Early Spring Solo in Quetico: Hard Portaging to Kahshahpiwi

Prologue

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.

Packed up and ready to go

Packed up 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.

Lunch Break on North Bay

Lunch Break on North Bay

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.

Lunch site on North Bay

Lunch site on North Bay

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.

Single trap on North Bay

Single trap on North Bay

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.

Breakfast view on Isabella Lake

Breakfast view on Isabella Lake

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.

3 Traps at northern site on North Bay

3 Traps at northern site on North Bay

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.

Prairie Portage looking to the US-side

Prairie Portage looking to the US-side

Prairie Portage looking east

Prairie Portage looking east

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.

A First Glimpse of Algonquin: The Way to Radiant Lake, July 30, 2014

Something Different

Algonquin is the third largest provincial park in Ontario and a mecca for paddlers from southern Ontario and many others. Our own journey was intended as a half-way meeting place for our my brother- and sister-in-law and their two teenage kids from Connecticut.

 

 

It was secretly my excuse to explore this beautiful park of forested lakes, pool-and-drop rivers and rugged portages. My wife Thea and I along with our two kids, Ethan and Leah aged 12 and 10 eagerly anticipated our rendezvous.

Day 1: On the Road – Monday July 28, 2014

The first day of any trip combines several months of planning and a few frantic days of packing back in Minneapolis before heading east. My son Ethan and daughter Leah were buried in the backseat of my wife’s Prius as we set out on a sunny day from our home. The Wenonah Champlain was precariously balanced on the roof rack and we had crammed the back compartments with portage packs and camping gear. A long hot drive ended for us in Sault-Sainte Marie on the US side to break the journey. The next morning we carried on with our final stopover in Mattawa. This is a lovely, historic little mountain town in mountainous northeastern Ontario. Situated at the confluence of the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers, town is part of the old voyageur history on the doorstep of the Algonquin Park. I doubt this area has changed much since Etienne Brulé and Samuel de Champlain visited as the first Europeans to pass through. We stayed at Le Voyageur Inn, a two-story structure with an interesting bit of character and great food. The town had just survived its annual Voyageur Days when we arrived. The dented-in plaster drywall in the breakfast nook area retained some hints of the level of revelry the night before.

Day 2 – Brent Campground – Tuesday July 29, 2014

All trips at this northern entrance to the park begin at Cedar Lake, access point 27. We stopped to pick up our backcountry camping permits and reservations for the Brent Campground—where we would stay tonight – from two very pleasant rangers at the ranger station. The drive down to the lake is on a well-graded scenic gravel road with evidence of ongoing logging operations on lands outside of Algonquin. In a hurry to find and set up our camp, we didn’t stop to view the meteor crater but it is well worth the visit if you have time. If you are not getting on the water the first day of your trip out onto Cedar Lake, then Brent Campground is a comfortable place to spend the night.

Upon arrival, we set up tents, exploded our gear onto our site and began organizing everything. My in-laws arrived a few hours after us to great cheers. Later we all strolled down the Algonquin Outfitters Brent Store in the hamlet of Brent to discuss our route, canoe and gear arrangements with the knowledgeable and friendly staff in the store.

Day 3 – Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs – Wednesday July 30, 2014

We were in trouble and we knew it. Or at least I knew it. Overcast skies in the morning with predicted rain for later that day. With gear still spread over the grass in our group site, it took us most of the morning to get organized and head down to the outfitters to pick up our boats. Traveling with kids means buying souvenirs pre-trip and keeping lunches and snacks handy. Your motto should always be “you never know”. Finally trucking our gear down to the dock where we would stage our loading operations, the sky let loose and a steady downpour ensued. A true midsummer soaker was upon us. I staggered back into the outfitters to return one last bit of miscellaneous unneeded gear before departing. Water was dripping in rivulets off of my hat and down the back of my neck. My rain gear was soggy. One of the gentleman behind the counter glanced up, without missing a beat remarked “how was your trip?” We were off to memorable start.

