Quetico Provincial Park: Father and Son Dream Trip
TRIP LOG: Submitted by Patrick Brewer, October 6, 2008
This trip was long in the planning stage, and was on hold while I recovered from a heart attack in the spring of 2007. We started planning in earnest when the cardiologist gave me the O.K.
Originally this was to be a father son trip with a friend of mine, but that didn’t pan out and it became just my son Thomas and Me. We gathered information to make this a great trip. The information we received from the Boundary Waters Journal T.R.I.P.S. Program was invaluable for campsites and fishing spots. Also friends on 2 web sites were helpful BWCA.COM and BWCAPaddler. My name or “handle” on the web is Fishguts. Also I spent the winter replacing all the hooks on all our lures with Boundary Waters Journal barbless hooks.
We flew from Medford, Oregon to Minneapolis, rented a car, drove to Gardner and stayed the night.
We headed over to Cabelas for the 8AM opening. We shopped for an entire 2 hours getting head nets, fishing lures, pole, reel, line, insect repellant, T-shirts, sun glasses and more fishing gear.
We hit the road for the drive to Ely. We made it by 3 PM and shopped in the Ely stores and outfitters for 1 hour, arriving at Jordan’s Outfitters at 4PM. We unpacked our stuff from the car and from the box we had sent in advance by U.P.S.
Mark Bland, the new manager-owner of Jordan’s Outfitting, is a very helpful, nice guy. We went over the maps of our trip, checked out our 2 packs with all the gear and food. The office at Jordan’s has been re-modeled and is professional looking. Mark added up our bill, which Thomas paid. The bill was less than we had thought, but the tow across Lac la Croix was more than we expected due to gas prices. We went into town and went to dinner at Sir “G”s (good Italian). The night was spent in one of Jordan’s Bunk Rooms. It was pleasant with 2 of us in a 4-man room.
About 8 AM we loaded up the Jordan’s van with our gear and Mark drove us out the Echo Trail to Crane Lake for a scheduled 10 AM tow. We arrived at Scott’s Marina at 9:30 AM and our Zup’s driver was waiting for us. We were by ourselves in that big jet boat.
Off we went to Sand Point Customs. We were met by a Customs Officer who checked out our ID’s and Passport and asked lots of questions, like “are you leaving anything in Canada?” “Do you have any liquor, firearms, pepper spray, tobacco, etc.” He didn’t ask about felonies or DUIs. Zup’s driver took us down Little Vermillion Lake to the Loon River, the two mechanical portages into Lac la Croix and the short ride to Zup’s Resort where we purchased our fishing licenses. Mark Zup issued us our Quetico Permit and took our camping fees which saved us a trip to the Lac la Croix Ranger Station. There seemed to be few people going into Quetico this year so they had the time to treat us like kings.
They had moved our gear from the Jet boat to one of Zup’s smaller boats, and we had a new driver. She took us across Lac la Croix and up the Brewer River to the Brewer Rapids. Our driver was able to navigate slowly up the lower rapids to the first big rapids and portage. She did a great job in the high water conditions. As soon as the boat pulled away we noticed that we were being eaten by a swarm of mosquitoes. We madly searched through the packs for the Bug Juice!
Our first portage was a short one and we single portaged it. The driver had warned us to watch out for the currant at the top of the rapids, so we had no problems. We paddled across Brewer Lake to the big rapids coming out of McAree Lake. There is a campsite right on the portage between Brewer and McAree Lakes and a party with 2 tents and lots of gear occupied it. There was no one in camp, so we hurried across to get out of there. They had partially blocked the McAree end of the portage with one of their aluminum canoes.
We paddled across McAree Lake to Pond Lake. On McAree we saw the last people we were to see for 6 straight days. When we reached the portage into Little Gratton we had lunch. The Gratton “Long Haul” portage or “Gratton Death March” is one of those Quetico experiences…beware of portages with names. We decided to double portage this one in stages…carry one load about half way then go back for the second load. This is a 220-rod portage with all the best Quetico has to offer: mud, swamp, steep hills and rock gardens and a nest of downed trees totally blocking the portage about half way across.
Little Gratton! At last! We paddled over to the first island and checked out a campsite. It has sloping granite down to the lake and pine trees, perfect! Later, when I was writing Thomas went fishing around our island. He came back and said, “grab your pole”. He had found fish in the channel between the islands. We both caught some largemouth bass and a northern too. We decided to have dinner early and then go fishing again.
