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Portaging quetico

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and bring strength to body and soul.”

- John Muir

“So what’s the biggest fish you’ve ever gotten in Quetico?” Caleb asked the elderly gentleman from Wisconsin who had been canoeing Quetico since he was sixteen!

      “Actually, on an earlier trip this year, I got a hold of my biggest fish.  We threw our lines out while we were canoeing, and ‘bam’, my pole just got annihilated by this fish.”

      “Really?” Caleb (19) questioned with anticipation for the rest of the story.  

      “I’ve gotten a lot of nice pike out of here, but nothing like this one.  He took us for quite a ride in the canoe.  I was holding on for dear life, just trying to tire him out….  Eventually, he did tire, and I was finally able to get him headed back to the canoe.”

      “Well, that must really have been something to catch a fish like that with a canoe.”

      “Yep, but we didn’t get him in the boat….  After a long battle with the pike, we could finally see him as he approached us.  He was so big that he was going to present a problem for us getting him in.  As he swam closer, my brother and I recognized that there was no way we were going to be able to lift him up and in.   And even if we could have, having him in the canoe would have been an unpleasant experience.  I remember when we got him up to the side of the canoe, his eyes and my eyes met for just a second.  I realized then that this was not his first time to the side of a canoe.  The look that he gave me said that he was going to give me one chance to get him off the line before it was going to turn ugly. That fish was all attitude….   It was then that we decided we would just try to get him up to the side of the canoe  and get a measure on him as best we could...As he porpoised by the side of the canoe, we marked the beginning of his head and the end of his tail.   As close as we could mark, we figure he was about 54”....”

      Stories like these create the desire to venture into the wilderness waters of Quetico. 

      Most outdoorsmen are familiar with the “Boundary Waters” of Minnesota, but very few know about Quetico.  The Boundary Waters of Minnesota really know no boundaries, and therefore, extend across the Canadian border into Northern Ontario.  Quetico is pure wilderness with hundreds of lakes accessible for fishing, but by canoe only.  No motorized boats are allowed within the boundaries of the Provincial Park.  If you are going to catch the “big one” in Quetico, you are going to have to work for it.  Though many of the lakes are connected by rivers, there are just as many, if not more that only are accessible by portaging from one lake to another across  overgrown trails.  Some of these portages are less than a football field, while some will last up to a mile long.   Because of this, kevlar canoes with a yoke is the only way to go.

     The summer of 2016 was to be the first foray into the wilds of Quetico for Caleb and I - one solid week of canoeing, fishing, and solitude.  Only a certain number of canoers are allowed into the different regions of Quetico, and we had picked an area that we thought would be the remotest of the remote. 

      On our way in, we stopped in the ranger station to get our permit for the week and give them our itinerary of where we thought we would be each day - just in case something went wrong. We had to watch a brief orientation video, and once our questions were answered, we were back on the path to launch our canoe. The park had provided waterproof maps that showed where campsites were as potential destination points, but the reality is that once inside Quetico, any island or open area can become a camping site if needed. We reached Beaverhouse Lodge launch area, and set off from there. We hoped the remote fishing waters would bless us with an abundance of big fish to fight.  

       Our first campsite was in an amazing bay with no one else there other than our neighborly loons.  On the far side was a river that flowed into our bay after it had gone through a series of rapids and small waterfalls.  After our camp was set up, we canoed our way over to the mouth of the river, and we immediately found ourselves casting into a school of walleye.  Not only did we have immediate success with walleye, but within an hour, we also had a couple of 32” pike to cook up.  It wasn’t a bad start to a week of fishing in totally uncharted waters for us.  One thing we have learned over the years of traveling is that waterfalls equal fish.  This principle held true for us again.  We really couldn’t have asked for a better first day.

      The next day, we pushed our canoes off from our rock shoreline to head out the bay through a lazy river that opened up into a much larger body of water.  The day started with a slight breeze and a little bit of chop on the water, but as the morning progressed, the wind kicked up on us.  

     “I think we should look at our route to find the path of least resistance, Caleb.  There’s enough islands and bays here that if we play it smart, I think we can avoid most of the wave action.”  

     We had a general idea of where we wanted to land for the day, but as we explored this lake system, we found that locating potential portages wasn’t as easy to find in real time as they were marked on the map.   We were constantly comparing our map to what we were seeing on the water.  Unfortunately, what we thought was going to be our destination for the day -  never really appeared.  We scoured a couple of bays that we were sure would produce our next needed portage.  

     But, this never happened, so we picked another area to go explore.  We would have to continue canoeing, and it would force us to cross some “big” water from one side of the lake to the other with white caps rolling in between the shores.  We crossed diagonally as best as we could to get to the other shoreline, and once there, we hugged the shore looking for a potential campsite.  Again, the map showed sites that we could not find in real time, and the shores were completely overgrown.  The wind was pushing hard at our back and created  technical navigating with the canoe - especially as we ventured in between the shoreline and small islands that were just off the coast.  These channels were nothing other than wind tunnels and pushed our canoeing abilities to their limits.  After about 12 miles of canoeing, we decided that we needed to get ourselves into some calm waters.  We neared a bay on our right that was supposed to have a campsite on the tip of it, which of course didn’t materialize.  

