In 1963, a group of scouts from Texas were on a trip in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, only to have tragedy strike. Fifty-three years later, one of those scouts returns to reflect on that event, and the awesome but ruthless power of the natural world.
Here’s Part 2 of Bertram Bruce’s story of his two trips to Quetico, decades apart.
Story and Photos by Bertram C. Bruce
Is it crazy to do something crazy in order to become less crazy, to seek to restore what Olson calls sanity and equilibrium? This year (2016), my wife Susan and I decided to do just that, to undertake an adventure that could be fun, enlightening, challenging, even joyful, but one which I questioned in my saner moments. There were good reasons to advise against a return to Quetico. One could ask whether it was wise to revisit the site of such a horrific event, and perhaps dredge up bad memories.
Beyond that, I find that I have somehow grown older over the past 53 years. Lakes can take longer to paddle across; portage trails are steeper; and nights are colder than when one is 17.
On a message board I saw this about one of our planned portages from someone who is probably much younger than I: “The Side Lake to Sarah, once known as Heart Attack Hill, did me in, but it was hot, I was low on water and I had too much gear. I remember laying down at the top and seriously thinking that I could die. It’s rough.”
The quiet beauty of Quetico derives in part from the fact that there are no trucks to move your gear, or much else, that we often consider essential to modern life. On the drive up to Ely, I kept bumping my head in our rental Jeep. Without thinking, I remarked that in a canoe there is nothing above your head but heaven. That nothingness allows the beauty of wilderness.
As we immerse ourselves in the city we realize why Olson’s “cacophony of noise” keeps us from truly hearing. The profusion of flashing lights keeps us from fully seeing. The assault on our senses keeps us from becoming our whole selves. Stepping away from it, even for a brief time, lets us see how much there is in the apparent emptiness, and correspondingly, more in our own selves.
The major concern we had about a return visit was the timing. We wanted to start during the first week of May. This was because we were flying to Minnesota for our daughter’s graduation. Guidebooks suggest that June and July are uncrowded, but have more mosquitoes; August and September are warmer with fewer bugs, but with more competition for good campsites. No one talks about May, because it is too cold and the ice may not be thawed out. And the Canadian ranger stations are still closed.
There were just the two of us. If we were to have an accident or health problem, there would be no one to help out. We did carry a DeLorme satellite texting device, but knew that at best it could not secure immediate aid.
Shortly before we were to launch, Amy Freeman and Dave Freeman—two National Geographic adventurers of the year, who are from Minnesota—had shown photos of sled dogs, a snowman and frozen lakes in an April 19, 2016 dispatch. It was from the year they lived in BWCAW, which is just south of Quetico, and possibly a degree warmer.
Although we were told that the ice should be out on most lakes by the time we started in May, the online weather forecasts were not promising that, due to a reversal of spring warming with a cold spell.
We also had a concern about our age. Although we were both in good health and had ample canoeing experience, we were aware of our limitations regarding portaging and generally coping with the wilderness and cold.
I remembered Olson’s comment about the voyageurs in his NatGeo article: “They were often old at forty, suffering from rheumatism, arthritis, strained muscles, and torn ligaments.”
Nevertheless, we were committed to the trip. We needed to fly from our home on Cape Cod and knew that we could not fit our Tripper (the canoe) onto an airline baggage carousel. So, for the first time ever, we chose a full outfitting package. An excellent outfitter in Ely (Piragis Northwoods) provided all new equipment, including a Wenonah Minnesota II Kevlar canoe.
We had maps, long underwear, extra socks, compass, signal mirror, and poison ivy lotion. Could anything go wrong?
In the intervening 53 years, Quetico has remained at the heart of one of the most popular wilderness areas in the world. It is still a place with no traffic or roads, no electricity, no WiFi or cellphone signal, no motorized boat craft, no flights overhead, no buildings or pavement, and only limited prepared campsites.
There are not even signs for campsites or portage trails. There are no campfire grills or latrines. At the time of our recent trip, instead of these elements of civilized life, there were moose, wolves, beavers, squirrels, chipmunks, bald eagles, loons, ducks, geese, wrens, frogs, turtles, grasses, wildflowers, towering balsam firs, paper birches, beautiful lichen, moss and fungi.
We decided to follow roughly the same route my Explorer Scouts’ expedition had taken in 1963, with options to cut it shorter if our shoulders or knees gave out. We wanted to see Picture Rocks, but other sights were optional. In the end, we did shorten the route.
