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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

Hunter's Island Dream Trip by Jon Williams

The first weekend in June arrived before we knew it. My friend, Brian Luers, and I had waited for years to make this trip and now we were finally leaving our homes in southeast Iowa to make the eleven hour drive to the end of the Gunflint Trail.

Even though we were two guys in our middle forties we were both filled with the excitement of a couple of 16 year olds! It turns out we'd both been wanting to do the famed Hunter's Island loop for years but didn't realize that the other was looking for a partner to do the trip.

I'd been hoping to do this trip ever since my first real outdoor experience up north occurred on my honeymoon fifteen years ago when my wife, Jane, and I backpacked Isle Royale together for the first time. On the way home from that trip I picked up a copy of Robert Beymer's book, A Paddler's Guide to the Quetico Provincial Park. That book served as a trip compass pointing the way to many canoeing adventures my wife and I would have over the next several years.

My fingers kept finding their way back to the Hunter's Island route and I hoped that someday this trip could be on our vacation agenda. Jane has always enjoyed our 7-10 day trips but she thought that I should probably find a different partner for a trip of this magnitude. So I put the thought of that trip on the backburner of my mind.

Meanwhile, I had become reacquainted with Brian, an old friend of mine, whose experiences up north included 12 years of canoeing and lake trout fishing in the Beaverhouse area of northwest Quetico. One day we were hashing over our latest canoeing trips when he mentioned that he would sure like to find someone to do the Hunter's Island loop. And, at first, I couldn't believe what I was hearing! I remember asking him if he were serious. And he replied that he'd been looking for someone to do that trip with ever since a Canadian ranger in the Beaverhouse area had told him about it years ago. Eureka! The planning began immediately.

We had all of our own equipment but I asked Brian if he had ever used an outfitter for his food supply. He hadn't so I told him that Jane and I had been using an outfitter since our first trip and were very happy with the food they provided. He thought it sounded like a good idea and readily agreed after hearing about the great meal choices we'd experienced in our food pack. Of course, the nicest thing about that decision was that there was now one very large task we wouldn't have to worry about in preparing for our long trip.

After several more months of looking at our maps, and memorizing Beymer's suggestions, we were off! We arrived at our outfitters, on the end of the Gunflint Trail, in the early evening and were promptly filled in on the latest weather and fishing information by the owners. After checking in to their bunkhouse lodge we headed back down the road a few miles to enjoy a gourmet meal at the Gunflint Lodge. After dinner we returned to the outfitters to spend the evening going over our equipment list one last time and pouring over the maps for our first day on the water.

The Trip!

June 5th-- We woke to clear blue skies and not a breath of wind. We couldn't believe our trip was starting out with such good weather! Was this a sign of good things to come? We hoped so. We began our trip as most folks do, with a launch ride out to Hook Island, and it didn't take us long to arrive at the Cache Bay ranger station. There we learned that an individual had drowned on Sag just a few days before. This was a poignant reminder. In the wilderness a mistake can sometimes have fatal results.

We chatted with Janice Matichuk, the Cache Bay ranger, about water safety and campfire regulations in the Knife Lake region where there was currently a fire ban. She was happy to hear that we were doing the Hunter's Island route and mentioned that hardly anyone canoes that loop anymore. After paying our camping fees, and for our fishing licenses, Janice also gave us some helpful information on high water travel through the Falls Chain and we bid her farewell.

Silver Falls would be our next stop. On our way to the Falls we paddled through a narrow section of water that, according to Beymer, was the site of a Cree ambush of the Ojibway tribe many years ago. One could easily understand how this area was a good spot for a surprise. Tall cliffs filled with trees made it an ideal spot for an ambush. But not today.

Arriving at Silver Falls is an experience you won't forget. It is a spectacle of roaring white water cascading down 30 feet or more to the rapids below. A couple of overlook spots provided us with excellent photo opportunities and just plain looking at this incredible waterway. Portaging around the rugged falls didn't take too long and we were soon on our way down Saganagons Lake paddling through water as smooth as silk. While looking for Dead Man's Portage, across the Boundary Point peninsula, we found ourselves watching a sharp-shinned hawk chasing an immature bald eagle away from it's nesting tree. Up to that point we'd seen several loons, some hooded mergansers, and one group of green-winged teal. It appeared that seeing wildlife wouldn't be a problem on this trip.

