As the sheet of ice on Clearwater Lake slowly shrinks the anticipation grows. In the weeks leading up to the inevitable soft water season I have been thinking a lot about the last time I paddled. Last October I spent a month in Quetico Provincial Park and as we all continue to wait out winters last gasp I thought I would share my thoughts on that trip.
October 2012 Week One
One More Month in Quetico
October paddling can be some of the best of the year, and for the longest time it seemed I was the only one who knew. Over the past few years I have experienced the best canoe country has to offer in October. On average it is an unpredictable month. It offers splendidly crisp days, devoid of bugs and people. It can also offer cold relentless winds that hint at winter, and interminable periods of rain and snow. The last few have graced me with the former. Unseasonably warm temperatures, clear skies and light winds have dominated most days of travel the past few years, almost so often that I start wishing for clouds, just for a change in lighting. It’s hard to imagine the string of good weather I have had during this notoriously unsettled month. The last two Octobers seem like a blur of unnaturally sun-drenched days, rosy and golden twilights and quiet star speckled nights. These are a collection of perfect memories, some of the best of my life. Rarely are they broken up by dullness. The periods of gray do exist though; they stand out, because of their rarity. They seem worse in retrospect. One cannot probe the interior of a boreal wilderness late in autumn without running into periods of inclement weather. Seemingly I had avoided long stretches of nastiness, until now.
It’s the third October in a row I am staring at Gull Lake, theoretically equipped to survive a month of canoe camping in Quetico Provincial Park. Again the parking lot is desolate. The day started calm and clear, as our group of four prepares two MNII’s and seven Duluth packs, clouds and wind move in. Our motley crew consists of Paige May who joined me last year, and Victoria and Elizabeth Doane who will be making their first visit to the Park. As we make our way up the Seagull River and out into the vastness that is Saganaga Lake, I contemplate the next four weeks. Will a group consisting of two sisters and two couples make it out alive? How did we accrue seven packs? Will the weather hold? How long will it take us to reach Atikokan Ontario?
After finishing up at the ranger station our progress slows as a North wind picks up. We crawl across Cache Bay. The roar of Silver Falls in the distance is a welcome sound. On our way back from the first trip across we run into another group. We also meet two men near the falls who are camped on Saganagons Lake. Already we have encountered more human life in one day than we did in 30 days last year. Is the secret out on October? Our foursome pushes into a stiff headwind; the dying light of the day keeps us scanning for campsites. We find a nice open site on the south side of Saganagons Lake, right where you start getting the feeling that it’s a bigger lake than you thought. The winds force us towards the back of the site for dinner. As we finish our “extra thick” pork chops the wind dies and the sky clears. My first night back in Quetico is a perfect one.
We rise with the sun and before long the day is warm. As the last drops of coffee drip, we notice a party of six moving Northeast up Saganagons. I really think the secret on October is out. Paddling through the falls chain the third time is not as thrilling as the first. I live vicariously through Tori my paddling partner to keep it interesting. She’s a geologist and you can tell. At almost every portage landing I look up and find her crouched over examining rocks, sometimes down on hands and knees with a hand lens. The falls chain must look different to everybody, but I wonder what it looks like through the eyes of a geologist. As the sun climbs the little wind there is dies and again, I move through this part of Canada under perfect conditions. After the portage around Canyon Falls the idea for a swim is hard to pass up. We decide to make camp on the same site we occupied a year prior on Kenny Lake. A frozen pesto chicken noodle soup is reheated over a cedar fire as the day comes to a close. I anticipate the coming days as they will bring with them new lakes, unexplored territory. Wherever I find myself in Quetico I am happy, but I am happiest when I find myself somewhere new.
