Youth Group on Quetico’s Man Chain, June 2010

For the past 21 years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve as a group leader for my agency’s Wilderness Challenge Program (WCP), a six-day/five night canoe camping experience offered each year to thirty teens struggling with a variety of social, emotional and educational challenges.  Our June 2010 trip took us to Quetico Provincial Park’s Man Chain, a route I had last travelled with the program in 1999.


Day One, 6/19/10

The kids are up at 5:45 a.m., excitedly anxious about the beginning the journey we have been attempting to prepare them for since early May.  After a pancake breakfast at our outfitter, Gunflint Northwoods, my five rambunctious young men, and I, accompanied by my volunteer co-leader of ten (!) years, are shuttled by van to the public landing on the Saganaga Lake narrows.  Two towboats haul our gear and canoes to Hook Island from where the team, quieted it seems by the light drizzle and the vastness of “Big Sag,” begins its paddle to the Ranger Station on Cache Bay for our Remote Area Border Crossing check-in.  Thirty minutes later, we are thankfully back on the water heading to Silver Falls.  The 130 R. portage on the east side of the falls, greased by precipitation over the past twelve hours provides my novice voyagers with a good introduction to the science and art of portaging, requiring careful foot plants to successfully navigate its rocky and root-strewn path.  After pausing to take in the beauty of the falls, we paddle northwest, crossing the short “pull over” into Slate Lake followed by an 8 R. portage due west into Fran Lake.  Following another slippery trek across the 74 R. portage out of Fran and a short paddle across a small unnamed lake, we cross the 18 R. portage into Bell Lake, where we are grateful to discover that the large campsite just south of the portage on the east side of the lake – a site I had circled on my map 11 years prior – is available!  I hear no complaints when I suggest that we call it a day and face our next challenge – the semi-chaotic experience “settling into” camp life.  For most of the teens, short on attention span, organizational skills and relevant experience, learning the regimen of tent set-up, meal preparation, and bathroom protocols is as stressful as the day’s first portage.


Day Two, 6/20/10

We awake, some more reluctantly than others, to a spectacular morning.  After a breakfast of oatmeal and jerky and an impromptu group session to plan our day and review individual and group goals, we begin our paddle down Bell Lake.  Our high-octane teens are unusually quiet, taken-in, it seems, by the stillness of the conditions; perhaps listening to silence for the first time!  Their peacefulness continues through the beautiful (and flat!) 21 R. portage into Bit Lake where I am encouraged to see some of our guys tackle the defining task of carrying a canoe solo; others shouldering – rather than completely ignoring – our 60 lb. food packs.  My optimism is short-lived, however, as we are soon confronted by the far less pleasant 39 R. portage into Other Man Lake.   Hoping to avoid the initial steep ascent up a wet rock face at the head of the marked trail, I scout for alternatives and discover what is obviously a seldom-used trail heading due south and ending directly behind the marked campsite on Other Man.  Our team gets a taste of bushwhacking as we pick our way up and down the overgrown path occasionally falling prey to a sharp descent disguised by the vegetation surrounding our ankles.  Embarrassed for having recommended this “Road Less Travelled,” I find some sense of redemption in the reports of our other group which we, quite unexpectedly, encounter setting out onto Other Man shortly after our arrival.  At least two of the group members, we are told, slipped into a waist-deep pool of muck on their trek across the “real” portage.  After a PB & J lunch, we resume our paddle, refreshed by moderate temps and Other Man’s cooling, deep blue waters.  Having decided that morning to set This Man Lake as our destination for the day, we continue our paddle, leaving the five-star island campsite on Other Man to our muddy companions!  After testing our developing portage skills on the 49 R. portage into This Man, we are rewarded for our day’s efforts when we find a “vacancy” sign at the large campsite on the northwest shore of the lake.  It looks every bit as beautiful as I remember from my 1999 visit to this exquisitely beautiful part of Quetico.  At the close of our post-dinner group session, we take another look at the map at discuss plans for the next day.  I point out that having covered 12 miles that day, we could afford a layover day tomorrow.  On cue, the guys issue a resounding, “YES!!”