Soon we were arriving at our first Falls Chain portage. Thanks to Janice's tips we had no problem portaging around any of the falls. Travelling through this area can be dangerous, especially early in the canoeing season, so we followed the updates that were provided at the ranger station. And we wanted to take our time going through the Falls Chain anyway as all of the falls are incredible! This area was burned by a big forest fire that went through a few years ago but we were able to see how quickly things can grow after a fire when provided with enough moisture.

Our first camp would be between the first and second group of falls. After a hearty dinner of turkey stroganoff and rice pudding we paddled to the base of the falls for some fishing. We were rewarded with some nice sized pike and a walleye of about 3-4 pounds. After fishing, and supper, we secured our canoe on shore and hung our food pack before settling in for a cup of our favorite brew ... coffee, hot chocolate, and Irish Cream Liquer. It seemed a fitting way to celebrate the good beginning to our trip. And I was entertained, before we turned in, by the loons answering Brian's effective loon calling!

June 6th-- This particular Tuesday morning found us arising from our sleeping bags at 5:30 am. We noticed that it started to get light about 3:30 am and had gotten completely dark, the night before, by10 pm. After a good breakfast of pancakes we set out to tackle the rest of the Falls Chain.

We had to keep a sharp eye out to recognize the portages in the high water and often had to make very quick decisions on how to hit our landing spot. On the Koko Falls portage we found a recently killed ruffed grouse that was missing it's head. It appeared as though someone's meal had been interrupted. On the muddy portage trail we saw a set of bear tracks amidst many deer tracks.

As we entered Atkins Bay the wind started to pick up even though it was another sunny day in the mid-70's. We enjoyed spotting several bald eagles as we paddled down Kawnipi Lake. We made our way around to the north side of Rose Island and came up just short of the Shelly Lake portage. Our campsite was in an area where a swift current wrapped itself around a small island. While cooking our pork chops for supper we were delighted to be entertained by a family of three otters. They glided through the water right in front of our camp. After cleaning up the dinner dishes we donned our headnets and explored the shoreline for some good fishing. We found some, too, including one smallmouth over 4 pounds that Brian took on a topwater lure!

June 7th-- Today we awoke to gray skies for the first time. So we made a quick breakfast and bid farewell to the magnum force mosquitos. We enjoyed paddling through the strong current down to our first portage and had smooth going through Shelly Lake, Snake Falls, the infamous Have-A-Smoke portage, and into Keats Lake. The bald eagles and ospreys were taking advantage of the winds today and floated easily along beside us.

Splitrock Falls was truly mesmerizing. But our daydreams were soon interrupted by rain drops and we were forced to don our rain gear as we portaged into Chatterton Lake. We had expected to see very few people in this area but actually saw canoes on most of the lakes we passed through. We talked with some fishermen for a while and they advised us to avoid the Chatterton Falls portage so we backtracked and found a nice alternative portage into Russell Lake instead.

The air temperature dropped with the cloud cover and cooled down to the lower 50's which made it very comfortable for paddling and portaging. We stopped for lunch on some rocks, as usual, and, while talking, realized just how many beautiful areas we had gone through already! Every new lake and falls has been followed by ''wows'' and we often laugh at our own excitement.

Once again we enjoyed scooting through the rapids into Sturgeon Lake but the returning sunshine brought with it a pretty stiff wind that seemed to increase in intensity as we looked for a campsite. We hoped it would keep the bugs off us for the rest of the evening anyway. We found a nice campsite on a point that overlooked most of the lake and soon were gorging ourselves on bratwurst and beef stroganoff. We enjoyed the final moments of sunlight with a spectacular sunset. We were tired and had to call it a day at ten o'clock.

