|McIntyre Lake, Quetico Park|
By 2013 it had been a long time since I traveled the length of Brent Lake at the northwest corner of Hunter Island. When my companions told me to choose a route and they would accept it, Brent came readily to mind.
This group traveled together in 2011. Scott Van Horn is retired from a distinguished career as a fisheries biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Eric Yarborough, a retired math teacher, would be making his third trip with me (See “Borderline Miserable,” Boundary Waters Journal, Fall, 2009) and I knew he was a rugged individual. John Altman, a former student, is on the faculty of York College of Pennsylvania.
After a tow, our first stop was the Ranger Station at Prairie Portage. We checked in and chatted with the always pleasant Cathy Antle. By 9:00 A.M. all the paperwork was done, gear was stowed in the canoes, and we headed off toward Bayley Bay.
At the sandy portage from Bayley Bay to Burke Lake we chatted briefly with John Elsing, about my age it turned out, taking his grandson Connor to North Bay for a five day fishing trip. John said it was the boy’s fifth trip and the boy was a smallmouth fishing fanatic. Later John sent an email reporting, “We had a wonderful trip” with “very exciting fishing.” More folks should take kids to the bush. Certainly Connor will tell his grandchildren what a great grandfather he had.
With the water level high, we scooted through the small rapids just south of North Bay and avoided the longer portage. A pretty good breeze from the southwest caused us to hug the west bank of North Bay, slip by Johns Island and toward Isabella Creek.
At Isabella Creek, though there was plenty of water, we nonetheless had to drag canoes over a couple of shallow spots on the Creek. Each time I travel the braided section of the Creek different locations of beaver dams, varied water levels, maybe other factors, change the optimum route. I simply steer toward the maximum flow and hope for the best. Eric turned toward me as I selected one path over another and said, “You’re just winging it.”
Once on Isabella Lake, we began to consider establishing camp for the night. I hoped to do one more portage and stay at the unnamed lake beyond Isabella. As we approached the portage, a man and woman came down the trail toward us. As the canoe carrying Eric and me toward the portage coasted forward, I stood to see what part of the trail I remembered and what I didn’t. The woman said, “Don’t stand up in a canoe.”
I answered, without following her advice, “That’s what my mother told me.”
In turn, she admonished me, “Well, I’m a mother and I know these things.”
In response to my question, the couple assured me the campsite just beyond the portage was open, so we portaged into the unnamed lake as they portaged into Isabella.
We battled black flies for much of the evening, but Scott was not deterred from fishing. He caught several smallmouth bass with a surface popper casting from the campsite.
Based on the experience coming south from Kahshahpiwi two years ago, Scott, Eric and John recalled the upcoming portages with concern. Both are steep and rocky and the second, into Side Lake, is nearly a third of a mile. Upon reaching Side Lake, we stopped for a gorp break.
At Side Lake, we headed toward Sarah. It had been about five years since I had been on that trail. High water and beaver activity combined to put much of the trail under water. John described the portage as “below the water table.”
At the Sarah Lake end of the portage, we met a group of six coming out. They assured us lake trout in Sarah were so easy to catch the challenge was gone. And at McIntyre, our destination for the day, “smallmouth bass on the surface are on fire.”
Shortly after we began to cross Sarah, Eric noted his water bottle was gone. Eric and I returned to the portage while Scott and John went on. I told them to duck behind the large island ahead and wait where the lake opened up. Later Scott confessed he wondered whether what he and John thought was the rendezvous site was the spot I designated – and what they would do if Eric and I did not show. Eric and I recovered his bottle at the portage and met Scott and John without incident.
After a short portage into McIntyre, we set up camp on a windy point opposite the trail. This is a dandy site, open and relatively bug free, with a nice fire ring. As a bonus, an abandoned axe with the outfitters name emblazoned on it rested against a tree; we did not haul it out, however.
Scott and I fished along the bank of the bay between camp and the portage, but estimates of “on fire” action for smallmouth were exaggerated.
Lay-over day. No travel.
