Woodland Caribou Provincial Park: A Father and Son Trip

This was the 11th canoe trip my son, Ben, and I have taken together. Since his first trip when he was 5, Ben has loved being out in the wilderness. Now 17, he’s a strong paddler and portager, never complains, and has a great sense of humor! We had never been to WCPP, but a friend, Tim Eaton, recommended it and provided some maps and plenty of knowledge about the area.

In many ways, WCPP is similar to the BWCAW and Quetico: a network of beautiful, glacier-formed lakes in the northern forest connected by streams and portages. Loons call across the lakes, mosquitoes chase you into the tent at night, the sight of blue water welcomes your aching shoulders after carrying a pack and the canoe across a rocky portage, and the still mornings provide a unique peace.

But Woodland Caribou Provincial Park is different. Nearly 250 woodland caribou roam the forests, but smallmouth bass are not found in the lakes, except for a couple rare exceptions in which they’ve been smuggled in, much to the Ontario Ministry’s displeasure. The forest appeared to consist primarily of jack pine, with some spruce, poplar and birch mixed in. We didn’t see any old growth white or red pine, or cedars along the shoreline. Interestingly, it was often difficult to find a good branch among the jack pines for hanging the food pack. The forest floor was moss and lichen, with very little undergrowth in many areas. Several lakes, particularly Mexican Hat, had a number of sandy beaches; far more than I’ve run across in the BWCAW and Quetico.

Trip Log Woodland Caribou Park

Unlike the BWCAW, where you race to secure a campsite by early to mid-afternoon before they’re all taken, we only saw 3 other groups the entire time. We were told that, despite this being a fairly popular route, it was not uncommon to make the loop and not see any other people.

Portages (that’s por-tazh in these parts), are measured in meters, not rods. Maps are not marked with campsites or portages, hence the need for the help of our friend, Tim, and Harlan Schwartz at Red Lake Outfitters! The maps also seem to be on a different scale, requiring some adjustment in gauging distances in travelling through a lake. The area is generally flatter, meaning more frequent, shorter, flatter portages. It also means more water settles in the area between lakes, with more mud and swampy areas to portage through. Since the water level was nearly 2 feet lower than normal during our trip, we didn’t have as much mud along the portages, but we did have more rocky obstacles requiring liftovers and portages.

Like the Quetico, WCPP did not have fire grates or latrines at campsites, although most that we saw along our route had a rock fire structure. There is no quota system for permits in WCPP, and we were never told of the park regulations, although I’m sure they were printed on the WCPP brochure and website.

Trip Log Woodland Caribou Park

Day 1– Saturday

Drive up – Red Lake Outfitters – 350 m. – Leano LakeMostly sunny; good day for driving.  Beautiful evening on Leano!

Since we had a long drive ahead of us, we got up early and left our home in Plymouth by 5:00 a.m. Then we drove. And drove. And drove. We made it through customs without incident, picked up a fishing license in Vermillion Bay, had a late lunch of burgers and fries in Ear Falls at the Hotel 105 Bar & Grill and then drove the rest of the way to Red Lake Outfitters in Cochenour, just outside Red Lake.

Harlan got us set up with our permit, Spot satellite, maps, and noted some campsites and low water areas to avoid. One last stop for gas in Red Lake and then it was teeth-jarring bumps along the hour and a half drive to Leano. Finally, just before 7:00 p.m., we put the canoe in the water, breathed in the fresh Canadian air, and paddled the 10 minute leg to a nearby island campsite. At last…we’re in Woodland Caribou Park!!!

Tired from the long drive, we hit the sack early with the loon soundtrack playing in the background…

Day 2–Sunday

Leano…300m…Bunny Lake…15m…150m…80m…70m…liftover…East Lunch Lake…150m…Lunch Lake… 200m…liftover…40m…Jake Lake (a couple additional portages/liftovers today due to low water; not marked on map)
Glorious day! Sunny. Refreshing breeze off the water. Mid 80’s. Lots of portages. Bear sighting.

We were in and out of the canoe 10-12 times today with portages and liftovers. After a long day of portaging, we hopped in the lake for a swim. A loon called from the bay and as we directed our attention toward it, we spotted a black bear on the shore behind it! It followed a sandy stretch on the shoreline before wandering back into the woods. Ben sighted it a short time later swimming from a point toward the side of the lake we occupied.

After dinner, it was time for the lunkers. So we went out in the canoe, following the shoreline and keeping our eyes open for the bear. We didn’t see the bear and didn’t catch any fish. We did see a storm approaching. So we made our way back to camp just as a few raindrops began to fall. We headed into the tent just as the rain stopped, and hit the sack.

Day 3–Monday

Jake Lake…100m…60m…140m…140m…80m…325m…Mexican Hat LakeHot! Temps reached the 90s. The breeze off the lake in the afternoon was like a blast furnace! Spotted a woodland caribou in Jake.

We had a tasty breakfast of hash browns with cheese, packed as the sun heated up the campsite and were on our way. As we paddled around the point from our campsite, I heard branches crack and the crunching of dry lichen. And then a slight motion caught my eye. The light through the trees spotlighted the head of a woodland caribou! Complete with a large set of antlers, the caribou silently stared at us from 40-50’ away. He was extremely well camouflaged and if we hadn’t been staring so intently into the forest, we never would have picked him out from the thick trees. Moments later, he slowly retreated deeper into the forest.

