The first day on a recent trip to Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, I fell into an old habit. It was already midafternoon in mid-July -- the busiest time of the season -- and as my wife, Susan, and I paddled across Quetico Lake, I worried aloud about finding a place to camp.
I'd been conditioned by years of traveling Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where on a given day hundreds of canoeists prowl the waterways and snare good camps by midday. To make things worse, you can camp only on established sites, or face a hefty fine. When no other site was available, I once shared a site with a persistent black bear.
"There are plenty of places to camp," Susan reminded me. "We're on the Canadian side of the border." Soon we found a small clearing along a rocky shore and set our tent.
From then on, I realized our good fortune and relaxed. During the next several days, Susan and I paddled the rangy lakes of Quetico and Cirrus, so long and narrow and cliffy that they appeared as river gorges. We paddled in rain and sun. We fished when we felt like it, and paddled without urgency. We had no need to hurry, no need to worry that a campsite would be taken. We could camp anywhere the ground was flat and the shoreline allowed a canoe to land.
That freedom is one of the advantages of crossing the Minnesota-Ontario border to Quetico Provincial Park. Same water, same rocky shores, same wild country. Quetico and the Boundary Waters are similar in size, each just over a million acres. Both are treated largely as "wilderness," with no logging, no mining and minimal motorized traffic and human development.
Yet nearly a quarter-million canoeists paddle the Boundary Waters each year. Only one-tenth as many travel the Quetico. So while canoeists on the American side of the border complain about crowding at the height of summer -- banging canoes on the portages, no available campsites, voices echoing across the lakes long into the evening -- paddlers in the Quetico enjoy more solitude, greater freedom to camp and arguably better fishing. For all those reasons, Jon Nelson, a Minnesotan-turned-Canadian who spent his career as a Quetico naturalist (and author of a fascinating book titled "Quetico"), calls the Canadian park the "wilder twin."
We had entered Ontario by car at Fort Frances and drove north and east toward Atikokan, where we planned to camp. The trip did not begin auspiciously. Our campsite at a private fishing lodge was quite possibly -- I say this without exaggeration -- the most mosquito-ridden hell I have ever visited. And when I pulled our overnight gear from the car I discovered I had packed only a single sleeping bag. And it began to rain. It was not a Sigurd Olson kind of moment.
Sigurd Olson, of course, was the conservationist, naturalist and essayist whose cheerful meditations on the deep meaning to be found in retracing the footsteps of Voyageurs through the North Woods put the Boundary Waters/Quetico on the map, so to speak. He rarely wrote of bugs, forgotten gear, muggy tents, sodden clothes and the acrid smoke of a cheap cigar to repel the bugs and quell thoughts of despair -- in other words, of the very kind of evening we experienced that night.
Next morning, we launched our canoe on Beaverhouse Lake, a large island-studded basin rimmed by lumpy hills. We crossed the lake to check in at the Beaverhouse ranger station, one of six in the park, and one of two staffed by members of the nearby Lac la Croix Ojibway community. Susan and I bought fishing licenses and stocked up on more bug dope. Kelly Ottertail, who used to guide in these waters, bent over my map to mark Xs where we might catch walleye and lake trout.
If there's a subtle difference between the Quetico's topography and that of its neighbor to the south, it's that the lakes of the Quetico are fewer but larger. And we picked some big ones. Quetico Lake, though narrow, stretches nearly 10 miles east to west. A strong west wind can pin you in your camp for days. But otherwise, these long lakes are heavenly -- miles and miles of paddling without portaging.
Painted at several locations on the cliffs along these waters are some of the most spectacular pictographs to be found anywhere on the Canadian shield. Paddling out from our campsite in overcast skies and a light rain, we came upon one collection, just a few feet above water level. There was a large red disc -- a common symbol among Ojibway paintings -- and several red handprints. In the soft light, the iron oxide images were alive with light and feeling. They seemed to glow.
The next day, in bright sun, the pictographs had nearly vanished. Just down the shore, according to our map, were three more panels of images. We cruised past the cliff, peering intently at the rock. We never found the first two. But we did admire the twisted rock and pastel lichens.
As we drifted past yet a fourth location without spotting anything, I fiddled with my fishing tackle.
"You weren't even looking!" Susan said.
"I was kind of looking," I said defensively.
"You were not. Are you sure we didn't pass it there?"
We looked back and, my gosh, red markings were all over the place -- the head and antlers of a woodland caribou (once common but no longer found here). An upright figure running with a rifle or bow. And a big canoe. And another human figure. And two people in a canoe. And a moose. But what did they mean? That is the mystery that has always drawn me to these images.
The lure of fishing
I first traveled to the Quetico as a Boy Scout. What I have always remembered was the fishing -- especially smallmouth bass as stout as road pavers, willing to strike surface lures cast to the shoreline, or twitched across the slick waters of a riffle. And I caught many on this trip, as well, including two dozen up to 3 pounds each, lying in a tiny pool that joined two lakes.
But our most momentous catch came in a spot that Ottertail had marked for walleyes. Susan was bouncing a jig in 10 feet of water when a heavy fish struck. So strong and dogged was the fight that I thought it was a lake trout until she pulled a huge walleye to the canoe -- 26 inches from nose to fork of tail. Susan had never caught a walleye before. I had always told her they didn't fight and weren't very exciting to catch. Now she exclaimed, "You think this isn't fun?"
I caught several big pike. The largest came one evening as I cast a Rapala toward shore. A small bass struck. As I reeled the wriggling fish to the canoe, a bolt of lightning rose from the bottom of the lake. Suddenly a much heavier fish pulled the line. Several minutes later, the bass was nowhere to be seen. Instead, I looked down on a broad pike of 34 inches, nearly 10 pounds.
But the most fortuitous fish came one evening after we had set up camp. I headed out in the canoe -- "to catch dinner." I dropped a jig over the side. A fish struck, and I hoisted a 19-inch walleye into the boat. As I paddled back to camp, barely two minutes after pushing off, Susan called out, "What did you forget?" We filleted the walleye, fried it in butter and ate it that instant, with pasta carbonara.
Our very own island
We paddled 30 miles over several days, portaging into the clear waters of Kasakokwog, hiking a route to the black ledges of Sue Falls, paddling down the misty channels of Cirrus. We traveled irresolutely, portaged infrequently, fished often and spent much of our time loitering in camp, looking out over rain-pocked water from the shelter of our tarp. It had been a deliciously lazy and lonely trip. Except for the pinch-points of narrow channels and portages, we encountered hardly anyone at all. If there were any drawbacks, it was the sound of the once-a-day airplane on the western end of the park, where Ojibway guides were allowed to fly fishing clients into the park. But that annoyance was soon forgotten, and once we were deeper in the park, we never noticed the sound at all.
Our final evening we found ourselves again on Beaverhouse. We were able to claim our very own island. I failed in my efforts to catch a walleye for dinner, but Susan cooked bannock packed with blueberries she had picked around our tent.
In the falling light, a sliver of moon dressed the silhouette of a granite island draped in spruce. A loon called, the sound echoing off the far shore and dying somewhere in the distance. We watched the deepening colors in the waters leading west until the sun set on the wilder twin.
Greg Breining's most recent book, with photographer Layne Kennedy, is "Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters - Quetico Wilderness."