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Journey to Quetico – Part 1

FORTIFIED BY A MIXTURE STRONG BLACK COFFEE AND ADRENALINE we drove for two straight days along the old Voyager Trail up the Ottawa River to North Lake and then northwards around and over two of the Great lakes before the first signs for Quetico and the many outfitters that serviced the National Park began to appear on the side of the highway. While we were headed for Atikokan some of the outfitters were located near the entrance of the historic Dawson trail that had first opened up the travel route a hundred years ago from the U.S to Northern Canada and which had once been the only transportation route through to the Western Prairie provinces.

The Voyagers of the New World, searching for both new lands to exploit the lucrative beaver trade and a passage to the West coast, had been the first Europeans to explore this region and the very origins of the name Quetico, which until today still remains a subject of mystery and conjecture to historians, was perhaps derived from the French «quete de la cote» which translates into «quest for the coast».  Another possible meaning for the name Quetico comes from the shortening of the Quebec Timber Co., a lumber company which was said to have operated a mill in the park despite the fact there is no official record of their existence in the park archives. The First Nations people also provide a third possible meaning of Quetico, derived from the Ojibwe name that they gave to the benevolent spirit that lives in the forest and watched over it, ensuring the mantenance of its balance and harmony.

Quetico owes its existence to the rare and enlightened political foresight of both American and Canadian governments, led by the initiative of President Teddy Roosevelt, the former Rough Rider and outdoorsman, who had also established the National Park system in the United States. It was only a few months after he created the Superior National Forest that Frank Cochrane, then minister, fulfilled an earlier promise to set aside a similar portion of adjacent land in Canada, thus creating the Quetico Forest and Game Reserve in 1913. And while some limited mining and logging operations were still permitted in the park, by the mid-fifties most mining and prospecting were banned and by the early seventies all logging operations had ceased. The park area is vast and pristine, covering almost five thousand square kilometers and with over six hundred lakes and countless rivers, it is easy to understand why it is a world class destination for canoeists and campers alike and anyone else seeking wild and beautiful places.   

Atikokan is unofficially known as the canoeing capitol of Canada and most of the local service businesses other than the bank or grocery store are seasonal and cater to the tourists visiting the park. The town looks like an old western town crossed with a California surf town, laid-back and dusty, with First Nation bohemian overtones. With the exception of the main road in town most of the roads remain unpaved and all the buildings along the main strip were mostly wood and brick construction, two storey commercial buildings with rental rooms upstairs, and painted with colorful murals done in Ojibwe motifs depicting the elements of nature.  It is a pretty cool, laid-back place and every second car had a dreamcatcher hanging from the rearview mirror and a canoe strapped down to the top of their roof. 

Our outfitter, Canoe Canada, was at the other end of town and hard to miss as the front yard was covered with every variety and size of canoe and kayak imaginable. There must have been hundreds of canoes lying inert on the grass and in the many storage racks that surrounded the building. A large yellow fiberglass one was laid down on its side near the entrance.  Emblazoned in great bold black letters across its side was the logo Wee-No-Nah. It was a big eighteen footer and wider than most, with a stable flat ribbed bottom capable of supporting close to eight hundred pounds, and equipped with fiberglass seats and backrests. The Cadillac of flatwater canoes.

My partner had limited experience with canoes and didn’t think he would be able to fit into the seat comfortably and when he gave it a test run on dry land, he immediately capsized it onto the grass and had a hard time getting out and up on his feet again. A master of understatement, he then expressed his lack of confidence in the seaworthiness of this particular canoe and its ability to support our weight, and was only slightly reassured when told that they usually have better stability in the water than on land. The line of reasoning didn’t seem to convince him and an anxious look of desperation began forming in his eyes. It was the widest and longest canoe available and the only thing that could possibly render it more stable would be by lashing another one to its side and creating a makeshift catamaran.  But at fifty dollars a day for the additional rental this was not going to be an option.

They had been expecting us inside the lodge and all the paperwork had been prepared and was waiting for us at the front desk. We had been the last ones to check in for the day. Lauren signed us in and handed over all the neccesary permits to gain entrance into the park: maps, checklists, and even a complementary yellow garbage recycling bag that we were instructed to use to haul out all our trash that could not be properly burned. We went through the long list of park regulations and then she directed us towards one of the storage rooms in the back for life preservers and oars, as well as a roof rack for the canoe. The hallway leading to the storage section was covered with old black and white photos of earlier expeditions into the park, some that dated back to the beginning of the century, as well as hundreds of broken wooden canoe paddlles that were all signed and dated by the parties that had resigned them to the wall for posterity. Some had short testimonials inscribed such as  Quetico is Eden, or Best time ever!