Our third morning is a copy of yesterdays. Once more our ensemble enjoys an unusually warm October day. Kennebas Falls provides the first and only portage of the day. A wrecked Bell canoe emerges from a tangle of cedar as we approach, just above the falls. It is a ghost of an awful experience, and we all quietly envision exactly how it met its demise. We glide up Kawnipi under clear skies, in between two worlds. The real one and the one perfectly reflected beneath us. As far as the eye can see there isn’t a breath of wind. We meander to the Northwest, stopping frequently for pictures and fishing. At Rose Island we bear southwest, and begin considering campsites. Three different sites are investigated before we find a nice island spot. Paige and I head back out after camp is set up in search of dinner. On his first cast Paige lands a nice pike, a perfect accompaniment to Szechuan stir fry. As we paddle back to camp in dying light, the sun makes one last appearance. Birch and Aspen still bursting with neon yellow leaves are aflame in amber light. Deep crimson Maples sneak down the hillside before meeting their other worldly brethren mirrored in the waters of Kawnipi. Our cadence slows as the surreal scene engulfs us. Moments like this are ephemeral to the eyes, but permanent to the life of the mind. As the sun melts into the horizon we reach camp. Over dinner we crank the weather radio in time to hear the words “Winter Weather Advisory” before the robot fades into static. Conversation ceases and eyes widen as I search for better reception. Over the course of an hour we are able to piece together our dismal forecast. Heavy winds picking up out of the East, then South then Southwest throughout the next 24 hours, temperatures dropping, and accumulation of snow up to 3”-5”. Standing in a T-shirt the weather robot warns of the dangers of “open areas.” I pull out the map. There are quite a few “open areas” on tomorrow’s route. We decide it wise to get an early start to try and get ahead of the southwest wind, and snow.
Gusts wake us early. Laying in our hammocks it is hard to tell from which way. It’s gray, but surprisingly warm still, and we are happy to see the wind still blowing out of the East. By the time we reach the portage into Keewatin Lake the temperature is considerably cooler. We pass pictographs on our way to the portage into Hurlburt Creek. Unfortunately I do not corroborate the location of said portage on my Fisher map with my Chrismar, and find the Fisher wrong. Wrong enough that we have to back track around a point of land into a headwind. It won’t be the last time I curse the Fisher maps.
The portage from Keewatin into Hurlburt Creek is obviously not traveled very often. We reach the creek and notice the wind has stopped. We move down the creek under slate skies, which although the wind has died still move with speed. The eerie silence lasts only minutes, enough time for me to joke that it’s the wind changing direction, at the same time we are. The joke becomes reality as we reach the shores of Williams Lake and to our horror realize the wind is out of the South, our direction of travel for the rest of the day. Williams and Payne Lakes are small enough that we only occasionally run into headwinds, its Hurlburt Lake that worries us. Hurlburt, four miles long running from Southwest to Northeast appears to be set up for perfectly funneling the gales that must be in excess of 30 mph now. We haven’t seen a campsite since Keewatin, which is five portages back. The Fisher map shows one campsite on Hurlburt, about a mile down on the East side of the lake. It seems our only option. As we scramble over dried creek bed into Hurlburt Lake it starts raining. The northernmost bay of the lake offers some protection, and it actually doesn’t look that bad. Tori and I move out onto the lake first. Quickly we are forced behind an island and the last point before we will be at the mercy of the windstorm. The red dot marking the site on our Fisher seems to glow. It’s our only hope, our only sanctuary for miles, and it’s so close. The time is now and we strike off into the churning mess. It is a quartering head wind, as luck would have it. The waves are manageable, but the gusts threaten to literally blow us over. We lean hard into the wind which must be blasting 50 mph. The far shoreline is reached and we find refuge behind a slight point, before heading back out directly into the wind in search of a home. As we inch along shore we reach and then pass the point where a site should have been. We stare shocked at steep rocky shoreline that climbs 10 feet before flattening into a jumble of downed Spruce and Cedar. There is no site. At the same time we realize what trouble we are in a gale slams into us and stops us dead. For a moment we actually move backwards. We muster strength that must only be allowed by the body for use in times of grave danger, and make it to another point just large enough to block some wind. To any observers (which I guarantee there were not) we must look ridiculous. As we catch our breaths, I feel tiny, insignificant. This storm doesn’t care about us. Hurlburt could eat us alive and nobody would know. The idea to make our own camp is hard to deny, but we need an actual site that we can hole up at for a couple days, considering the forecast. I spend the next hour and three miles in a state of disconnection. I go to my happy place, trying not to think about the distance. Muscles and minds are pushed to their limits. Just one more mile, just one more bend, just one more point, finally just one more stroke. It’s hard to believe it even possible to paddle that hard for that long, but we had no choice. The portage into Trant Lake offers a welcome break.
