Quetico 1980--The 40 portage-have a smoke-Darky River Route
Another year has passed. There are now two paddles standing in the library and old number six is in the lodge. The spirit of accomplishment and the faces of the men and boys remain in my mind’s eye. And Quetico is the best.
The cast of characters:
#6 Pat Ecker (Chairman)
#8 Steve Upson (Sonny)
#15 Greg Holtoff
John Crook (The Crooker)
On the bus to Quetico, it becomes clear that every trip is going down the Maligne River. As it turns out, only Phil Puerling’s trip will actually go down the river. But in the meantime, I don’t want to go down the Maligne like everybody else. So I devise a new route—a tough route that will be what John Holden calls “challenge in big doses.” It is a route of many portages highlighted by Keats and Shelley Lakes, “have a smoke” portage, and the Darky River.
We begin on the sand beach at French Lake. We head southwest and have lunch almost immediately, using a box of the precious few pilot biscuits, which are allotted to us. We the go down the winding Pickerel River and into Pickerel Lake. At the beginning of the lake, there is “the pines.” Tall pine trees stand along the shoreline in a beautiful span of dark green. In the first part of the lake, there is also an abundance of sand beach, which attracts a multitude of short-term campers. We proceed down the lake, happy all the way that a heavy west or southwest wind isn’t blowing in our faces. We encounter a bit of trouble getting through the islands on the south side before the dam into Bisk Lake. For the water is very low and some of the narrow places are not passable. As it is, we finally make it through only after navigating a strange area of tree stumps and roots. On the first night we camp next to the dam into Bisk Lake.
One of the reasons we camp on the dam is the hope that fishing will be good. So when we portage our canoes after dinner, we find what appears to be a very fine fishing spot about two-thirds of the way down the trail near a set of rapids. Steve explains that at least theoretically, fish wait below in the pools and look for food coming down out of the rapids. But this is not to be our day as far as fishing goes. We get nothing but snags and even manage to lose a lure. After the unsuccessful fishing, it is getting dark and so we clean up and go to the tents.
On day number two, we begin by portaging the rest of the equipment across the rocky trail into Bisk Lake. After Bisk, in rapid succession, we go through Beg, Bud, and Fern. At the west end of Fern, we have what proves to be the toughest portage on the trip, a one-miler into Olifant. We don’t go the usual Deux Rivieres way because we were advised at the French Lake station that the river is for the most part dry and very though to pass through. But we don’t gain much by taking the alternate route. For with full wannigans, this is a very tough portage, and before it is over, patience and tempers will be tested to maximum.
Steve is carrying a duluth with his canoe and I am carrying the tents along with old #6. About two-thirds of the way, I put my canoe in a tree and go the rest of the way with the tents. Steve goes about half way, then sheds his duluth and continues with his canoe. We arrive at the end of the portage together, but no one else is in sight and after forty-five minutes of work, there is much left to be done. The rest of the trip has to be helped across. Three or four hundred yards back on the trail, we find the first of the kids—the game little one from St.Louis lugging a load as big as he is. This is Trip Hencken, always an excellent portager.
We quickly find, however, that all six wanigan carriers are having trouble and that they can only go a hundred yards or so without stopping. I must reload them many times and frustration is written all over many faces. But we struggle, unwilling to let the trail beat us. When it finally ends, Greg Holthoff and I have carried several wannigans across the last third of the trail and four kids have struggled across the finish line having shared the carrying of the last wanigan. It has been a three-hour ordeal and we are totally worn out. But there is light. Steve and Greg have caught several huge bass in the final rapids and we fry them up for lunch. Cleaning and cooking take several hours, but we need to take the time at this point. The fish taste great and we even get in a little swimming. After a while, we are once again part of the human race.
We go across Olifant and at the end of the narrow portion; I take a compass reading so that we can end up at the portage into Sturgeon. The reading works well as we end up only a hundred yards or so from the portage. This portage is not bad, but trails seem longer in the afternoon.
