It Started in the Quetico: How One Trip Changed Me

A few weeks back, I reflected on why I enjoy introducing new people to the BWCA and the outdoors in general. My personal enjoyment for sharing those things is as much a reflection of the people that took the time to share them with me. This place would not be as special as it is to me if any number of people didn’t step outside of their own experience to include me. As I reflect, I think back to one Quetico trip the summer after high school which drastically changed my outlook and anchored this place deep within my soul.

A week after graduating high school, I was invited to go on a big Quetico loop with a childhood friend, his brothers, and their dad. My friend and his dad were the two responsible for heading up those very first father/son Boundary Waters trips in elementary school that introduced me to canoe county. After wrapping up a baseball game, we headed north late, not hitting the Gunflint Trail till well after dark. The plan had been to wait till the next morning, but the cumulative group excitement drove us north. As we neared the midway point up the trail, I was jolted awake by a commotion in the front seats. “There’s a moose in the road”. Sure enough, the “northwoods stoplight” (slows traffic better than anything up here) was trotting in front of us up the Gunflint. After a ways, he turned off to leave us to our drive. We pulled into their cabin on Seagull Lake well after midnight to a mix of tiredness from a long day and uncontainable excitement at what lay before us.

The next morning, we took off from their cabin. Our first stop would be up the Seagull River at a certain well-respected outfitter for the rental of another life jacket. Little did I know in that moment that I would work at that same outfitter 6 years later. After finding the right life jacket, we headed north into the big waters of Saganaga. The plan for the evening was to camp near American Point before crossing into the Quetico the next morning. As I would become intimately aware the summer with the outfitter, Sag can be a grumpy lake even on a seemingly nice day. This day, we faced a strong headwind as we paddled westward in our two beleaguered Aluminums. Both canoes were riding heavy with the gear for the trip and three people in each. In accounting for the ages of the participants, we took two canoes instead of three in hopes it would ease our travel, which proved to be wise later. This day, however, the laden canoes bashed through the waves and slowly filled with water. Our two canoes for the trip had long and storied histories. One was Sr’s pride and joy: a canoe he bought in college after it was “devalued” by the original owners in a rapid set. After reshaping it, and dubbing the name of his favorite lake “Kawnipi”, it continued to faithfully serve ever since. A tree even fell on it while I was a kid and he simply tapped it back out. Tough old canoe. Our second canoe was named the Woodswoman, another Grumman which we soon found out had a few rivets missing below the waterline. It’s good to give the duffers something to do! After a long and tiresome day, we reached American Point and took a campsite on the west side back in the bay. As the waves calmed for the night, we headed back out to troll for Lake Trout, but one nice Smallmouth was all we could muster.

The next morning, we headed for Cache Bay. Upon strolling up the ranger station, it became clear that Sr was experiencing something of a flashback. He had guided here out of college and this ranger station and the legendary Ranger Janice held a special place in his heart. She was not in this day, so we gathered our permits and talked with the rangers for a bit before heading further north. I vividly remember sitting in the canoe as Sr recalled the story he was told of the Ojibway ambushing the Sioux from the cliffs near Silver Falls. The falls themselves were magnificent and I was immediately enamored by the giant red pines along the portage. The trail set a new benchmark for me in how challenging portages could be (one that would be shattered numerous times later this trip.) Water levels were decently high as I remember the roar of the falls echoing through the portage. We camped on a site near a narrows in Saganagons in a more-or-less untouched site in the burn zone. We headed out in both canoes for another evening of fishing which saw one canoe reel in two 35” pike while my canoe came up empty. I didn’t really care because, as far as I could tell, I had just paddled into paradise.

We travelled into Bitchu the next morning where the youngest brother sent his water cup to the bottom of the lake. Losing and breaking stuff this trip proved a theme for him. We paddled up the creek from Bitchu to Ross instead of portaging right away. After a few beaver dam liftovers, we came to a roadblock of blown down logs. With no apparent way through, we took off in every direction in search of a trail to Ross. After bushwhacking through the trees, up and over logs, and into the thicket, we broke through onto Ross Lake. Suddenly, those of us who met back up at the water shared in a laugh when we discovered a trail back to within 20 ft of our canoes. I have a scar on my thumb which reminds me of this little adventure, and it still makes me laugh even today. The portage into Cullen was a challenge, but manageable, and I remember marveling at the pines on the southern shore of Munro. On the portage north to Mac, we made some stories. The trail started off difficult enough with some hills to climb. A few slips and falls proved challenging to rectify with an overladen pack, but the fire-scarred white pine mid-portage restored my spirits. That tree was one of the largest pines I have ever met, and it’s gnarled trunk stood defiantly against one of nature’s most destructive forces. The character of that tree is special. As we descended on Mac, we ran into one more obstacle: a muskeg pit. After some frivolous attempts to divert, we plunged on ahead into the mire. I remember most of us slogging ahead through knee and then waste deep muck. But I also recall my friend stepping off the end with a canoe on his shoulders and going chest deep in the thick of it. After slogging our way out into open water, we finally had achieved the lakes of our childhood legends. Mack Lake had been memorialized to us in a rhyme which I still to this day cannot fully remember. It went something to the tune of “Three men left for a lake called Mack, they caught so many fish that they never came back.” Well, we didn’t. Fishing was rough this night and the brothers’ fatigue led to some in-fighting. I just remember feelings akin to the spiritual as the sunset lit up the skies and the quiet of that evening reverberated into my being. This place is unlike any I have ever visited, and all I want is more.

