Today’s post comes from paddling enthusiast Dave Caughey who, along with his wife, recently made the trip to Quetico Provincial Park.
For years, my wife and I have longed to visit Quetico Provincial Park. We had heard that the canoeing there was incredible, through terrain dotted with countless lakes and routes that could involve days between transports.
But Quetico seemed incredibly far from our home in Ottawa: 1,600 kilometers to be exact! Who would be forced to travel that distance just to row?
Meanwhile, we were planning our 30th anniversary and had planned a big trip to Europe. And then we realized… we were totally up for spending a long, full day traveling to a foreign destination, but did we think Quetico was too far away?
We begin to realize that Quetico isn’t much further away, but the drive is noticeably different.
One involves sitting still and cheek to cheek on a plane or in busy, noisy airports, and the other involves driving through incredibly beautiful landscapes around Lake Superior, all with the freedom to stop whenever we wanted to stretch our legs or grab some chips. . -Stand up poutine.
So we pivoted, we thought, “Why don’t we make Quetico our anniversary trip?” and we started planning seriously.
Planning the trip to Quetico
For the trip to and from Quetico, we decided to split the trip into a couple of days and make the trip an actual part of the trip, meaning slow down and enjoy the trip.
We researched what we might see along the way and where we might stay. There are many options, from Pancake Bay to the Agawa Canyon Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park, to the beautiful, long beach of Neys Provincial Park.
In the end, we decided to do a long day (almost 11 hours) drive from Ottawa to Lake Superior Provincial Park, and then a more relaxed day (seven hours) along the north shore of Lake Superior to Quetico; and save most of our side excursions for our return trip.
Our main reason was that we wanted to arrive at our paddling trip in tip-top shape and something like a sprained ankle on a casual hike would jeopardize our ultimate goal of taking on a long backcountry paddling trip.
Our rowing route in Quetico
After some discussion, we decided we wanted to do an 8-night, 9-day trip. This was a little longer than our typical 5-6 night trips, but we figured if we couldn’t take a longer trip, then we really had no business being married for 30 years.
Our next step was to start looking for a route that suited our ability and fitness.
Neither my wife nor I are willing to just slack off. If we are on a paddling trip, we think we might as well be traveling and exploring nature.
So, we plan to travel between five and eight hours per day, including a relaxed lunch break and one to two hours for transportation. We know that we rowed at about 5-6 km per hour, which means that we covered an average of 20 km per day.
And if we budgeted a day or two to not travel, due to bad weather or because we loved our location, then we decided we should plan for about 140 km.
Be sure to reserve time for transportation! This is one of the five beaver dams in Deux Rivieres
At this point we began to review the waterproof map we commissioned from the park to calculate where 20 km/day would take us and how much loop we could do.
In the end, we plotted a route that took us east to Pickerel Lake, then south through Dore, the north end of Sturgeon, and toward Russell Lake.
From there we would explore the falls in and around Chatterton Lake and Keats Lake, then head west towards the main part of Sturgeon Lake and return to Nym via Walter, Jesse and Maria Lakes.
Since it is designated as a natural park, Quetico has no reserved sites: you can camp wherever you find a spot.
But knowing where there are usable spots (there are more than 2,000 in the park) is helpful when planning your route. There is a website called PaddlePlanner.com that has map markers and reviews for many of the well-known campgrounds.
But take the reviews with a big grain of salt! (People have given places one-star ratings because it was raining!) Instead, we found it helpful to simply record the location of many of the known campsites on the lakes we hoped to paddle, so we would know if the The locations were at the east or west end of the lake, or on an island, etc.
It’s also worth noting that the transports are also unmarked. On some of the busier lakes, they are easy to find. But on some of the lakes, finding transportation requires the ability to locate yourself and the transportation on a map, and look through the trees for something that looks like a trail.
Some GPS devices (for example, our Garmin InReach) come preloaded with topographic maps that even show most transportation in Quetico. But don’t rely exclusively on GPS maps, as we found a couple of cases where they were off by 100m or so.
