Trip Journal: Mission MacKenzie (1997, Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada)

Diaries: Mission MacKenzie – Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada

I had met Matt Cassidy while going to school at Iowa State. He had told me about the camping trips to Canada that Horizons Unlimited had been going on and had invited me on a couple of the trips to Quetico. Unfortunately I couldn’t go on these first trips. Matt kept on asking and finally in 1997 I had both enough money and enough vacation time to venture forth into the wilds of Canada for some canoeing and camping.

Loading up the car in Colorado, Matt and I started the trip by driving to Chicago to meet up with the rest of the campers that were going on the trip. The next morning in Chicago, after meeting all the rest of the intrepid adventurers, we had to do the final packing of all the gear, equipment and personal belongings for 9 people. This was quite a confusing sight; sleeping bags, clothes, tents, paddles, life vests, food, backpacks, ropes, and canteens spread out all over the place. Somehow, someway, this massive mound of stuff eventually got stuffed into 8 backpacks. With this done, we loaded up our 3 cars and started driving north. It would be a long trip, driving through the night, but we finally got to the border. I had the misfortune of driving one of the cars while attempting to cross over into Canada. The border guard asked me a few simple questions one of which was “where are you from”? I replied with “Colorado… err… Chicago”. Not very impressed with the confidence of my answer we were asked to pull our car off to the side so it could be searched. The border guards gave up after searching our gear for only 30 minutes; it’s a good thing, too, because it would have taken them hours to complete a thorough search. So we were off again, now getting very near our goal. The terrain had changed quite a bit from what I was used to in the U.S.; Everything is either an evergreen forest or a lake and the ground is very rocky. At 8:00 in the morning we got to the outfitting shop near the edge of Quetico Park. The owner of the shop is a very unusual fellow named Doug. He was very talkative and friendly with quite a few interesting stories to tell. Doug rented us our canoes then we drove to the ranger station at the edge of the park, thus starting our next leg of the journey.

At the ranger station we all hung out for a while. It was a little bit chilly with a constant light rain and I believe a few people weren’t feeling very well. I got to use the bathroom, which didn’t seem like a big deal at the time; but later, after a week in the wilderness, I would gain a newfound appreciation for one of the true wonders of the civilized world: indoor plumbing. The weather was starting to let up a little bit and people were feeling better so we loaded up the canoes and put into the water. These were the people that were there for our camping adventure:

Matt Cassidy (Advisor)
James Janega (Advisor)
Dan Hooker (Advisor)
Greg Frankfurter (Advisor)
Mark Zeutzius
Jess Janega
Sarah Janega
Laura Brady
R. F. Keefe

These 9 people were in 3 canoes along with quite a lot of gear, so the canoes were sitting pretty low in the water. About half the people had very little or no experience paddling a canoe (including myself) so Matt, James, Dan, Greg, and R. F. had to give the rest of us a crash course in paddling. We started across French Lake, which was relatively small and headed for Baptism Creek. Baptism Creek was a nice, slow current, meandering creek and it was a nice way to start the trip with some easy paddling. The scenery was great with tall green grasses by the shore of the creek and with trees beyond. It was still drizzling and it was a little chilly, but now it didn’t matter because we were keeping warm through our efforts to propel the canoes upstream. The creek continued with many turns and switchbacks. We started to encounter branches and side channels in the creek, but Matt and James had been this way before so they knew which way to go. We finally came to a split in the creek where we could go left or right; both branches of the creek looked to be equal in size and neither Matt nor James could not remember for sure which way to go. We chose the right branch and continued on. Now the stream started to change a little bit; it became narrower, shallower and there was more debris in the channel. The creek gradually became more and more difficult to navigate; eventually we had to get out of the canoes and walk in the stream pulling the canoes behind us. It was about this time that I started to get quite nervous. I believe that I have neglected to mention that I had never been camping before in my life. Now I started to realize that if you get lost in the wilderness you are in real big trouble and I was beginning to think that we were lost. Everybody else seemed to be thinking the same thing and Matt said that if we didn’t find the portage soon that we would have to turn around and go back. Thus, just as we were starting to despair, we found the first portage.

