Quetico Provincial Park - the Man Chain, May 2018; Part 1
Quetico Provincial Park is situated in northwestern Ontario, Canada along the Minnesota border. The nearest major cities are Thunder Bay, Ontario and Duluth, Minnesota, but when you're several days deep into Quetico or the Boundary Waters you're all on your own.
After several months of planning, my friend Dan flew up to Wausau from Washington, DC the day before we were to set out towards Quetico. We had already reserved our canoe through Voyageur Canoe Outfitters and our permits to cross the border into Canada were approved. I picked Dan up a little after noon and we began the 8 hour drive to the northern terminus of the Gunflint Trail, where the outfitters is located.
Our plan was to canoe for four full days and one partial day. We were going to paddle Quetico's Man Chain Loop, so named because of the names of the lakes - Other Man, This Man, That Man, and No Man Lake. We chose the route for several reasons - being on the Quetico side, where permits are harder to obtain, we would have a greater chance of not seeing other parties; the route also passes tall cliffs, the most powerful waterfall in all of Quetico, and offers some of the best fishing in North America. The route also had relatively few portages, and of those only a handful were even half a mile in length.
We arrived at the outfitters around 8 in the evening; it was warm and humid, but the anticipation of the trip to come was what really kept us up the night before. We both woke up around 6 in the morning, and by 7 we were having a delicious pancake and sausage breakfast with orange juice - the last prepared meal we would have for the next 5 days.
Day 1 - Thursday, 24 May, 2018
After finishing our breakfast, we finalized our trip fees with the outfitters, we made sure we hadn't left anything important in the car, and then we walked down to the dock where our boat was waiting to take us to Hook Island.
We were on our way to Hook Island by 7:30. Our pilot was training a young man who was on his first day on the job. We motored north along the Sea Gull River, passing numerous vacation homes along the way. The fish were spawning, and in the shallows you could see hundreds of fish as we slowly passed them by. In no time we found the water opening up into Saganaga Lake - a very large lake in the western parts of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico. We passed a number of motor boats, which are allowed on the eastern side of the lake, as we progressed towards our drop site on Hook Island.
The boat ride easily saved us 6 or more hours of paddling through the open water of Lake Saganaga, and we were both glad to have paid for the ride.
We landed at Hook Island sometime between 8 and 8:30. As we loaded the canoe and our gear onto the beach the pilot asked if either of us had ever portaged a canoe before. We responded "no," and so we were given a quick tutorial on how to do it properly. I was the first to lift the canoe onto my shoulders and it didn't seem too difficult. I recall thinking that portaging shouldn't be too much more difficult than it was to haul a heavy pack over the ridiculously rugged Minong Ridge on Isle Royale in 2017. In hindsight, maybe I was a little off-the-mark with that assessment.
Our ride backed away from the beach on Hook Island and within a few seconds Dan and I were left all alone. We had an ambitious destination planned for the day - an island campsite on Other Man Lake, about 14 miles away - so we quickly packed up our gear, loaded the canoe (Dan in the rear and myself riding up front) and headed southwest towards Cache Bay.
It didn't take us too long to get into a decent rhythm, and within 45 minutes we were tied up at the dock at the Cache Bay Ranger Station. It was here we met Hannah, the very memorable Quetico Park ranger. She processed our permits between bouts of swearing at the computer because she couldn't log in. After purchasing our Canadian fishing permits we walked back to our canoe to head north towards Silver Falls, and our first portage.
Within an hour of leaving the ranger station we arrived at Silver Falls. After a quick rest my friend took the initiative; he shouldered his pack and brought the canoe up and onto his shoulders and we set off. 15 or 20 minutes later, him soaked in sweat, we arrived at the end of the portage. The portage actually bypasses the falls entirely, but photography was an important facet of the trip for me, so I asked if Dan would be alright if I headed back up the trail while he took the canoe out fishing for a little while.
I walked back up the trail, had a great time snapping some shots, and made my way back about 30 minutes later. I came around the corner to my friend paddling back to shore soaking wet. He had capsized the canoe not once, but twice.
