Humbling is the first word that comes to mind when I think of our canoe trip in Quetico. Our most challenging camping experience so far, it was also exhilarating, spectacular and awe-inspiring but, first and foremost, it was humbling. The couple that we met right after finishing the route echoed our sentiments. As the guy put it, any delusions he may have had about being a tough outdoorsman that never gives up and keeps battling the elements were put to rest. And I have to agree. If I were to pick the most important lesson learned, or rather reinforced, during our Quetico canoe trip, it would be respect for the power of nature.
Which brings me to the name of the park. It comes from the Ojibway word, “gwe taa maang”. I don’t think it has an English equivalent, and it refers to the way indigenous people view this land, the mindfulness and respect they show for the power it holds. Many people know Quetico as a wilderness canoe tripping destination but few realize that it has been inhabited for thousands of years. Quetico is the traditional territory of the Lac La Croix First Nations. To them, it is not a wilderness, it is their home, a source of food, healing, wisdom, mysteries and inspiration. The Lac La Croix First Nations now live on a reserve adjacent to Quetico and work together with the Ministry of Natural Resources to manage this provincial park.
Quetico Provincial Park has been on my list of paddling destinations for quite some time. Over the years, we have done some canoeing in Algonquin, Killarney, Kawartha Highlands and Massassauga but Quetico is different from all the other backcountry canoeing experiences we have had. A lot of effort is put into preserving its wilderness status, which means there are no roads in the park, except for a small Dawson Trail campground in the north-eastern corner (you can read my previous post to learn more about camping at Dawson Trail campground). Canoe is the only means of transportation that can be used to travel through this vast land of lakes, streams and rivers.
Also, if you are used to the yellow portage signs and orange campsite signs during your backcountry trips, you won’t find any of those in Quetico. Portages and campsites are there, you just have to find them yourself. At the park office, we bought a map with portage locations and distances, but no campsites. Finding campsites was not a difficult task, though. In the land of thick, overgrown forests, an opening between the trees with rocky outcrops typical of the Canadian Shield are pretty good indicators of a campsite. Campsites have fireplaces constructed out of rocks by previous campers and space for at least one tent but no thunderboxes. So make sure to bring a shovel!
Another important thing to remember: to reduce human impact, the park management restricts the number of people that can access the backcountry. Each entry point has a daily entry quota. For instance, Cirrus Lake entry point that we used only allows two groups per day, and two seems to be an average for most entry points in the park. So advance booking is highly recommended. The reservation process is slightly different for Quetico. Unlike other parks where you book your stay for every night of the trip, for Quetico, you only reserve a permit for entering the park on a certain date at a certain entry point. When you pick up your permit, you will be asked to provide the other details, like the number of days you intend to spend in the backcountry, and pay the balance on your booking. To reserve your permit, go to https://reservations.ontarioparks.com/
But enough of background information! Back to our trip.
Day 1: Beaverhouse Lake, unnamed lake, Cirrus Lake
The morning of our departure didn’t look very promising. The sky was overcast and there were bouts of drizzle as we packed. But at least the wind that had been whipping up high waves during the last two days of our stay at the Dawson Trail campground was now gone. Having already postponed our departure by one day, we were excited to finally set out on our trip.
We stopped at Camp Quetico to pick up our canoe. We made a reservation ahead of time but, as it turned out, it wasn’t necessary. Atikokan, a small town closest to Quetico, is known as the ‘Canoe Capital of Canada’ so there is no shortage of outfitters or canoes.
After stopping for lunch at Atikokan, we headed to the Beaverhouse Station parking lot. Located in the western part of the park, it is an entry point for both Cirrus and Quetico Lakes. Our plan was to paddle the Cirrus – Sue Falls – Quetico loop. It is an easy 60 km route that covers five lakes (Beaverhouse, unnamed lake, Cirrus, Kasakokwog, Quetico, after which the park was named, and then back to Beaverhouse) and includes seven portages, starting with a portage right from the parking lot to Beaverhouse Lake.
It took us quite a while to get to the parking lot: about an hour from Dawson Trail to the Beaverhouse Road junction and then another half an hour along the unpaved Beaverhouse Road. During the whole drive, my husband kept asking why I had to choose such a remote entry point.
After our thirty-minute drive along the deserted Beaverhouse Road, we didn’t expect to see anyone at the parking lot. So imagine our surprise when we turned the corner and were greeted with a burst of activity. There were about twenty cars parked in the lot. Two large groups that had just returned from their trips were busy packing gear. One of the guys offered us a wheelbarrow, which is apparently available at the portage for anyone to use (from the way he pronounced ‘portage’, we knew he was American). We squeezed our gear into the wheelbarrow, my husband picked up the canoe, and we were off.
According to the map, the portage from the parking lot to Beaverhouse Lake was a little over 1,000 metres. To our pleasant surprise, it was no more than 400.
Since we had picked up our permit at the Dawson Trail Campground Office the day before (you can also pick it up at the Park Headquarters in Atikokan), we didn’t have to paddle all the way across Beaverhouse Lake to the Beaverhouse Ranger Station.
