“A Quetico fly-in canoe trip without the plane.”


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Dates:July 6-16, 2005
Entry Point:43 - McAree Lake (Quetico)
Type:Canoeing
Lakes:Basswood, Brent, Burke, Darkwater, Isabella, James, McAree, McIntyre, Sarah, Side, Wicksteed, William

“A Quetico fly-in canoe trip without the plane.”

By Patrick Brewer

We live in Oregon and are not able to take a canoe trip every year. When my wife and I were to attend an international convention in Toronto, it gave us the chance to meet our son, Thomas, in the Minneapolis Airport, drive to Ely and take our 1st canoe trip in 5 years. We contacted Doug Jordan and started planning our trip a year in advance. We first were thinking of a Quetico fly-in trip, but the cost of the plane was prohibitive so we planned a fly-in trip without the plane. Excitement ran high as we walked around Ely getting our last items. Did we have enough insect repellant? Fishing lures? Have we forgotten something?

Day 1 Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Having spent the night in Doug Jordan’s bunkhouse, we got up early, 5:15 AM, and loaded into a van for the drive to Crane Lake. We made it in time (about 1 1/2 hour drive) for our tow by Zupp’s Outfitters. We were a little apprehensive as the jet boat sped to Sand Point Lake. We had heard stories of people being turned back at Canadian Customs, but all went smoothly. The jet boat went very fast down the curvy part of the Loon River. When we got to the mechanical portages we got out and walked while the jet boat was pulled on an odd railroad car contraption over the portage. After the last portage off we went to Zupp’s base on Lac Lacroix to buy our fishing licenses. From Zupp’s we were towed all the way across to the Lac La Croix ranger station to pay for our Quetico permit and camping fees. The Ranger said we were the 1st party to come through there in 3 days.

Next we were off to our entry point for our permit #43-McAree.Our driver coaxed the boat into shore just below the first Brewer Rapids. Here we unloaded our 4 packs and canoe, said goodbye to the driver and started our trip.

Thomas scouted a path to be above the rapids. We made our 1st portage. We paddled up the Brewer River to the rapids and portaged to Brewer Lake. We found a beautiful spot at the far end of the McAree portage for lunch. There was a big patch of daisies and a great view of McAree. What a joy it was to be back in the Canoe Country! We crossed McAree to the northeast corner to the small portage into Pond Lake. Just before the big portage to Gratton, a fish rose, Thomas and I couldn’t resist so we unloaded the canoe, left Elizabeth guarding the packs in the shade and caught our 1st fish of the trip. Small mouth bass…we both caught some!

Then we were in for it…The “Death March” portage to Little Gratton. 220 rods. It started in a moose swamp with Thomas carrying the canoe, sinking above his ankles in the muck. Then up and up some more with ankle twisting rock gardens and more moose swamp. The last 100 yards, was down a steep a boulder-covered path. We accomplished this portage quite well!

We took it in stages and leapfrogged our way across. We worked together and even though it was a long sweaty rough portage, we made it! Longest portage of our trip was behind us. We paddled into Little Gratton Lake, searching for a campsite. A nice site was found on the 2nd island. We set up camp, had dinner, hung the food pack and fished. Thomas and I caught a bunch of Largemouth Bass with 2 big ones, all catch and release. We decided to spend 2 nights on Little Gratton, so we slept in next morning.

Day 2 July 7, 2005 Thursday

This was a great place for our first layover day. After breakfast we went through the food packs and fishing gear, so we would know where everything was located, put them in the canoe and headed out fishing. We looked for the push-thru to Gratton Lake. We found the stream coming out of Gratton, but it looked pretty muddy and rough. No trail visible! So we headed to Wicksteed instead and fished down the north side of the lake. We all caught fish…about 4 or 5 each! Northern Pike and Smallmouth Bass. I cast my crawdad imitation about 20 feet up in a Norway pine and lost it…Thomas laughed. That was the first of many lost lures.

After lunch we returned down Wicksteed and caught more fish. Then back across the 35-rod portage to Little Gratton and home. We took a nice nap and then fixed dinner. After dinner Thomas and I went fishing. We caught about 25 fish, mostly Largemouth Bass with a few Northerns. The Largemouth were hitting well on Thomas’ Rapala and my Smithwick. Then we switched to a rubber frog and a popper and the fish went nuts! Lots of fast action till it was getting dark and Elizabeth called from across the lake and we headed home.

