I was wrapping up some loose ends in my office Friday morning when I decided to just begin throwing stuff sacks and gear into the back of my car. When the canoe was finally loaded on the car, I drove north leaving Minneapolis just before noon. Stopping in Ely for a couple of errands I drove out to Moose Lake to bed down until my tow up Moose Lake the next morning.
Parks: Quetico & BWCA
Canoe: Souris River Quetico 17′
Route: Prairie Portage-North Bay-Isabella-Kahshahpiwi-Grey Loop
Time: Estimate 5-7 days (actual 5 days)
May 2nd (Day 1): Packed and Ready
Saturday dawned bright, clear and sunny. I’m cold, cramped and stiff from an unrestful night sleep but I’m packed and ready to go.
I meet Bob Latourell at 6:30 and by 7 we are speeding up the lake in his tow boat. In minutes, I’m deposited at the deserted Prairie Portage ranger station still slumbering from the winter sleep. A quick goodbye and the boat on my shoulders I start the first schlepp of my gear down to Inlet Bay put-in. I quickly complete my self-registration and push off for Bayley Bay and Quetico. Paddling hard, I am finding that my canoe glides effortlessly over the glassy smooth water. There is no wind. It’s still and eerie. I am making good time and after an hour and a half am soon unloading at the 85 rod, well-trodden dirt path. I later dubbed this the “garden walk”. Little did I know that this would the easiest portage of the entire trip.
Picturesque and calm, Burke Lake is a peaceful solitude with few wooded islands dotting its bays that unfold to the east and wooded hills that dive into the blue water’s edge on my left. Sun burning overhead, the lake offers little resistance as I paddle effortlessly to the first of two portages on the north side of the lake that parallel the stream that empties into North Bay. The second portage however is rocky and I am having trouble dragging my heavy gear out of the boat and now stumbling up the trail. I misread the trail and put in at a high-water put-in. I fish out my painter line from the bow and gingerly maneuver my canoe, grunting as I lift it over the last few boulders and jagged submerged rocks. Heat is building with direct sunlight overhead. Draining one of liter-water bottles, I begin paddling due north across North Bay, this last stretch of big water. Forty-five minutes later navigating by my compass and map, I’m stopping at a peninsula campsite for a lunch break and to filter water.
I’ve gone through 6 liters this morning and know that I will need an equal amount before the day is over to make my destination of Isabella by the evening. This is a beautiful peninsula site with a well-developed fire ring, pine needle floor and high Norway Pines towering above.
Old trapper metal spring traps lay around the camp site from a bygone era.
Some trapper abandoned them after snaring his or her share of the unsuspecting beaver who are now busy damming up the small tributary creek that I must enter next to continue paddling north.
It’s about 2PM now and I need to get going. I push off and start the couple of beaver dam lift-overs and the 65 rod portage off the tributary to a No Name lake, a couple more portages and finally Isabella Lake where I will spend the night.
Tired, thirsty and looking for one of two sites supposed to exist on this lake, I stop at a high-ledge camp site where the lake necks down to a pinch with 20 to 25 foot granite canyon walls on either side. The take-out is weedy and buggy, less-than-ideal with the tent platforms and fire ring a climb up but I’m too tired to care. I decide to the leave gear down below and only drag my tent and food up top to set up. Bedding down for the night, I flick the first tick of the season out the tent door after finding it making a valiant assault up my bandana crawling towards my head & neck region. The battle is joined!
May 3rd (Day 2): Hard to Move
Bright sunshine filters in through my tent fly. The achiness has settled into my muscles. I’m having an amazing run of luck though with the weather. I lounge a bit over breakfast coffee and oatmeal, planning my day of supposedly hard, steep portages into the Side Lake area, my gateway to Kahshahpiwi the ultimate goal for the day.
Finally I am ready to clamber back into my boat at 10:30AM, a late start that I will pay for later. Paddling down the lake I found the first portage hidden in a jumble of rocks next to a gentle, gurgling stream emptying from the No Name lake on the other side. The portage poses little problem and I have my loads across in no time to be greeted by a stiff wind coming directly at me from across the lake. Bummer. Setting my compass reading, I’m staring across the lake at what looks like a sheer granite face on a cliff wall. “This can’t be right”, I think to myself as I pull hard to cross this small lake. Searching a likely easier, wooded grade that heads up the same hillside, I am turned back from this moose path to search the shoreline again. The portage is about 30 yards southwest down the shoreline and indeed climbs the sheer cliff face on a razor-thin goat path.