After dinner we fished for largemouth bass catching about 25 largemouth. Thomas caught the biggest one on a Hula Popper. I did well with a Skitter Pop. Top water fishing is great fun. Sometimes the fish don’t strike at the lure until it is almost up to the canoe. Catch and release is easy with the barbless hooks. We got back to camp, had a fire and went to bed.
I woke up refreshed! Fog was on the lake and the water was clear as glass. We had a great fishing day getting to Ballard Lake. We started out from our campsite on Little Gratton and fished over to the creek coming in from Gratton. We caught 20 largemouth. Thomas caught a big northern right at Gratton Creek. We made the 35-rod portage into Wicksteed Lake where we started to catch smallmouth bass. We caught a ton of smallmouth. Thomas caught a 29-inch northern pike and I caught a smaller one on a popper. That’s quite exciting! We went into a bay of Wicksteed that was supposed to have largemouth, but all we caught were more smallmouth. We headed across the lower section of Wicksteed to find a lunch spot. We finally found a spot down near the portage into Darky Lake. Just off our lunch spot were lots of smallmouth nesting circles on the lake bottom. The fish lay their eggs in a cleared off area and the male guards the area and will attack anything that comes into the area– including our lures.
After lunch we paddled over to the portage into Darky Lake, 45 rods and very muddy with black sucking moose mud that might pull your shoes off. We rinsed off a little and continued down Darky past the island campsite with the log couch and down to the 16-rod portage into Ballard Lake. We took a while to find a spot for the tent. It doesn’t look like anyone had camped there for 5 years or more, but we made it work. The solitude was nice. We were thinking about an early dinner so we could have time to fish afterwards.
We had heard that Ballard has big walleyes around our island so we trolled around the island 3 times, using different lures at different depths–nothing! We broke out the Hula Popper and top water lures and had a blast catching largemouth bass along the southern shore. We fished until dark with a beautiful sunset. We saw 2 seagulls attacking a bald eagle. The eagle roosted in a tree across from our camp and the Seagulls continued to dive at him. The eagle would open his beak and lunge at them when they swooped by.
We woke to clear skies and beautiful sun, I cooked breakfast and we were on our way across Ballard and back into Darky. We paddled towards the north end of Darky, to fish the shoreline for bass. I still had on my trusty black, white & red popper from largemouth fishing and found smallmouth love it too. I caught a nice one and so did Thomas. We continued across Darkey, into the bay leading to William Creek and the backdoor into William Lake. Thomas caught a big smallmouth just as we neared the portage.
Now we started the route into William Lake. There are 4 portages, the first and last are easy….the middle two are tough with lots of up and down climbing with mud and tippy rocks. In between the portages is a beautiful river with water lilies and wild rice. We saw 3 deer along this route. The river and rapids were full, as was Cloverleaf Lake. When we got to the last portage into William the beavers had built a new dam that we paddled through. We saw a beaver here that slapped the water with his tail when he saw us.
Being on William Lake we were eager to see if our old 5 Star Campsite was empty, and no one seemed to be there. Great! As we were setting up camp the clouds kept increasing. We started to hear thunder to the west, so we put up the tent and rain fly and got camp ready for a storm. The storm came through with thunder and rain but no lightning. After the storm cleared we decided to have dinner. We saved the cobbler dessert for later and went fishing.
We fished almost all the way to the east end of William and caught a lot of walleyes, northerns and smallmouth. Thomas caught a keeper walleye about 18 inches and a big northern, and a huge smallmouth, maybe 5 Lbs. It was very dark and fat.
When we were down near the end of William we looked back towards camp and saw a huge thunderhead coming so we started paddling back. It was a long paddle but we thought we would make it, then it started to rain…then it started to pour–then it started to rain cats and dogs with us madly paddling, we had left our rain gear back in camp. In that short downpour we got drenched! When we got back, we started a nice fire and watched the rest of the storm pass by with us while hunkered down by the fire. Towards the end of the storm there was a huge rainbow. We finished the day sitting by the fire eating blueberry cobbler.