Day 3 July 8, 2005 Friday

We headed to Wicksteed. The wind was blowing briskly and we hugged the shoreline. When we rounded the big point, the wind was really blowing, so we dodged in and out behind islands to cross the lake. Our Souris River 18.5 canoe is wonderful for 3 people. We really pulled together in that wind and we made it across and down to the 45-rod portage to Darkey Lake.

It was warm and humid with a steady wind from the south. We had a nice 5 Star campsite on the north end of the lake. We hoped to go down Darkey and see the pictographs, but it would be difficult with this wind from the south. We took a nap and made dinner. After we finished dinner we headed down to the south end of Darkey to see the pictographs. The wind finally dropped to a light breeze. It was still a long paddle (4 miles there and back).

At first we couldn’t find the pictographs. We had gone too far, so we checked each rock face that we came to. Finally we found them. There were 2 moose with white hearts, also a spirit symbol and a man with a gun with a bullet coming out of the gun. There were strike ///////// marks and a handprint. Pretty impressive! We were all glad we made the effort to go the distance and see the wonderful artwork. Wepaddled back to camp as the sun was going down. We have a family tradition of reading classics aloud when camping. We read 3 Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome this trip, then lights out and sleep.

Day 4 July 9, 2005 Saturday

We got up when the sun rose and baked on the tent. The weather was still clear, very warm and humid with occasional white puffy clouds.

After breakfast we boarded our pleasure craft and headed across the northern part of Darkey for the chain of portages going to William Lake. The first portage was a little brushy but not too bad (24 rods). As we were loading up in the moose muck, Thomas spotted a leach. I was busy with a fishing lure, and didn’t think much of a little leach, so I paid no attention. Thomas and Elizabeth were in the canoe and I was in the water when they said, “He’s headed your way!” I looked over and there was this 6-inch long leach, green with red sides headed for my ankle!! Feet don’t fail me now! Wow! It was like something from the Amazon River Delta! Magically I was in the canoe!

This was the start of the William River, a meandering stream, lined with wild rice and cattails, filled with water lilies, both yellow and white! Also water grasses and other aquatic plants, including patches of bilious frog slime filled with bubbles. This reminded Elizabeth of outer space where clouds of gas form galaxies, beautiful but noxious looking. The 2nd & 3rd portages were killers, up and up some more with lots of brush. There was a muddy spot in the trail on the 2nd portage with moose prints and a bear print…with claws. Now we were on the longest stretch of the William River through Cloverleaf Lake and into William Lake. A beaver dam blocked the way, not far…but Oh! How much fun!!!

Elizabeth and I grabbed a load and carried it over and found a boulder to put the gear on. Elizabeth started screaming! She hadn’t noticed that the boulder was the home of a “Biting Red Ant Colony”!! And they were all over her in a swarm and biting her. She jumped back down the beaver dam and brushed the ants away, they must have sent a chemical signal out because they all abandoned her and the packs when she retreated and we never saw them again. Elizabeth got 12 bites. I wasn’t very sympathetic until one bit me, Ouch!

After all this calmed down, Thomas had a big leach and 2 tiny leaches attached to his heel! They weren’t coming off! Luckily the food pack was right there and I handed him the saltshaker…after sprinkling the leaches with salt they wiggled and fell off! No mark showed on Thomas and we were relieved!

Finally we were able to load up the canoe and head out on William Lake. The second island has a great campsite that we soon claimed. It has a nice rock fireplace, a rock table, log benches, a soft pine needle area for the tent and lots of shade. It cooled off at dinnertime. This was our 1st campfire. We had been using the stove up till now, but here on William Lake we had lots of firewood. The other campsites were picked clean of firewood. After dinner Thomas and I went fishing for walleye. Not far from the camp Thomas and I caught a couple of keeper walleye. We didn’t get back to camp till dusk. It made quite a scene with us filleting the fish by flashlight and swatting mosquitoes by the dozens.We paddled the guts across the lake to the opposite shore, came back and jumped into the tent. It was lights out and sleep with the sound of mosquitoes humming.

Day 5 July 10, 2005 Sunday

The morning was cool and wonderful with breezes. There was not a cloud visible. For breakfast we cooked with a campfire again. We had bacon, pancakes & golden Walleye fillets. Wow! Fresh Walleye is delicious! We decided to have another layover day on William, because of the great fishing.