This and the next portages seem identical in their steepness and level of effort – they go by in a blur of pain and sweat as I find myself purposefully, slowly ascending two steep slopes only to return two more times to reclaim my gear. I’ve had to go to triple-portages as I’ve found that my portage pack is greatly over-packed with gear and my food barrel is overloaded as well with several extra days of food, largely unneeded for this trip. Adding insult to injury, I get lost on the second portage where it is joined by a portage trail coming in from another lake to the south and west. Fatigue is setting in and my typical early season kitchen-sink packing is taking its toll.
The afternoon wanes bringing on clouds and an occasional light drizzle. I begin to worry as I can feel the slight chill return to the air. No one wants to be caught out on a lake with weather coming on and temperatures dropping. Hypothermia is always lurking. Finding Side Lake puts me only two portages away from my goal at about 4PM. Time is ticking by. The next to last portage is a short 20 or 25 rods by my guess but it’s a stream bed littered with ankle-busting basketball-size boulders. The path is not evident in this maze of stones. Carefully, I pick my path tiptoeing with each of my three loads to the boulder minefield and paying particular care with the canoe which can hang-up on the branches above if I’m not careful. I am congratulating myself now for reaching the last No Name Lake. All that separates me from Kahshahpiwi is a 185 rod portage (a little over a half mile) that shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.
I’m thinking I’m home free now. That’s a good thing. My muscles ache, my legs are getting rubbery and I can tell that my strength is waning. It’s time to stop soon. Anywhere, but soon. The portage into Kahshahpiwi Lake from the Side Lake direction is different from how it’s depicted on the McKenzie map. I’m confused. Where is it? I paddle past a campsite on my right and spy a trail going up into the woods. Goat path? Moose trail? I clamber out to inspect only to be disappointed. Realizing my error I climb back into my canoe seat and take up my paddle. Staring at my map, it dawns on me that the trail might be split into two. I paddle forward to find one very short portage on my right of 2 or 3 rods going up a dirt embankment. Unloading quickly, I climb the 10 to 15ft embankment to reach a granite bald-face outcropping only to discover that the trail stops — disappears actually— into the water of the swamp. Nothing even to my right to skirt the edge of the swamp. Forced to reload the boat, I hurry. Daylight is waning and my stomach is grumbling accompanied by a powerful thirst. Paddling carefully into the swamp, I face-off with a 50 foot granite cliff swinging into view on my left. Scanning in a circle around my boat I spot where the portage trail picks up — on my right hidden in a copse of trees with an embankment that descends into a bog. No choice.
Unloading quickly, I sling the army duffel with my food barrel and a couple of empty water bottles and set out to scout what I’m in for. Watching my footing and gauging my coordination, the forest trail descends to the bog and a dilapidated corduroy patchwork of logs. Thin ice is mixed with boggy, puddles. One wrong step sinks my leg in nearly to my hip. Struggling to regain my balance – and boot!—I make my way across the 25 or 30 rods of boggy mess.
The trail eventually rejoins the forest path. From there I find it to be a straight shot on solid ground to Kahshahpiwi. I plot my return trip but only manage to precariously struggle across with my canoe to the woods before setting it down on the forest floor. I’m completely knackered. What to do next? Continue on with boat or go back from the portage pack?
I make the difficult decision to abandon my canoe for now in favor of retrieving my portage pack. It contains the tent, water filter, sleeping bag and spare clothes. Food is already at the other end. Portage pack it is — so that I can begin filtering water and set up camp. I tell myself that this most likely means an emergency bivvy on the portage trail near the put-in. It’s a drastic step but I’m running out of both daylight and energy to safely continue. It’s my best and only option and I move with renewed vigor moving this last heavy load from take-out to the end of the trail and the lake.