Day Three, 6/21

With no particular schedule to follow today, the kids sleep-in and while I enjoy the profound peacefulness of dawn at 6:30 a.m.  The only campers on This Man, our day is consumed by swimming, inevitable periods of horseplay, spontaneous discussions about every subject under the sun and, of course, fishing the shorelines and bays of this magnificent lake.  Occasional drizzle, moderate temperatures and partial cloud cover provide excellent conditions for our young anglers who compete for bragging rights over the largest Smallmouth or Northern Pike.  The highlight of the day, and one of the best bonding experiences of the trip, is an incredible shore lunch.  I don’t know who was prouder, the young man who, surprisingly, tied into the massive Walleye casting a spoon 20 ft from the shoreline of our campsite, or the teen who finally found his place in the group by displaying his impressive skills as a fry cook!

Day Four, 6/22

After a rainy night, we awake to a damp and overcast morning. By now the kids know the routine and require only “normal” prodding to break camp and resume our journey.  With Emerald Lake as our agreed-upon destination for the day, the team moves quickly across the 32 R. portage into No Man Lake, despite the still slippery footing.  The flat 101 R. portage into That Man proves to be a beautiful sidewalk and I am delighted to see several of the teens succeed in meeting the defining challenge of portaging a canoe solo!  Heading east out of That Man, we climb a 30+ R. portage into the unnamed lake, fittingly referred to as High Man, before tackling the trickier 60 R. portage southeast into Emerald Lake, featuring a 25 foot drop toward the end of the trail.  For safety’s sake, we slide our canoes down the steep embankment.  Emerald Lake, with its high cliffs and crystal blue-green water is, true to my memory, a sight to behold!  With the sky having cleared and the sun shining bright, we are grateful to find the large campsite on point at the northeast end of the lake available and enjoy an afternoon of swimming and snoozing.

Day Five, 6/23

Another spectacular Quetico morning and we are on the water by 8:30 a.m., heading northeast to Plough Lake and beyond.  As we soon discover, entering Plough via the 55 R. portage from Emerald is far easier that exiting!  The 152 R. portage into Otter Track Lake, while relatively flat, is an ankle-busting obstacle course of rocks and tree roots, the last 30 R. of which runs along side a creek feeding numerous, unavoidable mud pits.  Few make it to the other side unscathed.  Most of us have fallen at least once and are adorned in muck.  I am amazed, and thankful, we have survived our most significant physical challenge of the trip without injury!  Entering Otter Track, spirits seem to rise as the kids know we are in the home stretch. Rather than paddling into Cache Bay and risking competing for campsites with the other four WCP groups ahead of us, we agree to stop short of Monument Portage and try to find a campsite on the Canadian side of Otter Track.  Once again, we are blessed to find great accommodations, spending our last night on the water at the “double site” on the point just east of Monument.  The long evening affords us a great opportunity to review personal goals and share valuable feedback regarding what we have learned individually and as a group over the last five days.

Day Six, 6/24

Once again the morning sky is clear and the wind calm, promising a pleasant last leg of our journey across Saganaga Lake.  Knowing that under these conditions, we should be able to get to the public landing on the Big Sag Narrows for our scheduled 3:00 p.m. pick-up in 4 ½ hours, we break camp for the last time and hit the water by 9:30 a.m.  Compared to many of the trails we crossed, Monument Portage is a joy and the guys – now feeling their oats – cover the dry and wide 80 R. trail with ease.  After a quick 5 R. carry over the Swamp Lake portage, we paddle into Cache Bay, visiting briefly with one of the two groups that had travelled the U.S. side of the border lakes for the past week.  I hear no complaints when I propose stopping at American Point for lunch before we begin the final leg of our journey.  Until we encounter our girls’ group heading down the narrows and hormones take over, the guys paddle in near silence across Big Sag.  Some, I suspect, are taking in one last gulp of the wilderness that has embraced them for the past six days; all, I believe, feeling humbled and empowered by the experience.


TRIP LOG: Submitted by Jim Otepka, September 8, 2010

Jim Otepka
Executive Director
TriCity Family Services
Geneva, IL 60134

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