Next is Sturgeon where we find a co-ed group camped. The women are in the water waiting for us to pass. After telling Butch Scrivner not to look, I find myself looking. Awful, isn’t it? At any rate, we paddle into the narrows against a mild current and into Russell Lake. It is getting late, and so we decide to camp somewhere on the islands in the middle of the lake. We quickly find a nice site with plenty of beaver wood and after a period of drying out and cleaning up, we go to bed tired, weary.
Up early the next morning, we are on the lake by 6:15. We finish Russell and portage into Chatterton. At the end of Chatterton, we portage across Split Rock Falls and into Keats Lake. Then a brief but hard shower hits us and out come the rain suits. This is the only rain of the trip. I ask around and find that nobody bout an old English teacher like myself knows who Keats and Shelley are. It is fun never the less. The lakes are peaceful, calm. I think of sitting on the shore and writing something special, perhaps “Ode to a Tailwind.”
Before leaving Keats and Shelley, I of course must mention something about “have a smoke” portage. Though it has a slippery rock face at the end when wet, this actually a simple and rather short portage. At the end, Steve, Greg and I light up cigarettes and amid a huge cloud of smoke, Brian Smith takes our picture. Some day I hope to blow it up and put it in the library, a place of memories.
On our way again, we go over Shelley and get on the Kashapiwi Creek. We know the creek will be low, and we plan all along to go into Heronshaw Lake. Near Heronshaw, there are two openings to the right in the creek, the second of which is where the portage is located. However, before the second opening, we come to a man-made dam and are temporarily at a loss to explain what it is doing there. Steve finally figures out the puzzle. The water is so low that the Quetico portage crew has come through and constructed a dam to ensure that enough water will be in the bay for canoes to get to the portage trail.
The portage is short, but the trail is rough. At the end, as I take off my canoe, the tents shift and I fall partially into the water and the canoe pins me under it. I have a hard time getting up, but a few heart-fest expletives take care of it.
On Heronsha, we look for a place to eat lunch, but nothing appears until a less-than-satisfactory bit of moss and rock at the south end of the lake. Here we eat lunch and cut up the last of the balogna. Then we portage into Carin Lake and start to make some mileage. An hour on Cairn takes us to the next portage. Then an hour on Sark Lake brings us to Keefer Lake. But we are now very tired again about 5:00, and so we camp near the beginning of Keefer. It is a good site. I raid a beaver lodge for firewood and I am reminded of the saying that occurs to me when I climb up on a beaver’s home. The poor beaver sits comfortably in his home, perhaps watching the news in his living room, and turns to his wife to say: “Why does he raid my home? I don’t climb up on his house and steal his shingles!” End day three.
Up early again, we proceed down Keefer and take the short portage into Kashapiwi Lake. We can see the end of the trail from the beginning, and so Trip Hencken boldly announces that anyone who falls on this portage is a sissy. Of course Trip falls immediately. Then we go down about a third of the length of Kashapiwi and staring us right in the face is a three-quarter mile portage, which begins straight uphill. To complicate matter, right behind us is a trip of mostly girls about to take the same portage. Before it is over, they will pass us and one of them will even take the time to stop and tie Shaun Roof’s shoes. One nice thing about this tough portage is the huge blueberry patch in the middle where many of us take a break to shovel down a few truckloads of berries. In the swampy part, take the right trail. The left is nasty, as Steve Upson and Scott McBride will attest to.
After this portage, we must pull over some rocks, which you can normally paddle over then proceed over the pothole to another portage. Although the length is not marked, this portage is at least a half-mile long and full of rough spots. But I tell the kids to take heart because now we are heading west, toward the big and home. There is a regenerative power in this statement. We are for the moment sons of Hercules, many of the twelve labors having been accomplished.
In Joyce Lake, I am reminded of Joyce Sanders—hard to get to but awfully nice if you ever do. At any rate, we go across Joyce and take the portage-pothole-portage into Marj Lake where we eat lunch. While there, we make a group activity out of cleaning up and we feel much better. Also, for the first time we have bannock and find that it makes pilot biscuits look poor indeed in comparison.