June 8th-- We woke up early again today. At 3:30 am we peeked out the door of the tent. Starting to get light out. As we ate breakfast we discussed how long it was going to take to get down to the other end of Sturgeon Lake. We were hoping to make it in four hours. We had heard that Sturgeon Lake can be a tough paddle if the wind picks up because the lake is very shallow. We decided to go for it early since there was not a breath of wind. Our paddles broke the still water at 5:30 am.

Travelling down the lake was dream-like. The water was as smooth as glass. In an hour and a half we had seen 3 swimming beavers, one large deer browsing on shore, and one deer swimming out in the middle of the lake. And not one person! We decided then and there to start doing all of our travelling earlier in the day.

Before we knew it we were at the other end of the lake. It had only taken us two and a half hours to reach our next campsite. And it was another wonderful campsite overlooking the main part of the lake and close to our first portage the next day.

Since we had the rest of the day to play we set out to try our fishing luck. The fishing was good and we caught several nice smallmouth bass and a few pike. As we made our way over to a flat rock to clean our fish Brian decided to do some jigging for walleyes. And, the next thing I know, our canoe is being pulled all over the lake by some monster that Brian hooked in to! This fish would not come off the bottom. We began to joke that it was probably a sturgeon. It took the fish about 25 minutes of pulling us around to tire out. Brain was finally able to lift it off the bottom and out of the water. It was a sturgeon! We estimated it's weight to be between 30-35 pounds. After a few quick pictures he released it after making sure it was able to swim away under it's own power.

Since we'd been up since dawn we went back to camp and had a nice shore lunch of fresh smallmouth bass. After that we took a nap. We awoke to find a complete change in wind intensity and direction. So, after supper, we prepared all of our gear and our tent for the storm we knew was coming. The night was filled with thunder, lightning, rain, and high winds. The morning arrived and brought with it some cooler temperatures. We slept in until the last of the storm had passed and then broke camp after a quick breakfast.

June 9th-- After our first portage of the day we entered the Maligne River. And what a beautiful river it was! We portaged around a couple of falls and rapids and ran five sets of rapids downstream a ways. And we couldn't help but notice the many beaver lodges we zoomed by between rapids.

We soon entered Tanner Lake which, according to Beymer, was named after a white boy who was captured by the Ojibway Indians and then adopted by one of the Ojibway families. He lived with the tribe for 30 years before he had an accident and was left for dead at the Tanner rapids. He was later found and rescued by men from the Hudson's Bay Company and taken to Rainy Lake.

Now we had to make a decision. To follow one river fork towards Twin Falls and Lac La Croix or the opposite one to Minn Lake, McAree Lake, and then into Lac La Croix. We decided to follow the Minn Lake fork and found the first two portages to be non-existent. This was probably due to the number of beaver dams and lodges in this area. We made our way over two extremely large beaver dams and around the countless beaver lodges that dotted these lakes. And that day the beaver had some company in the form of two young adult moose. We were as quiet as we could be and were able to get some good photographs of the pair of feeding moose.

Our last portage, on that day, was a 90 rod affair that looked as though no one uses it anymore. It was very overgrown and full of both moose and wolf tracks and scat. A wonderful breeze greeted us as we paddled into Minn Lake and we commented to each other about the beautiful day we were having. We felt lucky when we ran across a great island campsite with some exceptionally large red pines on it. After supper, while the water for our after-dinner drinks was heating, we noticed some movement down the shore a ways. Upon investigation we found a large female painted turtle laying her eggs on our island! We watched her for a while and then left her to her business.

June 10th-- This particular Saturday morning delivered high winds, rain, and some very cool temperatures. So we stoked our personal furnaces with pancakes, bacon, and hot coffee. I walked down to the turtle incubation site to find our painted turtle replaced by a large female snapping turtle laying her eggs! Our island must certainly be the turtle hot spot!

We didn't leave our wonderful campsite until noon that day but the wind was with us so in no time flat we were portaging into Lac La Croix. We felt as though our trip was about half finished as we would now begin paddling in a south-easterly direction.

