This post is part of a series, click here for the full story.

[typography font=”Copse” size=”24″ size_format=”px” color=”#8c0510″]Day 1[/typography]

Up and at ’em!

Final sorting of gear, a bite to eat, and one last hot shower and we were on the road to meet our ride into the wilderness.

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Evidently, North Country used to charter their own flights into the Quetico, but all the rules changed after 9/11 and now it all runs through a third party — and there are certain points on the water that are approved pick-up/entry points between the US and Canada. A US Customs agent met us on the dock before we loaded our gear and asked us the usual: itinerary? firearms? drugs? We flashed our passports and were good to go.

(Pay attention at 00:16 for some local flavor, eh?)

Float Plane | Ely to the Quetico from Sarah Hood on Vimeo.

{Click here if you don’t see a video.}

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Each of our packs weighed between 30 and 40 pounds, plus the two of us, plus the pilot — so it was critical the pilot weigh our gear and pack the plane accordingly. We stayed out of the way for this part — don’t wanna distract the guy in charge of weight distribution on the tiny airplane you’re about to board.

Having never been in a plane like that, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Yes, it was tiny. Yes, it was loud. Yes, if you let your brain get carried away — it was pockets of terrifying. (The door was closed with a cute little latch, and that backseat made any flight I’ve ever been on look ROOMY.) Float planes are one of the only ways to get into the more remote areas of the Boundary Water Canoe Area (BWCA) wilderness and the Quetico Park area in Canada — and remote is exactly what we’d signed up for.

Before our final destination, we made a quick stop at customs on the Canadian side where I stole some photos through the window as we left — didn’t want to imply any disrespect by taking “touristy” photos of their border crossing while we were out on the dock with the customs agents.

Canadian Customs
Canadian Customs

Now in Canada, we landed at Campbell’s Cabins on Lac La Croix to meet up with our canoe and fuel for our camp stove, since we were not able to fly with cans of fuel. One last piece of paperwork — our Canadian camping permit — and we were finally ready to get on the water. We loaded our packs and canoe onto a motorized boat that would take us to our official entry point at Twin Falls, about 30 minutes away.

Our last glimpse of civilization as we sped away from the dock at Campbell's Cabins on Lac La Croix.
Our last glimpse of civilization as we sped away from the dock at Campbell’s Cabins on Lac La Croix.

Henry, our ride to Twin Falls, unloaded our canoe and pointed us in the right direction — and as we walked through the trees a minute on the bank at the portage we looked up to see Henry was gone. What a feeling. Being dropped off in the middle of the wilderness with a canoe, a map, and a compass.

It was close enough to lunchtime that we decided to go ahead and eat rather than stop again so soon. So we opened up the food pack and found some sandwiches. As we ate — and swatted mosquitoes — we looked around. Well. Here we are.[divider_flat]

After a quick sandwich, we loaded up.

[fivecol_three]And… almost immediately, we were out of the boat…

We’d mapped our entry for just above Twin Falls, and the water level was just high enough that the water was moving quickly but low enough that there were plenty of rocks nearer the surface than is canoe-friendly. In our inexperience — and seeing as this was the first five minutes of the trip — we misjudged the whole situation and had to jump out, dodge the rocks, and drag the canoe into deeper water. In the process, I slipped and fell — banging my hip pretty hard on a rock in the water.  [/fivecol_three] [fivecol_two_last][box icon=”none” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Tip! Wear shoes that can get wet — and dry quickly. I wore KEENs and they were PERFECT. Sturdy enough for hiking – when necessary – but right at home in the water, too. I didn’t think twice about putting a foot in the water to steady myself getting in and out of the canoe.[/box][/fivecol_two_last][divider_flat]Great start… But back in the boat! And after the rough start, the first day of paddling was beautiful.

My view from the front of the canoe.
My view from the front of the canoe.

We knew the whole situation would take some getting used to — the paddling, the map-reading, the portaging — but we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Back in Ely, when John asked us “how aggressive” we wanted our trip to be we had nodded eagerly and agreed we wanted “the full experience”. All we knew was “aggressive” sounded fun — and we were in.

It’s tough to say whether the true “aggressiveness” that first day was due to my underdeveloped navigation and map-reading skills or to the remote, less-traveled area of the Quetico we were in — but it’s probably safe to say it was the perfect storm of both. We could tell by waterlines on rocks and trees that the water was lower than normal, which made portages harder to identify. In theory, they were marked on the map — but when the water level is so low the terrain in front of you doesn’t necessarily even look like the map… it’s tough.

Portaging is a necessary evil in the BWCA/Quetico.  Simply put, it’s the way from one of the “10,000 Lakes” to the next or the safe way around hazards like rapids or waterfalls. The portages are trails from one shore to the next — varying in length from 10 feet to several miles. Some are well-marked, wide, relatively flat. Others are uphill, rocky, incredibly muddy, or nearly hidden because of infrequent use. Over the course of our trip — we had all of the above.

Day 1, though, was the toughest for portaging because of how far into the wilderness we were and how infrequently the portages were used. A few times we weren’t even sure if we were at an actual portage, or rather a wild animal path through the woods. Length is measured in “rods” — each rod being roughly the length of the canoe. So portages can be 10 rods or 300+ rods — and everything in between. We had a 90r (about 1/4 mile) that first day and it was so muddy I thought I might lose a shoe.

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Bald eagle in the Quetico.

After about four hours of paddling and portaging, we made it to camp. John had recommended a few spots each night for us and this was one he’d described as absolutely ideal so we were thrilled to find it. The campsite area was hidden just above the treeline and between the camp and the water was a flat rock point jutting out into Minn Lake. John assured us it would be a perfect place for a great sunset.

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BWCA+Quetico 044_edit

The first night in camp — and again the next morning — we had fresh meat and eggs. Steak! Burgers! (Cooked to the best of my camp-stove abilities…) Camp cooking isn’t my gift, but I think I did ok. No one went hungry. We washed dishes, cleaned up, then packed all food, toiletries, and anything with a scent into the same pack — and hung it in a tree. In Yosemite a few years ago we had to pack everything in big, cumbersome bear canisters — but they advise the old-fashioned way in the Quetico.

Food and toiletries safe from curious bears.
Food and toiletries safe from curious bears.

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[typography font=”Copse” size=”24″ size_format=”px” color=”#8c0510″]Night 1[/typography]

John was so right about the sunset. After dinner, we headed out onto this rocky landing, toward the water. The mosquitoes weren’t quite as bad on the rocks as they were in the trees so that was a nice bonus.

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Sunset over Minn Lake.

That night we had hoped to enjoy the stars and the full moon, but instead — it stormed for several hours. From the coziness of our tent, we listened to rain and some pretty crazy wind all night long, but we tried to get some rest — as we looked forward to Day 2.

This post is part of a series, click here for the full story.

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CLICK TO ENLARGE. The dashed, black line is the guide John drew in for us before we left Ely, the red dots are potential campsites, and the red, numbered markings along the way are portages.

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