Seagull Outfitters Paddler’s Tales
Boundary Waters Canoe Adventures
By: Bruce Young
Too many of our “wild” places have been turned into glorified campgrounds. Fortunately, there still are a few places where you may get the wilderness experience you crave. One such place, located on the Minnesota/Ontario border, is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, or B.W.C.A.
Moose and black bears may be seen any time, day or night. You may even hear the lonesome howl of a gray wolf. At dusk, sitting by the fire, the quivering wail of the common loon can be a little unnerving. The eerie tremolos echo from by to bay, lake to lake.
Before it was designated a million-acre park, only the Ojibwa, fur trappers and French voyageurs had dared venture into this forbidding country. Tales of men driven mad by black flies kept the others at bay. The region, west of Lake Superior, looks pretty much the same as it did when the voyageurs traveled through. In fact, some of the water routes in use today were established by the voyageurs.
There are no roads, no set paths in the Canadian portion, know as the Quetico. Using detailed maps, you find your own way and either benefit from or pay for your decisions. While this type of adventure is not for everyone, it is just the ticket for souls eager to test the waters of self-sufficiency.
For the first-time visitor, it is wise to follow a map. Trust me, if you daydream just a little, you will get lost. The maze of lakes is dotted with countless islands that all seem to resemble one another. On my first trip, in 1984, my partner and I were enthusiastic but lacked experience. After a few days of travel, we got complacent and took our eyes off the map for a few hours. When we looked back, we could not figure out where we were. We finally beached on an island to sort out our predicament.
From where we sat, we could see several islands. Using their general shapes and relations to one another, we were able to recognize their pattern on our map. It took us four hours, but we cleared a major hurdle and learned a lesson about watching the map.
It pays to paddle along with the map on your lap. If you get lost, stop and sturdy the map until you positively locate where you are. Designate one person to be navigator, but make sure everyone is familiar with the process. Getting lost for a few hours is not that big a deal; just keep your cool and trust your map.
In addition to hours of paddling, you may face long and difficult portages. Sturdy boots with good ankle support are a necessity.
The Silver Falls portage out of Cache Bay is a perfect example. This cascade of water is a “must see” attraction. Any sunny day, countless rainbows may be seen in the mist surrounding the falls. But this is not a walk in the park.
At the base of the falls, the main flow runs directly into a pile of jagged rocks. Canoeists must pass over this flow at a right angle. At low water, this is a pleasant paddle with a minimum of danger. High water turns it into a white-knuckle ride. Strong, powerful thrusts of the paddle may blast you through, but stay low and alert, and do not stop paddling. Like a bicycle, canoes are more stable when they are moving. If you feel yourself tipping, drop down. Get your center of gravity as low as possible, and don’t panic. Of course, you should definitely be wearing a life jacket.
This high water situation is not only dangerous to humans. Once I saw the bloated carcass of a cow moose bobbing around in the turbulent water-a vivid reminder that Mother Nature does not pity the careless.
Nearly a mile long, the rocky up-and-down path will test your endurance, but there is no rush. There is no time clock to punch. Just take your time, and soon you will see bits of blue off to the side of the trail, revealing the back end of the bay that is your destination.
Some portages are little more than game trails skirting bogs, and these can be the most troublesome. What looks like a damp spot in the trail may actually be a 2-foot-deep bowl of peat stew. Leeches and stench may exude from the muck. If you are lucky, park rangers or other travelers have laid logs lengthwise across the worst spots.
But don’t count on it.
Other portages are just a matter of unpacking the canoe and carrying it across a narrow width of land. Some are casual and uneventful, providing a welcome break from paddling and an opportunity to stretch legs and aching muscles. A lot of portages are around running water, and you just cannot get enough good waterfall photos.
You will refine your canoeing skills. Soon, each pack will be tied exactly the same as before, below the gunwales, tight and secure. Even a properly packed canoe may tip over, but if the packs are secured with ropes or bungees, it will not sink and nothing may be lost.
You want the canoe to be slightly stem heavy, with the heaviest packs near the floor, the lower the better. Kneeling on the floor of the canoe further lowers its center of gravity.
Traveling along lake to lake, you soon get in a rhythm. Paddling becomes pleasant rather than a chore.
I soon find myself continuously looking for good places to fish.
The Quetico is crawling with pike. Any blowdown or weed bed may hold a water wolf. My trusty, weedless Johnson’s Silver Minnow, tipped with a curly-tailed grub has caught more of these pike than I can count. The weight of the spoon allows me to cast with distance and accuracy. To catch the biggest pike (25-pounders are reported every summer), you need to cast deep into shadowy pockets, the closer the better. I also have seen pike attack from as far as 20 feet away, plowing through the water with enough force to make a wake.
When fishing for pike, you must use a wire leader of some sort. Their razor teeth can cut monofilament fishing line without bending the rod in the slightest. Suddenly, you just have a slack line, and you know you’ve been “piked.”
While pike are a personal passion, I also enjoy the trophy smallmouth bass fishing. All good fishermen take advantage of whatever is biting, and right at dusk, smallmouths seem to strike with reckless abandon.
When I see a place that looks “bassy,” I switch to a rod with eight-pound-test line and toss smaller baits. Long, thin minnow imitations work well at this time. Cast close to the rocks as you can, twitch, and hang on.
Bring quality fishing gear, because the cheap stuff will not stand up to the relentless battles.
