Kawnipi Lake is one of Quetico’s gems. It’s a fisherman’s paradise, and a destination that needs to be on your map. So how do we get there?
With your Quetico Falls Chain permit (#73) in hand, we at Seagull Outfitters will give you a head start tow boat launch to Hook Island. Like all Quetico canoe trips outfitted by Seagull, this is your starting point. After a quick stop at the Ranger Cabin in Cache Bay to get your camping fees taken care of and your canoe country etiquette briefing, it’s off you go.
From Cache Bay to Kennebas Falls (the last portage leading into Kawnipi), it’s a big day of paddling and portaging. Some groups really hump it and can get to Kawnipi in one day, but if you plan on this, plan on doing nothing else but some intense paddling and hustle on the portages. This trek to Kawnipi is most often done in two days.
There are nine portages between Cache Bay and Kawnipi, and a fair amount of paddling. Starting with Silver Falls of course, then on over to Dead Man’s Portage which connects the south to the north side of Saganagons Lake. From here it’s a paddle northwest to the beginning of what is most commonly referred to as the Falls Chain because of the series of waterfalls in succession. Others refer to this series of falls as the Saganagons River, and you could also argue that this is the start of the Maligne River. However you want to look at it, the first three falls are right in a row concluding with what is known as Bald Rock Falls.
This may be your stopping point for day one. There’s a nice campsite on the southwest shore right by Bald Rock Falls that might be tempting after your long day’s work. There are a number of other fairly nice campsites between Bald Rock and Little Rock Falls if you choose to set camp for the night. This section marks the middle of the Falls Chain.
Continuing on north and west, you’ll come to Little Falls, followed by Koko and Canyon Falls before putting into Kenny Lake. One last portage around Kennebas Falls, and you’ve successfully navigated the Falls Chain and arrived in Kawnipi. Please note that the portages on the Falls Chain are not optional. These falls are nothing to be messed with and extreme caution should be taken, and respect given to ensure a safe trip. These falls are spectacular, there’s no question about that and should be enjoyed, but please use caution as water levels will determine the severity of the current. So use your best judgment.
Canyon Falls might be the most impressive in the chain as it’s a 30 foot drop from top to bottom that thunders through high rock walls, hence the name, canyon. Do note that the water is flowing north here so as you paddle to Kawnipi Lake, you’ll be paddling with the current. The portages are well traveled and should be obvious if you take your time and are prepared as you approach each of the falls.
After all of that work, Kawnipi awaits you. You can’t simply spend enough time in this area of the park to take in all of the sites and sounds. That can be said of any part of the BWCA and Quetico, but on Kawnipi, it’s even more true.
Kawnipi is short for the Ojibway word Kawnipiminami, meaning “where there are cranberries”. That’s funny to me, because I haven’t heard people raving about the cranberries on the lake. Maybe a more appropriate meaning would be, “where there are walleyes”.
Fisherman; get ready. Kawnipi is the perfect walleye fishery that is self sustaining because of the fantastic structure, and with numerous creeks and streams emptying into it. The three main sources to Kawnipi are the Wawiag River, Cache River and Falls Chain that you have just navigated. These three main rivers along with the numerous other creeks and streams that flow into the lake create ample spawning ground for a more than healthy walleye population.
Along with the current, what also makes Kawnipi a walleye (and pike and bass) haven, is the unbelievable structure and habitat. Kawnipi is not an overly deep lake. It is a large lake, over 12 miles long, but on no part of the lake will you find yourself far from shore. It has all sorts of bays that stretch off of the main channel like fingers. Hundreds and hundreds of islands of all sizes, and hundreds of miles of shoreline provide the habitat that makes this lake the perfect wilderness fishery.
Kawnipi has a number of named bays, and each of them alone could sustain your attention and enjoyment for weeks on end. It’s impossible to explore each part of this lake in a single trip, unless you plan on staying for three months, and even still that won’t be enough.
As you enter Kawnipi from the south, you’ll pass by Atkins Bay, a small bay on the right. As you continue north through the channel, the lake opens up just a little bit, and to the east there is Kawa Bay with numerous campsites, one of the favorites being an island site a ways into the bay up toward the mouth of Wawiag River.
McKenzie Bay is another large bay north of Kawa that stretches northeast toward McKenzie Lake. Again, numerous campsites on McKenzie offer some great base camp opportunities to make your home for the week. Island sites as well as sites on points provide great fishing right from your campsite and fantastic views of sunrises and sunsets.
On the southwest part of the lake, you’ll find McVicar Bay. Again, countless islands and numerous campsites await to host your stay on Kawnipi. McVicar Bay connects to Agnes Lake via Anubis and Bird Lake. In 1995, there was a wildfire that is known as the Bird Lake Fire that started from a lightning strike. When you visit the area, you’ll see the effects of this wildfire in certain areas around Kawnipi, mainly on the south and eastern portions of the lake.
Paddling north through the main channel you’ll pass a couple of the nicer camps on the lake. Rose Island, the largest island on the lake will be on the west side of the channel, and just north of that is Kasie Island. South of Rose Island, there is a bay that stretches Kawnipi’s reaches down to Keewatin Lake that connects Agnes and Kawnipi together. Agnes is a large lake that connects many canoers from the Ely area up to the Maligne River, the Kahshahpiwi River and the heart of the Quetico Park. So this area may see a bit more traffic.
Further north on Kawnipi, the lake really narrows down before turning to the west where it empties into the Kahshahpiwi River where most acknowledge that the Maligne River begins. Up in this area there are a number of campsites, and you may not even feel you’re still on Kawnipi Lake because of how many islands and channels and narrow passages you’ve paddled through. The lake just keeps opening up into completely new areas.
You can base camp on Kawnipi year after year and stay in a different part of the lake each year because of the many options available and never get bored. As you can see on the map, Kawnipi stretches for miles in all directions and will provide you with a vacation unlike you’ve experienced before.
If there isn’t enough to keep you busy with on Kawnipi, there are endless day trip exploring opportunities to adjacent lakes and streams. A few ideas would be to paddle/portage Lemay Creek into Lemay Lake for some good walleye and bass action. Explore the Cache River for a day. Paddle up to the mouth of the Wawiag River in Kawa Bay looking for moose. Head on over to Murdoch Lake or north to Montgomery Lake, or check out the portage to McKenzie Lake. Heronshaw Lake is not far away from a base camp on the northern part of Kawnipi, and that could be an option for some excellent smallmouth bass action.
As mentioned before, Kawnipi is known for the fishing, and more specifically the excellent walleye bite. For your next wilderness canoe trip, we invite you to explore Kawnipi. Kawnipi offers you everything including: some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the park, five star campsites, miles and miles of shoreline to explore, day trip opportunities, hiking, photography, and oh, did we mention the fishing?
Kawnipi is part of the Hunter Island loop, and this lake was part of the Voyageurs route of centuries ago, and a productive hunting ground of the Ojibway Indians. The Quetico Park is oozing with history, and Kawnipi plays a huge part in that history. Come and be a part of it, and make some history of your own. Make some memories on this lake with your family and friends that you’ll cherish and relive forever.
The Quetico has many gems, and Kawnipi is one of its finest. It demands respect, and if you give it, you’ll be rewarded handsomely. Come to Kawnipi, and receive your reward.