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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

Cache Bay and Beyond by Roger Hahn

Webster's Dictionary defines the word cache as ''a place in which stores of food, supplies, etc. are hidden.'' And Cache Bay may very well have been such a place for the traders and trappers in the early part of the century. But, to the lucky paddlers entering Quetico through it each summer, it means something else entirely.

Cache Bay is more than just the entry to the Quetico from the Gunflint Trail. It is a spot which defines the beginning and end of every southeastern Quetico trip. And the mere mention of its name conjures up images of wonderful excursions into this corner of the Park. The first step for your visit to Cache Bay is to reserve one of the handful of permits the Quetico Park gives out each season through this entry station. As in the BWCA this means figuring out your route, first, and then applying for the appropriate entry permit.

The entry points accessed via Cache Bay are categorized as follows:

  • #71 - Knife Lake (2 parties per day allowed)
  • #72 - Man Chain (2 parties per day allowed)
  • #73 - Falls Chain (2 parties per day allowed)
  • #74 - Boundary Point (2 parties per day allowed)
  • #23 - Mack Lake (3 parties per day, for fly-in trips only)

All of these routes begin with a trip through a corner of the Boundary Waters and across island studded Saganaga Lake (Sag-ah-nah-gah). For this reason nearly all the paddlers heading to Cache Bay take advantage of a motor launch to cross Big Sag. By doing so you'll trade several hours of paddling, across a 20,000 acre lake, for a leisurely 20 minute boat ride.

Author's note: If you opt to paddle, instead of taking the launch, be sure to fill out a BWCA day use permit at the landing. If you plan to camp along the way, either coming or going, you must have an overnight BWCA permit.

After getting out of the launch boat, near American Point, you'll have about a one hour paddle to Cache Bay itself and the ranger cabin on the second island. You can't miss the Canadian flag, the small bank of solar panels, and the sheltered waiting area down at the waterfront on the south side.

More than likely you will be met at the dock with a warm greeting from Janice or Peter, the Cache Bay rangers. They have been at the station for more than a dozen years and are a wealth of information... as well as your closest help in the event of an emergency.

You'll spend a few minutes with the rangers getting your permit, paying your camping fees, and buying your Ontario fishing license. When you are waiting down at the dock you will wonder what could possibly be taking so long in the office. But once inside you'll be reluctant to leave the laughter, ribbing, and banter which is a part of every trip to the Cache Bay ranger station.

Potential Routes Out of Cache Bay

Knife Lake entry permit #71-- This is a route I would recommend for a number of reasons. First of all, it is the quietest of the areas, with the possible exception of the fly-in routes, and is therefore the easiest to get a permit to enter. Secondly, it has everything you're looking for; great campsites, spectacular high cliffs, and all major species of fish in its waters.

Short Trip: Spend your time in Ottertrack (the local name for the long northern arm of Knife Lake), Jasper, and Lilypad lakes before crossing the southwest corner of Saganagons Lake on your way to Silver Falls. This loop can be done in a couple of days but five days seems to work out best for fishing, sightseeing, and relaxing.

Medium Trip: My favorite loop is the Knife Chain combined with the Man Chain. By making your turn at beautiful green Emerald Lake, through the ponds into That Man Lake, this trip is comfortably done in 5 days, with a round trip motor launch. But I recommend you take a week so you'll have time to explore this great chain of lakes.

Author's note: When doing this loop take a few minutes to check out the magnificent white cedar trees on the Plough to Emerald portage. I've been told that the trees in this small stand are hundreds of years old. It will take three of you to get your arms completely around the trunk of one of these living giants.

Long Trip: If you14ve got the time, and the energy, you can follow the Knife Chain all the way to Prairie Portage and make your way back to the Falls Chain (by way of Basswood, Sunday, Meadows, Agnes, Fauquier, Glacier, McEwen, and Wet Lakes). Pack light and take 7-10 days for this trip.

Man Chain entry permit #72-- The Man Chain of lakes is a beautiful string of narrow lakes running roughly from Slate Lake to Emerald Lake. I've never been able to uncover the origin of the name of this chain of lakes... This Man, That Man, Other Man, and No Man. But I love to see people's faces when they hear of these oddly named lakes for the first time.

Short, Medium, and Long Trips: The short and medium trips would be the same, of course, as for the Knife Chain permit... only in reverse. The long trip, back through McEwen, can also be done by leaving the Man Chain at the Emerald Lake area.

Falls Chain entry permit #73-- This series of small interconnected lakes and waterfalls runs from Saganagons to Kawnipi. Because of its beauty, and the fact that it leads directly to the Quetico's interior, it is the busiest entry point out of Cache Bay.

Short Trip: Lots of paddlers go no further than the Falls Chain itself as many beautiful campsites are located on or near the waterfalls in this region. In the spring the moving water makes this a fantastic place to fish. However, extra care should be taken, during this time, to avoid an accident in the fast waters. Plan on 5-7 days for this trip.

Author's note: Some of this region was burned in the August '95 forest fire. While signs of the fire are common, and some favored campsites destroyed, the beauty of the falls more than compensates those fortunate enough to get a highly coveted Falls Chain permit.

Medium Trip: After paddling halfway through Kawnipi head east towards Kawa Bay. Follow the Waiwag (locally pronounced Wow-ee-ag) River up to Mack Creek and into Mack Lake itself. After enjoying Mack's great fishing head south through Munro, Cullen, Ross, and Bitchu Lakes on your way back to Saganagons. You'll want a full week or more to enjoy this trip.

Long Trip: Folks with the time, and inclination, may come back through Agnes Lake and Prairie Portage. You can make your way back up the Man Chain or along the border on the Knife Chain. Some folks even get a BWCA permit and end their trip on the American side. Plan on 8-10 days for this longer loop.