This was a prime example of what inexperience can do; I had taken all of my gear out of the canoe, which left just Dan and his heavy backpack in the rear of the canoe. The front end, we observed later, was sticking out 6 or more inches from the water.
He had gone to grab something from his pack, which shifted unexpectedly, causing the canoe to tip over. Thankfully his pack floated and he was wearing his life jacket, so the only loss was a fishing pole and my two hiking poles (which were used to support my tent). Dan was able to right the canoe, toss the gear floating on the water back in, and swim the 20 or so yards to the nearest shoreline. There he got back in, found a piece of driftwood, and paddled back out to grab the remaining gear - including his oar which had floated away. At this point he somehow flipped the canoe again. I came around the bend at the end of the portage to see him paddling up to the landing, shivering and soaking wet.
After Dan collected himself and warmed up we set off again, keeping in mind how much more water lay between us and our goal. We were able to make good time through Slate and Fran Lakes, and by early evening we were paddling across a mirror-like Bell Lake. The final hurdle on our first day was the short portage leading into Other Man. It was completely covered in thick, mid-shin deep mud. It ended being the only portage in which we didn't carry everything in one trip; we both carried the canoe through the mud, doing our best to balance on vegetation, rocks, and logs to avoid getting too muddy (it didn't work out very well).
After a long first day we finally pulled up to our campsite at about 8 in the evening. The island site was perfect - no bugs, perfect temperature, and sitting down to eat a hot dinner was the ideal way to end the day.
Total Distance: 14 miles
Number of Capsizes: 2
Day 2 - Friday, 25 May, 2018
After a tiring first day we altered our plans and chose to not continue through the end of That Man Lake into Sheridan, Carp, and Knife Lakes. Instead, we decided to have a shorter paddling day, ending shortly after portaging into That Man.
The day was warm, and the sun shone directly on us for much of the afternoon. While paddling through the long, skinny This Man Lake we cast a line into the water. Dan paddled in the rear while I did my best Tom Sawyer impersonation as I laid in the front of the canoe, my floppy hat covering my face, and held the rod. We passed through a very narrow section of the lake when the rod tip jerked down. I reeled the line in, revealing what appeared to be a small bass on the other end. Dan reached down to grab the fish, but as he did so the fish managed to free itself and swim to safety. I'm pretty sure it still counts as a catch.
The winds picked up as the sun climbed higher into the sky. The direction of the wind matched the orientation of the lake exactly, which created choppy waves that forced us to stay close to shore throughout much of the length of the lake. We never felt threatened by the wind and waves, but we quickly realized how easy it would be for the conditions to deteriorate to the point where we wouldn't be able to paddle safely.
We paddled This Man Lake until we could paddle no farther. A brief portage then lead us to the tiny, nondescript No Man Lake. We didn't have to portage between No Man and That Man Lake because the two are at the same elevation and the stream connecting them is wide, shallow, and calm. We began paddling upstream, and had to step out into the shallow water once to lift the canoe over a downed tree; otherwise, we gently paddled down the stream until we reached Other Man. We both thoroughly enjoyed paddling the stream, and wished that more lakes would be connected by streams so we could avoid difficult portages.
Surprisingly, as we paddled west into Other Man Lake, the first island campsite was already taken, as was the second. Plan C was on a peninsula on the northern shore of the lake; we preferred island campsites because they seemed to have fewer bugs and we figured the chance of running into a bear on an island was probably significantly less than on the mainland.
As we slept a very strong thunderstorm rolled through around 1:30 AM, and an even stronger storm came through an hour later. It was impossible to sleep through the incessant thunder; some lightning bolts must've been well within a mile of us, as the thunder shook everything around. It was good that I brought extra stakes for my tent, because the wind was ripping through the trees and jostling my entire tent. A couple of times I peered out of my tent and used the flashes of lightning to make sure our canoe hadn't been blown or washed away.
I was very concerned about hail coming down, but thankfully none did. When we woke up we evaluated our situation. Our food bags, which were hanging back in the woods, were wet, but the contents were dry and tasty. It was a scary night, but nothing bad came of it other than a couple hours of lost sleep.