We had to do 4 portages to get from Baptism Creek to Baptism Lake and portages turned out to be much more difficult than I thought. The packs were heavy and it is quite awkward for one person to carry a canoe. During these portages we did find a beautiful spot; a pretty big waterfall with a small clearing in the woods. We took a break by the waterfall listening to the rushing water and we took a few pictures of the group. The rest of the day went pretty well. We crossed Baptism Lake, did a portage to Trousers Lake and then started looking for a campsite because it was getting late in the day. We did find a great place to camp. On the south end of Trousers Lake there was a medium sized island that was in the shape of a dumbbell. It had enough space for all of us and because it was an island there weren’t very many bugs. We set up camp, Greg and Dan cooking supper for us. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until there was food to eat. I wolfed down my portion in an instant. Food tastes twice as good when you earn it by working hard all day. Many thanks to the camp chefs, Greg and Dan. Later in the night it started to get colder so we wanted to make a fire. Even though it had been raining all day, Quetico had been quite dry recently so there was a fire ban. We had to make due without a fire, which was a bummer. R.F. decided to sleep outside that first night; everyone else slept in the tents.

The next day we stayed at our campsite and relaxed all day long; each person doing his or her own thing. We were all getting to know each other pretty well (that is I was getting to know everyone, everybody else was already acquainted). A few people read paperbacks that they had brought along with them. I read a book about the Caesars of the Roman Empire and found out that Jess was very interested in ancient Rome. Greg and Dan were both big movie buffs. Greg was also a good photographer. James was a journalist and was thinking of moving to the Quad Cities to get a job at one of the TV stations there. There was also a group meeting to try to decide where we should go and what we should do for the rest of the trip. The original plan was to get to Lake MacKenzie but there was some doubt as to if we could get there on time or if it was even worth the effort. We finally came to a compromise; some would stay at our camp on Trousers Lake and the others would push on to MacKenzie. R.F., Greg, and Dan decided to stay behind while Matt, James, Sarah, Laura, Jess, and myself decided to push on to Lake MacKenzie. At that time I thought that R.F., Greg, and Dan were being quite boring by staying behind; it turns out that they were the smart ones. We all stayed up late that night because the sky was clear and we were hoping to see the northern lights. No luck seeing the northern lights but the stars were clearer that night than I had ever seen. The Milky Way was clearly visible and you could see satellites pass overhead.

The next morning it started to rain again, not hard, but consistent. We loaded up our canoes and set off for Lake MacKenzie leaving R.F, Dan, and Greg behind. We crossed the rest of Lake Trousers and found the first portage. We set up a system where the ladies would carry the packs (which were much lighter now because we left a lot of things behind) and 2 of the 3 guys would carry the canoes leaving one person not carrying anything. Whenever someone carrying a canoe would get tired we would rotate the fresh guy in and let the tired guy rest. This portage was to be 2.5 miles, which didn’t sound like it would be very difficult but things soon changed for the worse. The trail started out wide and smooth and dry, but as we continued on things started to deteriorate. The trail started to get less like a trail; it was overgrown. The bugs started to come out in force (mosquitoes and flies). The worst, though, was the mud. At first there was no mud, but due to the large amount of rain that the area had received the last couple of days the trail soon turned into a slurpy pit of muddy muck. This mud gradually got deeper and deeper until we were walking in mud that averaged a depth of one foot. This mud was making it’s best attempt to suck the boots off of our feet, making suction type sounds every time you lifted your foot out of it. The mud, the rain, the bugs; why are we doing this again? Oh, yeah, to make it to MacKenzie. We finally made it through the portage and arrived at Cache Lake. We paddled across Cache refilling our canteens along the way. Next we started the Cache to MacKenzie portage. We were all already tired, dirty, and cold by this time and we had to start a portage that was close to twice as long as the one we just did. This portage ended up being just like the last one; mud, mud, more mud and bugs. I think everyone started to get demoralized as we started running out or our reserves of energy and good will. That is, except James who seemed to have bountiful supplies of energy and seemed to be able to carry a canoe indefinitely. Some time during this portage the term quick-mud was coined. Quick-mud was mud that you would sink in up to your waist when you stepped in it. I happened onto some of this while carrying a canoe. I fell in the mud up to my waist with a canoe over my head; it looked like the whole world had just been letterboxed. Sarah had an encounter with quick-mud also and had to be pulled out. We were all getting so tired that we were starting to stumble and trip a lot. Just when I thought I couldn’t take it any longer there we were at the end!!!