     We were growing tired and irritated at this point.  It was nearing early evening, and we really just wanted to find someplace to get settled in for the night.  It had been a long hard day of canoeing, and we needed a break.  We decided to round the tip of the bay and duck up inside of it to look for some place  to camp.  We pulled out the map again to see what our options were.  

      As we looked at the map, the nearest legitimate option was on a different lake that would require a portage out of us, which at that point of the day, neither one of us was looking forward to.  All we had to do was canoe up to the end of the bay, and there was supposed to be a trail for us there to follow.  

     With this new plan in mind, we started paddling.  After another mile of canoeing, we found ourselves coming into an area of high reeds.  We couldn’t really see a “trail” where other canoers had gone before us.  We kept canoeing and pushed ahead through the tall reeds for a quarter of a mile, eventually finding what we thought “might be a trail”.  We continued to follow the break in the weeds up to what we perceived to be the end of the bay.  The canoe was bottoming out on the muddy bottom, so we decided to hop out and pull the canoe through the leach infested water.  Each step plodded through muck.  

       As we pulled the canoe, we found that we weren’t quite to the end of the bay.  We would have to hike through the muck to get to the shore.  After ten minutes of mucking, we found that our “trail” took us to the outlet of a creek.  We truly hadn’t been sure that we were even on a legitimate trail that would lead us to our portage, but we were so tired that we hoped what we were doing would be the most time efficient path for us to get our camp set-up.  We continued pulling the canoe up the creek and around a couple of bends in the river.  We finally reached a point where we could no longer pull the canoe.  The supposed trail seemed to disappear.  According to what we saw on the map, we had to be close to the portage, but we just couldn’t find a marking anywhere.  

     “How about I head off in that direction and see what I can see?” Caleb suggested.  

      It appeared that there was a dry riverbed to our left, so I responded, “Sure, it won’t hurt anything.  See what you can find.”

      After a couple of minutes, Caleb hollered back to me that he had found our trail.  I started to unload the canoe, so that we could begin the process of portaging.  

      As Caleb got back to me, he shared that we were going to have to hike up the dried creek bed to get up to the lake we were shooting for.  He put his backpack on and loaded the kevlar canoe on his shoulders.  Already exhausted, we headed up the riverbed.

     The creekbed was boulder ridden and had a definite vertical ascent.  Caleb just wanted to get it over with, so he was “giving it”  without breaks.  Along the way, we kept hearing gurgling sounds.  At first, I thought it was a figment of my imagination - maybe too long of a day for me.  The more we hiked, we stopped along the way and discovered that the river was still running from the upper lake, just underneath the rocks.  We finally reached the top and found ourselves looking across a much smaller lake than we had been traversing most of the day.  We loaded the canoe back up and started to paddle.  The site we were headed towards was supposed to be across the lake on the other side; however, as we got a quarter of the way across the lake, we found a small rock island that appeared to have a firepit on it.  As we neared it, we found a small slip in the rocks where we could slide the canoe into.  Sure enough, after an incredibly long day of canoeing, we found a site that would work for us.  After getting our camp set up, we started casting directly off the end of the island and discovered that we had found a great honey hole for pike.  We caught pike after pike after pike, including a couple of 38 inchers.  As it would turn out, we liked this spot so well that we stayed two days there.  The fishing was too good to leave.  For two days, we didn’t have a waking hour on the island where we didn’t catch a fish - not one!  

      In reflecting back on this day of our first Quetico fishing trip, I just remember being irritated and tired.  We thought we had a plan; the plan never materialized….we thought we had located alternate camping sites; they never materialized….as we looked for our last option of the day, we ended up in reeds over our head and couldn’t really see where we were going….once we realized we were on the right track, we had to hike through muck hauling our canoe….after thinking we had come to the end of our trail, we finally discovered that it was right before us….BUT, we would have to hike a very long portage up a dried up river bed that was nothing other than a vertical ascent….It was a rough day where it just seemed like one thing went wrong after another.  In the end, we landed with a fabulous campsite on an island in the middle of our own private lake that was just loaded with fish.  Had I known what the end result was going to be of our day’s trials, I’m sure that I would have had a much better attitude than I did.  It just seemed that step by step, things were getting worse, and I just wasn’t in the mood for it….  

      There are definitely moments in this journey of faith where things seem difficult.  The problem is that often our difficulties aren’t simply a compilation of events in a day’s time.  There are points where we run into problems that last weeks, months, or in worst case scenarios - even years.  We don’t necessarily ask for life’s problems, but they just seem to find us. I can’t claim to have a generic easy answer to why we have to endure these times, but what I can tell you is that we have a choice in the middle of life’s storms.  We can become embittered, angry, and unpleasant, or we can simply look for God to work in it.  The lessons in life that have made the most impact on me have come through trials that required perseverance.  We have to learn to shift our view to that of an eternal God who cares most for our eternal well-being.  The lessons learned in trials simply stick.  Though I don’t wish for trials to come your way or mine, I do pray that we learn not to fight against God during them and that we have the eyes and ears to see and hear what God is teaching us - even when it seems it’s just one thing after another.  

“Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge.  I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.”

                      Psalm 57:1 (NIV)

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