Lac La Croix was in a very cool and misty mood this day. So we kept an even closer eye on our maps and compass. Lac La Croix not only has many islands but the weather made it difficult to see very clearly. The mist did let up enough to allow us to see and photograph the pictographs however. The vertical slabs were covered with painted handprints of all sizes and Brian and I wondered if maybe a family or small tribe had made the prints. Perhaps as a mark that this was their territory. We may never know.

The mist then started up again which was our signal to move on. And as we did a thunderstorm approached us and we went ashore and huddled under our tarp to wait out the downpour that came with it. After that we made the portage into Iron Lake under a raw and misty sky. While warming ourselves around the fire that evening we went over our plans for the next day and soon retired into our nice dry tent.

June 11th-- This was one of those mornings when you just wanted to sleep in. However, we had gotten used to getting up early so we got moving at 5:00 am. We faced a cold southeast wind and heavy drizzle but before we left a Cooper's hawk buzzed our campsite, chirping as she flew by, so that brightened our spirits considerably.

The mist soon turned into fog which made navigation even more difficult. However, we found our way, and with some strong paddling we made it up a set of rapids without a problem. And the next portage lead us to Curtain Falls. WOW! This was even more impressive than Silver Falls! Watching tons of water slide over the rocks at the top and then explode over the boulders below is truly a site to behold. And the sound was nearly deafening.

After a short break at the Falls we moved on to Crooked Lake and quickly realized how it got its name. Traveling down the lake you change directions many times as you thread your way among the many islands. Several times we were forced to stop and look at the map and compass to make sure we were paddling in the right direction.

With the mist finally letting up we decided to wet a line and trolled our way back to Wednesday Bay. We took a short cut through a bottleneck and as we came out of the fast current I had a big strike! This fish was stripping line off my reel so fast I was hoping I had enough line. After a 20 minute fight I was finally able to bring the fish close to the canoe. Brian had trouble lifting the huge pike into the canoe but he finally did and we took a quick picture and put him gently back in the water. I held him by the tail, moving him carefully back and forth, and then, suddenly, the water exploded and he was gone! We were both happy to see that huge fish swim off so quickly.

Onward to Moose Bay where we found a fantastic campsite right at the entrance to the bay. We set up camp quickly and headed right out to try for some fresh fish for supper. We had great action with the smallmouth bass and kept enough for a good meal. As Brian filleted our catch we noticed a bald eagle landing in the tree above us, waiting his turn for a meal. We left the fish remains on a large rock for the eagle and it took him no time at all to swoop down and grab one of the carcasses. Then a raven flew down and tried to drag some of the fish off into the woods. But he was having a hard time of it and kept squawking in frustration. We had a good laugh over his antics. Our smallmouth were accompanied that night by garlic mashed potatoes and we were happy campers when we finally hit the sack about 9:30 pm.

June 12th-- Five thirty a.m. found us surrounded by cold, windy weather so we warmed up with a quick oatmeal and coffee breakfast and then we were on the water. Our destination that morning was the set of pictographs on the Basswood River. We found them easily and they were very impressive. Perhaps the best showing on the whole trip. They were readily seen on a flat, vertical wall of granite; human figures, birds, bears, pelicans, handprints, and a canoe full of people.

This day was turning out to be very beautiful as the sun showed itself brightly in between the fast moving clouds. And we found ourselves at the longest portage of our trip; Basswood Falls, 340 rods long. And even though it's long the trail is pretty level and an excellent trail for walking. At this time of year the path was flanked by many large ferns and wildflowers. Tall red pines, scattered birch trees, and old white pines surrounded the portage. And all the scenery made for a welcome distraction to the long portage.

A water and snack break was a welcome relief at the end of the trail. And Basswood Falls was worth the effort to see. We took several photos and once again marveled at the power and beauty of the waterfalls in this region. We left the Falls in a stiff headwind but kept up a steady pace as we rounded King's and Canadian Points into the English Channel. So we ended up at the Prairie Portage ranger station, tired from paddling.