 There were also a variety of stuffed animals – fox, lynx, badger, wolves, bear, and a beaver – hanging from the wall and the rafters in naturalized poses and a giant moose head stood guard at the entrance to the backroom. A glass presentation case with four large stuffed smallmouth bass on a stringer graced the log wall and was assured to raise any bass fishermans blood pressure a few notches. Lauren told me there used to be six of them but two got stolen at a show they attended in the mid-west a few years ago. These fish had all been caught in the narrows section of Pickerel Lake, the exact place we were headed.  

Once we had all our accessories picked out we headed into the study room and met with Derek, one of the young wilderness guides who was assigned to review our route with us on the map and point out any difficult or long portages along the way. Our leg was pretty straightforward. The closest route involved putting in at the Ranger station at French Lake, heading in a westerly direction until we reached the sand beach near the mouth of Pickerel River, and then paddling upriver for about three kilometers until we reach the lake. Derek mentioned that we could find several good campsites scattered around the lake’s shoreline but that the best ones were usually situated on some of the islands.

We then proceeded outdoors to get the canoe and sure enough it was the Wee-No-Nah that was lying next to the entrance. Derek and I loaded the canoe onto the rooftop of the truck and secured it with rope and tie-downs until we were both satisfied that it wouldn’t tumble off somewhere onto the Atikokan Highway. It was already late afternoon when we pulled away in a cloud of dust from the outfitters and drove to the General Store for supplies before heading towards the park. A half hour later, our inventories replenished with some food, water, and fresh ice blocks, the truck raced back towards the French Lake entrance, some forty kilometers back up the same road we had just travelled.

The parking lot was full of vehicles but there was not a single person in sight. The cars had all seemingly been there several days as a thin film of dust covered their hoods and windshields like hoarfrost. Their owners we all out paddling somewhere in the park. The weather was beautiful, a cloudless day with no discernible winds, a perfect flatwater day, ideal for canoe travel. The gear was quickly unloaded near the trailhead and stowed inside the canoe and portaged down the short trail that led to the sandy beach.  After double-checking to verify that nothing critical had been left behind or forgotten, and that our compass and map were within easy reach, we shoved the canoe into the water and began paddling towards the eastern shoreline of the lake in search of Pickerel River.

We had crossed it twice from above the highway earlier in the day so we basically knew in which direction to paddle without consulting the map. Derek had also confirmed that it was a kilometer east of the put-in and that the beach was next to the river. Within fifteen minutes the sandy brown shoreline came into sight and we pointed the nose of the canoe towards it and paddled as hard as our bodies would allow.

It took us another half hour to hit the shoreline and we paddled up along the beach, passing a group of young kids swimming and playing frisbee on the sand, until we arrived at the mouth of the Pickerel river. It was wide and slow moving, a grassy river with such crystal clear water that you could see the fish scattering from underneath the bow of the intruding canoe.  The river meandered through lush boreal forests that abounded with life of all forms and we saw a few eagles flying overhead and saw some deer drinking on shore as we silently rounded one of the many bends in the river. It was so peaceful and serene. The only sounds were the songbirds in the trees, the hushed tones of rushing water lapping gently against the bow of the canoe, an orchestra of crickets invisible in the grass that performed a concerta, and the splash of the paddle as it it worked its way through the water.

The rivers character soon changed and as it gradually narrowed its resolve strengthened and it became increasingly difficult to control the canoe and keep its nose pointed straight upriver. The current became stronger and the weight of all our gear was beginning to strain our arms and shoulders. There was close to six hundred pounds loaded and lashed down to the center of the canoe, under the seats, and in the bow. A few deadfalls blocked our passage which neccesitated us to beach the boat and portage it along the rocky riverbank. It was a hellish trek even though the canoe slid easily over the wet round rocks and slick tall grass on shore. We repeated this operation twice before arriving at the bridge, where we discovered that the water was too shallow for the canoe, six inches at most but all of it fast-running water.  Dave stumbled from the canoe and walked along the shoreline while I attempted to haul it over the rapids towards the deeper water above the bridge.  The cold water deepened in the pool above of the bridge and within seconds there was white water splashing around my waistline. This was not in the brochure. Nobody had mentioned anything about rapids.