The rain stopped but dark clouds were high overhead obscuring any chance of sun and an ominous squall of white was rolling in from the northeast end of the lake. We shoved off and began our paddle of a three-boat flotilla. Halfway across we were hit again — the skies opened and drenched us. Turning my boat around I yelled to the others “Welcome to Algonquin!”. Luckily spirits were high and the kids were having a lot of fun watching the parents struggle under the soaking. Constant reminders were given to ‘paddle!’

This was going to be an epic day.

Landing at the sandy portage to the Petawawa River, our party slowly organized itself as loads were carried across while bypassing the rapids that roared to our right. It’s not a bad carry though. At 985 meters (199 rods), the path begins in a wide open grove of towering pines and is flat for about the first third. Gradually ascending a ridge the trail crests and then gently descends to a rocky put-in on the Petawawa.

Almost 200 rod portage from Cedar to Petawawa ends at this rocky steep put-in

Almost 200 rod portage from Cedar to Petawawa ends at this rocky steep put-in

With the horror of the first portage written across everyone’s face, we took an impromptu lunch break before moving on. I noted the fatigue on everyone’s face noting their dawning recognition of what I had gotten all of them into.

Rain was now coming intermittently in sheets, drizzle or downpours as we moved out onto the river. Letting up a bit, we reached the second 685 meter-portage (147 rods). This mostly flat trail bypasses a set of rapids and winds through picturesque forest with stands of maples, beech and conifers before passing a campsite and dropping down to the water below a cascade. We were picking up speed now and launched towards our next and last portage, a 160-rod railroad bed that would take us onto the final stretch of the Petawawa and finally to Radiant Lake, our destination. You need to know one thing coming in this direction, the takeout on the final portage is a steep, nearly impossible goat-scramble up a craggy, crumbling chasm of rock about 15 meters or 45 to 50 feet up. Vertical might be a more apt description.

Once up on the railroad bed it’s a straight walk down the gravel railroad bed the stick-and-rock marker that signals that the trail turns off the left the gravel road. The path at this point dives back downhill into the forest before descending to the sandy put-in. You’re bypassing the Devil’s Chute Rapids, a long series of cascades formed as the river descends on its way to Radiant Lake. We were now on the final stretch of our exhausting day.

We completed the short easy paddle down the river in about a half hour turning south as we exited onto the lake. Turning right (south) we easily located a well-used but spacious campsite on a knobby outcropping with a good clearing, established fire ring and plenty of room for our 3 tents.

Our campsite on Radiant

Our campsite on Radiant

Day 4: Layover – July 31, 2014

Morning brought fog and mists over the lake. Breakfast was hardy eggs, bacon, oatmeal washed down with juice or strong coffee. Despite motor traffic on this lake, I like Radiant for its calm demeanor. Friendly lake-dwellers motored past us occasionally as they headed to one of the few permanent cabins on this lake.

Silhouette on Radiant

Silhouette on Radiant

This seemed to comfort everyone and ease that initial sense of wilderness that can be overwhelming to some, particularly those who are newer to this experience. This day was dedicated to sorting out and drying everything that had received a good soaking the day before.

Getting breakfast going

Getting breakfast going

At the end of the day, my wife Thea and I headed up the Petawawa to see if I could land fish for the evening meal. A bit of trolling with a rap husky jerk landed a couple smallmouth (several shook off my line as they rose to the surface) and one eater-sized walleye. The day was a success!

Father-daughter moment

Father-daughter moment

 Day 5: Shoal and Bass – August 1, 2014

It was time to venture further out of camp and explore. Shoal Lake was the destination. We were all feeling a bit more adventurous and decided to use our last day to get out and stretch those paddling muscles. I tied on a search lure and we set out from our site heading north/northwest up the inlet to Shoal. Rounding a point in overcast skies threatening rain my line gave a tug and the reel whined as the drag kicked in. Strike! Several minutes later the line slackened and the lure returned to the surface leaving no truce or clue what I had nearly set into. It was a portent of things to come.

