Full Tour by
It was the hottest day on record for the town of Ely, Minnesota, and
the local ''old-timers'' we spoke to agreed. June 19th saw the mercury
reach up to the 100 degree plateau. Most of our day was spent on Wood
Lake fishing until we couldn't take the heat any longer, so we headed
for Ely to seek air conditioning and cool drinks.
My plan was to travel to Ely, stay at an outfitter's on Moose Lake,
look at real estate for three days, and do a little fishing before
embarking on a 12 day fly-in trip to the top of Quetico Provincial Park.
I spent all three of those sweltering days fishing with my partner Bo
and didn't look at one piece of real estate.
The day of departure had finally arrived. We stood on the dock at the
outfitter's looking out over Moose Lake and waited with great
anticipation for our flight north. Most of the launch boats had already
made their first runs of the day, and it seemed like we were the last
ones left to get going that day.
In the distance, we could hear the DeHaviland '' Beaver '' float
plane rumbling over the tree line. The pilot made a smooth landing and
pulled up to the dock. We loaded the plane, tied on the canoes, and
departed for Canadian
Customs on Crane Lake.
I allowed Bo, my partner, to ride ''shotgun'' since he had never
flown before. I wanted him to have full exposure to what we were about
to view. The labyrinth of lakes and streams below were breathtaking, to
say the least. The float plane moved so slowly that Bo asked the pilot
if we were even moving.
We splashed down at Crane
Lake and, once at the dock, the pilot jumped out to converse with a
customs official for a minute. They opened up the hatch, asked the usual
border questions, and then we were on our way to Beaverhouse Lake,
located in the northwest corner of the Quetico
After unloading the float plane at the dock on Beaverhouse, we made
our way back to the ranger's cabin for permits and fishing licenses. Due
to some fires burning in the park at the time, the ranger inquired about
our trip itinerary. Our route included Shelley Lake, which currently had
a fire along it's perimeter. We were told to change our plans. I glanced
over the maps and determined a likely detour around Shelley.
It was now time to start our canoeing adventure. This was Bo's maiden
voyage and my tenth excursion. It wasn't long before we reached our
first portage out of Beaverhouse into Quetico Lake. The portage was a
short 24 rods and displayed a vintage, rusty vehicle located in the
grassy meadow. I assumed it was left there from the logging days.
Paddling out of the channel into the expansive section of the lake,
to the south of us on a thin stretch of sandy beach, we were surprised
to see two Ojibwa Natives beating on a drum and chanting. I was awe
struck by the spectacle, and I said to Bo, '' You're getting the full
tour now. ''
The next portages came at Conk Lake, and both were easy coming into
the lake and going out into Jean Lake. We paddled east on Jean a couple
of miles to our island paradise located in the northeastern area of this
beautiful lake. We spent two nights there and enjoyed some of the best
smallmouth fishing we
had ever experienced. Most of the ''bronzebacks'' were being caught on
top-water using bull frog colored lures.
On the third day, we traveled through Budside Lake, Rouge Lake and
Jean Creek to reach Sturgeon Lake. We paddled and fished all day until
we reached a small island just off the Sturgeon Narrows where the
channel connected with Russell Lake.
After camp was erected, we decided to do a little fishing for dinner.
We managed to catch four walleyes in the 16 to 18 inch range, the
perfect size for our frying pan. As we continued to fish, three canoes
came out of Russell Lake. They stopped and asked '' Can you tell us
where the closest campsite is located ? We were just run off of our last
one by a bear ! '' I retrieved my maps from the tent and pointed out
some sites across the narrows. They thanked me and paddled on.
Then Bo asked the infamous question, '' What do we do if a bear comes
into our camp? ''. I explained to Bo, if we keep a clean camp and hang
the food pack in a tree, we shouldn't have any problems.
