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Think Big This Summer! by Roger Hahn

As an outfitter for 20 years I know that most of us bring a little too much gear, are not in optimum physical condition, and want to relax on our canoe trips more than anything.

But sometimes, and for some paddlers, we get the urge to take "the big trip". Maybe that once in a lifetime trip. The one with all the miles, the utterly absurd portages, and more days or miles than our last four trips combined.

If it's your time, or it's your passion to have that physical and mental challenge, then read on because I just might have a couple of suggestions for such a journey.

Hunter's Island!

This trip, in the Quetico, is a classic. Park rangers, locals, and visitors have been challenged on this loop since before the park became a park.

You can find detailed descriptions of the Hunter's Island route in most guidebooks. And if you look on your Quetico Park map you can see why it's called Hunter's Island. The waterway you'd be paddling is continuous and forms an immense island which, by definition, is surrounded by water.

Most paddlers opt to paddle Hunter's Island in a counter-clockwise direction, taking advantage of the current to help you around a good part of the loop. Once you study the maps a bit you'll find out why it's so outrageous that those who compete against the clock on this route do it non-stop! That is to say, paddling and portaging, often around rapids, in the dark of night!

You can begin and end this adventurous loop any place you wish. For the sake of this article I'll outline it beginning at Cache Bay, the entry point via the Gunflint Trail:

  • Saganaga Lake
  • Cache Bay
  • Saganagons
  • Falls Chain
  • Kawnipi
  • Poet Chain
  • Russell Lake
  • Sturgeon Lake
  • Maligne River
  • Lac La Croix
  • Iron Lake
  • Crooked Lake
  • Basswood Lake
  • Birch Lake
  • Carp Lake
  • Knife Chain
  • Saganaga Lake

Guidebooks will tell you that the loop itself is approximately 128 miles. Of course, that does not include getting to and from the loop, any side trips you might make, and the usual zig-zagging that we do as we scout for campsites, look for portages, and the like.

And let's not forget miles and miles of portaging, compounded by the fact that you have to carry more food and supplies for an extended trip such as this. Plus rapids, waterfalls and some certain headwinds on some big water.

I'd recommend a week to ten days, minimum, for this journey and two to three weeks to really explore it, fish it, and enjoy it. And enjoy it you will. You will see the very best that the Quetico has to offer.

Cache River

Ok. You need something a little more challenging? Just remember, you asked for it.

First of all, this trip must be done in the spring of the year, when water levels are high, or in a season when we have exceptionally good water levels. You can't afford to get to the Cache River and find it too low to navigate.

Secondly, this is not a trip that is used very often. And you'll likely be the first one's through in the spring. Which means you can expect blowdowns, beaver dams, and log-jams all along the way. Pack light, bring a good camp saw, a full roll of duct tape, and BE IN SHAPE!

You can access this route, in the far NE corner of Quetico, from either Pickerel Lake or Eva Lake. The ultimate trip is to paddle out across the Quetico so you'll need to arrange for a float plane ride or a shuttle to the north side of the park. It's worth it.

The route is as follows:

  • French Lake
  • Baptism Lake
  • Trousers Lake
  • Cache Lake
  • Cache River
  • Kawnipi Lake
  • Exit via a route of your choice.

You'll want at least four or five days just to get to Kawnipi Lake. And you'll want to spend at least a day fishing the mouth of the river where it dumps into Kawnipi, if you're coming in the spring!

If you haven't already looked at the maps and the portages in this region it's time to "get real", as Dr. Phil would say. That big portage, into Cache Lake, is 795 rods in length! There are about 360 rods in a mile. You do the math!

If you'd like to do this trip in low water conditions you can simply portage on to Lindsay Lake. Oh, yeah, this portage is only 766 rods! A piece of cake after the 795, right? It does get you "directly" into McKenzie Lake and on towards Kawnipi, however. Something to think about.

South of the Border

The last route I'll introduce you to today is the one I christened South of the Border. You can do this route on the BWCA side, the Quetico side, or a combination of the two. Of course, you'd need dual permits and dual fishing licenses and to pay the appropriate fees. My decision would be based on the time of year that you're going; knowing that the BWCA side has more traffic during the peak season.

Technically, to traverse the entire BWCA you'd want to start in the Crane and Sandy Point Lake vicinity. From there your route would include the following lakes:

  • Little Vermilion Lake
  • Lac La Croix
  • Iron Lake
  • Crooked Lake
  • Basswood Lake
  • Birch Lake
  • Carp Lake
  • Knife Chain
  • Saganaga Lake
  • Granite River section
  • Gunflint Lake
  • Little Gunflint Lake
  • North Lake
  • South Lake
  • Rose Lake
  • Mountain Lake
  • Moose Lake
  • North Fowl
  • South Fowl

You can elect to end your trip at the Fowls, at the end of the BWCA proper, or continue on as far as you like. If you feel up to it you can end at the granddaddy of all portages, the Grand Portage. It's only about 9 miles! Nothing to it. You do have to quit paddling at that point because you're now in Lake Superior.

Generally speaking, one would choose to do this trip from the west to the east, to take advantage of the prevailing winds. However, if you've done much paddling you already know that the only way to get the wind to blow from one direction is to be paddling in the opposite direction! Huh?

Hopefully these have whetted your appetite for the ultimate canoe trip. Just remember to get in shape, pack light, and think KEVLAR!


       --article courtesy of BoundaryWatersMagazine


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