We started the day with blueberry muffins for breakfast. A couple of years ago I purchased a reflector oven. From the time I was in Boy Scouts half a century ago, I’ve wanted to cook with a reflector oven and I finally bought one. I had done some practice, including in the backyard in Charlotte, North Carolina (I don’t know what the fire ordinance says about campfires in the city, but folks have barbecue pits). My companions indulged me. At the end of the trip, John said it was the best breakfast of the trip.
In the afternoon, we dragged the canoes over a narrow spit to fish Deer Lake and to avoid the wind on McIntyre. Eric caught several smallmouth bass, none very large, and I caught a few and missed a few. Scott and John struggled with equipment troubles and did poorly.
As we prepared to leave Deer Lake, a local beaver treated us to ferocious tail slaps.
For desert, I got out my reflector oven to bake some brownies. As the brownies baked, I could see one side was baking faster than the other. Solution? Rotate the pan. As I pulled the oven away from the fire, the pan slid forward and dumped the brownies on the ground. Lesson? When moving the oven, do not carry it so the top is level because the rack holding what is baking will not be level. A few days later, I made brownies and they hit the spot.
Long day of paddling today, though only two short portages. We traveled the length of McIntyre and most of Brent. As we approached the portage out of McIntyre, anglers with two canoes entered. Almost immediately they began to cast and nearly as quickly to catch fish. Maybe we were not holding our mouths correctly.
At the northern end of a second short portage, we entered Brent Lake. In 1987 I was in a party which paddled the length of Brent Lake without stopping. And twice I had crossed the eastern end of Brent on my way into or out of Suzanette. On one of the early trips, Tom Ware marked several spots on maps of Brent Lakes with notations “fish this bay” or “good smallmouth here” or “should catch walleyes here.” Brent Lake, as a consequence, had been on my “gotta do” list for a long time.
As we paddled away from the portage, I was surprised to see several canoes on the water and numerous campsites – marked and unmarked – occupied. From a distance, we saw a young woman jump to her feet and don a tee shirt.
We hugged the southern shore of the east-west portion of the lake. At mid-lake, we stopped at a campsite for lunch. My original itinerary called for a lay-over day at Brent. My companions were beginning to wonder how we could do additional lay-over days and still get back to civilization by a date certain. So we dug out maps and reviewed our plans. Blueberry plants suggested we would not have fresh blueberries this trip, but next week visitors would have a bonanza.
We made our way to a campsite at the north end of an island toward the west end of Brent Lake. The campsite was atop a slanting rock. Lilies of the valley blanketed one slope of the rock. The site matched my anticipated and oft-repeated fantasies of Brent Lake.
Shortly after we had camp set up, Scott began to cast a pink and white plastic grub toward deep water. I could hear Scott explaining to John that walleyes moved in schools and he hoped to catch one or two for dinner. Within moments, Scott dragged a big walleye – eight pounds or so – onto the bank. Fish for dinner.
Inspired by Scott’s example, I began to fish off the other side of the point with a gray grub. In a few minutes, I had a big fish, another walleye. Though I claimed my fish was larger, a closer comparison revealed the fish Scott caught was a little bigger. Oh, well. It’s not about bragging rights anyway. (That’s what the fox said about the sour grapes.)
In a few minutes, Eric caught a nice pike, but we were unable to get a “grip and grin” picture as the guy (me) showing Eric how to hold the fish let it slip into the lake.
Another lay-over day.
After a breakfast of trail pancakes, Scott and I headed out to fish. Scott has a strong preference for the stern of a canoe, so those fishing with him get the bow and most of the fishing time. We started a short distance from camp and made our way along the edge of a large bay. We caught numbers of two and three pound smallmouth bass, several nice pike, and lost a bunch more. Maybe not “on fire,” but a super morning.
When we returned, John was in an advanced stage of carving a duck from a clear piece of white pine. The wings and body were in pretty good shape and he was starting to shape the head. Suddenly, John said, “I just cut the end of my thumb off.” Given the blood, it sure looked as though his assessment was correct. John’s razor sharp knife sliced through the soft wood and continued across his thumb taking flesh and nail with it.
Scott asked, “How big a cut is it?”
John answered, “About the size of a dime.”
