 F and it looked like there was a threat of rain but it never materialized. The fish count was Mike 0, Andy 0, and Al 1 sm.
Saturday Sept, 02 – 73 degrees and Sunny
Sara, 112 r, Side, 55 r, Pond, 45 r, Pond, 30 r, Isabella, 24 r, Point, 165 r, Nest, 10 r, Pond, 18 r, North Bay, 10 r, Burke Creek, 4 r, Burke Lake, 80 r, Bayley Bay (Basswood Lake), Inlet Bay, Prairie Portage, then to Birch lake and camp for the night.
Seasonal changes were in full swing by this point in the trip. Not only were the leaves of the Moose Maple changing, but the classic fog hanging above the water was in full swing. The temps dipped below 40 degrees this 2nd to last morning. We packed up camp with flannel and fleece garments keeping us nice and toasty. These layers were soon shed as we made out way to the first portage by paddle. Dave at Williams and Hall told us to take the long portage rather than the three small ones. We had planned to take his advise, but an error in trail spotting took us throgh a low swamp with tons of rock and heavy cover preventing us from a clean carry. At Side Lake we wondered where we went wrong. None-the-less we made it to the other side and we were on out way through a series of small lakes and moderate portages en route to either North Bay or Birch Lake on the Border. We were going to make a decision to go on mid-day.
Part 3 of 3
Two small ponds and portages led us to Isabella. The portages were rather hilly compared to other portages throughout our trip. Past Isabella we went through Point and Nest Lakes. I don’t think this route sees too many people late in the season as the portage mud had impressions only that of animals and not boots. The little pond between Nest and North Bay is an interesting study. I envisioned this as a place where Shan Walshe would study his bog plants.
North Bay was quiet once again – just like it was when we entered the park. We cruised past Neil Island, Cigar Island, and finally the Island right in front of the Burke Lake portage. We portaged through this rocky area and pulled in the low waters of Burke Creek. Soon Burke Lake was upon us. This lake is one that signifies either coming or going in Quetico. I would be surprised if anybody considered this a destination lake. As we portages into Bayley bay we noticed a group camping right on the sandy portage. I can’t imagine being subjected to all the portage noise on top of all the messy sand to contend with. When we saw the kids come out from the woods it was evident why they were there.
Within an hour we were to Prairie Portage. Carrie greeted us and chatted with us for an hour. We sure learned a ton from her. We left a couple piles of gear with her that we were going to buy and take home with us in the morning. We had to catch a tow and thought that we would rather pay for it in the morning than pack it is with all our dirty gear.
We then went on through the portage and stayed on Birch Lake. We camped on an island in Birch Lake – barely making it in time before another couple came by to claim the other site. But guess what! We FINALLY got some walleyes! We had our midnight, beer battered walleyes. What a wonderful way to cap off a perfect trip with crispy fried walleyes.
We were hoping to see a moose, bear or wolf the last night considering we had not seen anything the whole trip. In all we saw bunch of eagles, loons, mergansers, coots, turtles, otters, and beaver. The closest we got the any mega fauna was that of a giant wolf print on the nest lake portage. Additionally we saw plenty of moose prints in many of the bogs that we portaged, but no moose. We thought we viewed some in the distance a couple of times, but no confirmed sightings. I guess the animals were happy from a great berry crop this year and they didn’t need to bother with us!
As the campfire stoked up that last night Mike and I took a small aquarium net that we brought along for this very purpose and caught about 50 Rusty Crayfish on the shore. We found that if you place the small net on top of them, you let them launch themselves into the net you pick them right up. If you tried scooping them up, you get a lot of gravel with them. We boiled a pot of water and threw the crawdads in and boiled until they were bright red. This typically takes about 15 minutes for lobsters, but a mere 5 minutes for crawdads. After cooking them up, we pulled the tails and dipped in melted butter. I will have to admit that it took a little more effort than it was worth, but they tasted great! You would have to have a couple hundred of these little guys to make a real meal. Bedtime came quick after another long day. Soon it was time to go home – often a difficult set of emotions arise at this juncture; happy to get home to see the family, but sad to leave the place that has been dreamt about for over 51 weeks of the past year.
Total fish count was Al 1, Andy 3, and Mike 1, with an additional walleye for each of us.
Sunday September, 03 – 75 degrees and Sunny
Paddle back to Prairie Portage. Get our tow at 11 am and head back to civilization. Check in at US customers North of Ely. Pizza Hut, beer and head home.
We awoke and headed for Prairie Portage once again. We went to the Quetico store and bought a bunch of items as mentioned previously. I should mention that just before we broke camp at Birch Lake, Mike did catch a bass at camp – officially making today’s count Mike 1sm, Al and Andy 0. Hence the total fish count was 50 fish and individually it is Al 18 – Mike 17 and Andy 15, with Mike the largest, Al the first and Al the most (YEAH!).
We got picked up by the outfitter’s boat and he took us back to our car. As I mentioned at the start of this article, we would return no longer spanking, civilization clean, but instead a little smelly, but definitely stronger, healthier, and tan as leather! We had a wonderful shower at the outfitters and liked the cold beer waiting for us gratis by the outfitter – thanks guys ?. We packed up then and drove back to Ely on the way home. When we exited, we stopped at the US boarder customs in Ely. The guy at first was tough, acted like he was trying to throw us trick questions to see if we were lying about where we were fishing, what we were doing, and if we were crooks. Once we started talking about the big northern Mike caught, his eyes lit up and he proceeded to tell us about his love of fish spearing through the ice. He told us about his house, how to cut the 3’ x 4’ rectangle, type of spear, how to spear them so it breaks their back, how to make the decoy fish lures (it seems that the owner of Zup’s grocery stores - John Zupancich is a work famous spear fisherman and decoy carver). Funny how people light up when you find out what is in their heart and soul. By the way, the custom folks now appear to be under the aegis of Homeland Security – for this gentlemen had a patch on one should saying he was a customs official, but the other had a patch displaying Homeland Security. Another sign that 9/11 has changed our lives.
We decided to stop and eat at the Grand Ely Lodge. We sat on the porch overlooking Shagawa Lake – a beautiful site. We had nice meal and a glass of Cabernet and started home. On our way I finally got into cell phone range I listened to my voice messages. To my surprise I found out about my Mom – while she was in church, appeared to be sleeping and my other son Tim had to carry her out. She stopped breathing and she had no heart beat. Much of the church came out and laid hands on her, and prayed for her recovery. Mom later told us that when she had “died” Jesus told her she was coming back to tell everyone that she loved them. Since that time, she makes a point to tell everyone “I love you, and really mean it.” She also says that she now must know what Lazarus felt like?.
I retrospect, we all initially felt a little gypped since we were not able to bring live leeches and minnows, nor allowed to seine for them in Quetico. Even so, we still are reminiscing about the adventures, the beauty of the land, the sites, the glory of the wilderness and solitude. We definitely left a part of our hearts up there, and I just think that we may have to go back again soon, to see if we can find that pesky piece of heart hiding in woods.