Canoe Trip Report

Quetico Falls Chain – Family Canoe Trip

Entry Date: August 23, 2010
Trip Length: 6 Days
Permit Required: Falls Chain(#73) – Quetico
Group Size: 4
Submitted by: Skip

The Gift of the Quetico

Canoe Trip Report:

falls-chain-fog-2010-swesternAs a family tradition, future wilderness canoe-camping trip planning is usually discussed at our Christmas gathering. This year was no exception. Steve, my son, and Nick his friend, really want to visit Quetico primarily because of the raw, rugged nature of it versus the typical conditions you run across canoe-camping in any of the other state or national parks. Their idea was to try and live off the land as much as possible. Steve asked Ellen, his sister and a student in the Outdoor Recreation program at CMU, and of course she was all in for a trip like this. At my age though, eating leafy greens & berries for a week didn’t really excite me. Another consideration of mine was financial in nature. My work was continuing to slow down and there were discussions about across the board pay cuts so our family budget was tightened up and this trip would not be a possibility for me.

Over the ensuing months Steve continued to talk about the trip and I continued to shoot him down from including me. Little did I know the perfect storm was brewing. The company Steve worked for decided last winter to relocate to Canada from the Detroit area so he was given notice that he was to be laid off in 4 months. If he stayed to the end he would receive a sizable retention bonus and a severance payment based on the years he worked for them. This fact was managed quite nicely by Steve and it ultimately led to him starting a new job the Monday following his last day at his old employer and he received the slush fund needed to help with the expenses for the proposed trip. Steve’s theory was I had paid for many of these trips for him over the years and this one would be his treat. Hard to argue with this logic considering it was going to allow us to go to Quetico again. The downside to this whole experience was we were sitting at June 23 rd when this was agreed to and we did not have a camping permit or an outfitter lined up and the wood-strip canoe I was building over the last two years still needed to be finished. New requirements since we were last in Canada or Quetico would also require us to have passports and Remote Area Border Crossing permits. This left a lot to do in a very short time.

First things first, we needed to mesh all of our schedules. We prefer to take our trips in the 3 rd or 4 th week of August primarily because the bugs are almost non-existent and the weather is still pretty good. My wife and I had already signed up for our Michigan Square Dance Convention that was taking place near our home on the weekend between these two weeks. Steve, Ellen and Nick were all able to clear up the 4 th week in their work and/or school schedules so it was decided to leave at midnight or so on Saturday evening after the convention concludes and drive through the night. We would have an 8 day trip instead of our usual 10 days and return on Sunday afternoon to allow Ellen to drive the additional 5 hours back to Indiana.

With the schedules set our next priority had to be getting an BWCA Permits and Quetico Permits. We have made trips into Boundary Waters through Ely and Quetico through Atikokan, but the goal of trying to get as much time in the field as possible (less drive time), pointed us to the BWCA entry points accessed through Cache Bay on the East end of Boundary Waters. The search for an outfitter can now begin. I keep a file of information gathered through the years for potential trips and I found information on Seagull Outfitters. When Steve and I did searches on the internet, we found many more choices. It’s hard sitting 15 hours away from the area and trying to figure out which outfitter would be best. In the end, I think it came down to the fact Seagull Outfitters had the nicest web site design and I thought if they put that much effort into this part of their business, it would be likely they would take care of the rest. Steve handled the contact with them and they were extremely helpful at setting up our entry permit. Of the four entry points and eight permits going through Cache Bay on a daily basis, at this late point in time, there was only one permit left for the Boundary Point entry on the date we needed. Our goal was to get up into Kawnipi by going through The Falls Chain and we could but, we had to spend at least one night beyond Boundary Point. We snatched it up and let out a collective sigh – least the dates worked out.

Our next priority was to take care of the paperwork. We completed the process of getting passports, and then filing for and receiving our Remote Area Border Crossing permits. It took about 6 weeks to wrap this up and get our R.A.B.C. permits. Obviously, I don’t recommend deciding to make this sort of trip 58 days before you need to leave. Because of this time frame, we made compromises to our schedule, our destination and our menu along the way.

Sunday, August 22nd

I got home around midnight Saturday from the square dance convention and perched atop Steve’s car sat Faith, my finished wood-stripped canoe, ready for her maiden canoe-camping trip. I could not have been more excited. Since this was the first and only time we as a group could be together prior to leaving, we took some time to review that we had everything we needed, both individually and as a group.

We eventually left South Lyon at 1:45 a.m. for the 15 hour drive. We chose to go North through the Lower Peninsula across the Mackinac Bridge and then west across the Upper Peninsula, through Wisconsin and into Minnesota. This would be the most familiar route and would offer the advantage of getting into the mood of our “up north” adventure sooner. Nick drove the first shift through the night as he had the most experience driving late at night and after a couple hours of driving, the rest of us settled down and got a little sleep.

