Backcountry Cure: A Paddle Trip Through Quetico Provincial Park
Illustration by Zohar Lazar As the four of us bustle into the remote border crossing station of Prairie Portage, we...
Illustration by Zohar Lazar
As the four of us bustle into the remote border crossing station of Prairie Portage, we find ourselves facing an attractive blonde ranger. We’re about to head out for a week’s paddling and fishing in Quetico Provincial Park, the wilder and less trafficked Canadian version of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. But first we need to get our Remote Area Border Crossing Permits stamped, pay the daily use fee, and buy fishing licenses.
The ranger says she wants us to enjoy our stay in her country. She then lists all the things we are forbidden to do, with a relish that suggests this is her favorite part of the job. We can’t, for example, use wheeled carts of any kind on the area’s many portages, which have a reputation for being longer and rougher than those in the BWCA. We can’t bring in glass containers or electronic devices. We can’t use soaps or cleaners within 60 yards of the water. And, yes, this includes the biodegradable ones designed for low–impact camping.
I give a sidelong what’s-the-deal? look to my partners, wondering how many more prohibitions there could be. As it turns out, quite a few. Barbed hooks are forbidden. Organic bait is forbidden. This is to discourage the spread of invasive species, like the earthworm, which has destroyed much of the forest duff layer. “The Europeans brought them here,” she sniffs, as if–despite her appearance–she herself were not of European descent.
We’ve just taken a 20-minute boat ride with our outfitter, who dropped us at the clearing that marks the portage trail. We humped our gear down here to the ranger station by the next lake. We’re eager to be on our way. But next we get a detailed tutorial on crapping in the wilderness. All solid human waste is to be disposed of in single-use, 6-inch-deep catholes, which are to be refilled so that no evidence of human disturbance remains. Further–here she looks up to make sure we’re all paying attention–“all used toilet paper is to be collected, carried from the site, and burned rather than left in the hole.” The four of us nod, as if collecting and burning our used toilet paper is something we always do, even in our own homes.
“This is some of the most pristine water left on the planet,” she says by way of a good-bye. “We’d like to keep it that way.” Her tone suggests that if we really cared about the wilderness we would have stayed home.
We walk outside, blinking in the bright sun. It’s Steve Burnett who breaks the silence. “Hey, I got an idea. Let’s all go take a crap on her back porch.” It’s an intriguing notion, but after much discussion, we decide against it.
It’s only now–at a remove of a thousand miles from my daily life, about to head into the wilderness–that I realize how badly I’ve needed to get away. Initially, I’d balked when Steve invited me to join him, his brother Doug, and Doug’s son Matt on a trip to the Boundary Waters, which is a semiannual rite among the Burnett clan. I didn’t have the time or the money. It took a push from Michelle to change my mind. “You need to go,” she’d said. “You’ve been acting more and more…aggrieved by the world.”
Her words stung as only the truth from someone who sees right through you and somehow loves you anyway can. I’d been spiraling downward for months and too caught up in it to see clearly. But she was right. The book that I’d poured heart and soul into for five years had recently come out. The reviews were good. The sales were not. It was hard to say which took the bigger hit, my pride or my bank account.
The best thing I had going was that Michelle and I, after three years of a commuting relationship, were getting married and buying a house together. But even this had its downsides. The therapist that my ex, Jane, and I had been seeing about our daughter, Emma, now 13, had recently told us that the 50-50 custody arrangement we’d had for two years wasn’t the best thing for Emma. The transitions between households were hard on her. She needed the stability of a home base and a primary parent. The shrink said that either of us was qualified for the job, but it was clear that Jane expected to be the primary parent.
Another painful truth was that Emma and I butted heads too often for me to believe that my house was the best place for her. Sitting in the guy’s office, I’d reluctantly agreed to the new arrangement: Jane would keep Emma during the week. I’d have alternate weekends and Thursdays from after school until 8:30, when I’d drop her back at Jane’s.
As soon as the words left my mouth, I broke down. It was as if I’d just had a hole installed in my heart. I felt like I was abandoning my daughter. Of the four parents involved in Michelle’s and my situation, only one was giving up time with a child. Me.
Even as I toted up my grievances, I could hear the voice of my friend Paula Smith. “There are no victims, honey,” she’d once told me. “There are only willing volunteers.” She was right, of course. It wasn’t the world that was screwed up. The thing was, I didn’t know how to unscrew myself. But Michelle had been right, too. If there was any setting in which I might get a new perspective, it was away from the rest of the world, paddling a canoe and fishing for my supper.