Thomas and I pulled out of the campsite and started trolling towards the east. I had on my favorite “Signature Smithwick” when I thought I was stuck on the bottom…Ugh! Then I noticed the canoe was moving…and so was my line??? So I started pumping and reeling…then whatever it was must have seen the boat…and Zzzz! Out went the line. This went on…back and forth…until we were able to get a look at what was on the line. It was a HUGE Northern! Thomas tried to net him headfirst…and he wouldn’t fit, so he gently grabbed him with both hands and pulled him into the canoe. We took pictures, but were so excited we didn’t weigh or measure him. We did get him back in the water and he swam away. Our guess is he was 36 inches or more, this was a thrill.

Thomas and I trolled down the north shore of William Lake. We caught a couple of Smallmouth Bass. We kept seeing fish on the depth finder, but we weren’t deep enough. I switched to a purple Rapala tail dancer and Thomas switched to a brown salt & pepper twister tail jig. About this time we spotted the “Reef” in the middle of William and headed for it. On the way I hooked and caught a beautiful walleye-20 inches and weighed 4 Lbs. When we got to the reef, Thomas caught another beauty 19 inches and 3½ Lbs. We were set for fish for dinner! The wind was rising so we headed back to camp. It was so hot and humid we took our Thermorest pads out of the tent and took naps and read…later we took a bath in the lake. A bald eagle came and sat in a tree across from our island where we had been putting our fish guts and bones. He’ll have dinner later. We had a big dinner of golden walleye fillets. We cleaned up and all jumped in the canoe and headed back to the “reef” and fished some more. Elizabeth did catch a beautiful little walleye and we caught a few other smallmouth bass, but the sun was sinking in the west so we headed home.It was especially warm and humid this night. No sleeping bags were needed till early morning.

Day 6 July 11 Monday

We skipped breakfast, so we could get our traveling done before it got too hot! We headed south on William to the 60-rod portage to Brent Lake. We had a lot of paddling to do, because Brent is a big lake with lots of twists and turns. But no more portages for today. The wind kept changing directions all morning. As the day went on the wind kept increasing. With the twists and turns of Brent Lake, there were a few times that we had the wind at our backs, and we raised our paddles and sailed along.

We were looking for a campsite just past the Brent Narrows, but could not find it. The afternoon was getting hot and windy, so we wanted to find a campsite soon. Finally we found our campsite on Brent Lake. It was way up near the portages to Suzanette Lake. We pulled in and Thomas jumped out and checked out the peninsula. A “5 Star Campsite” he declared! Wonderful! It is way up on the top of a granite knob, has a lot of trees and great views of Brent Lake. Also there were tons of blueberries ready to pick. We were so pooped that Elizabeth and I just rolled out our thermorests in the shade and took a nap. Later, when we got up, we saw that Thomas had set up the tent…What a Saint!

We picked some blueberries and decided to rest some more…as it is still hot and the wind is still blowing. We heard thunder in the distance. It would be wonderful if it rained and cooled off. We cooked on the gas stove tonight. As we were heating the water for dinner, I glanced over towards the pack and an army of red ants 3 feet wide were headed towards the fire ring. We grabbed the RAID and gave them a spray, and the whole army of them disappeared. The wind had stopped and it was still sultry! We heard thunder and saw lightening flashing to the north of us and had one small sprinkle of rain, but the main storm passed north of us. It was fun watching the lightening flashes and hearing distant thunder.

Day 7 July 12, 2005 Tuesday

It is cooler this morning. Elizabeth and I got up early and cooked breakfast on the stove. We headed south for McIntyre. First we passed an island that had burned in a fire…we guess about 10 years ago? It was a calm trip with hardly any wind. There are white puffy clouds in a blue sky. The temperature rising as we traveled along.

Just before the portages into McIntyre, we spotted some moose bones on an island. The rest of the moose’s bones were laid out in the water under the canoe. We took pictures of Thomas with the bones on the island and put them back for the next travelers. A short portage of 4 rods and we were into McIntyre. We followed the east shore down the lake to Cedar Point Camp. We pulled up the canoe and checked out the campsite…nice.