We made it to Mexican Hat by late morning. We had lunch, swam, lounged on our sleep mattresses on the rocks, and fished briefly in the sweltering heat. We explored a sandy beach deep in the bay, coming across some tracks that appeared to be from an adult and a young caribou.

After dinner, we trolled down nearby bay and landed a couple nice walleyes for breakfast. We paddled back to camp as the sun sank below the horizon and took one final dip in the lake before going to bed.

 

Trip Log Woodland Caribou Park

Day 4–Tuesday

Mexican Hat Lake…lined canoe through marshy creek…Nutria Lake…600m…Amber Lake…70m…Streak Lake…Aegean Creek…20m…20m…Aegean Lake
A few sprinkles at night. Cloudy, looked like rain in the morning. Breezy. Clouds blew over and we had a spectacular, sunny day. 80 degrees, but the breeze off the lakes was cool. Cooler, comfortable evening.

After our outstanding walleye breakfast, we packed up and were on the water by mid-morning, heading into a stiff breeze from the west. The creek between Mexican Hat and Nutria was too low to paddle, so we lined the canoe through the marshy, mucky area, sinking knee deep into mud on occasion. A half hour later we were back on sky blue waters, paddling through a small, picturesque lake surrounded by hills, deep blue skies with a few fluffy clouds, a refreshing breeze, and the feeling that all the world’s troubles could never find us here.

We caught a nice tailwind down the north arm of Aegean. I caught another frisky northern, and then we made our way further south. The shores of Aegean were lined with same-size jack pine trees, maybe 15 years old or so. It looks almost landscaped, the way the trees were all uniform. We pushed on down the channel that connected to the western section of the lake and were rewarded with another 5-star campsite.

After dinner, we paddled around a scenic bay, accompanied by a couple loons, with beautiful purples and oranges in the sky, and caught a few northerns before dark.

 

Trip Log Woodland Caribou Park

Day 5–Wednesday

Aegean Lake…450m…300m…30m…Paull Lake
Sunny, still, hot morning. Clouds moved in with a few sprinkles early afternoon. Cleared up by mid-afternoon.

We suffered through what Ben dubbed the “pancake breakfast fail”. I was out of Crisco and the new frying pan was charred, so the pancakes stuck hopelessly in the pan and turned to burnt globs as I tried to flip them. Not even extra syrup could save them. Yuck!

On the portage out of Aegean, we passed through tons of blueberries. Funny how you feel like you’ve been picking a bushel of berries, but only end up with a few handfuls. They sure were tasty, though.

As we crossed the next couple portages, we saw wolf scat and tracks in the mud. Maybe we’d have another wolf encounter like on a previous trip! We scanned the forest, but if there were any wolves, they stayed out of our sight.

We had a few periods of uncertainty with our location as we made our way through Paull, but were able to use a small pictograph as a reference point and find our way to a nice campsite on an island in the main body of the lake by mid-afternoon.

At night, we sat out on the rocks as night set in and were treated to an excellent lightning show in the clouds to the north before the mosquitoes chased us in the tent.

 

Trip Log Woodland Caribou Park

Day 6–Thursday

Paull Lake…275m…175m…150m…unnamed lake…30m…10m…100m…Upper Kilburn Lake…1,000m …Kilburn Lake
Sunny morning. Overcast later into early afternoon. Then sunny and breezy.

We had an oatmeal breakfast, packed up and were on the water. It was still and hot as Ben guided us down Paull. Later, we caught a great tailwind in Upper Kilburn and put up a sail to cruise across the lake. It was spectacular!

At the east end, we probed for the portage and finally found it on the northernmost bay along a sandy beach. There were numerous deadfalls across the portage, and we probably hurdled 15-20 fallen trees. We also saw a very large, berry-filled bear scat pile along the way, so I hoped (in vain) to see another bear along the way.

We found a beautiful, 5-star campsite on an island, with great views on 3 sides, rocky slopes for hanging out and swimming, and a flat spot for the tent. We cooked up the last of our grub: eggs, wild rice pilaf, and chocolate pudding. Impure thoughts of pizza, burgers, and Dairy Queen crept into our minds, but we remained strong.

We caught a few walleyes and then hung out on the rocks for a few minutes back at camp.

Day 7–Friday

Kilburn Lake…100m…???lake…50m…120m…400m…Leano Lake…350m…parking lot…drive to Virginia, MN., Coates Plaza Hotel
Another sunny morning. Smoky haze on the drive to Red Lake. Long drive home.

It was a glorious morning. Slightly cool, still, with a loon swimming in the nearby bay. We wanted to get an early start, so after a quick breakfast of protein drinks, we packed up and hit the water.

An otter periscoped his head out of the water to observe us as we paddled up Kilburn. We made our way through a winding, marshy creek and a couple small ponds. We saw several beavers. A couple wood ducks erupted as we rounded a bend and intruded on them. A ruffed grouse paraded along a downed tree on a portage.

We then hit the final portage to the parking lot, loaded our gear in the car, and were bouncing along the gravel road back toward Red Lake. We broke up our long drive home with an overnight stay in Virginia, MN, and arrived back home on Saturday.

Trip Log Woodland Caribou Park

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