I tolerate portaging. I don’t crave it. There is a certain satisfaction to the act—especially when it’s completed in one push. But ultimately, I’m on a canoe trip to paddle. Not to portage.
Northwestern Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park is home to 550 maintained portages. It also boasts some 2,000 lakes within 4,790 square-kilometres as it expands southward from near the town of Atikokan to the U.S. border, connecting with Minnesota’s equally large Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. So while portaging will always be a fact of life when paddling in Ontario’s lake country, Quetico is renowned for long, unbroken stretches of water and short-and-simple portages. It’s a place for canoeists who love to paddle; canoeists like me and John Bartol, the park’s Interior Operations Specialist and my companion for the next three days. (Three days, with just one portage.)
Located in the heart of the continent, Quetico is a couple hours’ drive from the city of Thunder Bay, itself a fair distance from any other major centre. Access to the park is usually via Dawson Trail Campground, at the park’s northeast corner, or, as we do, via paddle-and-portage from an adjacent lake on Highway 11.
John and I say goodbye to the last of our cellphone reception as well as the last powerboats as we ply through Nym Lake toward the one-kilometre portage into Batchewaung Lake—our official entry into Quetico. From here, the park’s natural integrity is strictly managed. No powerboats, no live bait and no disposable containers are permitted to pass park borders. The lack of powerboats pays dividends immediately. The relative peace on Batchewaung versus Nym is palpable; a serenity that would follow us on our foray into Quetico’s delights.
“I’ve been slowly moving north,” John wistfully explains as I ask him about the draw to work in Quetico. Over the past decade or so, the wilds of northern Ontario lured him from the southern cities into a variety of outdoorsy career paths and eventually a position with Ontario Parks. As he moves up the career ladder, though, his time in a canoe diminishes accordingly. I can tell he’s happy to be on the water today—even if I’m plying him with questions more actively than I’m plying the lake with my paddle.
We’d only seen two other canoes since leaving Nym Lake this morning. Quetico manages its entry points with a permit and quota system. Batchewaung, for example, allows only seven groups to enter daily. It’s one more procedure to ensure a serene backcountry experience. And again, its value is obvious as we drift through the narrows that connects Batchewaung and Pickerel lakes in search of a campsite. Our concern is not finding an empty plot of land, but finding an ideal one. They’re all empty.
We settle on a sheltered site with sunset views and a campfire ring on a granite outcrop. The mossy ground is soft and the white pines are spaced perfectly to hang a hammock. We’d found a pool rife with smallmouth bass earlier that day, catching and releasing more than a dozen fish and keeping two for tonight’s tacos. We start a campfire with a splash of leftover cooking oil. The violet dusk turns the lakewater a similar hue, loons occasionally break the silence with their calls—the unofficial national anthem of Canada—and I’m left with little wonder why eight days is a more typical canoe trip in Quetico than three.
We break camp just as the mist clears from Pickerel Narrows. By midmorning, we’re onto Pickerel Lake’s big waters and a tailwind is making the paddling easy. Snack breaks see us holding our paddle-blades flat against the wind like sails; we practically move as quickly without stroking as with. A golden-sand shore makes the best lunch spot as well as proof that not every beach in Canadian Shield country is a rocky one. We jig for lake trout in the afternoon, but the wind that helps us along also makes dropping our lines 20 metres to the lakebottom impossible. Nearby, a four-person canoe careens across the water, its occupants slashing the water with powerful strokes. They’re part of Quetico’s summertime maintenance crews—locals charged with canoeing from portage-to-portage to clear brush and repair pathways so paddlers like me can lament the trail that much less. It’s a challenging though idyllic job for those who crave time in the bush.
Again, we track down a picturesque campsite easily—this one perhaps besting the previous night’s, with sun-drenched rock sloping into the warm water and a point perfect for evening angling. I swim far off shore while John attempts to hook into one of the aggressive bass that had been finning around my feet as I waded in. After dinner, once the firelight dies and after John zips his tent door closed, I’m up late gazing into an impossibly starry sky. The constellations reflect in the blackened water creating a near-180-degree observatory; it’s a perfect Quetico scene—the apex of my quick transition from busy workaday life to wilderness Zen.
A small pike tugs at my line just before Pickerel Lake funnels into a gentle river leading to French Lake. John and I are taking a leisurely pace this morning, pushing against the current under a third straight day of sunny skies. Ahead, a motorboat rounds one of the river’s serpentine corners. It’s park staff, en route to a medical evacuation at the far end of Pickerel Lake. Such transport is a necessary exception to the rules, of course, but the roar of the motorboat is unbecoming. Though we wish them a successful recovery, the cacophony highlights the importance of keeping Quetico paddle-only.
The passing boat is also a reminder of our trip’s impending end. We flow out of the river and onto French Lake, the waterbody next to the park’s only car-access area. Ahead, I see the rooftop of the Ojibwa Cabin, where I’d spent my first night after arriving from Thunder Bay. The trip is over. As our canoe slides onto the sandy shoreline of Dawson Trail Campground, I hold on to the last remnants of Quetico’s serenity; a mindful souvenir from Canada’s best canoe-tripping wilderness.
Quetico Provincial Park is located 170 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Access is via canoe from points along Highway 11, or from Dawson Trail Campground, about 45 kilometres east of Atikokan.
Book a night in the comfortable Ojibwa or Log Cabin in Dawson Trail Campground before heading out on your Quetico canoe trip. Car-camping and walk-in camping is also available at Dawson Trail.
Interior camping permits are required for all overnight trips. Reserve backcountry campsites and find information about permits at ontarioparks.com or 1.888.668.7275.
If you arrive via Thunder Bay, Towneplace Suites by Marriott is just 8.5 kilometres from the airport and located adjacent to a large grocery store for stocking up on all your camp food and beverage needs. marriott.com
Discover more information about Thunder Bay at thunderbay.ca.
Quetico Provincial Park’s Dawson Trail Campground (Ojibwa and Chippewa campgrounds), features boreal forest hikes such as French Falls Trail (2.4 kilometres), Pines Hiking Trail (10 kilometres) and seven other marked trails starting from the campground. ontarioparks.com
Visit Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, located 77 kilometres east of Thunder Bay. Warm up your paddling arms on Marie Louise Lake or get a lower body workout by challenging the Top of the Giant Trail—home to Ontario’s most impressive viewpoint. ontarioparks.com
Pay homage to a Canadian hero at the Terry Fox Monument, located just a few minutes’ drive northeast from downtown Thunder Bay on Highway 17. thunderbay.ca
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