Thunder Bay – In and out of Quetico

Peter editing/correcting the blog post

Fort Frances has been a period of transitions.

Phillip was like an angel watching over us. The cooler with ice for beer, the run to fill the propane tank, the mechanical shop to fix the canoe cart’s wheels (we blessed him in Quetico where it saved us much effort … when the trails permitted), all while making sure his sons make it to soccer practice. He even sponsored us by handing us a few dozen McDonald’s coupons, which we will assuredly redeem along the route. Giving to others is an art of life we all seek to practice yet few manage to accomplish due to our fears, our egos, our selfishness.

Last bath before departure with new team


Katie, Jodie, and Andy came to join us, the girls by bus and Andy was picked up while hitchhiking by Brian, a friend of Phil’s who was coming back from Thunder Bay and knew to look for him. At the nearby Rendez-Vous hotel we ate meals; hearing about our expedition, the manager of the restaurant gave us the employee discount without even telling us.

Andy playing

I took a stroll to the US to discuss with the border guards our trip following the boundary waters After checking my passport, the border officer referred me to the superintendent who immediately mentioned the Trans-Caneauda expedition they had been following, and said, ‘As long as you don’t stay in a hotel or facility on the US side, you can enter the US for safety or portage reasons without any problem. We wish you a very good journey and a great adventure.’

Boat house camp, we learn about the history of the region

This is exactly what I was hoping for, as the guys were quite concerned about drones patroling the border and our potential crossings into the US. Again, an administration with intelligent people making the difference, like in the film by Arlo Guthrie, Alice’s Restaurant, where the police officers build up a documented case for a minor infraction with pictures of all the evidence and ultimately when the case comes to court the judge walks in with a blind man’s cane. An example of ‘blind justice’, where the judge finaly dismisses the case as insconsequential. A good illustration of intelligent humane interpretation of the law. We need to remember that ‘intent’ is the key to any social contract.

We finally set out around 1pm with our 2 canoes, the small red one with Dana & Katie while we are back to a 5 man configuration in the white canoe, our ‘Beluga’, with most of the luggage. Interestingly enough the large canoe is still making about 6 to 7 km/h while the small canoe reaches about 5 to 6 when paddling hard. This is a result of both the cumulative power of numerous paddlers and the surface-to-water area of the canoe. We can understand why, with 12 to 16 paddlers or more, the large canoes of old could both carry such large quantities of weight and attain 10 to 12 km/h, allowing them to cover long distances each day (especially when paddling 12 hours a day).

At end of day we arrive at a beautiful beach already occupied by a boat house. The couple, one of whom is the retired superintendent of the paper mill in Fort Frances, welcomes us with their friends and tells us Jesse James’s gang used to camp in this region. These folks have been coming here for the last 40 years. They care for the site, raking the sand in the morning to ensure no bottle caps or other trash stays on land and they bring their own wood or parrafin-soaked logs to avoid spoiling the landscape.

Moss & liken ... beauty is revealed by the rain

Their sons come up in fast speed boats to have dinner with them and then return to Fort Frances about 20 minutes away. On the beach just on the other side of the point another family is there with house boat and fast speed boats organizing an evening campfire to celebrate.


On the boat the new members of the expedition are discovering the joys of paddling (the sunburns, the blisters, etc.). We stop every 2 to 3 hrs to take a swim and don’t hesitate to soak our shirts in the water or swim fully clothed as it only takes a few minutes to dry. The water is once again clear and has that slightly brown glow of lakes. Surface water is warm while if you dive below it cools down fast. At dawn I rise and swim; summer is really here. And the bugs are now very present, particularly if there is a swamp with reeds.


This morning after my wakeup swim I ponder on the poison ivy which prevents people from invading much of this beautiful country. Would it not be economically viable to pay for research that would identify a means of either controlling or even eradicating this plant which causes so much pain? That and poison oak are really a wonderful means of ensuring that humans stay out of much of the North American wilderness. … then my thoughs wander as the sun starts to bake.