Once we finished off a delicious walleye dinner, it was time to do
some more fishing before the sun ended our day. Bo made his casts from
the front of the island as I worked the backside facing up the channel
to Russell Lake. About 10 minutes later, I saw a bear
swimming down the channel. She had her snout up in the air and pointed
in our direction. There was no doubt she had caught a whiff of walleye
frying not so long ago. I yelled over to Bo and informed him of our
oncoming intruder. We then proceeded to clean up camp as much as
The next move was to head out onto the lake in the canoe and see if
we could keep the bear from swimming over to the island. A few anxious
minutes went by until we heard the snapping of limbs echoing from the
timbers. The bear's keen sense of smell had lured her to a point
adjacent to the island. Neither Bo nor I had ever been this close to a
bear and we marveled at the site of this bruin.
As the bear moved out of sight to the other side of the island, we
maneuvered the canoe around in an attempt to cut her off from our
wilderness home. When we arrived at the other side, she was already
swimming towards the island. I began yelling and banging the paddle on
the canoe. Bo did the same. The bear turned back to the mainland. She
then decided to go back towards the point out of our view. We proceeded
around the island in the opposite direction, only to find the nuisance
was missing. From out on the lake I spied the bear in our camp and
watched her eyeing the hanging food pack. The bear climbed up and down
the tree several different times, as my yells turned into screams.
While the bear was going through our campsite, I started to look for
a distraction. We paddled over to shore and filled the canoe with some
rocks. Once in range of our unexpected dinner guest, we started to fire.
We threw rocks at the menace until she decided this wasn't worth the
trouble. Bo jumped out of the canoe and cut the food pack down. I did
not want to stay up all night keeping watch out for a bear, so we tore
down camp in the following minutes. I didn't even disassemble the tent,
just pulled the stakes and piled it upon all the gear already thrown
into the canoe.
By this time it was pretty dark, and we needed to find another
campsite. As I checked the map for a site, one was found on a point, not
more than a mile away. With head-lamps on, we made our way towards our
destination. I climbed out of the canoe to check it out but couldn't
find anything that resembled a campsite. What I did find was a swarm of
mosquitoes. So here we were back in the canoe, in the dark, gear all
over, no place to stay, out on a lake, with '' skeeters'' buzzing all
around our heads. As I looked over the map / swatter for another
campsite, one was found out in the middle of the lake on Blueberry
Island. We set course as fast as we could and hoped no one was camping
there. I'm not sure how, but we did manage to find it in the dark, and
fortunately it was unoccupied. Camp was set around midnight, and we
breathed a sigh of relief.
The next day followed with some of the worst wind and thunderstorms
I've ever experienced in Quetico. The storm seemed to blow in from
nowhere. Lightning cracked and thunder echoed as the wind picked up
speed. We had to kneel on the corners of the outside of the tent and
hold on to the tarp to keep them from blowing away. The force of the
wind just shook us as we tried to hold on. Then I heard the canoe lift
up and blow down towards the lake. The storm had blown in so quickly, I
had forgotten to tie it down. I sprung from under the tarp and chased it
down. Luckily it had slammed into a large rock by shore and was stuck,
or I would have had to swim for it. Unluckily for Bo, his rods were
being held by this same rock and the canoe snapped off a tip from one
rod and the reel handle of the other.
With the canoe in hand, I fought the wind back up to the tent and
tied it down. As quickly as the storm had come, it had passed and we
crawled out from under the tarp. It was mere minutes later however, that
the wind shifted and the same storm came back and hit us from the
opposite direction. Back under the tarp we went, kneeling on the tent
and holding on again. This time around there was no damage.
Sturgeon Lake had provided us with enough adventure, so we moved on
towards Kawnipi Lake on day five. On the portage to Chatterton Lake from
Russell, we ran into a couple of park rangers. We were informed the fire
had subsided on Shelley Lake's perimeter and this route was now safe for
We continued on our journey past Chatterton Lake, portaged by Split
Rock Falls, and were now on Keats Lake. I knew we had to portage around
another set of falls at the end of this lake on a portage called '' Have
a Smoke ''. I viewed some falls straight ahead, paddled over to them and
portaged around to the other side. We quickly ran into another set of
falls, a set of falls that weren't on my map. After an intense review of
the maps, I determined there must have been two sets of falls on Keats,
and we had portaged around the wrong one.