We stopped for a while at the ranger station and visited with Carrie, the park ranger on duty there. She was very helpful and filled us in on the latest weather and fire ban reports. We also talked with her at length about the history of the Hunter's Island route, including the competitive racing that used to occur on the route. She then radioed Janice, the ranger at Cache Bay, to tell her we had made it to Prairie Portage and also to inform her of our sturgeon experience on Sturgeon Lake as it was something we had asked Janice about when beginning our trip. We thanked Carrie for all the information and bid her farewell as we set our sights on a campsite on Birch Lake.

We realized, as we shoved off, that the toughest sections of the trip were now over and that we would soon be entering the storm damaged section of the trip. We were anxioius to see that area. Camp and dinner were made quickly and we found enough energy to do some fishing before we turned in. We caught and released some nice smallmouth but both of us were dead tired after our long day. As we dropped onto our sleeping bags we watched the beautiful rising of the full moon above us.

June 13th-- The day was quite cool, and gray, when we left Birch Lake that morning. And our portage into Knife Lake was one I wouldn't soon forget. I was startled half way through by a mother ruffed grouse and her chicks. They flew from one side of the trail to the other, passing right in front of my face. Then the mother jumped onto a downed tree next to the trail and started strutting around and clucking up a storm. I grabbed for my camera but I'd left it back with the other packs! So I set my pack down and ran for my camera just as Brian ran into the scolding mother, too. His camera was put away in another pack as well and by the time I got back the family had moved on to a safer spot in the woods. We laughed at the encounter and the fact that this was the one time our cameras were out of reach! But it was still a real treat as it was the first time either of us had the pleasure of seeing young ruffed grouse chicks.

We moved on down the long expanse of Knife Lake and decided to have lunch at the top of Thunder Point, the scenic overlook. What a magnificent view! We spent some time there, taking pictures and observing the differences of the storm damage between the U.S. and Canadian side of the border.

To get to our destination of Kekekabic Lake we had to portage through Bonnie, Spoon, and Pickle Lakes. There we found massive destruction to the larger trees in the area but the younger trees appeared to have survived quite well. We figured with these younger trees getting full sun that it wouldn't be long before the area was landscaped with tall trees again. The wildflowers were once again beautiful, varied, and widespread.

Paddling across whitecaps on the big ''K'' lake we searched for a campsite that my wife and I had spent time at on another trip. And since we had been told that the lake trout were holding in shallow water we decided to try our luck right away. In no time at all we were into the lakers. After catching several three to four pound fish we cleaned up a couple and began our dinner of fresh lake trout, garlic mashed potatoes, and, of course, our dessert of Apple d'Lite. After supper, and dishes, Brian practiced several owl calls and two different great grey owls answered him! Then the loons serenaded us as we turned in and fell fast asleep.

June 14th-- Today we awoke to a steady rain but calm winds. We weren't moving camp this day so it didn't really matter to us. And the rain eventually stopped after lunch. After a late, and hearty, breakfast of lake trout and oatmeal we headed out again for a day of fishing. I was in heaven on Kek because lakers are my favorite fish in the canoe country. They are a beautifully colored fish and no matter how you prepare them they have a slighty sweet flavor! Bass and walleye are mighty tasty but I'll take the native lakers anyday.

We had an extraordinary day of fishing that day. In fact, we caught so many lake trout we completely forgot about the time. However, we did keep an eye on the darkening sky and soon spotted an approaching thunderstorm. We made a hasty retreat to camp and waited out the thunder storm in the tent. And after a fairly brief shower we enjoyed another supper of lake trout, hash browns, and good ol' Apple Betty. Eating like this, in the outdoors, just can't be beat. While finishing up we watched another storm make it's way across the lake and a spectacular sunset as a result.

June 15th-- A typical June day today; cool temps, high winds, and steady rain. But, about 9:00 am, the rain stopped so we put on our rain gear, packed up camp, and set off down the lake. We met strong head winds but, as we rounded a point, we sort of ''came about'' and suddenly had this strong wind at our backs so we were surfing down the lake. Wow! We flew down Kekekabic in no time at all.

This sector was hit pretty hard in the blowdown storm of 1999 but all of the portages through to Jasper Lake were in excellent shape. We could see how incredibly difficult the job must have been in clearing a way through right after the storm. And we mentally thanked all of the folks who had risked their lives to open these trails for us.