A little-known secret of the Quetico is its world-class walleye fishing. Back in the sticks, 10-pound and bigger fish are caught every year. Perhaps more of these fish would end up as wall mounts, if there was a practical way to get them back to the taxidermists. Over the years, my walleyes have averaged 3 pounds, including a couple of 30-inchers. Since it is not practical to drag home a trophy, all of the big fish should be released.
Slow, precise trolling over boulder-strewn bottom should put a walleye in the canoe, and then into the frying pan. That is where walleyes separate themselves from the other fish. Nothing beats a shore lunch of pan-fried walleye fillets.
The first lake trough I hooked in the Quetico bulldogged straight down to the bottom, like a catfish. Eventually, I was able to spot the telltale white pectoral fins on the 5-pound fish. For me, lake trout are mostly incidental catches while trolling for walleyes, usually in water deeper than 20 feet.
But when I do catch one, I may make several passes back over the area. These fish tend to school and sometimes more than one can be caught. Lake trout is a wonderful-tasting fish when caught in the spring. We always bring lemons to add to their flavor, though they don’t really need it.
The fishing can be fantastic, but the Quetico is about more than fishing. It’s about living the life, traveling where you choose, resting when you want. Just remember that whatever gear you bring will have to be carried on the portages. Extra gear is not a luxury, it is a burden.
The only extras I recommend are foot gear. Wet feet are no fun.
Waterproof packs and Gore-Tex rain gear are essential. It will rain, and there is nothing worse than a sloppy wet sleeping bag.
Early in the season, before the undergrowth gets too thick, you may follow small streams on foot, uphill to the source, usually a beaver pond. Once, my partner and I saw three moose feeding in one of these ponds, including a bull moose that was in velvet. Being hunters, we were thrilled to be within 20 yards of such a huge beast. Water dripped from his over-sized mouth as he stood chest deep in the pond, completely indifferent to us as we hid behind a boulder.
Each trip has its low points, too. The low points often include rainy, windy days when canoe travel is impossible. But, by far, the worst low points are when a member of your group is injured. You are on your own for first-aid, and if the injury is serious, you must transport the injured person out to help.
I once had to remove a treble hook that was deeply imbedded in the wrist of a partner. Not a pretty sight.
We cut the hook off, leaving just enough to attach a string. Then, using the only practical method of removing a hook buried in flesh, I carefully looped a doubled-over length of line around the hook at the bed and tried to “pop” it out. The line was too thin and broke. The arm jerked violently toward me, but the hook remained.
Next I tried a boot lace, and this time the hook popped out quite easily. At least it was easy for me. We cleaned the wound as best we could, smothered it in antibiotic ointment, and wrapped it in gauze bandages. We continued with our trip, but the wound became infected and required a visit to the doctor after we got home. Pack that first-aid kit with care, because you never know when you will need it.
Of course, a high point can come just as suddenly, just as unexpectedly.
One sunny day we were leisurely floating along when we noticed a spot in the sky and concluded that it was a bald eagle. We also noticed a small flock of black ducks in the back of a bay. Then we heard a hissing sound coming from the sky and realized the eagle had turned into a power dive and was preparing to strafe the ducks. The sound grew louder as the huge bird increased its speed. Nervous ducks started bobbing their heads. Then, at the last possible moment, the ducks dove underwater in unison. The eagle simply pulled out of its dive and released a piercing cry.
The hairs on the back of my neck still have not lain back down.
On cloudless nights, the northern lights, or aurora borealis, can sometimes be seen shimmering across the northern sky. Blue, red, violet and green waves flicker along a curtain that is continuously changing.
Scientists describe the lights as an ion bombardment emanating from the sun and beyond. I prefer to think of them as a sign of the wild Northland.
A trip to the Boundary Waters is like stepping back in time. Only the power supplied by your own body propels you forward to each new discovery. The air is fresh, and the water is clean.
The people you meet along the way are kind and considerate. In fact, it is customary to not only leave a campsite cleaner than you found it, but also leave a fire pit stocked with kindling and ready to light. Such a simple act would be cause for comment outside in the “civilized” world. But here, it is a simple favor returned to the next voyageur who may come along.
What you need to know:
All visitors to the B.W.C.A and Quetico Provincial Park are required to have appropriate BWCA Permits and Quetico Permits. Any of the many outfitters servicing the area can apply for these at your request.
If you want to go but are not sure where to begin, fear not. Complete, full-service packages are offered. These include everything but clothing, camera and fishing gear, and for a 7-day trip, typically cost a little more than $500, including the permits.
You can save money by bringing your own canoe and gear, but an outfitter still can help with route planning and other services. The launch service saves quite a lot of paddling through some pretty big lakes, quite a relief at the end of the trip. I highly recommend paying for this service.
For the novice, a lightweight aluminum canoe is probably the way to go. They are a bit more stable than some of the sleeker models, and safety is crucial in the wilderness.
More experienced canoeists may appreciate the long glide and ease of paddling a more expensive Kevlar model. An 18-foot, 6-inch Odyssey has served me well, and the Minnesota II is comparable. When it comes to canoes, length improves the ease of paddling. Models up to 20 feet are offered.
Don’t scrimp on the canoe.
I have visited the B.W.C.A. and Quetico eight times and have used several outfitters. I have been satisfied with them all. Seagull Canoe Outfitters, on Seagull Lake, has been around for more than 30 years and has a proven track record. Contact: Debbie Mark, Seagull Canoe Outfitters, 12208 Gunflint Trail, Grand Marais, MN 55604; (218) 388-2216; seagulloutfitters.com. To contact many outfitters and also learn some background on the area, visit: www.canoecountry.com
*This story appeared in the July 2004 issue of Fur-Fish-Game Magazine