During the drive Sunday, we passed vistas to Lake Superior along the northern coastline of Michigan and again in Wisconsin. The lake was calm and shrouded in mist and fog so you couldn’t find the horizon. You could tell the sun was out there somewhere but it left you with a very eerie feeling. Our travels in Minnesota carried us through a couple very cool tunnels blasted right through the mountains. About 50 miles from Grand Marais we spotted our first eagle. This event reminded me just how special times like these are and they need to be cherished. We stopped in Grand Marais and filled up our gas tank and made our final calls home because we knew that once we turned up the Gunflint Trail the cell coverage would be non-existent until we started home again.

We drove up The Gunflint Trail and into the parking lot of Seagull Outfitters at 5:30 p.m. We met Debbie and her staff and found out there was one very important item we had not taken care of properly. It seems that because my son’s banking account tied to his slush fund was fairly new, there were limits put on how much he could use the debit card in a short period. Of course, we had used it numerous times along the way for gas and food and now it was not getting approved for the Seagull Outfitter fees. Realizing this was Sunday evening and nobody was answering their phone and we were scheduled to go out before the banks opened in the morning, we started emptying our pockets of cash. Luckily we came up with enough for the Outfitter fees. We then headed out looking for an ATM and found a bar along the trail that we were able to get a small cash advance through. We then went to the Bistro restaurant, relaxed on their porch overlooking Seagull Lake, basking in the setting sun and devoured our final meal. After dinner we retired back to the bunkhouse and took care of some last minute packing and treated ourselves to a shower before bed. I should comment that I have used numerous outfitters in my life but Seagull Outfitters had the cleanest facilities I’ve experienced to date. Debbie should be very proud.

Monday, August 23rd

We woke at 6:00 a.m. to Nick’s cock-a-doodle-doo alarm. Needless to say that was the last time we used that. We had 2 hours before we were scheduled to leave and it was plenty of time to get Faith over to the transfer van’s canoe rack and gather all of our life jackets, paddles, packs, rods, coolers, etc. and take them across the street. We ate our breakfast out on the picnic table overlooking the lake and reflected about what we might encounter during our journey. By 9:00, we had been transported over to the drop-off point and been taken by motor boat out to Hook Island. We gathered our equipment and packs and loaded up the canoes. Our first stop would be the Canadian Ranger Station in the middle of Cache Bay. We pulled up as some others were just leaving and introduced ourselves to Janice, the Canadian Customs Officer. She was a wealth of valuable information about the area we would be in and certainly not shy about sharing her expectations for our behavior in the park, especially when it comes to portaging around the falls and keeping the bears in check around our campsite. During the discussion, Janice pointed out that she had a cancellation for this day and if we wanted, we could go straight up into the Falls Chain. Wow, she made our day. When the orientation and document checking was completed, she turned her attention to the many souvenirs displayed around the room and suggested items we could purchase to support the Friends of Quetico organization and of course we agreed. Fortunately, she had no way of verifying that Steve’s debit card was ok, so we paid our fees and for the souvenirs the old traditional way of sliding the charge card roller over the receipt and card and left about 11:30 a.m. with a new t-shirt, map, DVD and about 4 pounds of free paper information on the park. Eight groups a day come through this point on most days so we were lucky to have virtually no waiting to get serviced and on our way.

silver-falls-2010-swesternJanice had mentioned the temperature was going above 80 with a heat index of 95. At this point, that was the least of our worries. As we headed due North past Gull island, we were bucking a strong headwind. Waves were easily 18” high so paddling took a lot of concentration, there was no letting off the pedal. As we turned more West and went through the narrows there was a slight reprieve from the wind but I swear the wind shifted out of the West as we got back in the open again. We stopped at Silver Falls to take in the beauty and power of the 30’ Falls, a welcome gift after the grueling afternoon we had so far. We lunched on pita bread with peanut butter, jelly & bananas. The 130 rod portage to Saganagons Lake is a typical Quetico portage, extremely rocky, muddy and treacherous. Along the trail is a very tricky 4’ high rock face with trees positioned such that moving the canoe across it became a real challenge. I carried Faith using the backpack frame I outfitted with copper tubing fittings to form cradles. It was the first time I was able to practice with it and I was pleasantly surprised. It easily took the weight off my shoulders and put it on my hips where it is easier to handle. The painter is tied front and back so you can use your arms to pull it down in front when going downhill or down in back when going uphill. It really made the portage much easier.

