Saturday, September 24, 2011

Paddling the Waters of Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada

Quetico Provincial Park is a region of isolated Canadian wilderness straddling the Canada - United States border between southwestern Ontario and northern Minnesota. Quetico is composed of over 1 million acres of forests and thousands of miles of water routes. Permits are required for all visitors.

In mid-September three outdoor enthusiast friends and I paddled a six day 35 mile loop in the Quetico Provincial Park region of Ontario.

We all agreed we had the most physically and technically demanding portages we have ever attempted. We balanced these challenges against seeing some of the most beautiful wilderness, pristine water, and wildlife in the country.  Indeed, the boundary waters provided us with a very memorable and impressive paddling experience. 

The Portages
We had seventeen portages for eight plus portage miles. (Click here to see my spreadsheet for the lake sequences, their portages, and the portage distances).

My son Tim and I were in an 18' 6" 43 lbs kevlar ultra-light Wenona canoe, and Dundee and his son Paul in a similar model canoe. The portages were through dense woods with extremely narrow and rough granite rocks of all sizes and shapes, up and down hills, over fallen trees, mud, and water.

At each portage one person from each canoe carried the canoe on their shoulders using a leather padded neck yoke. I managed to portage the canoe 5 times, whereas Tim did the other 12 portages. Dundee and Paul likewise worked out a similar type of division of who carried the canoe at each portage. Our backpacks (in each canoe - a food pack and two packs for each of our personal gear) averaged 50 plus lbs for the first few days until we managed to finish the beer and get half-way through the food. (Authors Note: Next time we go – no beer. It is too heavy to carry!)

To get the full feel of our physical effort of the seventeen portages, you must realize the four of us had to each make three trips across the portage. Because of the narrow and rough terrain and its length, each canoe was carried by one person, while their canoe partner carried the food pack. We then returned over the portage for the remaining gear and carry our personal packs and other hand carried gear such as paddles, fishing poles, tent dry bag, and maps.

We had no injuries. Amen!

As you see from the portage spreadsheet, our first day of paddling had the three longest portages, and since it was our first day, we had the heaviest weight of our entire trip. I must confess - after we selected a campsite on the Meadows Lake island, set up our tents, and went for a much needed refreshing swim - we all took a one hour nap.  Exhaustion was upon us. Thereafter we began preparations for dinner.

Our Team
Paul, our Meal Planner and Chief Cook, did a fabulous job in providing wonderful meals. My son Tim shared with Paul the meal preparation, camp setups and cleanup, etc.

Dundee was the navigator with excellent map reading skills and keeping us on our water trail as we paddled through fifteen or so lakes. There were no trail signs or lake signs – our only guidance was the detail map and our compass showing the portages– and Dundee’s innate sense of direction and recognition of where we were in reference to the map.

As the days passed, we realized we were following a waterway highway as we portaged from lake to lake in a very logical manner.

On all five of our evenings we slept on islands - as we felt this would provide more security from bear and wolves. Two evenings we played “survivor man” and started our campfire with sparks from flint and steel.

Wildlife and Indian Pictographs
We saw a variety of wildlife, including eagles, loons, mink, beaver, otter, grouse, signs of moose, heard wolf calls, and had warnings of black bear from Quetico rangers, but no sightings.

We saw ancient Ojibwe Indian pictographs (paintings on the lakeside granite) and petroglyphs (images etched into the granite) along the lakeside cliffs. We had bought a book, Magic on the Rocks by Michael Furtman on the Pictographs of Quetico, and we read the book in camp to prepare ourselves with some education on these little understood Ojibwe artifacts (

Louisa Falls
We swam the first two days – day one off our island campsite in Meadows Lake and the second day in the middle of Louisa Falls - a one-hundred foot waterfall flowing from Louisa Lake into Agnes Lake. Halfway down the falls is a neat natural bathtub including a stream of water for a great back massage fromthe rushing water into the tub.