While our position seemed legitemate we began to entertain serious doubts about our whereabouts and made a decision to beach the canoe and walk to the road to verfiy the sign on the bridge. Sure enough, it read in bold white block letters that stood out on the forest green background,  PICKEREL RIVER.  This was the right place and we both figured that the lake couldn’t be that much further upriver. The canoe was unceremoniously dumped back into the river and the  upstream journey continued by foot, a procedure that took us seemingly forever to gain any ground at all against the relentless surge of water that hurried on its course towards the lake. A hundred yards and a world of heartache later we arrived at the base of a small set of slate falls that looked almost like a flooded stairwell, and noticed that further above there was an entire series of these falls that cascaded down through a steep rocky gorge. There was no way that this section could be portaged. There was not a single human being alive, including the old Voyagers, as tough as they were, that could portage through or around this cul-de-sac without a enduring a suffering of biblical proportion. We stopped to rest for a moment, lit a smoke, and took stock of our situation. It was difficult to accept that we had driven so far, had come so close, and had dreamt so long about a place only to be stopped by a kilometer of rapids.

Somewhat hopefully,we speculated that perhaps there was in fact a portage route somewhere alongside the river and we hauled the boat ashore once again to inspect our surroundings. Around thirty feet off the side of the riverbank, barely visible through the thick scrub and bramble, there was in fact a rudimentary dirt trail, which was perhaps a possible portage route. I left Dave behind with the boat and began following the path that eventually snaked a course away from the river and deeper into the forest, walking for a kilometer or so before realizing the physical impossibility of portaging such a great distance with so much gear. I ran back to the canoe as fast as my legs would allow with the double intent of  both saving some time and keeping  the ravenous mosquitoes and blackflies away from me. The sun would be setting in a few hours and it was imperative to get off the river and set up a campsite before dark.  Before putting the canoe back in we double-checked the map which indicated that while we were indeed on Pickerel River there were several rivers with the same name and had paddled up the one at the wrong end of the lake.

Upon closer inspection the map revealed that there were several rivers with the same name and that we had mistakingly headed up the wrong one, leading to Little Eva Lake. Our Pickerel river lay on the furthermost western shoreline of French lake which meant that basically we needed to turn the boat downstream and traverse French Lake to the river on the western shoreline. The sun was beginning to drop in the sky and we were pressed for time as the mosquitoes and other insects in the river had picked up our scent and were beginning to form in thick clouds above the canoe, so many that we had to cover our mouths and noses with bandanas to keep from inhaling them into our lungs. There was an unspoken yet urgent need to find ourselves a suitable area to set up campsite before nightfall.

The trip downstream was facilitated by the same strong current that had slowed our journey upstream and within a short time we were delivered from its mouth into the waters of French Lake and paddling madly across its placid surface, racing against a fiery sun that slowly dropped from the crimson sky. With each labored stroke and muscle spasm the wooden paddle had now become my sworn enemy.  Blisters had formed on my palms and with each stroke of the paddle the vertebrae in my back crackled angrily like radio static. With each stroke of the paddle the lines of history in this timeless place collapse upon themselves and the one motivating thought that kept me moving forward was the thought of La Verendrye’s Voyagers, the first Europeans that travelled this area two hundred years earlier, perhaps along this very route, and of the privation and hardships they most certainly endured along their journey.

 As a part of his daily regimen, a Voyager was expected to paddle a fully loaded canoe at an average rate of fifty-five strokes per minute over a fourteen hour day, and that they were required to be able to carry at least one hundred and eighty pounds slung onto their backs over long and arduous portages. Historical journals indicate that they ate twice daily, in the morning and late in the evenings, and slept an average of seven hours per day. It was no wonder most suffered from malnutrition and scurvy, were bowlegged and herniaed, and usually died at a young age.

The canoe reached a small island just as the orange sun melted into the mountains, the clouds that rested wearily against the darkening horizon suddenly exploded into a thousand shafts of light that glowed like the burning embers of a celestial fire. It was a glorious moment and while we were greatly relieved as we pulled the canoe up onto a rock ledge and the safety of land. The tents were quickly set up between a stand of jack pines where a thick bed of spongy and soft moss carpeted the forest floor like a soft bed roll.

We gathered up some firewood and started preparing supper, grilling the steaks that had been bought earlier that day in Atikokan.  Some peas, small potatoes, and corn were all dumped pell-mell into a crock pot and placed at the edge of the embers. Within a minute it was sizzling and steaming and we ate it directly from the pot with our spoons, each taking turns wolfing it down. The steaks vanished as well and we were both still left famished. Dave had stached a box of Whippet’s from his bag and we devoured the entire box staring out into the darkness of the lake and listened to a loon noisily courting its mate. A few cigarettes and a liter of water later and we both stumbled into our respective tents for some well needed rest. My sleeping bag was warm and cocoon-like and as I drifted off into a deep sleep, my last thoughts turned to the Voyagers and the brutal hardships of their lives which were in constant peril and danger, and how I had doubted very much they had Whippets along their journey to comfort them..

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