We then portage into Burt Lake and wind our way up to the first section of the Darky River. We are going with the stream again, and this is a comfort in light of the long stretch of this river, which we will later take. The two portages are short and we are soon in Suzanette Lake. We then take the portage-pothole-portage into Brent Lake and it is about 5:00, we camp at the head of Brent, again amid ample beaver wood. Looking back over the trip to this point, we find that we have already taken twenty-five portages, and we know that records will be broken. We are weary but happy, amazed at how fast the trip is going. Brian Smith and Shaun Roof are particularly proud of their accomplishments, reveling in each new experience. Both of these young men are trippers in the old spirit. End day four.
Because we have had such a tough way to go to this point, I don’t wake up everybody until 5:30 and we don’t hit the lake until about 7:00. My cold has reared itself again, and I tell Steve and Greg that I will by necessity be lagging a bit behind today. The cold saps my strength. But on we go. Near the end of Brent, we see a group of scantily-clad girls strangely camped on a high cliff. We all nearly have heart attacks—“This is the big one, Elizabeth. I’m comin to join ‘ya honey!”
By the end of Brent, I am feeling the strength of sun and water, and I have forgotten my cold. Directly in front of us is another long portage, this one three quarters of a mile. I tell Scott McBride to make a big effort on this portage. When I get to the end, I find Scott calmly waiting for me. He was the first across with the heavy breakfast wanigan, and he displayed the big heart that makes a trip worth taking.
Next we take the pothole and short portage into Darky Lake. Though we don’t know it at the time, Darky Lake, Indian legend has it, is the home of the spirits and should be crossed noiselessly so as not to wake the spirits. When we get to the start of the long stretch of the Darky River, we meet a trip coming the other way and they warn us of the river’s incredible lowness. How right they are! The Darky River is no fun in low water.
There are no shootable rapids on this river in 1980, and the last two portages begin several hundred yards before their usual starting points. When you have to start a portage early, the trail is poor and canoes do not fit through closely bunched trees. You must become adept at flipping the canoe onto one shoulder to pass through. It is tough going. After the last portage, we must pull over two sets of rapids which we can shoot in normal high water and finally, about 4:30, we are in Minn Lake. Some ten minutes after my canoe makes it, Steve’s canoe comes through. On the last pullover, Trip Hencken takes one step too many and goes into the drop off. It is a moment of comic relief we all need, and the laughter echoes across the ancient and quiet lake. We camp right where the river comes into Minn Lake on a very nice campsite, again with plenty of beaver wood. The different campers who help me get wood—Butch Scrivner, Scott McBride, Eddie Muse, Shaun Roof, and so forth, all seem to enjoy the discovery of good wood from the beaver. End of day five.
The next morning, as previously agreed upon by Steve and myself, we get up at 3:30 in order to beat the Lac La Croix winds. After a quick breakfast of bannock, which tastes great even at this hour, we begin paddling under the light of a bright three-quarter moon and a million stars. It is an experience none of us will soon forget. The serenity and beauty are incredible. The water is so low that we have to pull over rocks into one of the narrows, and just as the red is beginning to show above the treetops, we take the portage into the stream before Lac La Croix’s Martin Bay. This stream would normally be fun, but again in this year of low water, we must pull over several sets of rocks. It is rough work and hard on the canoes. But finally, we are in Martin Bay.
Going across Lac La Croix, we are glad we got up so early. We paddle across this potential ogre with only a trace of wind, and at about 10:00, we stop at the sand beach campsite just before the Indian Reservation to have cocoa and cream of wheat. I am so tired from not sleeping that I fall dead asleep on one of the picnic tables and only awake to find that we are about ready to go. Again, I am grateful to Steve Upson for taking care of business.
On the trail again, the wind has picked up from the west as we go around the bend and past the Indian Reservation at the beginning of the Namakan River. The Indians look better here than at the Rat River site, but the Indian question remains a sad one in modern day North America. Once on the river, Steve and Greg shoot the small rapids before Snake Falls, but I portage the whole thing. I am tired.
