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Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park proves to be a place of adventure

By Johnny Molloy • Jul 15, 2018 at 5:00 AM

Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, held fast against Minnesota border, is a large wild area with more natural lakes than we East Tennesseans can imagine, thousands of them. Along with neighboring Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota, the two preserves form one of the largest designated wildernesses south of the Arctic Circle. It is a land of big fish, black bears, wild moose – and lots of pesky mosquitoes. The lakes are linked by portage trails, allowing adventurous paddlers to explore lake after lake for months without retracing their route. I chose Quetico Provincial Park for an annual outdoor adventure with my old college-buddy-turned-lawyer Tom Lauria, along with his son Anthony and daughter Kristina. They all reside in south Florida, therefore I was the lone Tennessean. We flew up to northern Minnesota and the quaint town of Ely, which dubs itself the “Canoe Capital of the World”. The town is built on visitors vacationing at the nearby lakes, many tourists heading to the wilderness with others simply renting a lakeside cabin to relax. Of course, we would have none of that relaxing business. Instead, we took a floatplane from Ely to Lac La Croix on the United States/Canada border then a jet boat dropped us off on the edge of the wilderness that is Quetico Provincial Park. We provisioned through an outfitter, including not only the canoes and camping gear but also our food. The four of us started with a canoe and gear carry from Lac La Croix to Minn Lake. The carry was known as the Black Robe Portage. I chuckled as Tom, Anthony and Kristina were soon swatting at mosquitoes and frantically searching their gear bags for bug dope. Big rains were predicted so we wasted no time paddling for a campsite. We found a site where the Darky River flows into Minn Lake. The four of us battened down the hatches and set up tarps along with our tents. The mosquitoes were thick in the humid summer weather before a 19-hour nonstop rain began at 8 that evening. The pounding storm made for good sleeping conditions. I rolled out of bed the next morning and got under the tarp to make coffee and breakfast. Luckily, we had a camp stove, for the heavy rain would have prohibited a fire. It was quite crowded under the cooking tarp and we began to get on one another’s nerves, especially after all the plane rides just to get here. The other three would “coach” whoever was doing the cooking. I call it being a “sideline chef.” The rain finally let up at 3 PM and was followed by a nonstop wind. That continuous breeze instantly eliminated the mosquito problem. Now we had a new problem — trying to cook over a campfire in a gale. Somehow, we managed to sear our steaks but Kristina worried about the wind blowing the odor of the cooking meat toward the noses of lurking black bears. Due to the rain, we ended up staying two nights at the first campsite, then headed up the Darky River. Now going upstream on a river doesn’t make sense to us down South, but sometimes that is the method of travel here in Canoe Country. Portage trails get you around the strong rapids that cannot be paddled up. Near one of the portages Tom began to grouse about no fishing so far, so I suggested he throw in a line. He proceeded to catch smallmouth bass on his first cast. Several other bass followed and we all began catching many smallmouth bass. Later that afternoon the four of us worked ourselves upstream to reach beautiful Darky Lake, with many arms bordered in regal hills. The four of us found a campsite situated on a high granite dome interspersed with woods. The sun made quite a show from our elevated rock perch as it set over the Canadian hills. Our dehydrated meal — chicken noodle surprise — was rather disappointing. All the same we enjoyed being out there until the mosquitoes ran us into the tents. At sunrise I made my way back to overlook, enjoying the rising rays before we set off. Anthony landed a big ol’ pike as we neared the pictographs on Darky Lake. The Indian paintings on a big bluff depicted canoes, moose, even a man shooting a gun, and were believed to been painted during the 1700s. A hilly portage through gorgeous woods took us to blue Argo Lake. It is amazing how natural lakes next to one another can be different colors, but they are. We quickly found another elevated campsite with a million dollar view and a bug defeating breeze. I swam. We alternated chef duties but the freeze-dried meals were simple, and frankly not that good. This was the first time I had used an outfitter for food and it looked to be the last after another meal of cardboard-like fare, this time beef stroganoff. It had an unappealing pinkish hue that recalled prison fare. Next day we fished our way to Roland Lake, catching many bass and pike using topwater plugs. Seeing the fish blast to the lake surface and attack the lure was thrilling. Unhooking the northern pike was no fun, as they are known for being slimy skinned and very toothy, almost as toothy as a saltwater fish. I had needle nose pliers and experience, so was doing most of the fish unhooking in order to prevent a fishhook-in-the-hand disaster. Our only trouble on Roland Lake was an incessant cool wind but it did deter the mosquitoes. Anthony did take an unexpected dunk in Roland Lake while unloading his canoe. The cool, cloudy weather remained with us the next day as we made our way back to Lac La Croix. Anthony spotted an island campsite that turned out to be our best. It had an easy canoe landing, a desirable fire ring spot, and plenty of level tent sites. Spitting rain kept us from fishing much and we primarily hung around warming fire, swapping tales and predicting the upcoming Tennessee Volunteers football season. Curtain Falls was our first stop the next day. The huge roaring cataract is a massive froth of white stretching for several hundred yards beside which a portage trail traces. The long canoe and gear carry was mitigated by the beauty of the cataract. The chilly wind picked up as we paddled our way to McAree Lake and Rebecca Falls. A superlative campsite stood between the two channels of Rebecca Falls. The rumble of 90-foot Rebecca Falls was incessant. We sat in the sun on a flat granite slab until I got the idea to throw in a line above the falls, to do a little camp fishing from the bank. I quickly caught some bass, inspiring Tom to try his luck. He tied on a new lure and commenced to catch his own bass. However, in attempting to unhook the fish the sharp hooks of the new lure hooked him in the thumb as the three of us watched the accident unfold right before our very eyes. We went into emergency mode, first unhooking the fish from the lure, then cutting the hook from the body of the lure. Luckily, Tom had one of those multi-tools with him that included pliers and a wire cutter. However, Tom would not let us operate on the part of the hook that remained in his thumb — the barb was embedded into his thumb. I wanted to operate to see if Tom would cry out in pain. Instead, he taped over the remaining piece of hook protruding from his thumb and resumed the business of camping in Quetico Provincial Park. That early August night cooled into the 40s. Fall wasn’t too far off up here in the Great North Woods. It was a chilly paddle the next morning to our final canoe carry, the very muddy but historic Bottle Portage. From there, we loaded our canoes and gear on a jet boat, sped to the floatplane and once again enjoyed the loud but incredibly scenic floatplane trip back to Ely, Minnesota, marking our reentry into civilization. After our bland freeze-dried food we looked forward to a fine dinner, after a fine shower. Tom end up waiting for three days to get the hook removed, using his doctor in Miami. Despite the accident, our trip was an overall success – the sightseeing, the paddling, the portaging, the fishing and the camping. The four of us looked forward to the next year’s adventure — wherever that lay.

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