The first cast of the day was made at sunrise standing naked on the rocks and taking a leak while casting a popper against the shoreline and produced a fine fish which we filleted and ate for breakfast along with several pieces of burnt toast and blueberry jam and cups of steaming coffee. The campsite was quickly broken down and stowed away into the canoe and we dumped the canoe back into the tannic water and started paddling once again. There was a beach on the other side of the lake as well and from a distance we discerned the rectangular shape of a Yurt set up on shore. In the middle of the lake we encountered an elderly woman who was paddling a sea kayak and pulled up next to her for a friendly chat. Extremely fit and energetic, with a matronly disposition, Sheila must have been as old as my grandmother and she and her husband had been visiting the park for over twenty years and had rented a yurt for the entire summer. It was her second week in the Park and she said that the weather, usually unpredictable, had been spectacular. Before we departed company she confirmed the direction of Pickerel River and, as she pushed off, warned us of the dangers of prevailing west winds that sometimes blew through Pickerel Lake without notice and caused dangerous whitecaps.
While most people to come to Quetico for pleasure and recreation it is always critical to remember that one always ventures into the park on its own terms and there are plenty of dangers. While most people tend to be concerned with wolves or bears, the somewhat banal reality is that the weather is by far the most important element and probably responsible for more deaths in the park than any wild animals. I had remembered reading something about a great derecho that roared through the park almost ten years earlier to the day and carved a swath of destruction through the park and two provinces, before veering south again and petering out somewhere in Maine. The storm system that formed over North Dakota blew for over two days through both boundary water parks, uprooting a great corridor of trees, numbered in the tens of millions. Sixty people were injured and one was killed, crushed under a fallen tree. It must have seemed apocalyptic for those in the park over that Independance day weekend.
It is a sombre reminder that shit happens in Quetico that we have no control over and one can only minimize the inherent dangers by being sufficiently prepared for the worst scase scenarios, by remaining calm, making the right decisions and hoping for the best. Your best allies for survival in this wilderness are a good attitude, sharp axe, warm and waterproof clothing, an aptitude to accurately forecast weather, a high tolerance to suffering, and an ability to exercise sound judgement in what can sometimes be trying situations. While it is not as though the bush is an dangerous place, or that nature picks sides in what is a constant struggle, but rather that it is morally indifferent and largely unforgiving of error. Ego and pride will usually get you killed out in the wild. Ironically, good judgement comes from experience but experience usually comes from bad judgement. Out here we are all at the mercy of the land and the elements and of the limits of our mental and physical abilities to adapt and overcome.
But it didn’t look like a day where a derecho would blow through the park causing biblical devastation. There was not a cloud in the sky and barely a ripple on the lake as the canoe sliced through the water.
The mouth of the the other pickerel river was wider than the one we had mistakenly navigated a day earlier and its current was slower and easier to negotiate, as it slowly wended through a towering forest of jack pine, balsalm, and birch trees. The morning air was crisp and redolent with the scent of the damp forest floor. The boat quietly sliced upstream like an arrow through the crystalline water. A bald eagle flew overhead in narrowing concentric circles before finally perching in an invisible aerie somewhere high in the canopy of treetops. It was an idyllic place, one of great peace and serenity, unchanged by the malice of time, with the power to touch people and connect them to their primal state of nature.
After some time the river yawned and opened into large grassy bays that lay adjacent to the river. Our landmarks to the entrance of the lake were a solitary stand of tall pines near a beachhead and they suddenly appeared from the distance, like posted sentries on guard, as we rounded the last bend in the river. We stopped at the beachhead and we dove into the cold and refreshing water for a swim. This was the first time in days that we had washed and we used sand as soap to rub the grit and stench from our bodies. We stretched out naked on the sand and dried ourselves under the hot sun. As Dave rolled over on his stomach like a beached whale he revealed a pattern of blue and red criss-cross markings that were tattooed across his ass from the woven nylon canoe seat. It almost looked like someone had played a game of tic-tac-toe on his butt with a Sharpie as a practical joke or that he had plunked himself down on a hot pancake griddle. But what he couldn’t see didn’t bother him and he contented himself with a few Sagos and a bag of teryaki beef jerky while he admired the farmers tan on his arms.