Rain changes to heavy sleet as we hunt for a decent spot to stop. To the dismay of the group the first site is deemed unworthy. It is too exposed. I think we are all at the point of mental and physical collapse when we reach the next site on the map. Happily, we find it fits our needs perfectly. Plenty of wood, and a large flat area well protected from, well, everything at this point. Rain flies, tents and firewood are first orders of business, second, a healthy allotment of rum. As darkness and a winter storm settle in around us we dry out around the fire. Dinner is homemade chili, and lots of it. As the wind and snow persists, it becomes obvious we won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Considering it was one of the most taxing days in a canoe, it feels exhilarating to be set up in the heart of Quetico warm and dry, ready to withstand an intense fall snowstorm.
Knowing we would be spending the day in camp I linger in my sleeping bag, listening. Just beyond the thin nylon protection of my tent is a cold gray world. Finally we all make our way to the fire where we would spend the day, reading, drinking tea, and napping. Most of the snow must have hit south of us, as we only received an inch or so overnight. The winds tapered a bit in the afternoon, and by dark it was calm, a couple of stars even popped out for a second. As we settle into our coldest night yet, Kahshahpiwi Lake and beyond was on our minds. Now that we’ve got this winter storm behind us it should be smooth sailing, right?
Another steely cold day greets us as we emerge from our tents. At least it’s calm. By mid-morning we are cruising towards our first portage. After spending a day weather bound we are looking forward to covering some ground. We eye the 1200 meter portage between Trant and Kahshahpiwi, knowing not the toll it will exact on us.
Packs are hefted and by 11am we are moving. After 300 meters the portage veers into a swampy section. Plenty of foot prints encourage us to press on. The trail grows even fainter as it climbs back onto solid rock, and then drops back onto a field of muck and tamarack. It now seems we are following a single set of boot prints. The muck field opens up into what looks like a drained beaver pond, holding 6 inches of black sludge. Loading a canoe on the edge of such a mess looks almost as impossible as paddling on it, so we stay on what footing we have. As we approach a wall of ostensibly impenetrable downed tamarack, the boot prints vanish, and our minds race. This cannot possibly be the portage trail. We drop packs and back track, in search of a better way. The entire swamp is surrounded by steep cliffs, leading us to believe we didn’t miss the real portage. We conclude that the quagmire must usually hold enough water to paddle. Obviously it doesn’t now, so we’ll make our own portage. After returning for boats we pull out our Sven saws and begin clearing a path through the tangled mess. Attempting to maneuver yourself and a saw through a thick stand of eyeball impaling Tamarack is dreadful. Waist high downed Spruce threatens to pierce a femoral artery, and the layer of fetid muck tries to steal our boots. Sweat pours from our brows, and obscenities pour from our gaping mouths. Again we have no alternative but to press on. At last we reach solid ground, a broken beaver dam, and the portage; somehow none of us have been perforated. Our new bush portage does the trick as we head back to gather packs and canoes. Thinking our troubles must be behind us we move quickly down the portage, reach Kahshahpiwi and realize they are not. Once more low water levels haunt us. The landing is a bone dry, the creek barely a trickle and choked with the devious work of beavers. Water is visible 100 meters up the shoreline, we head towards it. Soon we are bobbing atop an open expanse of bog. Each step is a gamble. As I hopscotch across floating islands of dirt and grass I hear the shrieks and curses of lost gambles behind me. Three hours after we started, at last we reach the shores of Kahshahpiwi.