Water again and an end to the mud. This lake wasn’t yet MacKenzie, it was a small one (Lindsay) that we crossed and started to look for the final short portage to our goal. We couldn’t find the portage; it all looked like wilderness with no trails. Then we received guidance from Matt’s animal totem: the eagle. A very large majestic bald eagle came gliding down and landed on a tall dead pine tree. It turned out that where this eagle landed was the beginning of the portage. We crossed this last short portage and saw Lake MacKenzie for the first time. I almost forgot to mention that Matt had tried to reach Lake MacKenzie a few times in the past and it had seemed like the gods were conspiring against him to prevent him from reaching his destination. At this time Matt decided to celebrate his victory of reaching MacKenzie by uttering a curse at the gods. The gods promptly struck back at Matt by causing him to slip on a rock and fall into the lake. By this time we were all totally spent, dirty, and wet. None of us really felt like pushing on any farther but we had to find a camping spot as it was getting late. We started paddling across Lake MacKenzie. James guided us to an island on the North end of the lake where there was a great campsite; the people that had been there before us had even left firewood. We quickly set up camp and (fireban or no fireban) James built a nice roaring fire. This fire was a savior. We all stripped out of our dirty wet clothes and warmed ourselves by the fire. It was starting to get dark and as we stood by the fire getting warmer our spirits started to revive quite a bit. We had a meal that didn’t require much cooking and told campfire stories for a brief amount of time until we all hit the sack for the evening.

The next morning was wonderful. The weather was warm and dry. The sky just had a few light fluffy clouds. There was no wind and the water was as smooth as glass. This is what I came to Canada for! We were in total wilderness with nobody but us for miles around. The surroundings were so pristine that I could imagine myself as the first human to ever see it. I was glad of the effort spent the day before to see it and I felt as one with nature (almost a religious experience). We started the day by canoeing south in Lake MacKenzie. We were looking for some pictographs that were made by the Ojibway Indians. We found them on a cliff face and viewed them from the water in our canoes. The pictographs were of a canoe with people in it, an eagle symbol and a few other symbols that we didn’t know the meaning of. We then turned around and started heading back towards the base camp we left on Lake Trousers. We again had trouble finding the portage but once we found it the going was a little easier than the day before. The warm weather and lack of rain had firmed up the mud just a little bit. The portages were still very difficult but not nearly as demoralizing as when we traversed them the day before. After a long day of portaging our gear we finally got back to Lake Trousers and saw R.F. practicing his martial arts as we approached. We spent the rest of the night recuperating from our ordeals and telling Greg, Dan, and R.F of our adventures. The ladies decided to take a bath to wash off the accumulation of mud, dirt, and sweat that they were coated with. So the guys went over to one side of the island to give the girls some privacy. So Sarah, Laura, and Jess proceeded to take a bath in Lake Trousers. The guys could all hear them say ‘Wow, this is refreshing’ as they entered the water. A short while later we also heard them utter the infamous words:

“Is that a leech? … IS THAT A LEECH!?”

Followed by the splashing sounds of 3 people rapidly trying to exit the water. A short while later Jess was scolding all the guys for not coming over to help them despite the fact that she was naked. We spent the rest of the evening giving each other massages to ease our sore muscles.

Only two days left on the trip. It was decided to go half way out today so our last day would be a short one. We pack up camp and head towards Baptism Lake. This is when I try to stern a canoe for the first time. It was quite an ugly sight with the path of my canoe randomly zigzagging all over the place. Fearing a navigational disaster, Greg quickly relieves me. We find a campsite on Baptism Lake and only set up half of the camp so we don’t have as much to pack on our last day. We spend the night whittling wood and reading short stories from a sci-fi book that I had brought along. For sleeping arrangements we try something different, we make a shelter out of the tarp and sleep under that instead of setting up the tents. It turned out to be not such a good idea because it rained that night and the mosquitoes were swarming.

The last day we pass from Baptism Lake to Baptism Creek to French Lake and exit the park. By this time we are all old pros at paddling the canoes and the trip out proves uneventful. We got two rooms at a hotel in Thunder Bay for the night, eating pizza, drinking beer, and taking showers. It feels good to take a shower after such a long time without one and the toilet is a handy invention, too. For the rest of civilization, I didn’t miss it while I was gone, but it is nice to be back. All in all I really enjoyed my first ever camping trip that took me into the true wilderness of Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. I also really enjoyed getting to know Matt, James, Dan, Greg, Jess, Sarah, Laura, and R.F. on the trip and I hope to see them all again sometime, possibly on a future trip.

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