The Sharpe’s Take on the Quetico (Hunter Island Loop) – Part Four

Day 7 – Basswood Lake to Knife Lake

Distance: 29.5 km
Portages: 161 m, 201 m, 126 m, 75 m, 156 m, 360 m

Another early morning on Day 7. We still had a lot of Basswood Lake to cover and didn’t want to get windbound. Not now because we hadn’t been windbound up until this point.

We did have a little delay though, the fog was thick. We could hardly see and confirm landmarks, especially when we reached a huge open Bayley Bay on Basswood before Prairie Portage. We had to hit the brakes and wait it out.

While we were waiting for the fog to break we spotted another bald eagle, a juvenile one.

What a surprise…

Oddly, we could hear a motorboat off in the distance. We were confused because we didn’t know that motorboats were allowed in the Quetico and the BWCAW. Our decision to hold back was a good one because I thought it was really dangerous that this motorboat was driving full speed through thick fog. What if someone was canoeing, like us, and they would only have seen us at the last minute. This really upset me because I shouldn’t have to feel unsafe with the thought of a potential collision with a motorboat because I was paddling in a wilderness park. We should have the right away and priority in this park. A few minutes later we heard another motorboat coming.

Eventually the wall of fog lifted and we paddled across the bay and down to Prairie Portage passing 16 motorboats. What. The. Hell. They were all driving on the Minnesota side. I guess Basswood Lake allows motorboats. I was so excited to reach Prairie Portage but now I couldn’t wait to get away from the constant sound of motorboats driving American’s out in droves into the BWCAW to angle. Sigurd F. Olson would not approve. I feel disappointed that his vision for the park, that he has written so much about, has been compromised in a way that he dreaded. It is supposed to be a wilderness park. If he knew that 16 boats passed us in the span of a couple of hours, he’d be horrified.

Woohoo, Prairie Portage!

I guess the motorboats make their way up from Ely, Minnesota to Prairie Portage and a pickup truck launches their boat on the other side of the portage. It was something to see. I don’t even know how that truck got there because there are no roads!

There were two people working in the Ontario Parks Store and they have to arrive by boat, travel down to Ely, Minnesota, and then drive up the coast of Superior and cross the border south of Thunder Bay and then make their way home to Atikokan. Takes them about 5 hours they said on a good day. They were shocked to learn that we were Canadian. “All Americans around here.” Anyway, it was really neat just to talk to another human being other than my husband.

We paddled through Birch Lake and did a series of portages up the Knife River. We ran into so many people along this area. It was shocking. But it was also nice to see so many people using the park. They were all staying in the BWCAW, so my husband and I had the Quetico side all to ourselves.

We saw more bald eagles. 2 juveniles with mom or dad flying above.

Keeping a watchful eye.

It ended up being another long day for us. Because there were hardly any campsites on Knife Lake, we either had to paddle all the way to the other end or stay on a lake before we reached Knife which would have made for a shorter day. After talking with the staff at the Ontario Park Store, he told us where he knew there as a campsite on Knife Lake that would have been closer to the beginning of the lake. We both almost didn’t make it to this site because we were both exhausted and it was another bluebird day with hardly any breeze and a hot sun.

We found a campsite and did some laundry and camp chores even though we were exhausted. When we paddled up to the site, guess what we saw…

It hung around for quite some time and then I noticed another along the shoreline. I called the campsite Eagle Point because we found an eagle feather there too. On Day 7 we saw 14 bald eagles.

This mink came out of nowhere and wasn’t afraid of us at all! It was quite curious.

We heard some loons calling off in the distance as the sun started to fall into the earth. What an exhausting, but rewarding day!

Goodnight Day 7.

Day 8 – Knife Lake to Saganaga Lake (Cache Bay)

Distance: 30.3 km
Portages: 25 m, 420 m, 25 m

White horses.

You know that uncontrollable laugh you get when you’re over tired? That was me on this particular morning. With most of our rise and shines happening before the shine and all the long days we had been putting in, I was tired. My husband didn’t know what was wrong with me when I started lollygagging with my paddle just dipping into the water. I had been power paddling the past 8 days that I though it would be funny to joke around. No one could hear my cackle calls (at least I think no one could). I laughed so hard that tears were running down my cheeks and we had to make an emergency landing on shore so I could have a washroom break.

There is a little opening in the middle of Knife Lake that really got me. The opening was so small and when I saw it a rush of emotions came over me as I imagined Sigurd F. Olson paddling through this very same opening. I knew we had paddled on many lakes that Sigurd had, but knowing that this very narrow opening was the exact spot he paddled through was an amazing thought. I started looking at the landscape in a new way, looking at it the way Sigurd might have seen it and remembering the descriptions he’s written about.