The official park map is always reliable and map reading skills are a must when venturing into the backcountry.
There’s a transport somewhere at the end of that bay!
Our trip to the countryside
We were a little nervous at the beginning of the backcountry portion of our trip because wildfires in the southern part of the park had resulted in a closure zone that extended into the main part of our route.
Wildfires in the south of the park created some spooky skies!
In fact, when we arrived at Lake Nym, there was a distinct smell of smoke and the sky was hazy with the sun only appearing as a faint orange disk even though it was mid-morning. After three days, the wind changed direction and the sky cleared, but for a while it was quite surreal.
We enjoyed excellent tailwinds our first two days and made it to Lake Russell in just two days. There, we found an absolutely beautiful spot to camp at one point, where we ate and marveled at the skies.
A great campsite on Lake Russell
From our spot at Russell Lake, we took a day trip to Chatterton and Keats lakes to see the various waterfalls. In fact, many of the falls are beautiful, but Snake Falls really captured our imagination.
The north fork of Snake Falls at the end of Keats Lake
On one side of an island, the river gently spills over smooth rocks, creating infinity natural pools that are warmed by the sun. It was a magical place, and few, if any, people ventured into Keats Lake, so we had the whole place to ourselves.
Sun-drenched “infinity pools” in the middle of Snake Falls
We were exhausted after three intense days of paddling so we took a day off and poked around Lake Russell and explored Chatterton Falls from the bottom, fishing and relaxing.
Leave time to fish and enjoy the sun.
The next day we enjoyed an 18km paddle without transport to a historic site on a huge sandy point along the south shore of Sturgeon Lake.
This location has been used by First Nations for thousands of years and for many years was the site of a fur trading camp.
Then we began to move north, but since we had made better weather than expected, we were going to finish a day early or we would have several very short days. So, we added a parallel excursion to Lake Oriana.
Spectacular sunset on Lake Oriana
Unfortunately, the lack of rain that had contributed to the fires in the park also meant that water was at record lows. Consequently, some of the rivers that were supposed to be rowable were nothing more than a shallow trickle in a muddy bed.
Historically low water levels made transportation difficult and some parts of the rivers became unnavigable.
We had to line our canoe upstream, wading through reeds and cutting grass, sometimes for a kilometer, just to reach the begin of a portage, and found that we had to portage long stretches of a river on which paddling should have been possible. Ask Park staff about water levels when planning your route!
Add in an unfortunate slip on the rocks and a nasty cut that required first aid (nothing says “anniversary trip” like coming home in blood-soaked clothes and stitches from Atikokan General Hospital!), and it ended up taking us almost five hours. to do the last two kilometers of the day’s route.
Some of the less used transports were quite overgrown.
But that day did serve to underscore the importance of carrying an emergency satellite communication device (like a Garmin InReach or SPOT) on a trip like this, because if our injury had been more serious (for example, a broken bone) with us getting stuck halfway In such difficult transportation, perhaps we would have had to press the SOS button. In Quetico, you really are in the middle of nature, so carrying an emergency device is common sense.
The next morning we enjoyed an uneventful paddle and completed what turned out to be a 167km trip.
According to our plan, we took it slower on the way home. We did the 23km “Top of the Giant” hike in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park and were rewarded with spectacular panoramic views.
We passed sunset-drenched cliffs and islands along the northern shore of Lake Superior. We strolled along the empty, windswept beaches of Neys Provincial Park.
When planning your trip, keep the following in mind:
- the distance to Quetico is actually manageable, especially compared to heading south or abroad
- The trip can be very relaxed and will definitely be much more enjoyable than any other method of travel.
- The park staff are very helpful and will give you lots of advice on routes and conditions.
- bring a satellite communication device
- Dive as deep into the park as you can safely and revel in complete solitude in a world-class natural park.
Another beautiful sunset
We are looking forward to returning as we feel our nine days of paddling barely scratched the surface of this magnificent park.