We entered Saganagons Lake and went primarily North and Northeast, still heading into strong headwinds. We got to Dead Man’s Portage pretty well spent for the day. We traversed the 75 rod portage including another slippery rock face and as luck would have it the first campsite beyond the portage was open. Looking back on this day we did not hydrate ourselves well at all and certainly didn’t eat enough considering the energy we expended. We reached the camp at 7:00 p.m. and set up our tent and hung our bear bag. The prize for this day of hard work was a dinner of barbeque chicken, stuffing and cheesy potatoes. We had tried something new this trip and brought Styrofoam coolers, used for shipping prescription drugs in the mail, filled with dry ice so we could include more fresh food choices. The meal was outstanding but frankly we all were wasted so we bear-bagged our dirty dishes and went to bed without throwing a line in the water or even lighting a fire.

Tuesday, August 24th

saganagons-sunset-2010-swesternThe 10 day forecast had been predicting rain on Monday but it held off until nighttime and we woke to cloudy skies. Unfortunately, the wind had increased and now was about 20-25 ticks. Still feeling the after-effects of Monday and I think just wanting to pull back from the stress of yesterday, we slept in until 10:00. Breakfast consisted of scrambled egg beaters with bacon bits and green peppers. We also brought, for the first time, a wire rack for making toast and we were able to use it on our backpacking stoves so we had toasted bagels with breakfast. It was a leisurely morning breakfast and clean-up and then we cleaned up our dinner dishes from last night. So leisurely in fact, when complete, it was time for lunch and our traditional afternoon nap. Lunch consisted of packaged chili that we added tomato paste into with corn bread. On our last trip to Isle Royale, Ellen tried out a backpacking oven and it worked great, so we again brought it on this trip and we were not disappointed. Ellen’s corn bread turned out perfect. After our nap, with the skies clear and bright, Steve, Nick and Ellen went fishing and I stayed back to get some reading in. When they came back we prepared another meal from our coolers, tuna steaks with lemon / honey / soy sauce glazing and chicken broccoli pasta. Dessert around our day-ending campfire was roasted marshmallows and hot chocolate. This was a fitting way to end a beautiful day in paradise.

Wednesday, August 25th

Despite the fact we needed to break camp and move on, nobody wanted to leave this great site, so we slept in again. Before we left, we needed a meeting of the minds. It was fairly obvious we would not be making it to Kawnipi Lake because of our shortened trip time frame. If we go all the way to Kawnipi today then we would have to start back tomorrow with no off day between moves or move from Kawnipi all the way out to a point near Cache Bay on Friday so we can be sure to meet our pick-up time on Saturday. From a pre-planning standpoint we had bit off way more than we could chew. We initially wanted to get to Kawnipi because we thought the fishing would be great around the small bays and islands but realistically we concluded, the fishing is pretty good everywhere. We agreed to go up into the Falls Chain and most likely stop at a site on Sydney Lake, about half way through the Falls Chain.

We left and continued North in Saganagons Lake and then West past the official entry point for the Falls Chain. I wonder if we were supposed to camp beyond this point on our first night. Oh well, if so, nobody caught us. We were canoeing with clear sunny skies but into headwinds again today, not as strong as previous days but still there. I‘m beginning to wonder, is it this windy around here all the time?

Four Falls and Bald Rock Falls were less spectacular then Silver Falls but pretty cool nonetheless. We stopped briefly at one point to eat pitas with peanut butter and jelly for lunch and carried the apple and trail mix to munch on later. We got to our campsite on Sydney Lake in plenty of time so we could set up camp, hang the bear bag and go fishing. In fact, Steve and Nick took the opportunity to do a little swimming and wash away the bug juice and grime. After the refreshing swim, the plan was to catch dinner and Nick didn’t let us down. He picked up a nice walleye and Steve prepared it with fresh lemon and lemon pepper seasoning. He also prepared a pasta side dish to go along with the fish. This meal was excellent, a real treat. Meals on the trail always seem to taste outstanding. We ended the evening around the campfire with Steve roasting marshmallows for everyone to go along with the hot chocolate. Maybe he should have gone to culinary school.

Thursday, August 26th

Steve and Nick got up very early to try their luck fishing around the base of the falls. Not much luck there today so when they returned Steve prepared pancakes with jelly or syrup. Ellen also broke out the oven again and we were treated to warm frosted cinnamon rolls. This breakfast always takes a long time because we use a fry pan on top of one camp stove. On this trip though, we brought a griddle and propped it up on both camp stoves. It doubled our output and it would have been a flawless meal had we not forgotten to bring a spatula. Good thing the griddle was non-stick so we could use a fork instead. After breakfast and clean-up we settled in for a long day of fishing with the goal to have fish for a late lunch. The weather cooperated again today with bright, sunny skies. It turned out we all had some success but Nick brought in the big one again, a 24” walleye. Steve encrusted the fillets and pieces with crushed windmill cookies to give it a slightly sweet, nutty taste. He also prepared some macaroni and cheese for a side dish. After clean-up everyone went out again fishing until late evening. I think we all sensed the trip was winding down and wanted to enjoy every minute left. When we returned, we prepared our own individual Boboli pizza crusts with pizza sauce, dried green peppers, bacon bits and parmesan cheese in the camp oven. Together, we enjoyed another great sunset, moon rising, toasted marshmallows and hot chocolate. Its days like this that imprint your soul and keep calling you back for just one more trip.