Boundary Point entry permit #74-- Saganagons (Sag-ah-nah-gonz) Lake is a wonderful place if a base camp fishing trip is what you have in mind. It is bisected by the long peninsula known as Boundary Point. If you avoid the main travel route, which runs from Silver Falls to the Falls Chain, you'll find it remarkably quiet. If you head east, down the lake, you'll find beautiful campsites, incredible fishing, and plenty of solitude.

Author's note: It is my understanding that this area got its name from the fact that the boundary of the park used to extend only as far as the eastern tip of the peninsula. Fortunately this boundary was later extended to include all of Saganagons Lake.

Short trip: After crossing the Silver Falls portage make your way to one of the many island campsites near Boundary Point. Spend your time exploring the islands and the beautiful bays of Saganagon's south shore. Since it takes a day to get in, and a day to get out, you should plan on 5 days for this trip.

Medium trip: Spend a night or two on the south shore of the lake and then break camp and move to the north side of Boundary Point. The many narrows on this side make for some fabulous fishing as the water from Silver Falls slowly makes its way around Boundary Point and to the Falls Chain. Return via the 75 rod Dead Man's Portage across Boundary Point. Plan on 5-7 days to fully explore this area.

Author's note: Even though I've picked the brains of everyone I could think of I've yet to find the story behind the Dead Man's Portage. As ominous as it sounds it's really a pretty good portage other than one slippery rock slope about halfway through.

Long trip: Head north from Saganagons into Bitchu, Ross, Cullen, Munro, and Mack Lakes before heading down the Waiwag River to return through Kawnipi and the Falls Chain. Since you'll want to spend a few days fishing on Mack plan 7-10 days to enjoy this trip.

Author's note: The region between Mack and Saganagons was heavily burned in the 1995 forest fire. While this has certainly detracted from the normal beauty of this region this loop is still a great way to see some of Quetico's finest country. Be forewarned that there are some very long portages between Ross and Mack lakes.

Mack Lake entry permit #23-- These permits are available only for fly-in canoe trips. Since float planes are not allowed to land in the park itself you will be dropped off in Clay Lake near the eastern border. Most folks opt to paddle out but you may choose to be picked up again in Clay Lake. From Clay you'll paddle down the narrow, winding Greenwood Creek into the Waiwag River.

Short trip: After spending a couple of days in Mack Lake you'll head for Saganagons via Munro, Cullen, Ross, and Bitchu Lakes. Plan on at least 5 days for this loop.

Medium trip: Spend a night or two on Mack Lake before heading back to the Waiwag and on to Kawa Bay (of Kawnipi). Take the rest of your week to make your way back via the Falls Chain.

Long trip: From Kawnipi head halfway down the Falls Chain and into McEwen Lake. Make your way through the small ponds to Louisa Lake on your way to Prairie Portage. Return up the border, on the Knife Chain, or up the Man Chain to Silver Falls. It's best to have 8-10 days for this loop.

And last, but certainly not least, if you haven't seen them before take a little extra time to visit the set of pictographs (small Native American drawings on rock faces) in the western part of Cache Bay itself. I'm told that these drawings, still clear enough to photograph, could be close to two hundred years old. No doubt the natives drew these images to tell of the bounty they experienced in and around Cache Bay. Hopefully, by the end of your first trip, you will have discovered this bounty for yourself. And have your own cache of memories of this special place.

Cache Bay Primer

  • Permits: To get a Cache Bay permit you should make plans early in the year. They begin taking mail-in reservations on the Monday closest to January 15th and phone-in reservations on the Monday closest to February 1st. The reservation number is 807-597-2735. If you are using an outfitter, for a launch or other services, they can make this reservation for you.
  • Customs: As of 1998 the customs station on Sag is closed along with most other remote stations. You must have an RABC (Remote Area Border Crossing) permit in your possession to enter Canada and the Quetico. These are obtained by mail and should be done a minimum of 30 days in advance. You may call 807-964-2095 to have a permit sent or download one from their web site. They require personal background data and a signature and should cost you about $22.00/US.
  • Quetico Park charges a camping fee of $10.00 per person per night (Canadian). Depending upon the current rate of exchange you will pay about $7.50 per person per night. You may pay in cash or by Visa/Mastercard. Permit reservations are not required in early May or later September. But, if you come before the ranger station opens (the day before the Ontario walleye opener) or after they close (Labor Day itself), you are required to paddle to the station dock and drop your camping fees in the drop box at the dock.
  • Your best bet for an Ontario fishing license is their 7 day conservation license for $15.00 (U.S.). The conservation license limits your possession but it's still more than ample to feed hungry paddlers. You may buy these at the ranger station and pay with cash or Visa/Mastercard.
  • Remember that the Quetico does not use latrine boxes or fire grates like the BWCA. You should bring a small trowel, or shovel, for latrine purposes and a steel grate to cook on. The maximum group size in the park is also 9 people.
  • Five outfitters currently offer launch service across Saganaga. Prices are approximately $22.00 per person one way and $38.00 round trip. Savvy paddlers know to reserve their tow in advance to ensure prompt service.
  • Most folks use Kashabowie Airways, out of Shebandowan, for fly-ins. You must meet the float plane at the now defunct customs station on the eastern side of Sag. Your outfitter can make flight arrangements for you in addition to a launch ride.
  • From Duluth take Hwy. 61 to Grand Marais. In Grand Marais take the Gunflint Trail (#12) to its end near Saganaga Lake. Services are limited at the end of the Trail so call ahead to find out about supplies, lodging, and meals.

This article first appeared in Boundary Waters Journal.

--article courtesy of

Quetico Permits Remote Border Crossing
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