Then we searched in the woods behind the campsite. We had heard about a message jar. It was way back in the woods, along some faint trails, in a small clearing. There is a stone cairn and inside a message cache…in a plastic pickle jar. We brought it back to camp and read the messages. The messages were interesting going back to 1993; all times of the year...some in snow in September. Lots of fish stories were shared. We have started a note of our own to put in the cache before we leave.

Thunderheads look like they are building! It’s off to the tent for some reading and a nap….Hope it cools off! First it’s hot, then it cools off a bit, then it’s sultry again. Big thunderheads were building all afternoon.

Thomas and I went trolling out in the bay in front of our camp. I had heard of trout being caught here. First I tried a little Cleo and a weight but Thomas and I got all snarled up and it twisted my line, so I cut that off and put on my Rapala Deep Tail Dancer (purple).

Thomas fished shallow and I let out lots of line and fished deep. I caught 2 nice lake trout, One 1 ½ Lbs and one 2Lbs. They have pink meat and are all cleaned and ready for dinner.Faintly, just before we went to bed we heard wolves howling and yipping to the northeast. As we were trying to get to sleep a Whipper Will started cheeping! We counted 72 times in a row…41 times in a row the next time. We have decided to lay over here another night.

Day 8 July 13 Wednesday

The sun hit the tent at 1st light, so we got up. Elizabeth and I took the leftovers in the canoe, over to the bay behind camp. It was beautiful and quiet. I jigged with a chartreuse twister tail and caught a few Smallmouth Bass. It was a pleasant paddle. After Thomas got up, he was exploring out by the point and surprised a large deer, drinking in the lake. The deer are twice the size of the deer on the Pacific Coast.

It is a bit cooler today; the wind is from the North. Thomas and I decided to take the canoe and explore the next bay and the waterfall he spotted over there. The waterfall comes from a lake above McIntyre. We got out of the canoe and climbed up and took a look at it. A fair sized lake! We discussed carrying the canoe over and do some fishing, but decided to check out the rest of this part of McIntyre first.

We fished the shore with little luck, when we spotted a nice campsite. It looked like a great site, so we got out of the canoe. It has a fire-ring built up against a large bolder. As we were looking around we noticed a noise…. wind or rushing water, on one side of the campsite. Thomas went and checked it out, and there is a 30-foot waterfall just behind the camp. We found out that this is the beginning of the McIntyre Creek. We hiked down and Thomas stuck his head in the falls. It was beautiful, and loud and refreshing!

After lunch Elizabeth finished our note for the message jar. We sealed it up and hiked back in the woods and placed the jar back in the cairn. When we got back Elizabeth and I took a bath in the lake. It felt wonderful! Then we all piled into the tent and did some reading and took a nap.

We have solved the ankle biter problem (Biting Flies). The solution is long pants and socks! With the hot weather it’s kinda warm, but better than being chewed on by the ankle biters. None of the bug dope seems to have any effect on them.

Day 9 July 14 Thursday

We woke at sunrise to a chorus from the wolves. There were puppies too! It sounded like they were over by the Rock Cairn.

We were on the water by 8:00 AM. This was a record for us. There was a light wind from the southeast as we started paddling down McIntyre, towards the portage to Sarah. We passed the “Wall Portage” and took the one about 200 yards further south. Not a bad portage. Then we paddled back and we could see the rocky path that gave the Wall Portage its name. Glad we missed it. We ducked behind a big island to get out of the wind. It took us quite a while to get across Sarah, with the wind, and it is a very large lake.

When we got to the end of Sarah, we again followed Doug Jordan’s advice, and took the “River Route” over to Side Lake. It was very pretty with water lilies and 2 small portages. Then we went down Side Lake to the big portage of the day, 94 rods. Doug told us about this one too. The trail forked after about 200 ft…left or right??? We went left, up what they call “Heart Attack Hill”. We made it in one single portage, with a small rest at the top. We must be getting in good shape! Then we had 2 more ponds with 2 more small portages, and we were in Isabella Lake.

We had planned to stay on Isabella, but we didn’t like the first 2 campsites we saw, then there were 4 guys at the middle campsite, and we couldn’t find the campsite down at the end of the lake…. Just before we had lunch, just as we turned towards the portage, a huge Bald Eagle flew out of a tree near us, and flew right in front of us, and across the lake…Wonderful! Now we were on the beautiful Isabella River between Isabella and Basswood Lake. There were no more portages, but lots of shallow spots and beaver dams, where we would get out and push through shallows or over beaver dams…. very picturesque! Lots of water lilies are blooming.