My first aid kit had all we needed, but many of the items were way beyond the “use by” date. (Message to self: replace all items in first aid kit regularly.) To add to the supply of suitable patches, John cut a small towel into two inch squares and I got out the small stove and boiled water containing the patches. With band-aids, the patches and a supply of duck tape, John fashioned a massive sanitary covering for his thumb. We had no idea whether the improvised dressing would work.
Eric wanted to do some exploring. He found a small lake half a mile southeast of camp and thought a bushwhack to the lake would be a good idea. I agreed to go with him. We paddled to the spot it appeared a creek from the lake entered Brent Lake. While there were boulders characteristic of such streams, there was not much water. But we tied the canoe to a tree and headed into the bush. When I debated with myself whether to lug my camera, Eric made a case to do so. I’m glad he won.
Clambering up a steep hill with dozens of fallen trees, we made our way to the lake. It was a beautiful spot. The lake was ringed with boulders. A solitary loon glided across the surface. Frogs boomed mating calls. We did not see a soul, nor did we see any signs any had ever been there. Eric wandered along the edge of the lake while I took pictures.
A number of years ago, I took several botany courses, including one in field recognition of plants. On the way down the hill we noted abundant pink lady slippers, among my favorite wilderness plants.
We broke camp and headed toward Cone Lake. From Cone Lake we entered Elk Lake, heading south. Rather than the nearly half a mile portage into Gardner Bay, we chose to take three small portages.
At the first portage, we simply floated and dragged the canoes over a rocky stretch into a small pond. When we got to the lower end of the pond, I told Eric I wanted to assess prospects we could avoid the portage. There was a big beaver dam and I guessed we could paddle on. We levered the canoe over the face of the dam. Scott and John followed as Eric and I began to drag and push the canoe. The stream was too narrow to paddle. When John wondered aloud whether the plan was a good idea, Scott said, “Look at them. I think Tim is having more fun that he’s had the rest of the trip.” Within a few yards, we took the canoe out of the water and bushwhacked the rest of the way to a second small pond. Scott was right; I was having a good time.
We took a third short portage into Gardner Bay. At Gardner Bay, we debated whether to stay the night. I assured guys we would find a campsite at Bart Lake, though none was marked on the Fisher map. Once in Bart, we found a suitable site on an island and we set up camp.
Bart Lake, when we were there at least, is filled with feisty largemouth bass eager to hit almost anything we threw in the water. Scott and I stood shoulder to shoulder, casting. We soon tired of catching 12 to 15 inch bass. Lots of fun.
Short day today. From Bart, into Craig, and into Robinson. We planned to stay in Robinson. The campsite I wanted was taken, so we took a very desirable site a short distance from the southern of two portages between Craig and Robinson.
Scott and I fished off the bank. We caught smallmouth bass and Scott caught a nice pike. Late in the day, I caught a big smallmouth on a lazy grub dropped ahead of the cruising bass.
Turned out, this was a rugged day. Slight rain, off and on. Always overcast. Lots of fun.
We broke camp in the rain and headed for a portage into an unnamed lake at the southeastern corner of Robinson Lake.
At the southern end of the unnamed lake a creek from Lost Lake and Nub Lake entered. Our first objective was Nub Lake. I made a case to myself we could paddle the creek all the way to Nub Lake and Eric readily agreed. Scott and John were skeptical, but they followed us. Where the creek from Lost Lake joined that from Nub Lake, a log stretched across the stream. It was wet, smooth, and not anchored on anything we could reliably stand on to maneuver the canoes further. We backtracked. It was, nonetheless, a great bit of exploring.
Back to the unnamed lake, we portaged into Nub Lake. We paddled along the west edge of the lake until we came to the stream leaving the lake, the one we tried to use to reach Nub. Could we have made it were the log not across the creek? We had our lunch, in a slight drizzle, there.
We began our search for a portage out of Nub Lake near a creek entering the lake along the southeastern edge. Eric and I both cruised through the woods looking for a trail near the spot indicated on the map.