That night we made camp on the southeast side of Jasper Lake. We checked out a small bay where a stream entered the lake but the fishing had really shut down for us. We were just about to give up when we heard some splashing on the other side of the stream behind some thick brush. A few minutes later we were surprised to see a cow moose, and her calf, walk right out into the stream. They spotted us, of course, and made their way up the bank but stopped and browsed on vegetation while keeping an eye on us. We watched them for about 15 minutes before heading back to camp.

Back at camp we ate dinner and then braved the cool misty day by washing up. It felt good to get really clean and put fresh clothes on for a change. As we did some housekeeping with our clothes and other gear inside the tent we talked about the trip and how much fun it had been. Both of us knew our adventure was getting close to being over but neither of us wanted to say it out loud. The steady hum of mosquito squadrons was the last thing we heard before drifting off to sleep.

June 16th-- Today was another mid-June sort of day; cold, rainy, and windy. So we didn't feel bad about getting out of camp after 10:30 a.m.. We didn't have that far to go anyway. We portaged around the waterfalls into Alpine Lake and stopped to take some pictures of the falls and the pretty wildflowers along the trail. The most prevalent wildflower of our trip was the Canadian Dogwood (bunchberry) and they were in full bloom towards the end of our trip.

Our last portage was over to Seagull Lake. Our cameras came out to record the end of the portage. We both smiled and knew it was the trip of a lifetime. And we couldn't think of a more beautiful lake than Seagull to end a trip like ours.

Our last campsite would be one of our best. Brian and I found a campsite that was an old fishing camp long ago. Exploring the site later we found several garden herbs still growing in one spot and Lilacs and Lilies of the Valley in another. We felt lucky to have this spot for our last night.

Seagull Lake is known for some great fishing so we had to give it one more try. And it wasn't long before our trolling produced enough lake trout for our last supper. And as Brian cleaned the fish a mother Merganser came out of the woods and plopped into the lake in front of us. Following her were here eleven little ones! The little ones looked like bobbers as they floated around in the waves. But the mother quickly gathered them up and they were off down the shoreline.

The rain stopped long enough for us to cook our last supper of lake trout, pasta primavera, and Chocolate Mocha Mousse. And to top the evening off we enjoyed the last of our favorite concoction; Bailey's Irish Cream, brandy, and hot chocolate! Brian and I talked at length about the trip and he asked me if I could name a favorite falls or portage or lake. I thought about it for a while but I really couldn't say. He laughed and said he felt the same way. How could you choose one favorite thing on a trip like we'd just had?

June 17th-- As usual we were awake early and eager to make the most out of our final day. It seemed to me that the residents of the canoe country knew we were leaving that day and several of them passed by with their greetings. A raven was the first, making a brief stop and a throaty croak before he flew off. As we packed the final things in our packs we were infiltrated by red-breasted nuthatches and several different warblers. They sang for a couple of minutes and then were gone as quickly as they had come. As we shoved off a single loon followed us to the end of the cove and then let out his final call to us. What a fun send-off!

We took our time paddling across Seagull and stopped by the Palisades to take some pictures. We even found some pictographs at the base of the cliffs that we didn't know about. With great reluctance we paddled away from the cliffs and made our way through the last maze of islands that the lake is known for. As we hit the landing we congratulated each other and thanked each other for making such a trip possible. Our dream trip had finally come to an end.

(A few facts on our trip: Trip distance was approximately 160 miles. We did 55 portages, 31 different lakes, 2 rivers, portaged around 18 waterfalls, and ran 7 rapids.)

(Editor's Note: If you look on the map, and trace the lakes that Jon and Brian paddled you can see why it's called Hunter's Island ... as the lakes they traversed essentially make up one large island inside of this loop. It's also important to note that it is not recommended to run rapids in the canoe country. Jon and Brian are experienced paddlers and knew what they were doing and the chances they were taking. However, people die every year while running rapids and you should not attempt this ... especially in an area where help can be days away. We recommend you always take the portages that exist along side these types of rapids and that you wear your life jacket at all time when on the water.)


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