Canoeing through a landscape of interconnected lakes and rivers, wide-open sky, and forest primeval, modern-day voyageurs traverse Ontario’s venerable Quetico Provincial Park during the onset of autumn, when few other paddlers are there to witness its beauty.
My little Kevlar canoe, patched with duct tape as a result of a long-ago wrap around an ill-placed river boulder, bumps against the rocky shore and comes to a dead stop. Methodically, routinely by now, midway through our journey, I unload the boat’s cargo, which consists of a backpack-size dry bag, a soft-sided waterproof camera case, and a hefty but shrinking canvas Duluth Pack filled with grub for our band of five. Reaching into the bow, I grab the padded shoulder yoke and, with a quick spin of two wing nuts, securely clamp the wooden contraption to the gunwales in front of the cane seat. Grunting, I toss the Duluth Pack onto my back, hoist the 35-pound canoe over my head, and hit the portage trail – the seventh of the day. And blessedly, the last.
Ninety-seven rods (1,600 feet) separates us from the next lake along our route, one of thousands of lakes in the Quetico-Superior area that straddles the international border between Minnesota and Ontario. But the body of water we’re headed to is special, I am told, for at its center is a small island. And on this island, a place of cliffs and steep hills crowned by magnificent red and white pines, is a stellar campsite. I don’t know about the others, but I am ready to kick back, cook our supper, and relax around a cozy campfire. Even a voyageur needs to chill now and then.
Paddle and portage, portage and paddle. Above all else, these two primitive means of physical conveyance define a Quetico canoe trip. Especially one such as ours, as we attempt a north-to-south crossing of the entire provincial park, something we reckon adds up to about 80 twisting miles. It is my first time in this Canadian labyrinth of clear, dark waters and deep woods, home to lynx and black bear, wolf and moose. And I couldn’t have chosen a better time to be here. It is late September, and we’re basking under a stable high-pressure system, bringing with it one splendid rain-free day after another. The voracious clouds of blackflies and mosquitoes that are so prevalent in summer are gone. The maples are scarlet-tipped with the onset of autumn, and the leaves of the birches and aspens are turning lemon yellow. The air is crisp and cool. And best of all, there are virtually no other canoes – no people, no movement – in this paddler’s paradise.