As we wind our way down the river, there are two portages on the left, which we mistakenly take on the right. There are trails at the beginning, but it quickly becomes a case of make your own portage. These are extremely rough, and the kids will remember them as heart breakers on the last day of the trip. On one of these portages, I must stop to help Butch Scrivner. Seeing this, Chip Johnson volunteers to take part of my load, the tents, to the end of the portage. Chip here becomes an integral part of the spirit of accomplishment. We have it in mind to go to High Falls or Hay Rapids on this the sixth, but when we get near the junction of the Namakan and Quetico Rivers, we find a nice island campsite and call it a day. The wind is starting to get strong in our faces, and we are worn out. After a refreshing swim, we have chicken and dumplings with all sorts of added ingredients. It boils over the top of the pot and we all have more than we can eat. Hoping that the wind will soon die down, we go to bed and day six ends.
We get an early start on day seven and pass through the relatively calm Quetico Rapids with ease. Bill Lake is an cinch at this early hour, though we remember last year and how bad old Bill can be in a headwind. After the short High Falls portage, we take a twenty minute or so break and enjoy the peace of knowing that we are getting near the end. We then paddle up to Hay Rapids, and as expected, we meet Phil Puerling’s trip still camped. The kids enjoy talking to “long lost” friends, but I am almost too tired to get out of the boat. Phil is amazed that Hay Portage will be our 38th. For he has taken something like eight on his entire trip due in part to his all camper canoe.
After about a half hour with Phil, we push on across the portage and off the boundaries of the Quetico map. Next hurdle is Lady Rapids, which is even further corroded this year by construction. But it is shootable. The only thing to watch in low water is new rock to contend with. It becomes necessary to shoot right through the haystacks, which is fun, but which gets everyone a bit wet. We paddle further, but the wind picks up ferociously and we decide to wait it out on an island near Namakan Lake. About 6:00 we start dinner and Dennis passes over in his plane. It is so windy that it is hard to get the water to boil, and we use up an astonishing amount of wood.
At about 8:00, the wind has died down somewhat and we paddle out into the Namakan. The wind, however, is still hurling and gusting into large rollers on the big lake, and we must seek the nearest campsite. Somewhat disappointed, we camp in the gathering dusk and we know that we must get up early again to beat the wind. However, once over Namakan, a paddle of only some one and a half hours, we will be in a position to take it easy and have our traditional pancake-cooking contest. And so weary men hit the tents as day seven comes to an end.
Up early as promised on day eight, we paddle across strangely calm Namakan Lake. I am now very tired, having spent much of the previous night sitting on the cliff overlooking the lake and nursing a bad hacking cough. But the calm wind brings happiness and we are soon across and on the short portage behind the shed, which leads into the stream to Kettle Falls.
To our initial amazement, we find that we must pull over rocks where we could paddle last year again due to the low water. We must even take a portage of 150 or so yards in order to get out toward Hale Bay. One good thing about it, though, is that it turned out to be portage number forty, a number we can all be proud of. We take the equipment across, but stay on a cliff to have our pancake contest. John Crook and Shaun Roof are co-winners. I ask each camper what has been his most memorable experience on the trip. The tough mile portage with loaded wannigans is mentioned most frequently.
The rest of the trip is pretty much normal. We go by Kettle Falls and buy the kids a coke. Then we paddle out to the campsite one hundred yards east of Surveyor’s Island and eat dinner, surrounded all the while by enough beaver wood to make a lodge. Steve Upson turns in a memorable cooking accomplishment when he mixes a white cake with a chocolate one and comes up with a delicious swirl cake. All that remains is the sight of the big boat at 8:00 on the ninth day, a vision finer than the Mona Lisa.
A multitude of experience in nine days, this was the finest trip of my canoeing life. My thanks to all involved, men accept the challenge. Particularly thanks to the tireless one, Steve Upson. I will be talking with you again when the third paddle takes its place of honor.
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