Eric and I paddled slowly along the eastern shore, searching for a trail. Eric got out of the canoe, walked into the woods, and said, “This is it. This is the trail.” At least, it was a path into the woods. The trail was pocked by boulders, slippery from the rain, and steep. In more than a quarter century, this was one of the steepest portages I have been on. The length of the canoe often obscured where I should make the next step.
Once we finished the portage, we soon learned we were not in the unnamed lake we anticipated to the southeast of Nub Lake but in another unnamed lake to the east of Nub Lake. The next portage, into Kett Lake, was also steep, but not nearly as rugged as the previous.
We planned to lay-over at Kett Lake. Because the portages into and out of Kett seemed strenuous, I expected we would not see anyone. While we had lunch at a campsite toward the northern end of the lake, two canoes passed heading toward the trails we had just traveled.
At the southern end of the lake, on an extended point, we found perhaps the nicest campsite of the trip. Nearby, there were signs of bear activity where critters had torn up the moss looking for grubs. But we stayed. And we planned to lay-over a day. Do some fishing. Take it easy.
While we were setting up camp, Scott said, “Well, John’s thumb did not seem to interfere with his paddling today. Either hand, he paddled with a strong, steady stroke. I thought we might have trouble, but we didn’t.”
In an effort to get fresh fish for dinner, Scott and Eric rigged up to catch some lake trout. In a couple of hours they returned, unsuccessful. Scott and I, then, circled a narrow island just off the campsite, trying to catch anything. We did not move or see a fish. At dinner, we decided to move on and lay-over somewhere on Basswood Lake. I said I knew a spot.
Only two portages today, but they are long, about half a mile each. The first out of Kett Lake into a small pond and the second out of the pond and into Basswood. Neither was particularly hilly or muddy, but each took time.
We paddled past King Point, United States Point and toward Canadian Point. Most of the time we were in sight of occupied campsites and canoes in transit. While we had seen others in the last few days, we were now clearly closer to heavily traveled routes.
My objective was to camp at a site Hank Oates and I used on Big Merriam Bay. When we reached the site, however, it was more cramped than I recalled. Eric got out of the canoe and said we could find space to pitch tents, but I chose to return to a site on the English Channel. And a wonderful site it was.
After camp was set up, Scott and I began to cast from shore. I waded along the bank, casting a popper ahead of me. In 50 yards I caught half a dozen smallmouth bass, including one over four pounds. To say I had a great time would understate it.
Scott persuaded John he could catch bass along the bank of Ottawa Island. Off they went. John fishes rarely, but with Scott’s coaching, he managed to land some and challenge a few tree limbs as well.
Our last lay-over day.
Shortly after breakfast, Scott and I headed off to do some fishing. Scott maneuvered the canoe and fished some. I fished and maneuvered the canoe some. Smallmouth bass along Ottawa Island were thick and aggressive. Great couple of hours.
Mid-day, we lazed about camp and tried to sort the remaining food for suitable lunches.
Late in the afternoon, Scott proposed a reprise of our earlier fishing trip. He said, “This time we’ll head in a different direction, hit some new water.” The direction did not seem to matter as the smallmouth were still in shallow water and still willing to strike.
Near time for us to head to camp for dinner, Scott said, as my lure sailed toward the water, “One more fish and we’ll head in.” On cue, a five or six pound pike streaked toward my popper. We landed the fish and left. Last fishing of the trip.
We ducked in the tents relatively early as the mosquitoes threatened our well-being. Starting about 10:00 P. M., it began to rain. Shortly thereafter, rain was joined by brilliant flashes of lightning and terrifying claps of thunder.
Last day in the bush. For me, always a sad day.
As we loaded gear in the canoes, I said during the storm I felt the ground shudder. Scott said he
felt it too. Lightning strikes sometimes travel along mineral veins in the soil. Is that what Scott and
Through the mist and threatening rain, we paddled between Washington and Ottawa Islands.
Near Lincoln Island we saw anchored anglers with engines on boats. The wilderness trip was over.
Through Wet Bay and Wet Lake, we made our way to the outfitter on Moose Lake.
After 20 years, I was not disappointed in the trip to Brent Lake. Now the question becomes when can I fit a return into the list of all the other indispensible return sites in Quetico Park.
Last updated on May 16, 2015