Quetico Trip, 2011
By Tim Mead    November 24, 2011

Scott and smallmouth bass at Woodside Lake
Scott and smallmouth bass at Woodside Lake

Quetico Trip, 2011

The following article is copyright by Tim Mead and may not be duplicated or reproduced without his expressed written permission.

Day 1, June 19

Tow to Prairie Portage.

Perhaps only my perception, but the wait at the Ranger Station to check in seemed shorter than usual.   Are there fewer folks entering the Park this year?   We were ahead of a party from Michigan and we exchanged “where are you from?” and “have you made the trip before?”

This year two of my companions were new to Quetico Park.   John Altman is Associate Professor of Political Science at York College in York, Pennsylvania and one of my former students.   Scott Van Horn is retired from a distinguished career as a fisheries biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.   Eric Yarborough, who traveled with me earlier (see “Borderline Miserable,” Boundary Waters Journal, Fall, 2009), rounded out the crew.

We paddled north through Inlet Bay, then to the sandy portage leading from Bayley Bay to Burke Lake.   At Burke Lake, wind from the northeast shoved us toward the southern bank as we made our way toward Singing Brook Portage.   We crossed Singing Brook and shoved off toward the east end of Sunday Lake.   As the wind picked up, we skirted the north shore.

Depending on the source, the portage from Sunday Lake to Meadows Lake is about 200 rods – that’s 2/3rds of a mile no matter how you slice it.   We stopped at the portage to get some lunch and for our first introduction to Quetico’s famed mosquitoes.   I told guys, “This portage will be lots tougher than the two we just did.   Some boulders on the path.   A low spot or two.   Nothin’ to it but to do it.”

At Meadows Lake we headed toward a camp site on an island.   Eric and I stayed there on our earlier trip.   There is a huge white pine near the fire pit at the site.   A number of years ago I camped there shortly after the tree had been ravaged by lightning.   What then was a jagged white slash on the tree was now dark and nearly healed over.   Remarkable, even awesome, how a tree can survive such a strike.

After dinner, Scott introduced John to the wonders of Meadows Lake largemouth bass.   They, at least in my experience, do not get very large, but they make up the modest size in numbers and enthusiasm.  

Day 2, June 20

We got a late start.   We did not hit the water until after 9:00 am.   We made the 140 rod portage into Agnes Lake and made our way into the wind to Louisa Falls.   Overcast skies and cool temperatures counseled against a dip in Louisa’s bathtub.   We did, however, climb the hill.   Eric asked if up this hill was the route taken on his earlier trip and I confirmed his recollection.  

Scott Van Horn, Eric Yarborough, John Altman (pointing)<br> and Tim Mead at Louisa Falls
Scott Van Horn, Eric Yarborough, John Altman (pointing)
and Tim Mead at Louisa Falls

About 4 miles north of Louisa Falls, Eric and I regaled Scott and John of our earlier bushwhacking trip and showed them where we slid canoes down the cliff into Agnes.  

As we reached the more open portion of Agnes, the full effect of the northeast wind began to take its toll.   We were not struggling, but we were heading directly into the wind and going was slow.   Scott, an experienced paddler, suggested we pick one shore or the other and we did.  

My original plan was to camp on Murdoch Lake.   From previous experience, I knew the smallmouth fishing on Murdoch was very good and I had promised Scott that he could catch a big one there.   As mid-day passed into afternoon, I could tell it would be 6:00 PM or later before we got to Murdoch and that we would all be pooped.

So, I told John, “We’re going to head for that island.   I don’t know if there’s a campsite there, but it would be a good place to stop.”

In the northern third of Agnes there is a string of islands, some large and some small.   I picked one of the small ones.   There was a fire ring, lots of sticks on the ground for a fire, and spaces for a couple of tents.   I told my companions, “Welcome home, at least for tonight.” One lure of Quetico Park, at least for me, is the number of rarely used campsites, like this one, which provide a spot to stay when the weather turns bad.   Or which merely offer a new vista.

After dinner and the mandatory chores, Scott wandered down to the water and began to cast.   Within a few minutes, he caught several smallmouth bass.   So far, Scott had gone fishing every day and caught fish every day.   This was one of his goals for the trip.

As evening began to wane, John asked if he could sleep on a big rock rather than the tent.   “OK by me,” I told him.   “Be sure the rock does not puncture your mat.   Otherwise, go for it.” When I got up in the morning, John’s head, wrapped in his bug net, was all that was sticking out of his sleeping bag.   He said he slept well.

John sleeping on the ground
John sleeping on the ground

Later, as John assessed the trip, he said, “I really enjoyed sleeping outside on 3 of the 10 nights.   Just need to put enough DEET on your mosquito net.”

Days 3 & 4, June 21 & 22

Overnight the wind had not abated.   We gathered around our maps and I proposed an alternative route.   Rather than head for Murdoch, I suggested we head for Reid Lake and through Woodside Lake to reach Hurlburt Lake.   One advantage would be the substitute route would be less windy.   Another, for me, would be that I had never been through those lakes.

