Quetico June 2009 Trip Report
This trip with my son-in-law Joe was our third year in a row to the Quetico, but first to the “southern” area. It was also the first time I’ve ever been windbound for 36 hours and missed a pickup (by 22 hours). The trip covered Bottle, Iron, Crooked, Gardner Bay(of Crooked), Elk, Cone, Brent, William, Darky(or Darkwater), Minn and McAree Lakes, and the Darky River over a period of nine days.
Day 1, Sunday June 21
Clear skies prevailed for our 7:00 am tow to Bottle Portage, which, as predicted, was muddy but easy. (All portages on this trip were double-portaged. Our gear consisted of my Granite Gear Superior One pack, an old Lowe backpack that perfectly fits my blue food barrel, a small pack of cooking stuff, a daypack with fishing tackle, rain gear, etc. and Zup’s 18-foot Wenonah Champlain canoe.)
We paddled Bottle Lake, along the U.S./Canada border, noticing the distinctive markers. On Iron, we took the channel north of Four Island. Turning south and then east, we went point-to-point toward Curtain Falls. Approaching the falls flowage, we scoped things out and then paddled easily between the island and main shore to the takeout. Here a group of two adults and several youth were having a snack. This group leader was the last person we spoke to for three days!
We paddled point-to-point down the west (U.S.) side of Crooked to a place where we could make a straight crossing east towards the “Guides’ portage” into Gardner Bay. Before locating the portage we began to doubt our map and navigation skills since it was not very “obvious.” By the time we got to the portage out of Gardner Bay we had second thoughts about going all the way to Elk and paddled back to a campsite and called it a day. As we pitched the tent and put up the rain fly, the weather was changing and my watch barometer was falling. We cooked our steak and garlic potatoes supper, secured canoe and food, relaxed, and went to bed anticipating a wet night.
Day 2, Monday June 22
It had rained hard during the night and continued steadily this morning. We stalled around after our bacon and eggs under the tarp, hoping for a break in the rain, but none came. Since this trip was planned NOT to be a marathon or set records for miles traveled, we decided to rest our sore muscles, collect some fresh rainwater, stay dry and move on tomorrow. The rain stopped in the afternoon. After supper I paddled Joe around fishing and he caught a 24” pike and a few smallmouth. At dusk we saw the resident beavers swimming nearby.
Day 3, Tuesday June 23
Day broke clear and rather warm/humid and we got an early start towards Elk-Cone-Brent.
The route to Elk Lake had poor landing areas, dense vegetation, narrow trails and was very buggy. We wondered if anyone had been through here lately. Joe wore his headnet on every portage as we encountered a never-ending nuisance of mosquitoes, gnats, flies, and ticks.
We had lunch on Elk, took some pictures then negotiated the two portages and “pond” south of Cone. When we reached the much discussed Cone-Brent portage, we stood at the takeout, looked up the steep slope and thought “Oh, brother!” When all was said and done though, it was difficult, but very satisfying. We both got chewed up here, and I tripped and fell to my knees once, but fortunately it was a soft wet spot. We paddled the narrow twisting southwest entrance to Brent and where the lake opens up we found a campsite that was fairly close to some of our marked fishing spots.
Day 4, Wednesday June 24
We were up early to fish. Joe boated a walleye that measured 27 inches. He swung the fish, which was really fouled on both treble hooks, to me and after struggling to free them I turned it loose. Then I heard, “What are you doing? I wanted a picture!” (Oops!) My only excuse was that I was afraid we’d had it out of the water too long. Back at camp, we lunched and then with the temperature and wind rising we bathed, napped and lazed away the beautiful afternoon. We saw our first people since Sunday at midday.
In the evening we fished in the narrows back towards the Cone portage. Joe caught several 2 to 3-pound smallmouth and I lost a very large fish that Joe said was one of the biggest smallmouth he’d ever seen. At least I didn’t also lose my rod and reel. At one point, while trying to loosen my drag, this fish made a sudden jerk and everything went over the side! I reached under the water where I’d last seen it and miraculously came up with the rod and reel, fish still on!
Day 5, Thursday June 25
Paddling out northwest Brent, we saw many fishable areas and moosey-looking bays and coves. We portaged into William Lake over another little used trail and then Joe fished as we headed north. As the beautiful morning waned, the wind picked up and I had trouble holding the canoe, so we headed to shore for lunch. About this time a mature bald eagle made an awesome “power dive” to snatch a fish from the water ahead of us! As we landed, we photographed a large turtle that apparently had been ashore laying eggs.
After our summer sausage and soft cheese on tortillas, and with the wind picking up from the west, we headed into the wind towards the Darky River. We had to pull the canoe over a very old, solid beaver dam then paddle across the “pond” but were soon in the river, where we had anticipated seeing moose. We saw lots of ducks but no moose.
The first portage west of William was hard to “see,” and a pretty nasty 60-70 rods. The second portage was also hard to see, with no sign of recent use, and not where the map showed it. We finally made the third portage – very obvious/short, at an old beaver dam – into Darky about 5:00 pm and by then it was windy. We took the first campsite we came to, on an island, a bi-level site with “steps” from the super firepit area up to the large tent area with penthouse lake views. After setting up camp and having supper, we rested and later had some Yukon Jack and cigars around the firepit. I woke up once during the night and saw millions of stars.