Friday, August 27th

When we awoke Friday and broke camp (this was another great site), we were all aware of the task ahead. Our goal was to go back past all of the falls and traverse all of the portages we had come through to date and end up on the far side of Silver Falls. Hopefully, at that point, we can find a site, considering everyone else is probably thinking the same thing. On this travel day, we vowed to be better prepared than Monday. We made sure all water containers were filled and we started with a breakfast of bagels and pop tarts. This is our typical breakfast for a morning when we are moving. We moved pretty well back past the three falls and when we got to Dead Man’s Portage decided to break for lunch. We feasted on tortillas and leftover Boboli crusts with peanut butter, jelly and/or honey. We also had trail mix and apples to supplement. It was about this time we recognized that we might be competing for that first site past Silver Falls as another group with three canoes were approaching. We finished lunch on the portage in an effort to stay in front, but it seems these guys were veterans of this area and worked their plan to perfection. After we pushed off leading to Silver Falls, one of the three canoes sped past us unloaded. It seems they were thinking the same thing as us and left their load for the other two canoes of people to portage and pack so they could claim a site before us or at least a better site. We pushed hard but there was no keeping up with them. When we finally approached the first site past Silver Falls, we saw the speed demons leaving and wondered why, until we got out and inspected the site. It wasn’t a great site primarily because it lacked a lot of trees for shade and if we were staying more than an evening we would probably pass on it also. The other fault with the site, and probably why the earlier canoeists left was it only had one medium sized tent pad. We chose to stay anyway. As we set up camp we also came to the realization there was no good tree set up for the bear bag. After dinner there wouldn’t be much food left anyway, so we took a chance and didn’t hang it.

Much of today’s paddling was into a head wind again. I wonder if the high pressure we have been enjoying all week has gotten by us and the winds are now coming from the opposite direction. I’m going to have to look into that theory. For our last night in the park Steve prepared spaghetti and we loaded up on the carbohydrates. We thought we probably had another 4 hours of paddling tomorrow to Hook Island. After dinner we continued to take pictures of another great sunset so we could enter the best one of the week into the Seagull Outfitters Photo Contest. We also took some great photos of the moon rising, from the top of the hill at this site, and some interesting mood shots around the campfire.

Saturday, August 28th

cache-bay-rollers-2010-swesternWe awoke early Saturday and I’m sure we all thought, does it ever stop blowing around here? It looks like we will be fighting the wind all the way to Hook Island. We ran short of travel day breakfasts so we had to heat hot water for oatmeal. We supplemented that with granola bars and got on our way. We were greeted with waves, white caps and 2’ rollers. Watching Steve and Nick in Faith, the wood-strip canoe, they were having a blast. They were acting like they were on a roller coaster at Cedar Point. They were whooping and hollering the whole way. It turned out to be a pretty good test for Faith’s seaworthiness. Ellen and I pulled for all we were worth in our aluminum canoe and took a short break on the lee side of Gull Rock and then continued on to our pick-up point. We arrived at Hook Island about 10:30, an hour and a half early. Fortunately, Seagull Outfitters was just leaving with another crew and we asked them if they could come back right away. They did and we were picked up an hour early. This helped a lot since we would be losing an hour due to the time zone change as we travel home.

Back at Seagull Outfitters, we took a much needed shower, loaded up the van, said our good-bye’s and thanked them for their outstanding service. We stopped along the Gunflint Trail for a quick lunch and we were on our way home. In Grand Marais we were required to check in with the U.S. Customs office since we had re-entered the United States from Canada. This excursion took about an hour as the customs agent had to be called in from the local airport. This delay gave everyone a chance to re-connect with loved ones since we had re-entered civilization (cell phone and internet coverage). Once back on the road, we searched for the first Pizza Hut we could find so we could enjoy our traditional pizza dinner after our trip. After dinner, everyone just wanted to get home. Nick, Steve and Ellen did most of the driving home and I am thankful they were able to miss all of the suicidal deer in the Upper Peninsula. We pulled in our drive at 8:30 Sunday morning. Wow, what a trip, thank you Steve.

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