Quetico Superior Wilderness


Verified Member
Aug 15, 2013
The summer after I graduated from high school I joined the Boy Scout "Explorer" program so I could join a group of a dozen guys 17-20 years old with 3 or 4 adults for a 10-day canoe trip in the Quetico-Superior Wilderness of Northern Minnesota and Southern Ontario.

The area consists of two large national parks, one U.S. and one Canadian, that adjoin each other at the border north of Ely, Minnesota. At that time (maybe still) roads and permanent structures were banned in both parks, with the exception of border-control points accessible only by canoe, and a couple of remote residences that were grandfathered on the Canadian side, having been there for decades before the park was closed to construction. Aircraft traffic was also banned, except emergency craft.

The area is peppered with the "10,000 lakes" referred to on Minnesota's license plates, but the actual number of nearly contiguous lakes on both sides of the border may be even higher. Travel is possible only in the manner of the mostly-French "voyageurs" who explored and trapped the area in the 18th and early 19th Centuries by "portaging" (carrying your canoe and all your crap) from lake to lake.

We were assigned a guide who was a 25+ year old stud of remarkable physical strength and ability. After arriving at the Boy Scout base on Moose lake north of Ely we spent the day packing equipment and supplies, being trained regarding safety, paddling and steering, loading and unloading, carrying canoes, navigation/map-reading, and black bears.

One of the things that sticks out in my memory of packing our rations was the treatment of a couple dozen or so loaves of bread: to reduce space, we stood them on end and crushed them as flat as they would go, about 4 inches. Peeling slices apart when we were ready to make sandwiches for lunch or French toast for breakfast was not always easy.

In the evening we all gathered around a large map of the region to plan our route for the 10-day trip. Being young and gung-ho, and encouraged by our guide, we decided to try to reach a lake farther north than similar groups (allegedly) were able to reach in that amount of time, Lake Jane.

This objective turned out to be bad news for those hoping to do some fishing, since the daily objectives our guide mapped out called for very long days of paddling.

The morning of our launch we loaded 3-to-a-canoe into five 19-ft, 90 lb., aluminum Grumman canoes equipped with centrally-located "portage brackets" ~U~. Having once previously been canoeing I was able to convince my two partners -- identical twin brothers who were between freshman and sophomore years at Emory University -- to give me the stern where most of the steering is done.

Off we went and I thought it was the coolest thing ever! Beautiful scenery, remote and wild, near-perfect weather. Most of the 30-40 portages we made were not very demanding but there were a couple of exceptions: one notorious one known as "Yum Yum" that was considerably longer than the others and included several elevation changes, and one that turned out to be through 200 yards of a knee-deep swamp with a boot-sucking mud bottom.

The food was surprisingly good -- lots of freeze-dried meals -- maybe in good part because of voracious appetites following such long, demanding days. Darkness didn't fall until nearly 10:00 PM and I remember at least one evening setting up camp and cooking in the dark. This caused a real problem securing our food. Everything edible had to be loaded into packs and hoisted well above the possible reach of black bears who might come prospecting. Managing to get our hoisting ropes over branches high enough and strong enough to do the job, all in the dark, took more time than we wanted to spend. As you probably know, bears' sense of smell allows them to detect things of interest at great distance. We saw a few bears, but none -- as far as we knew -- ever entered our camp.

As it turned out, we made our ambitious objective, seeing other humans only on the first and last days.

I made two later trips to the region, one with my younger brother and my dad, and one with Dad, brother and future wife. One particular incident sticks with me during the trip with my dad and brother. On my boy scout trip we had gone through a lake that had the most beautiful blue-green water I had ever seen. Very similar to turquoise, but a little greener. With my dad and brother I was determined to show it to them; it was off our planned route, but not by much. It turned out that we could leave our canoe, follow a portage route to a very small lake between us and our objective, then circle that small lake and follow another portage route to the target.

"Circling" that small lake was a little more difficult than it looked to be on the map. It took us over three hours and wore us out. When we arrived at the "stunningly beautiful" lake, the water looked like every other lake. I was told later that what I had seen before was probably the result of a temporary algae bloom. Dammit!

On the way back to our canoe we saw a moose, too close for comfort. At that time I didn't know how dangerous they are, or how rare it is to see one in the wild,

My three trips into that area hold some of my fondest memories. I still think of various aspect of them often.