We travelled up to Sarah Lake, then through Tuck Lake and Robinson Lake. We came down to see Picture Rocks, portaged around Lower Basswood Falls, went up the Horse River to Horse Lake, then on to Tin Can Mike Lake, Sandpit Lake, and finally Mudro Lake, where we had arranged for a pickup after eight days out.
The early May cold turned out not to be a big problem. We had prepared for that with warm hats and gloves, long underwear, and plenty of food. But managing all of that stuff probably slowed us down a little. At night the temperature would drop to freezing, or just below. That made it hard to get out of the tent in the morning! But afternoons would typically get up to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (about 15 degrees Celsius) or so. The water hovered around 45ºF (about 7ºC), cold enough to require caution, but not enough to keep me from indulging in one brief swim.
There were still patches of snow, but the lakes were all ice free. Besides, the cold meant fewer bugs and in our case, zero people. We never had to worry about finding the perfect campsite, waiting for a portage trail, or compromising personal privacy.
Actually, what affected us most was the wind. We had only a little rain, but strong and sometimes surprising winds throughout, most notably on North Bay and Sarah Lake. It was even a problem in open areas on portages, such as between Tin Can Mike and Sandpit Lakes, when the wind offered to carry the lightweight canoe for me, but not always in the direction I wanted to go.
We managed the portages to Sarah Lake all right, though our joints were sore the next day. But when we tried to cross the lake we found ourselves battling fierce headwinds. I was concerned about our lack of progress as well as the danger of capsizing in cold water. I also could not help thinking about electrical storms as I had seen so many years earlier. We battled the wind for a couple of miles, but eventually decided to turn back, since we weren’t in a race or trying to prove a point.
We also discovered that the portage trails were often impassable. After a winter with fallen trees and broken branches from snow and ice, we would encounter barriers that were too high to step over, too low to go under, and too wide to go around. Some areas had abundant new spring growth of alders, fir and birch saplings, and other bushy plant life that could be just as much a hindrance. Accordingly, we made good use of a portable pack saw. In some cases, we spent as much time and energy sawing or shifting logs as we did with the actual portaging.
There is no need to remind anyone who has been to Quetico of its amazing beauty and variety. Every lake, every bay in the lake, every small stream or river, and each portage trail offers different sights and sometimes mysteries. As it was early spring, we were impressed with the abundant closeness of life amid Itäranta’s “closeness of death.”
For every dead tree across our path there were dozens of saplings. We had a close-up observation of a raven standing on a large lakeside boulder with a large frog in its beak. We could see the frog making its last twitches of life. Balancing that, we were serenaded by thousands of spring peepers in a beaver pond next to our campsite on Side Lake.
We saw some things that even longtime guides and old-timers in the area had never seen. On our first day, on a narrow part of Burke Lake, we saw what looked like a bright red artificial buoy. As we came closer, it was clear that it had a red top, with a large white stripe below. Closer still, we could see that it was not a buoy at all, but the back of a dead young moose. Underneath the surface we could clearly see its body, four legs, and head.
“He, like my younger self, probably had little idea of death, or that death could pertain to him”
Using our CSI skills, we think the moose had ventured out on the ice, perhaps during a refreezing with the late cold spell. It fell through to the cold water underneath. Rather than coming straight back up, it panicked and either swam or ran forward. When it likely tried to surface it discovered that it was now under solid ice, and as it fought to break through the moose rubbed its back on the ice, scraping off all its hair. Then it drowned, pinned under the ice. Later when the ice melted, the decaying carcass rose up and its bare skin was exposed to the sun, resulting in a bright red sunburn. As it rose further, more white flesh was exposed, leading it to resemble our imagined buoy.
It was disturbing that our only moose encounter was with a dead one. Although we saw many moose tracks and scat, and often heard moose running as we clumsily made our way along portage trails, we never saw a live moose during the trip, only the young dead one.
He, like my younger self, probably had little idea of death, or that death could pertain to him. He may have been crossing the narrow lake simply to reach some young trees on which to browse, or to find a little sun for warmth. One misstep and he became doomed to a gruesome death.
I imagine the moose knew that nature offered him water, food, warmth, companionship, satisfaction of curiosity, and more. But it was his individual tragedy that teaches and reminds about his fragility, his embedding in the cycles of life.
