Island Dream Trip by
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.)