Day 6, Friday June 26
Darky was smooth as glass this morning. Not a cloud in the sky. After breakfast we leisurely paddled the calm water south to the pictographs. Compared to others we had seen in the BWCAW and Quetico, these were outstanding! We had the lake to ourselves except for a pair of loons.
Back at camp, we had lunch, then lazed around and napped while the temps rose, eventually to 87 degrees on my watch thermometer. After supper we fished the smallmouth spots marked on our map. I kept switching lures, finally putting on a Heddon torpedo, and that did it. I started catching smallmouth, including a 4-pounder that put up a terrific fight, and another that was longer but not as heavy. Joe switched to a topwater lure too, and we both caught several more smallmouth and a couple of pike before they seemed to just stop biting. Another day in paradise!
Day 7, Saturday June 27
Got going before the rain started, paddling toward the Darky River outlet. A drizzle began about the time we entered the “narrows.” We paddled steadily but not so fast as to create the raingear sauna effect. The first obstacle we came to was a sort of logjam, and as we slowly approached, we saw a small opening that we were barely able to drift through. After that came to a couple of swift areas that reminded us of the Ozark streams back in Missouri.
Next up was a portage around an area where the river crashed down through a narrow gorge – a really picturesque setting – but our cameras were packed away out of the wet. Downstream was a small rapids, and without looking at the map to see that there was a portage trail around it on the right, we saw an opening we could walk the canoe through. We both got out and were able to guide it through the narrow passage in knee-deep water with a rocky but pretty solid footing.
We paddled and floated on downstream and finally stopped in a still water area to take a break and have a snack and some good old Darky Lake water. Here the river widened and began to take many twists and turns. As we approached the portage takeout to Minn Lake, we met the second party since Wednesday on Brent Lake. We asked them about campsites on Minn and they said they thought all were open.
We did the easy portage and began paddling on Minn, where the wind was starting to blow. Getting tired and hungry, we began looking for a lunch spot and possible campsite. After paddling south and then southwest we found what seemed to be a decent site and decided to stop. Here we would only be a 2-hour or so paddle/portage from our pickup at Black Robe portage tomorrow at 1:00 pm. Since the weather seemed to be turning ugly, we quickly set up camp on this small, overused island. Tent and tarp options were few, and the east end was basically a toilet, but we made the best of it. The wind continued to blow stronger, and rain continued off and on through the evening. Our “pizza” supper was cooked on the stove and eaten under the tarp.
Day 8, Sunday June 28
We did not sleep much during the night and when we looked out of the tent this morning, it was obvious we would not be paddling anytime soon. What we could see of the lake was nothing but whitecaps. At one point, the wind gusted so hard that the canoe, which was turned over and tied with one end to a tree near the firepit, would flip over and back. (I guessed 35 mph winds.)
We did NOT make the pickup time. When the wind began to blow more northerly we tied the canoe up close to the tent in a way that acted as a windbreak. At the same time, I re-guyed the windward side of the tent fly to keep the poles from buckling. To make a long story short, we spent most of the time from Saturday night until Monday morning (36 hours) in the tent waiting for things to calm.
Day 9, Monday June 29
Around 8:30 am Monday, we made our escape. We packed up everything and headed south on Minn. The wind was not too bad now, and in fact may have favored us down the lake. We found the portage to McAree with no problem. On McAree, we had to paddle straight into a brisk west wind. We went point-to-point across the northern part of McAree, and actually made good time.
At Black Robe Portage we carried the last of our gear over to the Lac la Croix side at about 11:00 am. About 15 minutes later, the Zup’s towboat appeared! (Bringing two guys there to start a trip and keeping an eye out for us as well.) The driver called Zup’s on the radio and said he had found us. Later, Joe told me he heard Mark Zup say something like, “You got ‘em? OK, bring ‘em home!”
When we got back, we talked to Mark and Kathy and had a soda and a hot shower. Kathy had been in contact with my daughter (Joe’s wife) who had naturally been worried about us. Kathy had told her about the weather and said that we were most likely being smart and staying put until it broke.
The tow back to Crane Lake was more interesting than the one coming in, since we went back via the two mechanized Beatty Portages, the Loon River and Loon Lake. We even saw quite a few deer along the river. We arrived at Scott’s marina on Crane Lake and were greeted at the dock by a very nice young U.S. Customs lady. Then after paying for our parking and getting our keys, we loaded up and drove over to the T. Pattenn Cafe in Orr, MN for our traditional post-trip meal: bacon cheeseburgers, fries, and an ice cold drink.
This was a great trip, in spite of the bugs being brutal and not seeing moose (for the third straight year!). We saw new territory, had complete privacy most of the time, caught some quality fish, and for the most part enjoyed nice campsites and fine weather. The areas with tall old pines, deep clear lakes, interesting landscapes, and a variety of paddling water were very appealing. We especially enjoyed Brent and Darky Lakes and even enjoyed the Darky River from Darky to Minn, in the rain. Finally, missing our pickup – by twenty-two hours – was just another one of life’s many unexpected “adventures.”
TRIP LOG: Submitted by Gary Mook, September 10, 2009