We woke up to a nice day. I cooked breakfast, a strip of bacon each, Cache Lake biscuits and gravy, and walleye fillets. We had 2 fillets left for our lunch. We decided to spend the day on William and fish the western end of the lake and around the islands.
We had a successful fishing trip. At first we caught smallmouth, some of them as large as 4 and 5 Lbs. I caught a smallmouth that had bite marks on both sides….it must have taken one huge northern to do that. Then we started to catch all kinds of fish, bass, northerns and walleye….it was a lot of fun. We fished all the way around the lake to the portage to Brent Lake, then paddled back to camp for lunch. We lazed around camp waiting for the wind to let up but it started raining. It rained most of the afternoon so we hung our second tarp and stayed by the fire. We cooked dinner, did the dishes, warmed ourselves by the fire and went to bed.
It rained in the night. When we got up, everything not covered was wet. We headed east on William towards the 150-rod portage into Conmee Lake. On our way we decided to fish along the south shore of William. On the way across the lake we saw something floating. It was a float on a nylon cord, marking the mid-lake reef. We fished and jigged around the reef but had no success. We fished our way to the campsite on the south side of William, then it started raining and we put on our rain gear. When we got down to the portage into Conmee there was a maze of slippery boulders we had to cross to get from the lake to the portage itself. And guess what was waiting for us when we made it to flat ground? A host of mosquitoes. We had heard that this portage wasn’t hard, just 150 rods, so we single portaged. The information about this portage neglected to mention the moose swamps and wet brush. We made it OK but it was one long, wet, muddy portage.
We fished on Conmee catching a bass and a northern and that’s all. The wind started to come up so we headed for the 5 star campsite. We stopped and had lunch. We considered staying the night but we broke out the maps. Since the wind wasn’t terrible, we decided to push on to Suzanette. We ducked behind islands and snuck around windy points fishing as much as we could. The last 2 miles down one of the long bays of Conmee we fished the whole way. The bite was off. We didn’t catch a thing. At the end of this bay is a 44-rod portage into Suzanette Lake that isn’t marked on the Fisher Maps. It was fairly brushy but not too bad for a “way-out-in the-boonies Quetico portage”.
This brought us to beautiful Suzanette. We were now looking for a nice campsite to stay 2 nights. First we stopped by a site that Tim on BWCA.Com had recommended. This site is on top of a cliff and has a message jar and a beautiful view. It was nice but a little too austere for our liking and kinda exposed–especially to wind and rain–so we continued the search. We found our campsite on the second island we came to. It was on a point, at lake level, with a nice rock fireplace and trees for hanging the rain fly. We settled in and set up camp. We aired out the tent and some clothes because it had been wet when we packed up on William. Thomas fished from shore and caught a few smallmouth. You could see their nesting areas all along the shorelines. A couple of rain showers came through in the afternoon and we hunkered under the tarp and had a small fire.
Later in the afternoon it cleared up and the sun came out and we decided to go troll for lake trout. We trolled back and forth on the other side of our island but had no luck. We visited another campsite across from the tip of our island. It is a big open site with pines and a nice fireplace but it is remarkable for the big moose skull with antlers that are there. On the way back we switched gear and Thomas caught a nice walleye that we invited to dinner. It was a great dinner!
The late evening calling of the loons, echoing off the cliffs of Suzanette was melodious and eerie and will not be forgotten soon. Another wonderful day in Quetico!
On this morning the lake was still and like a mirror. We had started to notice that we hadn’t seen anyone since we left McAree. It’s like Quetico was empty and felt deserted! We had day after day, lake after lake, with not a soul, just us. The solitude was wonderful!
We took off after breakfast and fished down the arm of Suzanette that goes towards the Darky River. We caught a few smallmouth and then came to the first rapids. Thomas caught a giant smallmouth in the 5 Lbs. range. Then a big northern followed his’ lure right up to the canoe but didn’t bite. I was fishing in the same spot with a Zulu and another big northern jumped out of the water and snapped off my Zulu. This was really exciting fishing! Later the wind picked up and we paddled back and had lunch. Thomas went through the snack bag and said we had to increase our consumption of candy bars and gorp. He said we couldn’t take any home.
