The Rewards of a Father-Son Canoe Trip
This article first appeared in The Associated Press on Saturday, June 18, 2005. Written from a son’s perspective, this is a story that most all men can relate to. If you’re either a father or a son and enjoy the outdoors, this recollection of a wilderness experience shared by a son with his dad is sure to move you in ways that only the Quetico Provincial Park can.
Canadian Canoe Wilderness Trip Brings Father, Son Together
By JASON STRAZIUSO, Canadian Press
QUETICO PROVINCIAL PARK, Ontario (AP) – My father is not an outdoorsman. Before our trip through some of Canada’s best wilderness, he’d never even been in a canoe.
But last fall, my dad and I spent five days together in a five-metre boat, paddling through a beautiful, rugged and remote spot that’s easily accessible to Midwesterners: Quetico Provincial Park, the geological brother to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, just north of the border.
The trip would be a first for us, not only in terms of wilderness travel, but also in terms of time. I hadn’t spent five straight days with the old man since my parents divorced when I was eight.
Dad had resisted my invitations to go canoeing for years, but once he said yes, he went all out. He studied guide books. He hiked his neighbourhood with a pack on. He even practised his stroke in his garage, slicing a weighted paddle through the air.
In turn, I planned a trip through a gorgeous haven of wilderness, where pine trees and Canadian shield rock ring 6,216 square kilometres of large lakes and meandering rivers, spiced with monster rapids and sparkling waterfalls. A place where moose, bear, eagle and loon live a life of luxury, where no jetliners fly overhead and no motor boats are allowed.
Park rules allow only a limited number of paddlers to enter Quetico per day, one-tenth the number allowed into Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. That makes for a solitary trip – in a wonderful way. But it can also make for rough going over the park’s lesser-used portage trails.
My dad would call “rough going” an understatement. It was on day two that Quetico presented us with a 6.5-kilometre portage, a killer task requiring us to carry our canoe and three bulging packs over an ungroomed trail of jagged rock and slippery logs.
Afterward, we were whipped, and my 58-year-old pop was wondering why he let a 29-year-old plan a trip better suited for his college buddies. But my route left little time to rest, so we soon got back in our craft and paddled toward open water.
And then, just as we were turning a blind corner, a hulking bull moose came crashing into the shoreline’s shallows, within yards of our canoe. Of the half-dozen moose I’d seen on my four previous trips to Quetico, he was by far the biggest – at least as big as a horse – and he and his oversize rack were staring us down.
Fortunately, he decided we weren’t worth a fight, and the beast calmly moose-paddled to the opposite shore. After our three-hour death march, nature had rewarded us with an adrenaline-charged encounter that washed the fatigue away.
Much of Quetico’s beauty is that isolation. There are no roads. You paddle in, you paddle out. If you get seriously hurt deep inside the park, medical attention is hours – if not days – away. The park is so big – 96 kilometres by 64 kilometres, with more than 600 lakes – that on our Labour Day weekend trip we went three straight days without seeing another soul.
“I was overwhelmed by the vastness and the isolation, maybe just the beauty of it all,” my dad, Dan, told me afterward.
Our first day was wonderful, paddling through pristine pineland and portaging around a pounding waterfall. The sun shimmering, the wind at our back – life couldn’t have been better. My father, the rookie, did great.
After making camp, Dad pulled out his new fishing rod he’d been so excited about. Soon enough he reeled in a small pike – a bony, difficult-to-eat fish. We threw the shrimp back but, regrettably, had injured it. A seagull laboured to pull the flailing fish to land but quickly abandoned the effort.
We soon saw why.
A bald eagle had spread its wings and descended into the scene. The bird momentarily alighted on a nearby pine, then swooped down and snatched our wounded pike, carrying it off in its talons. Gorgeous.
Day two – overcast and damp – presented the 6.5-kilometre portage. In a bid to save time, I loaded us to the brim. But when your food pack is still heavy and the terrain so treacherous, 6.5 kilometres lasts a lifetime. In the end, I had to double back to get gear we couldn’t carry – a 19-kilometre hike total.
Later on, my father didn’t mince words.
“You’re halfway along and sit down and say, ‘This is a bunch of crap’,” he said, recalling the agony. “Well, what can you do about it? Quit? You’re 500 miles from home, you’re 20 miles from the nearest person. There’s no option.”
Months after we laid down our paddles, I asked Dad what his favourite part of the trip was. I thought maybe he’d say the open water, the moose, the eagle, or the three fish he caught.
Instead he turned quiet and answered it the best way he could have: “I guess spending five days with my son. I guess it’s a highlight of being a father.” And though I couldn’t quite tell, I think he wiped a tear away.
It mirrored a moment I’d had on the trip, one he certainly must have detected but – following the father-son code – never mentioned.
On our very last early morning portage, I paused to look back over the misty water, snapping a mental picture of the water my father and I had just paddled, a great memory to have for any son, especially one from a divorced family. Tears rolled down my cheek.
“I tell everybody that it is the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I say that with pride, not with complaint,” my dad told me later. “I want to say, dads, I suppose you could say moms, you ought to do this with your sons. What a great experience.”
If You Go…
Getting there: Starting points for trips to Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) are from Ely and Grand Marais, Minn. Outfitters in both cities will sell you maps, rent canoes and even prepare your food. Public transportation not available. We flew to Duluth, Minn., and drove a rental car 100 miles north.
Father-son trips: Seagull Outfitters in Grand Marais offers a five-day father-son fishing trip, $625 US a person, through September; https://www.seagulloutfitters.com or 218-388-2216.
BWCA or Quetico? Seagull Outfitters suggests the BWCA for beginners and Quetico for those wanting a heartier trip. Want solitude? Choose Quetico. It has 809,400 hectares and allows only 20,000 visitors per year. The BWCA has half that area and allows 250,000 visitors annually.
When to go: June and July are popular fishing months. August is good for swimming (beware the crowds). Choose September or later for no bugs and few people.
Tips: Americans travelling to Quetico from the U.S. need a Remote Area Border Crossing permit (RABC). Park reservations also needed, $21.50 per night per person. Call (888) 668-7275 or visit http://www.ontarioparks.com. THE BWCA requires an entry permit, a one-time fee per person of $16.
Cost: A fully outfitted trip to the BWCA, including food and canoe rental, costs about $100 a day per person.. For Quetico plan on $125+ per day.