After about ten minutes on the water, we were at our next portage from Beaverhouse Lake to the unnamed lake.
Again, the portage felt much shorter than the 710 metres indicated on the map. We started wondering whether that was a trend, a rather welcome trend I should say.
The put-in at the other end was a bit muddy but lined with beautiful flowers.
Even though the unnamed lake is pretty small (that’s probably why it hasn’t got a name), it took us about twenty minutes to locate the portage into Cirrus. According to the map, it is 200 metres long and this time it felt about right. Because of wet rocks, mud and some elevation, this portage was more challenging than the other two. However, that was our last portage for the day so once we were done with it, we had nothing but hours of uninterrupted paddling ahead of us. By then, the weather had improved considerably. In fact, it was a perfect day to be on the water.
The most exciting part of that day was a bald eagle sighting.
Around seven, we reached a small island with the most perfect campsite. Since the sun sets around eight at Quetico, we decided it was time to stop and set up camp.
The site had a fireplace right by the lake with a great view of the setting sun. There was firewood neatly cut and stacked right by the fireplace (big thank you to the previous occupants of the site).
After setting up the tent, finishing dinner and hanging up our food, we enjoyed a beautiful quiet evening interrupted only by the call of a loon.
Day 2: Cirrus Lake, Sue Falls, Kasakokwog Lake
Our son lured me out of the tent with a promise of a beautiful sunrise. Even though the sun was already pretty high up, it was indeed beautiful.
We didn’t want to leave this cozy campsite but were also looking forward to another great day of paddling. By 9:30, we were all packed up and ready to go.
The lake was smooth, the day was warm, the scenery around was awe-inspiring. I could see why Quetico is often called a canoeing heaven.
Around noon, we stopped at another campsite for lunch. Roman used the time to climb and stretch his legs.
I couldn’t stop marvelling at the thick carpet of moss and lichens covering the rocks and forest floor.
The second half of the day was filled with more peaceful paddling towards Sue Falls. About halfway there, we spotted a mother loon (at least, we assumed it was a mother) feeding her young. They were quite close so we just sat in our canoe, holding our breath, watching her dive into the water, then re-surface with a fish in her beak, call her baby loon, and gently pass the fish to him (or her). No zoo can provide a similar experience. The excitement of seeing an animal in the wild cannot be replicated no matter how close or exotic zoo animals are. It is during moments like this, when I hear my son gasp with delight, when he struggles to contain his excitement to a whisper, when I see the look of awe in his eyes, that I know we are doing the right thing dragging him all the way out here, away from the safety of our everyday ‘civilized’ lives.
Our next stop was Sue Falls at the end of Cirrus Lake. Only a short walk from the lake, they are really worth a visit.
As we left Sue Falls and headed towards our first – and only – portage of the day, we could see that our good weather luck was running out. Puffy grey clouds were slowly encroaching upon the deep blue of the sky we’d enjoyed all morning. The smoothness of the lake was broken by a constant ripple.
We finished the Cirrus-Kasakokwog portage shortly after four. At 950 metres, it was the longest and also the most difficult portage of the whole trip. Kasakokwog is a pretty big lake, and as we started paddling towards the next portage, the ripple quickly turned into big waves.
We met a couple going in the opposite direction looking for a campsite, and we knew we had to find one soon as well. We reached the other side of the lake without much luck (the two campsites we saw along the way were already occupied).
After an hour of searching along the shore, we decided to try our luck with an island even though it meant paddling right into the wind and waves. It took us a while to reach it but our gamble paid off – we found a pretty decent site on the northern side of the island. Again there was a small pile of pre-cut fire wood. Unfortunately, the previous occupants also left some garbage scattered around, including burned tins and broken pegs. We packed it all up to take with us the next day.
Happy to be on solid land, we enjoyed our dinner and watched the wind ferry massive clouds across the sky. Blue would occasionally peak through cracks but quickly disappear taking away any hope for better weather.
We retreated into our tent and fell asleep to the howl of the wind and pines creaking above our heads.
Day 3: Kasakokwog Lake, Quetico Lake
The morning was just as grey but at least the lake was quiet.
It started to rain the moment our paddles touched water, and by the time we reached the portage trail we were pretty wet.
The portage into Quetico is 460 metres long and follows McAlpine Creek bypassing rapids and the biggest beaver dam I have ever seen (unfortunately, I couldn’t take a picture of it since my arms were full).
Travelling down the remainder of McAlpine Creek before reaching Quetico, we came across a few more dams, some in the process of construction, one actually required us to get out and pull our canoe around. We enjoyed beautiful scenery and a slight improvement in weather conditions.
As I already mentioned, Quetico holds special meaning and importance for indigenous people. Quetico Lake is particularly sacred to them. They revere the lake and are deeply respectful of the spirits that dwell there. It is surrounded by many legends, stories and teachings. And we could see why. The beauty and grandeur of the lake were overwhelming.
We slowly paddled past towering cliffs, intertwined woods and soaring pines. About halfway across the lake, we stopped to look at pictographs. Quetico has one of the largest concentration of pictographs in North America.