Just a Little Turned Around
If anyone could understand how I felt, it was Steve. He’s a former New York wheeler-dealer, a guy on his third marriage and at least his third career. A few years back he’d left the city to turn gentleman farmer in upstate New York. He tells me the neighboring farmers refer to him as “the citidiot.” In all of Delaware County–prime dairy country since the 1700s–he is the only farmer attempting to grow vegetables instead of cows. And now, as the rest of us pack the canoes, he has already tied on a Mepps and cast out, hoping to snag first-fish bragging rights. A husky smallmouth–obviously placed there by the Ontario Tourism Bureau–nails his first cast. “Fish on!” Steve cackles as the rest of us cry foul. I watch him play the fish and try to decide which brings him the greater pleasure: catching the bass or pissing off his own relatives. I don’t even want to speculate what it says about me that he’s one of my closest friends.
These three members of the Burnett clan have all done monthlong Outward Bound canoe courses here, each including a three-day solo. They ought to know what they’re doing. And yet, two hours after launching, we are literally paddling in circles. We have just circumnavigated a large island that is not shown on our map of Birch Lake. Doug, after stopping three times to reconcile map and compass, announces that his compass must be broken. A quick check against two other compasses dashes this notion. Now, as we round the island’s last point, we see dead ahead the ranger station and beach from which we departed. According to the map, they lie to the south. According to three compasses and the sun, they are directly to the north. Irrefutable evidence of our cluelessness in no way slows us down. Instead–in the particularly haughty manner of college-educated men ignoring inconvenient facts–we turn right and continue to explore the lake, as if confident that around the next point there will be something–a landmark, a passage, a floating mental health facility–that will set everything to rights.
For once, I’m the one to unravel the knot. “Guys,” I call, “is it possible that we were supposed to put in on the lake where we got dropped off rather than portaging down to this one?” A profound silence ensues. Doug lets out a groan and slaps his forehead. But since he’s wearing a big hat, there’s no noise. He just kind of crushes the brim against his head.
“Oh, man,” he says. “Tell me you’re not gonna tell this to anyone.”
“Of course not,” I say. “Could’ve happened to anybody.” Not being the one responsible for this kind of screw-up is so novel an experience that I’m savoring it.
Half an hour later and two trips each way hauling gear back to where we were first let off, we’re leaning into a brisk headwind on Birch Lake. After a few minutes, Doug motions us alongside. “I brought maps for you guys, too,” he says, handing me the chart in a waterproof case. He points to our location, then casually says, “I strongly suggest you wear your PFD.” Something in his voice jolts me into the moment. There’s no immediate danger, of course. But we’re on the other side of the guardrail now. It’s not that wild places are hostile, just unforgiving. I put on my PFD.
Illustration by Zohar Lazar
We’ve lost a good bit of time, but Doug seems intent on reaching the campsite we’d originally planned on. This involves two more portages and about three hours of paddling. I don’t mind. It feels good to be reacquainting myself with the old machinery of my body, stabbing the water and pulling the boat along, rolling my shoulders and hips into each stroke. Our canoes are so heavily laden that they present little profile to the headwind. It feels like we’re making good time.
At 6 feet and 170 pounds, I’m the midget on this trip and in the bow. Steve, 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, has the stern of our 17-foot Wenonah. Doug and Matt are paddling an 18-footer, mostly because they’re giants. Doug is 6-foot-10 and 280; Matt, a mere 6-foot-8 and 240. Neither is a particularly efficient paddler. They sit too far back in their seats, insert their paddles at 45-degree angles rather than close to vertical, and engage little more than their arms for each stroke. Worse, they pull well past their hips before taking their paddles out, wasting half of each stroke lifting water rather than propelling the boat forward. What’s maddening about all this is that they’re still moving faster than we are. They’re so strong that they don’t need to be particularly efficient paddlers.
I can’t get over how pretty this place is. There are dramatic granite faces and boreal forests, bald eagles teetering on the transparent air, and loons lying low in the water that dive when the boat is just feet away. It’s all so scenic that it looks photoshopped, a postcard vista everywhere you look. The glaciers that moved through here from the northeast millions of years ago gouged out the softer rock, creating what would become about 2,000 lakes. When the earth warmed and the glaciers retreated, they dropped their rock debris, which would become beds for the streams connecting the lakes like beads on a necklace. The streams and the portages along them can be hard to spot. Sometimes all you see is a tiny opening in the shoreline pines, spruce, and cedar. In some spots the beaches can only accommodate one canoe at a time. We’ve decided to hold off on fishing until we’re on the lake where we’ll be camping so that we don’t have to carry fish. But at one portage, waiting alongside a rock face while Doug and Matt unload, I can’t resist dropping a 3-inch white twistertail on a leadhead. I open the bail and watch the jig flutter down for what feels like forever. I’m still following it when it touches bottom. I count 10 cranks to bring it up, meaning the water is 20 feet deep. It’s the clearest freshwater I’ve ever seen, home to smallmouth bass, pike, walleyes, and lake trout. I want to hurry up and make camp so I can get on some.