Finding a cramped patch of the woods up-trail from the lake put-in, I put together a quick, dehydrated soup and sip several liters of newly-filtered water to rehydrate myself. I’ve slipped on a pile sweater, wool hat and I’m feeling better. The light is almost gone but I decide to trudge back to my boat in the woods in a last ditch effort to at least salvage my fishing gear and lighten the canoe for tomorrow’s first carry by stripping out the portable seat and paddles. As a stroll back through the woods, I’m feeling renewed and arrive back at my abandoned load quicker than anticipated. Throwing caution to the wind, I hoist the canoe onto my shoulders and I’m walking briskly back over up the trail. In what seems like a few short minutes, I’m triumphantly back at my makeshift camp just as darkness descends. Tucking away loose lends, I dive into my tent, broken, exhausted but happy to be reunited with all gear and canoe. I start rethinking my planned route pouring over my maps and listening to the changing weather on my radio. With triple-portages in my future as the only viable alternative and a day-short on my plan, I must cut the route short, forego Agnes on this trip and the Meadows portages in favor of a loop out McNiece, Walshe, Yum, and Grey back to North Bay, Burke and Bayley – all before the winds hit the forecasted 22mph gusts on Wednesday. Sleep finally overtakes me as temperatures drop into the 30s, the lake calms, and the loons call.
May 4th (Day 3): Rethinking possible.
Morning dawns early in canoe country. Under bright sun, I hasten through camp chores and a quick breakfast of oatmeal, fruit and coffee before packing up my makeshift camp. I’m back on the water at about 8:30AM, paddling past high granite cliffs on the western shores and heading north on Kahshahpiwi to scout out the McNiece portage. There is fire tower on the western shore about midway up the lake that catches my eye. I’m thinking that I’m imagining it but it’s a very distinct structure standing a lonely sentinel duty over this elongated gem of water. To the east about a half hour north of the put-in I find the little bay that guards my portage. Snow and ice melt water drains into the lake reminding me that winter has not been long gone from this country.
Ten steps up the portage, the canoe is already zapping the strength in my legs. I begin to wonder if I’ll have the stamina to get over these portages. The trail climbs then levels off in the woods before entering a rocky, exposed beaver pond with yellowed, dry grass that captures and intensifies the sun like a giant solar reflector. I’ve gone from shivering at the lake’s edge to squinting and sweating profusely. A 4-inch poplar is laying at exactly canoe-height across the trail and I wearily set the canoe down to pull it underneath, sliding it on the grass. The rest of the trail descends to the heat-bake of the swamp before rejoining a burned out forest that I must climb to reach. I have to set the boat down because I can’t continue. Instead, I stumble forward with my food barrel to scout the rest of the trail. I’m greeted by four 16 inch pines, laying across my path and must climb them or slide over them to keep going. The portage crews obviously have not been through this area yet and this will be a challenging carry. The trail, a total of 165 rods finally climbs then descends this tree-strewn hill with a winding path that snakes its way down to a boulder- strewn shoreline that meets McNiece lake. Struggling to return for my two remaining loads, this portage takes me three hours to complete. I check the time. It’s already noon. Eating a quick snack and guzzling water, I realize that the day is half gone and this is not going the way I want it to.
I hardly notice the beauty of the old growth pines on McNiece and Shaun Walshe lakes as I paddle and portage the next two trails which are short and fairly flat. What I remember is that on the last of these two, a stiff wind catches the canoe as I hoist it over head, taking us both over. I go down, banging my left knee hard. Ouch. Later I would discover that my knee has turned purple from upper shin to lower thigh but for now I’m just annoyed at my clumsiness.
Reaching Yum Yum in mid-afternoon, I opt for an extended lunch break, nap and filter a few more liters of water. I’m out of the wind now and the heat of the day is building again. I think it’s in the 70s but I’m too tired now to check. After about a one-hour break, I start out again with a new plan. Most would choose the 96 rod portage from Yum Yum to Grey, my final destination. Not able to even contemplate a carry that long, I opt for two shorter as the capstone to my day: a 20 rod trail to Amion Lake, then a 50 rod flat trail to Grey. This plan goes smoothly and by 5 I’m paddling Grey Lake and scouting potential campsites on this long finger lake dotted with islands and quiet small secluded bays.
Finding a seldom-used location with a flat, pine-needled floor and an abandoned fire ring on a granite-outcropping, I get a few camp chores out of the way, pitch the tent and settle in for the night. Tomorrow will be easier. I count off: 126, 60, 65, maybe 20-or-so rod portages, two beaver lift-overs, retracing my steps through North Bay, Burke, Bayley Bay, and Prairie Portage to meet my tow the next day. So far so good. Now sleep, rest & recovery is key. Tomorrow I could be out and I’m honestly looking forward to ending the ordeal.