Lilypads on inlet to Shoal

Lilypads on inlet to Shoal

Water lilies on a log, Shoal Lake

Water lilies on a log, Shoal Lake

The bay that leads to Shoal is a weedy shallow inlet covered in a carpet of reed grass and lily pads. The portage around a shallow, short stretch of rock strewn rapids is perhaps 15 meters (5 rods) and we simply lifted our canoes over it. The first half of Shoal is more of the same carpeted shallow waters however closer the cascades that tumble in from X lake on the northern side, the lake deepens to perhaps 10 to 20 feet home to a healthy, aggressive and wily bass. There is a fairly decent campsite near the cascades, a bit sloping for more than 2 tents to accommodate but nestled under tall pine and a perfect setting, with the tranquility of the rushing water to contemplate the world – or eat lunch! Which was what we did.

Picnic lunch on Shoal

Picnic lunch on Shoal

I tried my hand at fishing around the cascades as others took a hike over the short 25 or so rod portage to view bucolic Clamshell Lake. My own battles below with the bass resulted in an 0-6 record. Many were hooked, several were set, but shook my barbless hook each and ever time with a well-timed leap. Even one nice dark brownback brought to canoe-side managed to escampe. Oh well, next time.

You never forget your first privy.

You never forget your first privy.

Day 6: August 2, 2014

Paddling-out proved far less of an adventure given everyone’s motivation to go. Everyone awoke early around 7AM. Breakfast was everything still left over save few snacks: oatmeal, pancakes, eggs, cheese, crackers, Nutella and bread, yoghurts and coffee or juice. Packing was accomplished in record time for our little party and we were on the water by 9AM.

Going home! Up the Petawawa to the railroad portage

Going home! Up the Petawawa to the railroad portage

Well-organized and energetic, we attacked the 160 rod railroad portage, loaded again, pushed off and made for the 141 rod portage. Finding refuse at the put-in campsite we packed up fire proof gloves, paper plates, clothesline and miscellaneous bits of papers and wrappers as we trudged down the trail. Here I thought of brilliant idea to shorten everyone’s portage and perhaps regain some of my backwoodsman aura that had been tarnished on the trip in: the short-cut. About 20 rods or so before you reach the put-in on the river, their is a high water put-in next to a small feeder stream that rejoins the rapids further down river. Putting in here saves that last bit of carry and gets you on the river quicker but a large tree is downed a maneuvering around it can be tricky – as we learned!

Back on the last stretch of the Petawawa, we paddled to our last, long rocky portage and straggled over it. After a well-deserved break and last lunch at the pine grove next to the put-in, we were off and making the long paddle across Cedar back to the town of Brent. As a result of my own navigational blunder I had our canoes heading into the southwest bay off of the portage. The lead canoe realized my mistake and turned north just in time. Now we were spread across the lake separated by 10 to 20 minutes of paddling. I never realized how long this lake was coming in but going out it seemed to stretch on forever. At one point we picked up our daughter in mid-lake from my brother-in-law Mike’s canoe and she happily clambered onto a portage pack and promptly fell asleep for the rest of our long pull homewards. Dry land never felt so good after we arrived and we did our best to indulge in all the goodies that the Brent Store had to offer!

Next day was tearful goodbyes and rolling out on the road. Tim Horton’s was our treat to salve the pain of parting from good friends and family.

 

Hmmm….contemplating the next trip?

Hmm...more cheese?...nutella?..or just go fishing?

Hmm…more cheese?…nutella?..or just go fishing?