We ducked into a bay toward the portage and into the calm.   The portage from Agnes to Reid is fairly easy and about 70 rods.  

Once we got to Reid Lake, we had easy paddling.   Reid is a narrow lake, and though oriented toward the fetch, the wind was not a factor.   At the next portage, I built an inuksuk, a series of rocks, to mark the path across a narrow opening.   We paddled across an unnamed lake and wandered about a while looking for the next portage, roughly parallel to Woodside Creek.   Here the portage is south of the creek, though the Fisher map shows it north of the creek.   And the top of a huge spruce tree obscured the trail.   Once beyond the downed spruce, it was an easy stroll.

Woodside Lake was another matter.   Woodside is oriented in a direction comparable to Reid, but it is broader.   While we were paddling with the wind, the waves were robust.   And swirly.   Scott and I both remarked later on the difficulty we had in maintaining a consistent path.   We hugged the western shore.   Ahead I saw a big, bare rock.   “Head for the rock, Scott.   We’ll camp there.” Of course, I had no certainty the spot was suitable, but the wind was buffeting us about.

Once at the rock, we paddled along the side of what turned out to be an island.   To our dismay, nestled at the top of a shoreline rock we saw a blue, plastic bin, filled with items we could not discern.   Somebody was already on the island.

“Doesn’t matter,” I told my companions.   “Let me out and I’ll see if there’s space for us as well.” Whitecaps on the lake militated against further exploration.   As I made my way across the island, I found it unoccupied.   Who left the trash?   The blue bin had a couple of spinning reels, a complete set of tent poles, a hand drill, a bow saw and assorted pieces of metal and plastic.   While we were there, Scott added a pair of shoes to the bin.

We landed our gear and claimed the island.  

Among our first tasks was to erect the tarp.   One of the two fire rings on the island was surrounded by trees, so installation was easy.   And timely.   It rained and rained and rained.   We took a layover day at Woodside, much of it under the tarp or in the tents.   Eric said, “The layover days really are helpful.   A day of rest picks up my attitude toward things.”

Eric (on left) and Scott search cliff for <br>pictographs on Trant Lake
Eric (on left) and Scott search cliff for
pictographs on Trant Lake

Scott, John and I periodically fished off the bank and we caught 15 or 20 smallmouth between 2- and 4-pounds.   Woodside will get another visit from me.

Days 5 & 6, June 23 & 24

It was overcast and threatening as we left Woodside and portaged into a small, no name lake.   At the west end of the unnamed lake, the portage trail was overgrown and we spent 20 minutes or so finding it – right where the map said it should be.   John, whom we sent to scout the trail, wandered back-and-forth hunting the trail.   He didn’t go far enough into the woods, as the beaten down trail was not apparent near the lake.

This is a rugged trail.   From the no name lake, it parallels the small creek for a short distance, perhaps 50 yards.   Then it turns sharply left and up a steep incline.   Then a right turn and off through the woods roughly two-thirds of a mile.   So rarely used is this trail that sharp eyes and steady attention are required to follow it.   At one point I yelled for my companions as I was not certain I was still on the path; I was, but I did not want to wander off and discover later I had made a mistake.

The trail ended at Hurlburt Lake.   From this point, I would be back on a route travelled before.   The next portage, into Trant Lake, was only a few yards from the terminus of the previous trail.   And its beginning, up a gradual slope into the forest, was open and obvious.   Given the wandering about we had done seeking trails the past few days, Scott announced, “I’ll find the next portage.   It’ll save a lot of time.   It’s right over there.” From that point, Scott declined the opportunity to locate further portage trails as he had already demonstrated his skills.

Trant Lake is twisty-turny, with long, narrow bays.   Each hour the weather improved and as we made our way to an excellent campsite I had seen on an earlier visit (see “Wayne’s Quest, Boundary Waters Journal, Spring 2007) the sky cleared.   The campsite is on a south-facing point toward the western arms of the lake.   Based on our earlier experiences, we put the tarp up before we did anything else.   We did not need it.  

We took a layover day at Trant.   We washed our clothes, drying some on exposed rocks and some on a line we strung between trees.   Scott and I tried to catch a lake trout, to no avail.   We paddled toward the southern end of a narrow bay, seeking pictographs – also to no avail – and then to the northern end of another bay.

Day 7, June 25

The next day, as we left Trant Lake, we located the pictographs on a cliff face in the narrow bay east of the bay where the Fisher map shows the pictographs to be.   We clearly saw a canoe with two stick figures and a moose.   Michael Furtman’s book, Magic on the Rocks, says there are three moose-like figures, but we only noticed one.

From Trant Lake to Kahshahpiwi Lake, the portage over land is interrupted by a marshy beaver pond with a dam holding more water than I recalled from an earlier visit.  

Tim displays muddy pants after portage south of Kashashapiwi Lake
Tim displays muddy pants after portage south
of Kashashapiwi Lake

Under clear skies, we paddled to the southern of Kahshahpiwi.   The campsite I planned to use was on an island at the mouth of the bay leading to the Yum Yum portage.   But the island had been burned over – camper’s error?   So we found a less desirable site nearby.