We finally made it to Basswood. Then we paddled the ½ mile west into “Lost Bay” to a “5 Star” campsite I had heard about. There was almost 2 inches of water in the canoe from all the getting in and out, and we had traveled longer than we had on the entire trip! We think about 12 miles. We were tired!

We set up the tent and took a rest. Then we puttered around camp…Amazing what a little rest and some Advil will do. This is a beautiful spot on Lost Bay of Basswood Lake, and the weather has cooled off. We read and took pictures of the sunset.

Day 10 July 15 Friday

We slept in this morning. It was overcast, and sprinkled rain on and off, with thunder to the west. It rained! A light but steady rain. For about 45 minutes (only rain of the trip) we read and snoozed in the tent…very pleasant and cool.

We headed out for Prairie Portage. Heavy overcast with big lumpy clouds, but no more rain and hardly any breeze. We paddled out of Lost Bay and into “North Bay” of Basswood Lake. Basswood is very large, and we aimed across the lake for Burke Portage. When we saw some canoes come out over to our right, we soon figured out our mistake, and paddled over to the portage going to Burke.

The first portage of 30 rods put us in another lily pad river, where Elizabeth received another lily flower for her hat. At the end of the river was a 16-rod portage. At this portage was a group of 6 people with 2 canoes. We waited for a while. They said that they were a little disorganized, and then moved their canoes apart, and invited us to come through. They seemed a little surprised at how organized we were. We unloaded the packs, Thomas was lashing in the paddles, I helped Elizabeth on with her pack, Thomas put on a pack and picked up the canoe, and left, Elizabeth right behind him, and I put on the last 2 packs (one back, one front) and we were gone. One trip portaging has become natural for us on this trip. No going back and forth and back again.We paddled down to the large sand beach at the next portage. This portage leads to Bayley Bay of Basswood Lake, and is known as The Yellow Brick Road, because of the yellow sand at both ends. The entire portage is mostly manicured, a very smooth and easy 84 rods.

Bayley Bay is known for its wind, but lucky for us, no wind today. We paddled across towards Prairie Portage. We saw our first motorboat in 10 days, and followed where they went.

We entered Inlet Bay and were looking for a campsite. We had paddled a long way from “Lost Bay” to Inlet Bay, and were getting tired. The first site we stopped at had a Bald Eagle in the big pine tree, right in the middle of the campsite, which was looking down at us. He didn’t fly off, just waited for us to inspect the campsite; we did, not very good, no place for our 4-man tent, so off we went.

There is a large island in Inlet Bay that has 4 campsites marked on it. We can see the canoeists and motorboats going back and forth from Prairie Portage.Prairie Portage was just around the corner from us. We threw up the tent to dry (it was still wet from this mornings shower). At 6:30 PM and the sky cleared, just a few puffy clouds left. We had a beautiful sunset. The loons serenaded us with “Loon Music”.

Day 11 July 16 Saturday

There was mist on the lake when we got up. Before breakfast I fished from shore and a 16-inch Northern Pike followed my lure right up to shore…but didn’t bite. He just looked at me and swam off! After breakfast we leisurely cleaned up. I did the dishes and scrubbed the pots and pans with SOS pads, so that they are ready to turn in to the outfitter. We also went through the left over food items to separate out the stuff we wanted to take home.

We paddled across to Prairie Portage and portaged across to the Moose Lake side… There was quite a mob on the portage! There were maybe 15 people going both ways. At the Moose Lake side there were about 25 canoes and a whole gang of people. We waited about 15 minutes till one of “Jeep LeTourells” boats showed up. I gave him our name and he said he’d be back in about 20 minutes for us…. so here we wait………..

P.S. Later we had some of the best food on the planet…Blueberry Shakes at the DQ, and later dinner at the Ely Steak House. Wonderful! The perfect end to a great trip.Start at Crane LakeBrewer RapidsLunch on McAreeJames Lake campsiteDarkwater campsitepictographsfish on WilliamWalleye on WilliamMcIntyreMcIntyre CreekMessage cache on McIntyreSide Lake PortagePortage into WilliamTackle BoxPrairie Portage