Likewise, wilderness travel, even for a short while, reminds me of the pleasures and the awe-inspiring beauty of the nature; but it also recalls nature’s power, and the potential to both sustain and to extinguish life.
Those things are easily forgotten as we live our busy lives in climate-controlled buildings. Deadlines and obligations offer little room for appreciation of nature’s beauty’s or for thoughts about life, death, and our place in the natural world. Is that why we are bent on destroying the planet and the other living things we share it with? The destruction of nature inescapably includes us. And this is the larger tragedy: we are all too little aware of it, yet are always in and of nature, even without a canoe.
While we were out on the canoe trail, a series of fires occurred in the Superior National Forest near Hoyt Lakes and Skibo, and one in Embarrass, all not far to the south of Quetico. The Forest Service banned outdoor fires there. At the same time, there was a devastating fire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, which sent smoke across the region.
We knew nothing of these fires except for two odd phenomena. One was that we saw a couple of low-flying planes, quite likely checking for signs of fire in the area. It turned out that there had been a fire ban in Quetico, too, which we did not know about. We happily had morning and evening campfires every day, which were probably noted with concern from the planes.
The second was unexpected haze from the fires. One morning we had a fully saturated orange sun. It shone clearly, but was shaded enough by the haze that it could almost be viewed directly. There was a long orange streak across the water, similar to the reflection of a full moon on the water.
Late in the trip, we came to the Picture Rocks on Crooked Lake. Our almost 20-foot canoe covered the distance so effortlessly that I could not believe we were there at first. Also, the cliffs were smaller than my memory recalled, and the overhang area was not as much a cave as I had remembered.
So we passed on. But it was not possible to argue with Lower Basswood Falls. Returning back down the river we took a more leisurely view and recognized the well-known pictographs. I could imagine exactly where each of our four canoes was positioned back in 1963. I could see why we might have believed that the overhang was a temporary haven. And I could see where we must have camped that night, a site on the Quetico side just a little upstream (towards the Falls). That turned out to be a good spot for us to make our stop for the day on the recent trip, too.
But it felt strange to be at the same campsite, no matter how practical the choice. It made me think about Fred and his early end, doing what he loved best.
I also thought about the others on the trip. I’m still in touch with a few of them, but others might as well be ghosts. Are they still alive and thriving? And I thought about the ghost of my youthful self. That young man seems foreign to me now; but he is, of course, much of what I am today. Revisiting such a salient place also made me realize how fortunate I’ve been in my life, among other things to have experienced the special world of Quetico, and of course, to have survived.
We saw much of nature, but no humans, or much sign of humans, for nearly the entire trip. We both felt it was a blessing not to have news of the American presidential race for a few days. After a week, we did see some fishermen. I told them we had observed so much life in so many forms, but had almost forgotten how to recognize humans. One of them reassured us: “We haven’t changed much; this is pretty much what we look like.”
At the end I could feel every joint and every muscle in my body, from my toes to my fingers. There had been times on the portage trails when dead trees blocked the path and rocks seemed impossibly high and slick. There were times paddling when we faced heavy winds on chilly water. Those times also made me aware of my own mortality. It was also clear then that the body does not always like to do what the mind thinks it should.
I wondered what we could have been thinking to plan such a trip. I also thought of how quickly life can go, as I reflected on the 1963 trip.
But there were other times when we could hear wolves howl at night, watch loons play or bald eagles soar, admire beaver houses and dams, listen to birds chirping and frogs peeping, watch turtles sunning themselves, see awesome waterfalls, follow meandering streams or navigate rapids, observe stars long lost to city lights, paddle across a glassy lake with forests reflected perfectly in the water, or just connect with nature in a way that rarely happens anywhere, even on Cape Cod. Each campsite seemed to be more beautiful than the one before. At those times, I felt not morbid but fresh and alive.
The “versatility of water” is in us. It is also in Quetico, with its abundance of lakes and streams, snow and ice, rain and soft mist. It lets us see what we have always known to be but so often forget in the day-to-day of city life.
Olson writes that we are converted in the city “from creatures who once knew the silences to fretful, uncertain beings immersed in a cacophony of noise which destroys sanity and equilibrium.”
I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to join both Quetico trips, and to experience those silences. I was also reminded how fortunate we all are that such wilderness places still exist and can remain unspoiled over 53, and hopefully many more, years. ♦