After hours of peaceful paddling, we could see that the lake was getting restless. For some time, we tried to battle the waves, wind and a thick wall of rain and fog. After a while, we realized we couldn’t fight against the power of the lake and it was time for a humble submission.
We steered into a tiny bay that provided some protection from the wind and got ashore. To our delight, we actually landed on a campsite. It wasn’t particularly great but it had a fireplace and an open space just big enough for our tent. The spirits must have been watching out for us after all.
We quickly changed into dry clothes, put up a tarp, made some hot soup and started a fire. Already life looked ten times better. Our son found a crossword puzzle in the old newspaper he was using to start the fire and began working on it.
The only downside of the site was the absence of a good, sturdy branch for a proper bear hang. The trees weren’t tall enough and too close together so we ended up with the most ridiculous bear hang in history. I don’t know why we bothered at all. Luckily, our food bag was intact the next morning (bears must have been hiding away from the rain or maybe thought it wasn’t a real food bag, just a decoy, because no self-respecting camper would leave their food so easily available).
Day 4: Quetico Lake, Cirrus Lake, unnamed lake, Beaverhouse Lake
That was our last day of the trip. All we had to do was paddle the remainder of Quetico Lake, do a short portage (200 m) into Beaverhouse, cross Beaverhouse and cap it with a portage to the parking lot.
The lake looked quieter than the day before so we were hoping we’d be able to finish our trip as planned.
We packed up and thanked our campsite. We do that every time we leave a campsite but this time we were particularly grateful for giving us protection when we needed it the most.
As we started paddling towards the portage, we quickly realized the wind hadn’t subsided, just changed direction. As long as we were hidden behind a small island, we couldn’t feel it, but the moment we left its protective cover, we were hit by huge waves even though we were paddling right along the shore.
It was time to consult the map and rethink our route. Instead of going through the Quetico-Beaverhouse portage, we decided to portage into Cirrus and then go back through the unnamed lake, the way we started. The Cirrus portage was much closer and since Cirrus Lake was narrower than Quetico, there was a slight chance the waves wouldn’t be as bad. It did add a couple of extra portages to our trip but on a cold, rainy day they were a great way to warm up.
At the portage, we met a couple coming from Cirrus. As they dropped their canoe and headed back to get the rest of their gear, they offered to carry some of our stuff making our portage so much easier. Thank you, wherever you are!
Our paddle through Cirrus was challenging. At times, the wind was so strong that it felt we weren’t moving anywhere. But at least the lake wasn’t as choppy as Quetico. Once we reached the end of Cirrus, it was easy. We already knew the rest of the route. When we saw the remnants of an old bridge near the portage on Beaverhouse Lake, we knew we made it.
Upon finishing the route, we took a couple of pictures to show how happy we were.
In reality we felt more like this: tired, cold (at it turned out it was 10ºC outside) and looking forward to a nice dinner.
However, our adventures weren’t over just yet. When we got back to our car, we found out that the battery had died. The parking lot was empty so there was nothing left to do but wait.
Two hours later, as I started to go through our leftover supplies to see what we could make for dinner, a food barrel appeared at the start of the portage trail. The owners of the barrel (the same couple we met on Kasakokwog Lake) showed up shortly after and we were saved from spending the night in the parking lot.
They helped us start the car (another thank you!). We shared our paddling experiences. Challenging and humbling kept coming up. Yes, it was rainy, cold, often frustrating and at times scary but it was also very inspiring and exhilarating.
I felt inspired by the incredible beauty of Quetico, its serenity and its unstoppable force. I was moved by all the help we got from people along the way and all those who’d stayed at the campsites before us. I felt proud how well we worked together as a family and managed to get back without our canoe capsizing or anyone getting hypothermia or injury.
Most of all, I was impressed by our 11-year-old son who was always upbeat, cheerful and ready to help. Even though he only had me and his dad for company, he never complained about being bored. He would read, do puzzles, hum songs, study the map and explore his surroundings. He was always the first to unload the canoe at every stop, start a fire, set up the tent and cook meals. In the morning, before my husband and I even opened our eyes, he would be dressed and have his sleeping bag packed. The only time he got upset was after getting splashed in the canoe. In a 10-degree weather, he got cold pretty fast and lost feeling in his foot. But even then he kept telling us everything was ok, just get to the portage. Meanwhile, as he confessed later, the whole time he was fearing he would have his foot cut off. As soon as we got to shore, we got him into dry clothes, gave him a snack and made him run along the beach. Ten minutes later, he was back to humming and discussing future travel plans. With a team like that, we can survive anything.
After we grabbed a tuna sandwich at Atikokan (the best tuna sandwich we’ve ever had) and dropped off the canoe, we drove to Kakabeka Falls planning to spend a night there before heading home. It started to rain again somewhere along the way and the temperature kept dropping even lower. I was not looking forward to getting out of the car and setting up the tent. When I shared that with my husband, he suggested we get a hotel room in Thunder Bay. Surprisingly, that idea hadn’t even occurred to me. Somehow the notion that there were rooms with real beds and actual toilets that you don’t have to dig seemed almost alien and unnatural. And then it hit me – we were back. I missed Quetico already!