With the day half gone, we start paddling. A light Northwest wind does little to impede our progress up Kahshahpiwi and Keefer. After hauling into Sark Lake the shadows grow long and we decide it wise to stop. A nice island site is procured, and while splitting firewood the days clouds make their way East just in time for sunset. Tacos with fresh guacamole go a long way in boosting spirits after another long and arduous day. Clear skies give way to temperatures in low 20’s and we sleep hard.
It is gray and calm as we load canoes and anticipate advancing farther into the core of Quetico. The pleasurable days of sun and color are gone. Vibrant trees of yellow and red have been stripped of their pigment by the gales of yesterday’s storm. They now stand as ghosts of fall, portents of winter. Our progress is swift up Sark and Cairn Lakes. We slice through glass calm waters with considerable ease. At the north end of Cairn we veer west, and carry over into Heronshaw. Our eyes stare skyward as the blanket of dull breaks up, and the winds increase. During our short paddle to the portage into Metacryst Lake the winds pick up even further. On closer inspection the waters of Metacryst are quite unsettled. Belligerent little whitecaps are whipping up in a hurry, with noticeable ambitions for a bulkier existence. We make haste and struggle to get started into the headwind. Our arms are still recovering from battle with Hurlburt two days prior, so it is fortunate we only toil a mile. We portage into an unnamed lake and portage again into Baird Lake before lingering for lunch. Cheese and jerky help us in our continued struggle to the west. Everyone is frustrated with the incessant winds. Whichever direction we turn our canoes, the winds turn with us. After a week of travel I joke with confidence that we can navigate without maps, simply paddle into the wind and we’ll make it Atikokan eventually. The portage out of Baird into Cutty creek is slightly better than bushwhacking. Thick balsam stands reach out to seize every strap, buckle and fold on our packs. Piloting canoes through such a labyrinth of sharp twists proves maddening. As soon as we consider the possibility were on the wrong path, we discover the creek. It’s a perfect creek. This late in the year we are leery of creeks and their record of low water, but Cutty creek is plenty full. A dense thicket of still yellow Tamaracks crowd the creek, protecting us from bothersome winds, and provide an enchanted scene. As we creep along my mind wanders.
I love mysterious dark forests, they conjure fantastical images. Somewhere in that shadowy abyss lies a tiny cottage, enveloped in mats of dangling mosses and moisture. A crooked chimney aims a wisp of curling smoke towards the tree tops. Behind a round golden window hangs a flickering lantern. Inside, the air is heavy with aroma. Warm vestiges of cedar and spruce dominate the senses, inducing heavy eyes, a want for the overstuffed easy chair next to the wood stove, and a steaming cup of tea. A cold slap of wind jars my mind back to reality. Our crew exits the protection of Cutty and plods once more into our foe.
Eag Lake fortunately turns us to the north, and easier paddling. A lack of campsites and rugged portages suggest this route is rarely travelled. We have intelligence that advocates for setting up on a nice site on Camel Lake. It puts our minds at ease knowing a site exists, since we have been deceived in the most infuriating way two days prior. The remaining portion of Cutty Creek is again captivating. Around every bend we flush dozens of waterfowl. Mergansers, mallards, and the occasional Canadian goose flee as we approach. The advice we received on the Camel campsite was correct, as we find it more than adequate. It is a nice flat point facing west nestled amongst old growth white pines, some of the largest we have seen yet. Plenty of cedar is secured and we dine on fresh pesto and biscuits. The weather robot predicts rain, so we pitch tents. As the silence of the night fills me with calm I return to my cabin in the hollow, and fall asleep next to the fire.