We finally drop our gear on a point with enough flat and smooth ground for two tents. We make camp and head back out into the early evening. Lacking charts or a depthfinder, Steve and I decide to target points first. His Mepps connects with a couple of smallies holding tight to rocks. I tie on a slightly larger version of the same lure–a No. 3 with bronze blades–and boat a few myself. On the rivers I’m used to fishing, you usually have to catch somewhere between 10 and 50 little smallmouths before you get a 12-incher. That’s not the deal here. They’re almost all decent fish and in fantastic condition, fatter and healthier-looking than any bronzebacks I’ve seen before. The biggest we manage this evening is 14 inches–no monster, but a good fighter even by smallmouth standards.
We push on, now casting to the larger rock faces. In some places, with the boat tight against the bluff, we’re fishing in 32 feet of water. The bigger fish are on the bottom and we soon discover that jigging, not cranking, is the ticket. I’ve brought mostly spinners, spoons, and Rapalas. I’m not well stocked for vertical fishing. I look through the few plastics I did bring and rig a root-beer Hula grub on a 1⁄4-ounce leadhead. It’s my heaviest jig, and I wish I’d brought more and heavier ones. The moment it touches down, I’m doing battle with a big-shouldered smallmouth. I try to bring the fish in with slow, steady pressure. I want to keep it buttoned to my barbless hook and tire it out so it doesn’t throw that hook during a big jump. I obviously don’t have the hang of it yet, because throwing the hook on its first leap is exactly what it does. As if to add insult to injury, the leadhead lands right in my lap. “Dude!” Steve crows. “That thing was a monster! Eighteen inches easy!” The real disappointment comes when I realize that he took one of the Hula grub’s twin tails. And the remaining parts of the lure aren’t looking too perky either. I have only a handful of Hula grubs–the best match for the abundant crayfish here–for the rest of the week. I’m going to have to ration them.
By the time we head in, we’ve got enough fish for dinner. We stop to clean them on an island to avoid attracting bears to camp. Just inside the trees we find a tiny glen with a flat log by the water. It’s the ideal fish-cleaning station. But it’s more than that. The ground is a carpet of thick green moss and artfully placed tufts of tall, flowering grasses. The rocks almost seem to glow in the twilight. Steve and I look at each other and say nothing, but we’re both aware of a palpable magic here, a kind of power. If two hardened cynics like us can feel it, it’s got to be strong. But it’s the kind of thing you don’t want to offend by breaking its silence, so we don’t speak until we’re back on the lake. “Did you feel that place?” Steve says. “It was like it knew we were coming! And I don’t even believe in that crap!”
“I know,” I call over my shoulder, still sorting through a minor kind of awe. “Shut up and paddle.”
Eat. Paddle. Camp. Fish. Repeat.
Our days settle into a satisfying rhythm. We wake, make breakfast, strike camp, and paddle through a few lakes until we find a campsite we like. The average portage between lakes is around 200 yards, but there’s one that’s the better part of a mile, with steep uphill parts over slippery rock. This, unfortunately, is the one on which I unwisely opt to shoulder the heaviest Duluth pack, all 80 pounds of it. I’m soon bent over like a beetle, sweat soaking my clothes and dripping off my brow, cursing myself for not finding a walking stick before setting out, but afraid I won’t be able to get up again if I stop to cut one now. I look for trees to grab onto as I pull myself along. At one point, hearing someone coming up behind me, I step to the side. Matt passes me carrying a canoe on his head and a pack on his back, at least half again as much weight as I’m carrying. And the guy moves like a man strolling out to his mailbox.
After setting up camp, we fish for a few hours, come back, and review the day over a cocktail as we cook dinner. Later we sit around the fire, sometimes talking, sometimes silently watching the face of a log transform itself into a glowing orange wall of coals, and then wander off to our bags. Most nights, I wake a few times to the ghostly giggle of loons, a sound that isn’t loud but seems as if it must carry for miles. When I go out to pee, the night sky’s clarity feels almost like a rebuke. Why are we so afraid of the dark that we light up our neighborhoods until nobody even bothers to learn the names of stars anymore?
On our last full day before starting back, we decide to stay put and fish hard. We’ve had good smallmouth action and fresh fish almost every night but have caught only one walleye and one pike. Our camp sits beside a channel connecting two good-size lakes. Steve and I try the lower lake first. We get some hard bumps at one rock face but neither of us lands anything, and Steve’s game when I suggest we paddle to the upper lake. The surrounding hills are higher here, suggesting equally deeper dropoffs. I’m betting this might be where bigger fish hang, maybe a bigger pike or even a lake trout, a fish I’ve never caught.