Jody - morning ritual of filling the water bottles

I think about the surprising transformations of my old body which in two months has regained much of the vitality of the days in my 20’s when I was, much like those sharing this venture, focused on discovering the freedom of a healthy capable body. It is true that I’ve tried to keep in relative shape all these years and that I did start life with a high level sportsman’s health (was a professional dancer for 3 years). But the years of stress, working long hours, travelling… it has now all disappeared and I rediscover the ease of movement that my old body and lifestyle had prevented. My ability to eat and digest, the sense of purity and of strength available, is a great freedom which at 60 makes me believe that I am still capable of living a good life for a few more years. Imagine a social contract stated by law where all persons (leading stressfull lives) could every 7 years in their life take one year to do whatever they wished while being paid.

Andy plays while we sail

The waves of the lake sing along the shores; and like them, ideas keep surging as I wait for people to wake up. An advantage of age is that we require less sleep. I think about the future life choices of my fellow companions. They are at that wonderful age where they are trained with diplomas, fully adults yet still having to make a life for themselves. They will make choices based on life opportunities that will make a difference but also based on their education, their up-raising, and mostly on how secure they are with themselves.In very rare cases they could be like my friend, almost a sister, Yamuna Zake who since college has invested herself in researching and developing ways to help people heal themselves. A theory based on the principle that each body has its own logic and that through stress (physical and emotional) and accidents we damage the ability of the body to return to its own equilibrium. For now more than 40 years she has devoted her life to this research which she now calls “body logic.” Since graduating from college, she has gone through all the phases of creating, developing, practicing and now is in the teaching phase, having created a succefull business. A whole life’s adventure based on a personal conviction about healing, with the ability to dedicate herself to her work despite the wrenches life has put in her path. I believe that underlying this there are initially a few principles that enable a human being to invest themselves in this manner. The first one is security. Only people who are secure (here we are talking about confidence in one’s abilities due to a foundation of love and family support) can afford to create. The second one is a context of family or extended friends or even sponsors. Our society could foster this and does by creating schools of arts where often the teachers become the mentors of students. The third principle is motivation. The most important factor for success is one’s ability to self-motivate.

So this long statement is the background of wondering what a Peter, a Hugo, a Dana and now others joining the trip will do with their lives. Will this trip, a life’s adventure, a new lifestyle they have lived over 5 months, no longer a vacation or a tourist trip, will this experience give them new tools to find their own path to a life that fits them? Each is so full of potential, able to be caring, giving, strong, thoughful … throughout this journey you see them being confronted by the difficulties of nature and the arduous individual conflicts imposed on each one in his own way forcing them to be the ‘true’ person that he is. Dana’s absolutes, Peter’s intellectualisations, Hugo’s convictions … sometimes there are interpersonal conflicts, but remarkably few. Only life will tell how they negotiate this into a meaningful lifestyle for themselves.

We have entered the Quetico region. Going now upstream into this highly protected area where even though it was lumbered in the past there still remains ‘old growth’ trees that represent several hundred years of natural growth, much like the forests the First Nations knew and the trappers discovered. This is the land of lakes linked by either rushing streams or narrow passages where “portage” is the keyword. We spend as much time carrying our gear as we do paddling. Unpacking when we arrive, carrying on the ancient trails that are or are not maintained, up hills, down gullies, or flat and sometimes marshy. Then installing the gear back into the canoes for another hour or two of paddling before starting all over again. The gear, particularly the food barels, is HEAVY, and the white 240-lb canoe is difficult to move when the trail is narrow, flanked by trees or has to be brought up steep hillsides. We sometimes tried to rope up rapids initially (where portages were present, but heavily grown-over), but after once bringing it up and over an 8-ft wall of rock we were convinced that, however bad the trail, the ‘ancients’ had the right idea in carrying overland rather than fighting the impassable stretches. Dana called the park superintendent, who sponsored us through this region, and was told by him that they had done this journey with a 300-lb canoe. Apparently the portages we did to enter the park are rarely travelled and thus poorly maintained but the ones in the park should be easier. Indeed the trails are maintained for one or two person canoes but not always cleared wide enough to pass our big canoe. On top of that a violent storm, the one that knocked a tree down close to our tent while we were in Fort Frances, has brought down many trees in Quetico, often barring our portage paths, forcing us to climb over trees with our gear. One good suggestion was to carry the canoe in single-file instead of being one on each side, front and back. This has proven to be more stable and easier to negotiate on the narrow trails. We knew we would suffer a bit, but Quetico will be remembered by us for exhausting days where, after 5 portages, we are all worn out. Admirably, all face up to it, the guys going all-out physically, myself and the two women doing what we can, which is already more than I had ever imagined doing. Despite these difficulties, we camp in absolutely grandiose places, discover beauty in its original state, are surprised almost at each moment by the rocks, the trees, the plants, the birds, and we are beginning to eat blueberries at each rest stop.