As we headed out of our campsite the next morning, somewhat tired from the previous days’ adventures, we neared our first portage of the day. The old cabin ruin was a special connection with the past. On the last portage before the river, I was sitting in the bow seat while Sr sterned. We scouted ahead to see if we could find the landing. All of a sudden, “back paddle, back paddle, BACK PADDLE!” We had discovered, and nearly immersed ourselves in, the rapids which necessitate this second portage. Phew, that was close. On the far side, we reached the legendary Wawiag River which for every day since that day has haunted my dreams as one of the most special places I have ever had the privilege to visit. I would duff for this stretch of water and I remember being enchanted around every corner as the natural world in all of its sublime and fascinating beauty rolled out before us. The Wawiag, I came to learn later, is a ecological marvel. With high clay banks which keep the river and the surround bog separated, a stagnate bog can exist alongside a river. Its valley also allows for a temperate climate compared to the surrounding region so species grow in that valley way further north than they normally could. The other thing which I remember from that day is, as uninhibited joy and fatigue collided, I descended into one of the greatest naps in the bottom of the hull. After traversing the Wawiag, we pulled out onto Sr’s favorite lake, the legendary Kawnipi. It had experienced a fire since his last visit, but the mystical bays which radiate out in every direction were still filled with intrigue and the waters filled with fish. We ate plenty of Walleye on this trip, and this night would be no exception. After circumnavigating an island in search of a place to spend the night, we ended up a short ways up the bay with a marvelous chimneyed fireplace to cook over. A couple of us stayed up and enjoyed the fire and the stars before drifting into a peaceful sleep.

The next day saw us turn southward toward Kenny Lake and the storied Falls Chain. This day would be a restful one. We stayed on Kenny and spent the day exploring and fishing. I would continue my tear of catching nothing but Pike. One of the brothers landed a Walleye on a floating Chug Bug (definitely meant for the Smallies.) We even heard the story of an unfortunate crew who had lost their canoe over one of the nearby falls. The rangers had hauled their ruined craft ashore and left a saw and a note with it. The note read, “Cut a piece to bring with you. If we all do our part, perhaps we can get this ******* thing out of here.” It was well and truly gone by our visit. We headed down the Falls Chain the next morning which was beautiful and tedious. Soon enough we pulled back into Saganagons before turning south through Dead Man’s portage. Though the group argued about the namesake, my eyes locked onto one thing. An enormous, obviously-dying White Pine stood a ways off the portage. I remember saying something about a “bathroom break” as the group took a snack and soon I was off into the woods. As I reached the tree, my mouth hung agape at the great monolith of wood before me. It was even larger than the monster on Munro. Though obviously sickened by age with limbs falling out of the canopy, I was happy to have seen it before its end. From there, it was back across Silver Falls and out into cache bay. It was there that we were pulled over by two Canadian rangers who paddled a canoe more acutely than any person I have seen before or since. They were machinelike in their movements and seemingly in the blink of an eye they were alongside us. They simply wanted to know if any portages needed anything, but I can now say I’ve been pulled over by canoe! We stopped in the ranger station again and were pointed to one of their favorite sites: a magnificent pine-cladded island where we would begin to reminisce about our adventure. I would lose my battle with the “great white pike” fishing that night, the largest fish I have ever hooked before or since.

We awoke early at Sr’s insistence due to an incoming storm. It was a long paddle back across Sag and down into Seagull before we reached their cabin again. Another trip had come to a close, and I was hopelessly hooked on this place. I have been on many, many trips since, but the memories of those sunsets and Quetico portages stick with me. I wouldn’t guide till after college, and as summer guiding became living on the edge of this magnificent place, I can reflect back to the moments fishing on Mack or napping alongside a waterfall at portage’s end and credit that place for where this dream truly began. Because Sr had found it fit to share a place so special to him, I was able to discover a place that has become special to me too. And in my soul where this love of wild places resides, I can be grateful for those memories of the clearest waters, the burning sunsets, and the echoes of the loon calls off lichen-covered cliffs. And in those joy filled memories of trips past, the spirit of adventure looks forward to many journeys still to come.

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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