After paddling up Knife Lake we portaged into Ottertrack Lake. This lake was beautiful! Sigurd loved this lake because of the cliffs. I did too.

At the end of this lake we found a spot we were told about by one of the park rangers. A tornado had ripped through only a few weeks ago. We met up with some paddlers from the U.S. taking their friend and his son out who were from Brazil. I wonder what they thought of their canoe trip.

Tornado remains.

The next portage was called the Monument Portage because there were 2 monuments along the portage. One in Canada and one in the United States. Didn’t have time to take any photographs, you’ll have to go and see for yourself.

From Ottertrack Lake over Monument Portage and into Swamp Lake it was a short paddle to the beginning of Saganaga Lake. I couldn’t even believe how far we had paddled. Our plan was to stop at Swamp Lake or the very beginning of Saganaga but we pushed further to the ranger’s cabin on Cache Bay.

Cache Bay ranger’s station and Janice’s wicked cabin!

It was here that I started silently freaking out. We met Janice who’s been tending to this cabin for over 30 years issuing permits to those paddling in Quetico. We almost blew her mind when she saw our blue food barrels. She hadn’t seen those in years! Mostly canvas packs around the Quetico and BWCAW. Janice has quite the paddling history. She canoe raced for many years and now spends her summer living in this awesome cabin that she’s personalized. There are rocks, feathers and other nature-type things that she’s collected from the park and has sort of made a natural museum or sorts. Once she found out we were Canadian she brewed up a hot cup of coffee for us with her french press and gave us homemade chocolate chip cookies.

The reason we stopped at the ranger’s cabin was to get more information on the Falls Chain which we were getting uncomfortably close to paddling. She scared the shit out of me, telling us that people have died at each one of the falls, horror stories of paddlers coming up to her cabin to tell her about a fatality and a story of herself going over one of the falls. What she did do was mark up the Quetico Provincial Park map we had (you need to get a detailed section of this from Quetico. My Fisher map was incorrect where portages were, etc.), and showed us where the correct take-out’s started, what side of the river to be on, and when to start paddling your ass on over to the other side to reach the next take-out. Never cross the river until you’re further downstream because that’s where most accidents happen. People cross too early and their canoe gets swamped by the current.

While she was telling us this and sharing stories from her years of experience, and older gentleman came into the cabin short of breath. There was a mishap, but not a life threatening emergency. His buddy was down in the canoe, broke his foot. They were staying on one of the lakes in the BWCAW and had to paddle and portage to Janice’s cabin to seek help. They wouldn’t be flying helicopters in, but this guy had a long way to go to get out of the park to seek medical help.

We decided it was time to leave so she could deal with those fella’s and when she mentioned that the wind likes to kick up on Cache Bay early afternoon and we’d better get a head start to paddle to the end of the bay. She was right, the wind did kick up and it made for a dicey landing on jagged rocks on a campsite she recommended.

After paddling and portaging over 30 km’s this day, we were both exhausted. Once again I got out of doing camp chores.

I love my camping/life partner.
30 + km’s in one day? That’s the spirit!

Day 9 – Saganaga Lake (Cache Bay) – Kawnipi Lake

Distance: 32.2 km (our longest day yet – and scariest)
Portages: 700 m, 377 m, 453 m, 100 m, 55 m, 180 m, 560 m, 480 m, 150 m

No time for breakfast as we packed up camp by moonlight. The wind didn’t calm down all night and the waves were crashing into shore. I didn’t know it at the time, but this particular day presented me with some of the hardest things I think I’ve ever done.

Just about to break camp as the sun started peaking over the horizon.

We both agreed that it would be best to at least tackle half of the Falls Chain. That way we could get some of the nervousness out of the way, so we pushed off from shore early in the morning and made our way to Silver Falls, our first portage of the day.

Silver Falls

We had breakfast here and both weren’t allowed to talk to each other until breakfast was had. I was miserable because we had paddled over an hour and because I knew what this day would bring. In the back of my mind I knew we wouldn’t be doing half of the Falls Chain, but all of it.

In the short span of only 4 airline miles between Saganagons Lake and Kawnipi Lake are 8 lovely waterfalls that, together, plunge nearly 100 feet. Aptly called the Falls Chain, these turbulent waters constitute the upper flowage of the Maligne River, which eventually flows all of the way to Lac La Croix on the west edge of Quetico Park. (Robert Beymer, A Paddler’s Guide to Quetico Provincial Park, 1997).