The following day we had a brief flurry of snow, and of course, swimming was over. We fished as we paddled, but caught nothing we could eat.

Forest Fire
There was a massive forest fire in the area - we could see and smell distance smoke from our island campsite on Summer Lake, but we were not in any danger.  The Quetico ranger at Prairie Portage told us they leave these most generally lightening started fires to burn out by themselves, as they are a natural process of the wilderness phenomena.

Rough Water and Cold Weather
We had three days of on and off heavy rain showers (including one shower of hailstones and snow) and 30 mph wind gusts and high waves as we crossed a few of the lakes. You ask, “Why did you cross in such rough conditions?” Well, we needed to seek a camp site for the night. These paddles absolutely required seasoned and strong paddlers, and thankfully we were all up to the task. There were no flips.


The Water
The Boundary Waters and Quetico lakes are pure, clear and pristine water. Given the nature of the lakes being made by the movement of the glacier thousands of years ago, the water depth frequently dropped off close to shore as the lakes are within granite mountains.

A question we frequently asked before the trip was “where do we get our drinking water while in the Quetico waters? Certainly boiling or purification tablets are the wisest recommendation for drinking any lake water. However, as we spoke to those who regularly paddle these waters, the feedback was “as you paddle in deep water, push your empty water containers as far down into the water as you can reach and then open the cap. Replace the cap before you bring the filled bottler back up. This became our choice, and along with boiling this water for cooking and hot beverages, indeed we drank directly from bottles in which we stored our water.

Trip Preparation
We entered the Canadian waters at the Prairie Portage location into Quetico Provincial Park via a water taxi tow on Moose Lake from Ely, MN. To assure the entry date we wanted we needed to apply for an entry permit five months before our preferred date. There is a limited number of entry permits for each day. Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely coordinated our permit application, outfitted us with two We-no-nah canoes, maps, food backpacks, and a large Duluth type backpack that could handle what I had originally packed into three dry bags. No motored vehicles or power boats are allowed within the parameters of the Quetico wilderness area.

Our Paddling Route
Our six day water route was a loop of fifteen lakes within Quetico. From the Prairie Portage Ranger Station entry, we paddled north to Sunday Lake, then east to Meadows Lake, and then north on Agnes Lake until we reached the portage to Silence Lake. We looped back to Prairie Portage via the lake route known as the "S" chain of lakes: Silence, Sultry, Summer, Noon, Shade, West, South, and then to Basswood, Burke and Bayley Bay.

Although we passed through the northern Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) as our canoes were towed with the motorboat, technically we did a Quetico paddling trip.

A Trip for the Physically Fit and a Planned Route
Our experience in the waters of Quetico shows: (1) You need to plan your portage route in agreement with the physical condition and paddling experience of your group. Develop your route considering portage length and portage frequency; (2) this trip is for the physically fit outdoor enthusiast; (3) you need strong and endurance paddling skills to handle long mileage with paddling amongst heavy wind and rough waves; (4) a strong back for heavy, lengthy, and rough portages; (5) have at least one member of your group with map and compass reading skills.  Remember Quetico has no trail signs or markers; (6) outdoor menu planning and cooking skills (at least one person); (7) an ability to set up a campsite, start a campfire in different weather conditions (at least one person) and (8) a team mentality with fellow trekkers in grinding and varying terrain and weather conditions, and camp setups, and (9) a sense of humor and enjoyment of the wonderful outdoors.

We all gained an appreciation for the beauty, tranquility and isolation of the Quetico area. Will we return, yes, absolutely.

Now, I never have to say, "I wish I had paddled the boundary waters of Minnesota and Canada."

Additional References
"Everyone must do something.  I believe I will go outdoors with family and friends"

Steve’s latest book, Outdoor Play "Fun 4 4 Seasons" is available as an e-Book at Kindle ($3.99) and hard copy at ($11.95)