 

Serenity: Little Indian Sioux River North to Loon Lake, May 23, 2014

Our first family trip of the year over Memorial Day to Loon Lake seemed like the perfect adventure to kickoff what would become a wonderful summer of backwoods adventures. Loon provides access to the Canadian border, expansive Lac La Croix and Crooked Lake further southwest. It also provides fertile boundary lake fishing excursions on both sides of the international border. Loon has nestled bays and dotted islands that offer a deep serenity as the sun sets and waters calm for wildlife viewing, fishing and peacefulness reminding you must slow down and experience nature.

Canoe: Wenonah Champlain
Portages: 3 or 4 (longest 120 rods)
Total Miles: 12-16 miles round trip

Day 1: Trip to Lake Jeannette campground
We had a late start on Thursday evening from Minneapolis swinging by to pick up my wife Althea, finishing up her teaching day around 4:30PM. We rolled into Ely, MN about 4 ½ hours later as dusk was descending, picked up our permit at Voyageur North Outfitters and began climbing the Echo Trail. It was pitch black and near midnight as we found our site at quiet, secluded the USFS campground on Lake Jeannette. Our adventure was just beginning.

Ready to go to the put-in from Jennette

Ready to go to the put-in from Jennette

 

Lake Jennings campground boat ramp for a day's outing

Lake Jennings campground boat ramp for a day’s outing

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 2: Early Rise on Friday
Friday dawned bright and sunny with little to no winds. I hustled out of the tent to pull together a breakfast of oatmeal, pop-tarts, cereal, fruit, juice for our kids, Ethan and Leah and strong, steaming pot of black coffee for the adults. Packing and repacking our gear, we drove up to the LIS parking lot and began struggling all of our gear and the boat down the portage trail at the parking lot to the put-in at the base of the falls of Little Indian Sioux. High water greeted us as we shoved off and immediately stuck our boat fast on a submerged boulder that we would have otherwise seen if not for the turbid, brown rapids. Not a good start to the trip and it took some work to free ourselves and continue paddling down the river.

Neither Elm portage (35 rods) on the way to the twin Pauness lakes nor the 28 rod portage from Upper to Lower Pauness posed any particular difficulty. Both of our kids quickly shouldered their packs filled with sleeping bag, clothes and their day lunches over each trail noting wolf scat and fresh prints on the last portage into Lower Pauness. A quick snack then paddle and we landed at Devil’s Cascade portage (120 rods) for the climb to the top and steep descent to bypass the impress deep canyon and rapids below. We stopped at the summit on our last carry to admire the view and enjoy a picnic lunch before moving on.

Devil's cascade portage is done!

Devil’s cascade portage is done!

Several groups passed us on their way out. They were just completing an ambitious route from Loon looping back to the east and then south by southwest to the river after a successful walleye-fishing trip. We had high hopes for a 5-star campsite as we met another father-son tandem heading out. We circled the lake stopping at several sites with wide, flat grassy spaces for tents and well-developed fire rings but we couldn’t come to a consensus on which site to choose. On a good 4-star site situated on a peninsula looking south towards the river, we agreed to return to a high-cliff site across the bay. The sun was beginning to set. I hastily string up my rod and tied on a deep-diving Rapala as my wife and kids clambered into the canoe. My efforts were rewarded with two 20” northern pike for dinner that evening over our well-tended-fire.

Our campsite overlooking Loon from a high vantage point towards Canada

Our campsite overlooking Loon from a high vantage point towards Canada

Day 3: Ledge Top Paradise.
Isn’t it funny how a campsite can grow on you? This was not my first choice. This spot was situated on a high bluff overlooking Loon Lake and north into Canada. The evening before my son, Ethan was inexplicably drawn to it for some reason. Exhausted from our first day, we had all finally agreed to paddle back to it, eager to set up camp. The take-out was on a sandy beach now flooded with a steep 20 to 25-foot climb up a narrow path to excellent flat sites above with room for several tents. Towering pine and deciduous trees provided shade, great tie-off points for our tarp, bear-hanging rope and water. As I walked the site the next morning while my family slept, I began to appreciate its advantages while drinking in the beauty of the sunrise and the breathtaking view from our ledge-top paradise.