This day was really hard. From Cache Bay to Saganagons Lake we did a lot of paddling and portaging even before we reached the first waterfall of the Falls Chain. I remember as we got closer to the take-out the current really started to pull us forward. We skirted the edge until we had a safe spot to land. My husband got out and scouted to see where the take-out was. It was close enough that we could just start the portage from where we were. We did this at almost every take-out because we were overly cautious. It rained all day and rocks were slippery, so we gave ourselves an extra few feet where possible before the portage which made me feel a lot better.

Halfway through the Falls Chain at Bald Rock Falls I cried a little bit. I couldn’t believe that we were already halfway done, and that meant only halfway to go.

Portaging around Bald Rock Falls
Bald Rock
Bald Rock
A section of Bald Rock Falls.

After these falls we had about a 30 minute paddle before we got to a section that I thought was a bit more technically difficult in terms of landing at the take-out and the actual portages. Portaging around Canyon Falls was a nightmare. It was so steep in parts and we were scrambling up and down boulders slipping and falling all over the place because of the wet conditions. I got some war wounds here. The put-in at the other end was ridiculous. Just piles of boulders to get over and try to pack everything in your canoe and get it with rushing water from the falls only a few feet away. You couldn’t see in the water where you were stepping because of the white foam covering the top of the water.

When we got to the last set of falls, Kennebas I was so fricken happy. I just couldn’t wait to be on the other side of the portage. There is a take-out uncomfortably close to the falls, so we skirted the shoreline again and got out at another spot where we found a rock cairn. These rock cairns weren’t mentioned to us by the park or through reading other trip reports. I think it’s worth mentioning to anyone who is planning to paddle and portage around the Falls Chain that there are take-out spots located before the take-outs on the map. People have put rock cairns there so you just have to look for them.

We saw a canoe jammed in the logs at the top of the falls. Who knows how long it’s been there.

Last portage around Kennebas Falls.

I can’t even tell you the feeling I had as we paddled away from the last portage. I can’t believe I did it. I’m so proud of myself and us for working together as a team to navigate through a tricky section of the Hunter Island Loop. It is now the hardest thing I’ve physically ever done.

I have no idea what time of day it was when we finished, but we had planned to camp somewhere near the opening of Kawnipi Lake. We paddled by one campsite and it didn’t look overly nice. Might be lucky to find somewhere to pitch your tent and no room to really move around the site. We decided to paddle to the other side of Atkins Bay. The wind was quite rough on this bay and it felt like we surfed the whole way to the other side. It was difficult to have to dig my paddle in because I was exhausted mentally and physically from the long day we had. But eventually we made it through a narrows and found a campsite just on the other side on an island.

We were both soaked, chilled to the bone and starving. The tarp was set up and we managed to feed ourselves. When I looked at the time it was 6:00pm when we sent our Spot signal to family letting them know of our coordinates. We had just done a 13-hour day with no stopping and paddled 32.2kms and 9.3kms of portaging! Luckily the next day we would just be paddling to the other end of Kawnipi Lake. I needed a break!

I have 4 videos of over 1 hour of footage to publish on my YouTube channel, and will be publishing those in January 2018.

To be continued…




  1. Wow, what a challenging leg of your journey – and what an accomplishment to have made it safely considering all the hazardous sections of this route! And great photography as well… a most excellent tripping blog Coby!


  2. Nice report…….wow, did you see enough bald eagles??? I appreciate the caution re the Falls Chain. I have a fear of running any Rapids or going over falls so scout carefully to make sure I get out and don’t miss the portage entrance. Great feeling when you accomplish those challenges though 😊
    Hope to see you out there


  3. What a fantastic trip! I was on a trip in July this year with a friend and we were on our way to Draper the day of the tornado that you mentioned (I think its the same one) and it started to rain extremely hard then hail, we just stood at the Draper end of the portage under the trees and waited it out. When it started to hail I knew that wasn’t a good sign, luckily we were not out on the lake.


    • That’s crazy, John! To be honest, one of my fears of being out in Quetico (or any backcountry for that matter) is the weather. You never know what is going to happen, and I have read so many stories about bad storms in Quetico. Luckily we only had a couple of days of rain and the rest of the time blue skies. I can’t believe we didn’t even see a thunderstorm!

      Thanks for the comment, I appreciate it so much!


  4. Loved your Quetico trip story.
    We are going there for the first time this June, but no tripping , staying in the Log Cabin and day paddles only. I’m 65 now and I think more than 2 nights on the ground might finish me off. You are hilarious, love your writing, keep it coming.


    • Thanks for the comment, Angela. I have actually moved to a new name and website. I’m now Spark Adventure Photography and I post these kinds of blog posts through my email list/newsletter if you’re interested in signing up.

      That log cabin is sweet. Just the essence of Quetico and being there will be enough to fill your soul!


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