After dinner we went fishing and we caught lots of little bass. Then we saw fish rising out in the middle of Suzanette. The wind had stopped, the lake was smooth as glass and there was a strange overcast sky. We trolled out to the middle of the lake with the only ripples being ours. Thomas hooked something. He reeled it in and next to the canoe it jumped and thrashed and out came the barbless hooks. It was a nice lake trout. We fished some more but didn’t get another bite.
I made breakfast and as we were packing, a black cloud came rolling over our camp with thunder then rain. Thomas was back in the tent where he had taken both sleeping mattresses and both pillows and was taking it easy. The thunder roused him from his lethargy. We did get the tent packed before the rain hit. We stood under the rain fly and watched the storm roll through. Then we headed up the Darky River toward Burt and Paulene Lakes. At the first rapids we tried fishing again. We both caught a lot of fish and took pictures. We made the short 40-rod portage into the next section of the Darky River and paddled up to the next rapids. We had great luck fishing here also fish after fish, mostly smallmouth but with a few northerns thrown in for fun. Thomas crossed the 24-rod portage and fished the pool above the rapids catching a beautiful 21-inch walleye. We would have a fish dinner tonight!
We then paddled up the Darky River to where it Y’s with one arm going into Burt Lake and the other going to the portage to Paulene. We found a nice campsite and stopped for lunch. Thomas changed out my fishing line and put on some new line. He also adjusted my reel that had gotten sloppy with all the fish we had caught. After lunch we headed into Burt Lake looking for the pictographs on the cliff. We found the cliff. It had a big bird nest towards the top, which seemed to be either an eagle or vulture. We looked all over and only found some red smudges that could have been pictographs. We gave up and paddled into Burt. The wind was blowing and Burt is a huge lake. We did get a good view of Burt and saw the area where Lake Gamble Mater is located. We decided to paddle down to the portage to Paulene. This portage is marked 39 rods but seemed much longer and had some nasty rocky areas to negotiate and mud too. We decided to keep going. This meant we had to cross the 112-rod portage into McIntyre Lake. We single portaged this one, which wasn’t difficult. It was quite a nice portage with only a little mud at the very end of the portage. We were still on the hunt for a good campsite so we continued into the narrows of McIntyre. This is where we saw a canoe. This was the first person we had seen since leaving McAree. We had 6 full days in Quetico without seeing another human. Talk about solitude! It has been wonderful; the lakes have been all ours!
We decided to head down toward Cedar Point Camp where we had stayed in 05. It was a long paddle and we had some wind to contend with but we finally rounded the last point and it was open. This is a beautiful campsite and has a message jar back in the woods behind camp. We set up camp and retrieved the message jar. It was good to see that some of our acquaintances from the BWCA.com have made it here and left messages. We had a great dinner of Darky River walleye and went to bed. We were pooped!
Last night we had “whippoorwills” who sang their 4-note song over and over and over.and then in the middle of the night they had their buddies join them in a late night Jam-bo-ree, over and over. This is the only spot in the canoe country we have ever had these darn birds!
After getting up I started a small fire when I heard thunder rumbling to the west. I set up a rain-fly just in case it might rain. The thunder was getting closer. Then the rain started. I thought I was pretty clever sitting under the rain-fly with my little fire and coffee. Then the storm hit! Lightning, thunder, wind, it poured, it hailed ice the size of pennies. The wind caught the rain-fly and I had to hold on with both hands. The rain and hail came in sideways. Pools formed on the ground. Thomas came out of the tent wearing his rain gear to report that water was coming in on one side of the tent. Wow! What a storm! Everything got wet or damp. The only dry spot was where my butt was under the tarp. I kept that spot dry but I was soaked.
Thirty minutes later the sun came out. Just another beautiful day in Quetico. I wrote a note for the message jar and returned the jar to its cairn in the woods. We paddled out to the left hand point of the bay and started trolling for trout. Both of us had on Rapala Deep Tail Dancers, Purplesent and Perch color. No sooner had we started trolling than Thomas had one on his line. It took quite a while for him to bring it in and we couldn’t find the net. Thomas did land this lake trout without a net. It was a beautiful 7-9 Lbs. fish and we decided that it was too big for just the 2 of us to eat, so Thomas let him go. We continued to troll and Thomas hooked another smaller one that flipped off the barbless hooks right beside the canoe. We put up our poles and decided to continue our travels.