The map showed many large islands on the lake, several of which were a great place for a campsite as they were in the middle of the lake and we decided on Lookout Island, in part because we liked the name, but also because of it’s proximty to the narrows section where we wanted to concentrate our fishing efforts. It was a two hour paddle away and although we could see it from a distance, it was like an optical illusion as our progress was slow, and we never seemed to gain any distance. We arrived at the island by mid-morning and immediately set up camp on the eastern tip, where we found a fire pit and a pile of firewood nearby that had been left by the last group that had camped out on the island. The gods of Qeutico were smiling upon us.
We headed back out onto the water with a few rods and some tackle, food and bottled water, and the camera. A few quick casts near a submerged rock produced a nice small bass that immediately went airborne when hooked. The camera captured the action perfectly and great care was given to releasing the fish unharmed in the water. It was my strong desire not to leave an impact on these waters or a carbon footprint in this place of great natural beauty. My goal was to leave it exactly the same way it was found for the next person who paddled along to enjoy.
Along one of the shorelines were several deadfalls that had fallen at odd angles into the water and were partially submerged in the deep water. There were smallmouth bass everywhere hiding in the shade of the trees and we lost count of how many fish were both landed and lost amidst the underwater brambles. They were all glorious and hard-fighting bronzebacks that first fought their battle deep and then unfailingly leapt towards the sun in their final bids for freedom.
On one of the many granite penninsulas that jutted out into the lake, we spotted a black bear foraging near the shoreline. It was scouting for plants, maybe blueberries, or maybe rooting for larvae or grubs and it didn’t seem to be too concerned or even aware of our presence. We followed him at a safe distance with the canoe as he lumbered through the brush and rocks, every so often stopping to sniff and paw at the roots sticking out of the ground or an uprooted stump, its great head rolling from side to side, before it disappeared into the dense forest.
We trolled back across the lake hoping to catch a walleye or lake trout that we could prepare for supper but there were no takers. Despite its namesake, the lake was not renowned for pickerel, but rather for its bass and lake trout, along with the huge pike that inhabit its waters. There are of course big pickerel as well but they were more difficult to locate and not as plentiful as one would think, although a friend’s wife had caught a fourteen pounder there on their first trip many years earlier.
The water was flat and the Wee-No-Nah glided effortlessly across the shimmering surface. There was a certain simplicity gracefulness, and perfection to the design of the canoe for these waters as they are perfectly suited to a wide variety of watery challenges. The greatest advantage of a canoe however, lies is not only in its ability to conquer all types of water but rather in its lightness and the ease with which it could be transported over land in order to access other waterways. The history of Canada and the canoe are inseperable as the birch bark canoe of the Indians played a key role in the discovery of the New World, as without the canoe travel in these parts of the country would largely have been impossible.
The afternoon passed quickly and by the time we paddled back towards our island at sunset we had captured and released close to fifty fish, but had seen nothing remotely as large as the forty pound pike the MNR biologists had netted in here a few years earlier during a research program on spawning sites for Northerns.
A fire was quickly lit and we boiled some water for our gourmet supper of freeze-dried beef stroganoff that was prepared and consumed right out of the sealed pouch. The only other ingredients required were some hot water and a fork. Each bag contained two adult servings but we each had our own and wolfed them down within minutes, just stopping short of eating the aluminium bag as well. These meals were high in protein and carbohydrates and were great fuel after a long day on the water burning thousands of calories. A few jars of tangerines, the first fruit we had eaten in weeks, and a few chocolate bars were dessert. A flask of Jack Daniels was produced from the folds of the dry bag and we sat silently atop a great rock ledge that overlooked the lake and listened to the melancholic cry of a loon as the red sun sank into the landscape, its final golden light streaking across the horizon.