A half mile straight ahead, a steep-sided island rises in the middle of the lake, like a small Gibraltar. I suggest we try there. As we near the island, I break out a heavy jig I borrowed from Doug, a 2 1⁄2-ounce chartreuse bucktail that looks like it might be a good lake trout lure. Even on a 7-foot, medium-heavy rod, however, it’s a lot of weight to be working, and soon my wrist and forearm are sore.
As we near the rock, I sigh. The damn Hula grub is still the lure I have the most confidence in, even though I’m down to my last one, which has lost both tails. The thing is nothing more than 3⁄4 inch of body and the little skirt of tentacles at the collar of the lure. I run a bare 3/0 hook through it, glad that I have superglue to keep the body and hook together. I cast, bouncing the lure off the rock face so it falls into the water like something edible that lost its balance.
When it’s about 15 feet deep, something takes it and heads south. The rod arcs deeply. “Holy crap!” Steve yells. “What is that thing?” I have no idea, only that it’s not swimming like a smallmouth. It takes me three or four minutes to bring the mystery fish in, by which time it has wrapped itself in the line. This turns out to be a good thing. “Lake trout!” yells Steve as he nets it. The hook is out of the fish’s mouth, dangling from the net. If it weren’t for the tangle, I wouldn’t have caught this fish. My first ever laker is a fat 26-incher. I guess its weight at somewhere around 6 pounds as I heft the great fish up for Steve to snap a picture.
“I wish you could see your face,” Steve tells me.
“You have this look of absolutely childlike delight. Really. Gotta say, man, I wasn’t sure you still had that in you.”
“I wasn’t either.” I stop, letting that feeling wash over me. It’s like the return of an old friend, somebody who disappeared along the way, and you only realize how much you missed him by your pleasure when he resurfaces. I’m quiet for a few minutes, trying to calm down, admiring my first lake trout, thinking what a good dinner he’ll make. This is the biggest fish of the trip. And he wasn’t deep, where lakers are supposed to be. He was hanging out in 15 feet. It’s a surprise and also not a surprise. Nothing, after all, is more natural than for a fish–or a man for that matter–to act in a manner other than as expected. Or for a familiar act to take on new meaning.
The world hasn’t changed, but somehow I have. I don’t know how this works, only that I can feel it. I’m no longer aggrieved. I see life again for the temporary and mysterious thing it is, full of terror and wonder, success and failure, but always–whether hidden in the background or blazing away right in front of me–a thing so mysterious and miraculous that it’s almost more than I can bear.
Making the Trip North
At 1.18 million acres, Quetico Provincial Park is slightly larger than the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a good bit wilder–you won’t find fire grates or latrines at its 2,000 unimproved campsites–and considerably less trafficked. It attracts fewer people for a number of reasons: fewer access points (the BWCA has nearly 100; Quetico’s 21 entry points require that you first visit one of six ranger stations, three of which can only be accessed by paddling); longer, tougher portages; and more paperwork than most Americans care to do. The payoff–fewer people, more fish–is worth it.
Illustration by Haisam Hussein
You need to apply for a $30 Remote Area Border Crossing Permit six weeks in advance, buy a $10 Outdoor Card, pay a $20 daily use fee, and get a nonresident Ontario fishing license (an eight-day license costs $52). For details, visit bwca.cc/quetico.
May and September are often prime months, offering excellent fishing and relative freedom from the area’s notorious blackflies and mosquitoes.
This is not a place for unguided beginners. You’ll need a compass, an extensive first-aid kit, a weather radio, an emergency locator beacon, rain gear, a waterproof tent, tinder, and at least three ways of starting a fire. You can get maps at bwca.com. We rented canoes and packs from Canadian Border Outfitters (canoetrip.com), who also shuttled us to and from Prairie Portage.
Rod and Reel: A medium or medium-light spinning rod spooled with 8-pound-test line should be your go-to outfit. Your backup/trolling rod might be slightly heavier and spooled with 10-pound-test. Two-piece rods are simpler to portage.
Smallmouths: Skirted double-tail grubs and/or tubes in pumpkin or root beer on 1⁄8- to 3⁄8-ounce jigs produce, as do No. 3 and 4 Mepps spinners (silver seems better than brass), and Rapala Original floater-divers, Shad Raps, and Countdowns in blue-white, silver-white, and firetiger.
Northern Pike: Dardevles and Johnson spoons in red-white, black-white, or silver; large Mepps spinners (No. 5 and up); even big jerkbaits and spinnerbaits will usually entice these toothy fish. Use a wire leader.
Walleyes: Two- to 4-inch grubs or jigs on 1⁄8- to 1⁄4-ounce jigheads are often best. Black, smoke, and transparent green always work well, but use brighter colors–white, yellow, red–in spring. Lake Trout: Paddling while trolling a flashy spoon or deep-diving lure is a proven tactic for locating lake trout. Once you find them, vertical fishing with jigging spoons, heavy jigs, or blade baits is often the ticket.