Scott and John were eager to catch a lake trout.   I told them, “Go right out there and troll those spoons and you’ll catch a couple for dinner.” And they did.   Made me look good.

Day 8, June 26

Off early, we headed to the portage at the southern end of Kashahpiwi.   This portage is a little over half a mile, but it is pretty flat.   It ends at a beaver marsh that used to be a pond but the dam was knocked out a few years ago.   After the dam was removed, the resulting marsh can be a challenge.   When Eric and I reached the grass, I dropped the canoe and said, “Wait here while I scout a route.” A couple of years ago, I made this portage and thought I could find a suitable path.   When we gathered I told everyone to be sure their shoes were tied and said, “Walk along this path, out to where the dead snag is, turn left and head for the cattails on the far side.   Once you get to the cattails, follow the path up onto the rocks and stay there until you come to the lake.” John and I both ended up with muddy pants from a step into mud.  

Eric thought this portage the toughest of the trip.   “The leg out of Kashahpiwi was the hardest for me.   Before we got to the marsh, I was reminded of segments of the Appalachian Trail.   By the time we finished, I was pretty tired.”

John’s perspective on the portages was, “Just being patient makes a big difference.   The portages did not seem so long when I tried not to be too eager to finish.”

We portaged out of the unnamed lake into Side Lake.   There we met the crew that was behind us as we checked in at Prairie Portage.   One of them yelled, “Where did you guys come from?” We answered that we came from Kashahpiwi.   “How did you get across the muddy marsh?   We tried it and came back.”

Through two unnamed lakes, Isabella Lake and down Isabella Creek.   One direction or the other, I’ve made a dozen trips on the creek.   There were more beaver dams, and thus more water for paddling, than I’ve ever seen.  

We set up camp on the first point in North Bay, opposite to the entry to Lost Bay.

Day 9, June 27

About 5:30 it began to rain.   Late yesterday afternoon, Scott suggested we put up the tarp.   But we didn’t.   As I rustled around getting the tarp ready, Scott reminded me – very pleasantly –that what I was doing would have been easier yesterday.

And it rained.   After the rain stopped, sometime in the next night, there was two and a half inches of water in a straight-sided pan.   Water accumulated in the depressions in the rocks, flowed over the edges of the depressions and flooded the puddles between the roots of trees, formed rivulets and rushed to the lake.   Across the point, all day long, this pattern was repeated.   Lots of time for naps, conversation, reading.

During lulls, Scott cast off the bank.   Among the things he caught was a huge walleye.   He said, “With that fish, the lure just stopped.   I knew it was a heavy fish.   I thought it was a big pike.   A really big pike that behaves that way is just arrogant.   He thinks, ‘There’s no reason to panic.   Nothing here threatens me.’ So I was a little surprised to find it was a walleye.”

Scott displays big walleye caught at North Bay
Scott displays big walleye caught at North Bay

Most of the day, we huddled under the tarp.  

After dinner, I gave up and crawled in the tent.   Shortly after I was deep in my sleeping bag, Scott came and asked, “Six guys just came up and asked if we had space for three tents.   I said, ‘yes.’ Is that OK?   These guys are really soaked.”

“Sure,” I answered.

Turned out, these were the same chaps we saw at Prairie Portage and Side Lake.   They told Scott, “We’re just a bunch of old guys looking for a place to stop.” Their oldest person was 57.   Other than John, all in our party were over 60.

Day 10, June 28

Short day.   We paddled and portaged to an island at the mouth of Sunday Bay.   I wanted to make sure we got to fish Sunday Bay.   And it worked.   Everybody caught fish, including a big largemouth by Eric.   Eric’s lure landed on the water and disappeared in a huge swirl.   “I’m hooked on the bottom,” Eric told me.

Eric and largemouth bass caught in Sunday Bay
Eric and largemouth bass caught in Sunday Bay

“No you’re not,” I said, “that’s a fish.   Those swirls over there are your fish.”

After dinner, Scott and I went out again and caught 17 smallmouth along the rocky banks.

Day 11, June 29

Back to civilization.   As we paddled down Moose Lake, boats with gasoline engines passed us in both directions.   John, living in central Pennsylvania, said as one passed, “Now I know how the Amish feel.”


Weather, in the form of wind and rain, affected our trip profoundly .

Scott said, “If I come again, I’ll pay better attention to rain gear.   My rain gear let me down.   I was uncomfortable and painful the whole time,” he chuckled.   Then he added, “It’s better to be uncomfortable and painful in Quetico than home on the couch.   I felt better about it here.”

Scott said, “This trip is a graduate level course in outdoor living.   You need to have the prerequisites.   You have to be prepared for adversity.   If you think every day is going to have bluebird skies, you are on the wrong vacation.”

We changed our route, selected campsites, and spent time in ways we would not otherwise have done.   It was a great trip and we all agreed we’d do it again in a flash.   And, perhaps not in a flash, we plan to.


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           Last updated on ...January 17, 2012