We headed south on McIntyre towards the portages into Sarah Lake. We continued down Sarah and were looking for a lunch campsite which we found one at the narrows. We had a pleasant lunch. It was warm and sunny. Then we heard thunder from the west. Here came a huge dark thunderstorm right over us. We got out the rain gear and tarps and covered our stuff as best we could. Thomas and I crawled under a tarp and waited out the squall. When it lessened we came out and looked around. Then to the west came a darker storm– this time with lightning striking the ground. Thomas tied a little tarp between 2 trees and we hunkered down under it. The rain poured down, and it blotted out the view of the lake it was so hard. We got soaked; there was no way to stay dry. I had water running down the inside of my rain jacket. Then the lightning strikes got close with one just to the west of us and then to the east…Booom!!…! 15 minutes later the sun came out and we were back in the canoe headed south.
We didn’t know how far we could get this day, especially with all the rain delays. In front of us was a particularly difficult set of portages first into Side Lake with lots of loading and un-loading. Then came “Heart Attack Hill” which not only had a steep hill but also was brushy and had some moose mud. This portage was particularly poignant because of my heart attack in 2007. Then came the two small portages in and out of the ponds before Isabella. These two were bad with mud and brush and downed trees. We finally made it to Isabella Lake! We found the nice campsite at the narrows empty and grabbed it. We had a beaver swim across the lake in front of us and slap his tail 3 or 4 times. Later he swam right by camp and we took pictures of him.
I woke up to clear skies, made a little campfire and coffee and wrote of yesterday’s adventures. We fixed breakfast and packed up ready to head for Bayley Bay of Basswood Lake for our last campsite of the trip. As we were packing we saw a couple of parties of 2 & 4 paddle by. We made the portage into the river flowing into Basswood. With the high water we were able to paddle all the way to Basswood through rapids and one beaver dam pull through.
We entered The North Bay of Basswood Lake and turned right to paddle down that shore until we were directly across and closest to the island and portage into Burke Lake. Then we paddled across this big reach of lake without getting turned around like we did in 2005. Burke is where we got wind bound back in ‘93, but this day was hot and sunny with a slight breeze for the long paddle across Burke. This brought us to the famous “Yellow Brick Road” portage over to Bayley Bay of Basswood Lake. Thomas had talked of switching and having me carry the canoe on this portage. So I carried the canoe and Thomas took pictures. The portage was 84 rods and sandy with hardly any stones and no mud. I think this is the easiest portage in Quetico. It was hot and humid at the end of the “Yellow Brick Road” so Thomas went swimming on the sandy beach. We then loaded the canoe and headed down Bayley Bay looking for our last campsite. We finally found one before Inlet Bay. We set up camp and we both took a nap in the tent even though it was hot and humid, it felt good to lie down. After 6PM it started cooling down and the loons started to sing. We could hear the distant motorboats on the US side of the lake. We heard a radio playing for a while–country western music. Civilization was drawing near. We had dinner, then off to the tent for a little reading and sleep.
I awoke in the night to a snorting noise. Thomas said it was a deer and it came back later in the night and snorted and stomped its hooves. We woke up and I fixed the last breakfast. We headed for Prairie Portage. We took pictures of the Quetico sign, went to the Quetico Store and bought shirts and hats. We were 2 hours early for our tow, so we sat in the rain under a birch tree with thunder, lightning and rain off and on. There seemed to be far fewer people coming through this year compared to 2005. There were a few groups that came in: boy scouts and a father & son group from Ohio who had been up Agnes way. I talked to them about good places to eat in Ely, and told them about the Ely Steak House. Then our tow from LaTourrell’s showed up. He was slowed down due to the lightning and rain. We enjoyed the tow down the Moose Lake chain.
Jordan’s van was waiting for us at LaTourrell’s. We piled in and were whisked back to the outfitters base. We checked out with Mark, headed into town and checked in at our motel the “Adventure Inn” Nice!! After showering and spiffing up we headed to the Ely Steak House for a great dinner.
All in all, this was probably the best canoe trip I can remember. We had a great time! Experienced solitude for 6 days! Caught a ton of fish! Saw a lot of new territory! Had all kinds of weather. We couldn’t asked for anything more.
We left Ely early and drove back to Minneapolis in our rental car. Our flights back to the West Coast were on time. We made it back to home by 11 PM Minnesota time.