Instead of turning back, however, we pushed forward, by bushwhacking
around the falls along an old animal trail. Once we were far enough from
the falls, we loaded the canoe back up and waded in waist high water
until we were out of the current.
On Shelley Lake the smoke from the smoldering fire was still drifting
out of the woods. The rain storms from the previous day must have
extinguished the fires. We could now see exposed rock, which had not
been visible for many years. The trees were charred, but many remained
in good shape.
A few portages later we were on Kawnipi, the last lake for the day.
With no more portages ahead, we stroked our way down to McKenzie Bay and
set up camp at a ''five-star site''. The next four days were spent
relaxing and enjoying some top-water, bronzeback smallmouth action.
The smallmouth in McKenzie Bay are truly a deep brown, bronze color,
unlike some other lakes that produce smallmouth with a green tint.
Top-water lures were not the only lure producing good sized smallmouths.
We also caught them on in-line spinners with a size 4 brass blade and
After the four day vacation on Kawnipi, it was time to make our move
south. We traveled through Murdoch Lake to reach Agnes River. One of the
worst portages in Quetico is on the Agnes River. The first half was not
too terrible until we had to load the canoe and cross the river to the
other side. This second half of the portage was bug infested, with
puddles of water that transformed into mud holes. Some of the mud holes
would suck us in up to our knees. After the mud holes, the rest of the
portage was spent climbing over and crawling under dead trees.
Agnes Lake is a long 14 mile paddle, north to south. I was most
impressed by the steep cliffs that were gouged out by glaciers thousands
of years ago. About 11 miles down the lake we found a campsite in a
little pinch between the cliffs.
After setting up camp, I did some fishing off the front of the site.
Looking up across the lake to the top of the cliff, I saw smoke starting
to roll over the edge. It must have been coming from the East Lake
region. Bo and I were beginning to worry somewhat about our choice of
campsites that evening. We kept a vigilant watch on the smoke during the
rest of the night until we hesitantly went back to the tent.
When we awoke on day eleven, there was still smoke coming over a
bluff across the lake. A quick breakfast and packing was in order. We
made a stop at Louisa Falls to see the heralded water tub,
three-quarters of the way up.
It was too early and too cold for a swim so we moved onto the dreaded
''Meadow'' portages. The ''Meadow'' portages are two, long, back-to-back
portages leading out of Agnes Lake into Meadow Lake for a short jaunt
across the water, and then into Sunday Lake. The first portage, the
slightly shorter of the two, is extremely rocky. The second portage,
around 180 rods, is just plain long.
Tired from the long portages, we were then faced with some heavy wind
blowing out of the northwest on Sunday Lake. We tried to paddle the
lake, but we were overtaken about two-thirds of the way across by wind
and white caps and decided to pull over to wait it out. We sat idle for
hours before it slowed enough for us to try again. It wasn't easy, but
eventually we made it to the ''North'' portage.
The wind was still kicking up a fuss when we arrived at the other
side of the ''North'' portage on Basswood Lake. Working the shoreline of
Sunday Bay, we made it out towards the main section of Basswood.
Continuing along the shoreline we reached a point jutting out into the
lake that we just could not paddle around. The white caps kept slamming
us backward onto the rocky shore.
There was a camp on this point occupied by some Boy Scouts, and we
hoped they would not mind us portaging through their site. The
Scoutmasters saw our dilemma and did not have a problem with our
intrusion. I am not even sure if any of the scouts saw us as they were
preoccupied with poking sticks at bear scat. Once on the other side of
the point we surfed to our next camp near Inlet Bay of Basswood.
On night number eleven the temperature dropped down to 40 degrees.
This seemed a bit chilly for early July. It was a 60 degree departure
from the temperatures we experienced when first arriving in Ely.
Our trip with it's 100 degree temperatures, float plane ride,
chanting natives, excellent smallmouth fishing, bear visits, winds and
thunderstorms, bushwhacking, forest fires, white caps, drastic
temperature changes, and paddling and portaging for twelve days in
Quetico was all we had hoped it would be; and more. We did indeed get
the Full Tour!