This was to be a leisurely day with no plans except to enjoy ourselves, the lake and maybe explore the area. After breakfast and camp chores we kicked around a couple of options for the day: Beatty portage to the north, an exploratory trip up the Loon River in the direction of Crane or East Loon Lake for fishing. We opted for East Loon with the winds picking up and driving 1-foot rollers across the lake.

East Loon is a quiet secluded lake that is separated from Loon by a shallow pinch of land. I trolled a line through here but by midday I was having little luck. Still hoping for lake trout, walleye or a bass, I kept the line in as we made a pass by several campsites to do our own mental inventory of each. The lunch spot for the day would be a campsite at the far north site at the top of the lake. What are remarkable about East Loon is its steep wooded, granite shorelines on its southern terminus that gradually give way to a northern end characterized shallow bays, swamp and reed grass. I am always amazed at how quickly the topography changes up here even on the same body of water.

Our lunch spot was one of the few dry places but its sloping grade to the waterline made it a less-than-desirable campsite. After a hearty lunch of cheese-and-crackers, sanwhiches, fruit and yoghurts, we had enough energy to fly!

Ethan Jump Loon Lake 53114

Ethan jumps for joy on East Loon, May 2015

It was however perfect if your goal was Slim Lake  the next day. The portage is a short distance down the eastern shoreline from this site.

Our paddle back to our basecamp was a bit more challenging. The wind had picked up, judging from the waves and was pushing 10 mph or so, according to the forecasts I had monitored the night before on my S.A.M.E weather radio.

East Loon campsite below narrows

East Loon campsite below narrows

 

Struggling our way back to the narrows we pulled over at a spacious, pine-needle covered site with a generous clearing and well-developed fire ring for a snack, some fishing and to let the winds abate. Finally agreeing to push on, we reloaded the canoe and shoved off into stiff headwinds. Crossing the bay to the southern shore to get some relief from the wind tunnel, I felt a tug on my line and reeled in a 12 inch pike which I released. Cruising back to our home base, I was rewarded for my persistence with one 22” northern. Disappointed with my lack of luck and skill, I was glad that we would enjoy one more fish dinner before packing up and heading home tomorrow.

That evening our kids played around the campsite, tempted back to the fire only by s’mores and hot chocolate. Watching the sun drop below the horizon we noted the lack of mosquitoes and insects. As the evening settled over us, fish were rising to snap up the meager hatching that were occurring. Tempted to grab my rod and head out, I opted for camp chores and tidying up for the next day’s pack-up. With protestations over teeth brushing and “last bathroom breaks”, my wife and I settled our little ones into the cozy Kelty Salida 4 tent to read stories we had brought along and slip off into a deep slumber.

Day 4: Sunny Day with a Small Surprise
A windless morning of glorious sunshine greeted us when we awoke. Our last breakfast in the backcountry was a feast of banana-cinnamon pancakes topped with maple syrup, scrambled eggs on the side. The last of the bacon was also devoured. No need to save it now. We would need the energy for the portages. A familiar whine startled us as tiny winged-insects fluttered up from the forest floor. Time to leave! After coffee and clean-up, we pushed off about 9:30 with still waters and building sunshine.

Our trip out was uneventful, greeting a few fellow paddlers also working their way towards the exit from Loon lake and the eventual portages. Two hours later after retracing our steps over the three portages we found ourselves at the falls and the last take-out. Happy exhaustion and one more punch of adrenaline carried us and our gear back to the parking lot and our car at midday. We spent an additional hour walking the trail back and forth from the lot to find an errant water bottle, missing glove, a nearly-forgotten paddle and tote bag.

Stowing the last of the camping detritus in our overhead Rocketbox, we clambered into our vehicle bound for cold drinks and hot sandwiches in Ely and back home to Minneapolis. Our summer has begun on a high note.