May 5th (Day 4): Grey Morning
It’s Tuesday. I’m on Grey Lake with mist rising after a cold dawn. Beauty surrounds. I am enveloped in the stillness. Flat water. Bright sunshine reflects off the water. Making a quick breakfast, I forgo coffee and load the boat quickly Time to get moving. Early is the key word for the day.
The portages come and go with little to no difficulty as I laid them out for myself the night before. The first one out of Grey is a much gentler 125 rod portage with an entry well camouflaged behind the island in front of my makeshift campsite. It undulates gently terminating in a wooded, rocky put in that is not difficult to navigate. The next couple of portages are half this length with few blowdown trees, less rocks and little to no swamp or bog to navigate. I soon find myself on the No Name lake that led me to Isabella on the first day. My portage back out is now retracing my steps in the opposite direction: South.
Lunch break is again on the northernmost campsite on North Bay at the outlet from the Isabella Creek and I’m happy to be back. Winds are still light at this point and I rest, break out lunch sandwiches, fruit, nuts and chocolate while I filter enough water for the rest of the day’s journey and consider my progress. The trapper’s abandoned beaver traps are exactly where I first found them and I’m feeling good.
It feels like I’ve come home. An hour and half later, just after 1PM, I push southward on North Bay. The wind has picked up to 5 to 10mph judging by the size of the rollers and I have to work hard to get across the bay. An hour and a half later finds me pulling hard to enter the narrow inlet and the portages that will lead down to Burke. The shallow marshy stream that leads to Burke makes me work hard to vigorously pole the boat forward to arrive at windy Burke Lake. It’s late afternoon now. I could just curl up on this last portage and sleep for a couple of hours but I’ve come too far and I’m determined to at least reach Bayley before day’s end, even if it’s too windy to cross. Once out on the lake, I find the winds abating and the trip down the lake is mostly just a long paddle, not a fight against the wind.
Navigating by compass, I find myself landing on the sandy beach take-out that is my gateway to Bayley Bay of expansive, picturesque Basswood. I had forgotten how flat and unobstructed this portage was and I delight in how quickly I’m able to move my loads across to the other side. I’ve made it! But wait – where’s the wind on the Bayley-side? No wind! I take a quick break, load the boat and push off not wanting to waste the opportunity as Bayley as a nasty reputation for whipping up some “rock-and-rollers”. It’s 7PM. Plenty of light. I move out and push hard. Two hours of paddling by compass I make the top of Inlet Bay. Round the peninsula and heading south I can just make out what looks like a distant light in the ranger cabin on the Quetico park side of Prairie Portage. This beacon seems to call me home. “The maintenance crew must be in early this year”, I note and I pull harder on my double-blade paddle.
As I approach Prairie Portage, darkness is descending. It must be close to 9PM. I find one maintenance worker on the dock loading a boat. He’s startled to see a paddler out there in the late evening as I push hard to meet him. He ignores me and goes back up to cabin. As I land finally around 10PM, tired, thirsty and exhausted, I decide that a bivvy on this beach is out of the question and wearily drag my boat and gear “up top” to the drop off. Looking around quickly I remember that at least two flat tent sites exist near this take out to catch the odd, weary traveler. I set up tent, tie off my canoe in the trees and crawl in exhausted again, but happy. I’ve made it! Tomorrow will be tow-time.
May 6th (Day 5): Fly-outs and Chance Meetings
Morning light filters into the tent.
Crawling out and strolling back down to the ranger cabins I am treated to the site of the maintenance crew twin otter taxiing and taking off to ferry the crew to another cabin in the direction of Cache. I’m out a day or two early and there is no rush. I lazily pack up and send a message to the outfitter to get a tow out. No answer. Weighing my options of whether to begin a long paddle out to Moose Lake, I stroll around the site and find a green tow boat across from me on the American side. My ride out has arrived! Loading up, I chat with Bob who tells me that he’s up here to tow another group of USFS wardens. I found out that he never received any of my messages. I’m lucky once again on this trip. The ride home is uneventful until we hit the predicted winds on Moose. The boat bucks as it hits the rollers but has little difficulty landing at the docks and its designed berth. I’m home. A feeling of relief rolls over me as a light rain begins to fall.