Today is a day of rest. We have progressed well to reach Cache Bay on time for the arrival of Adrien and Adam, with Katie, Jodie, and Andy leaving after a memorable two weeks. We still have a dozen portages to do, and Dana and Peter have gone ahead today to clear a passage through the next portage, but we should get there on time.

camp life

This morning I made fish cakes from the pike I caught. Today we will be cooking and making bread. Each one is reading and recuperating. I’m catching up on the blog. It rained last night and also this morning, and now a heavy fog with low clouds and a sun beaming just behind is upon us. It is difficult to live in a community with our disparities in terms of culture and experience. I think it is one of the interesting challenges of the trip. What I find wonderful is that we talk about it, try to understand each other and accept the other as he is. The challenges are here but we seem to face them as they come and make this trip a real success.

Each one is in his own space today, not only is each one recuperating physically, letting the various pains (poison ivy itch, bruises, sore muscles, …) heal themselves, but also taking a bit of distance from the group as we are constantly together as we paddle and portage. The decision to stop on this murky day is a good one.

Vulture drying his wings after preening

We are 75 days into our trip, in fact a bit more if you consider that we started with a week in BC waiting for the thaw at Mike’s place. This is the theoretical midway point yet we are over half the distance. Anyhow we have gone through ice, mud, marshes, swamp-like deltas, unruly lakes, up rivers, and now portages … each one presenting its set of challenges and requiring of us specific sets of physical and mental qualities. I wonder what the Great Lakes will propose to us with their vast expanses of water and then the up-river of the French or the white waters of the Ottawa … we feel proud of what has been done yet remain quite aware that the trip is far from being accomplished. We are already

almost one month over the solstice, and rain and cold will eventually return to ensure we understand the cyclical nature of the seasons as we progress towards our goal. Meanwhile it is starting to rain again, so I’ll fold up and go back to the tent to sit it out.

Another day, from cold to hot, sitting in the sun eating lunch after another portage … and finally a wonderful camp on a point where sunset and sunrise can be seen. I keep thinking that taking pictures and commenting on this journey is probably useless in capturing the essence of the stunning, intoxicating beauty … a reality that is superlative. That reality that we all seek in ‘experience’ where we discover that ‘hard times’ are some of the fondest memories we keep while the wallowing in the daily routines are ‘lost time’ of our lives. I sit comfortably on a life jacket leaning against a tree typing away while the gulls (yes gulls that come around to try to catch the guts of the fish you clean) cry from an emergent rock formation in the distance. Loons are fishing; last night from the same spot a beaver started a crossing but dove before I could point him out to Hugo, a fish jumps, crickets are already grinding their hind legs at 9am and birds in the distance relay themselves to let us know of their existence.

Mud on the hands to protect from poison ivy while portaging

Life is good after my morning swim, my shared cup of coffee with Dana while listening to the news (the radio once again is capturing stations … if you hunt the right place and position with the makeshift antenna, while shifting your body to the right angle) and taking time to ourselves on this unscheduled morning. I’ll make pancakes in a while and then we’ll decide if we move or not.

We are clearly in a portion of the trip with a different pace. The coming of the girls and Andy has changed the rhythm. Or is it Quetico and it’s atmosphere of small lakes, water passages between them, rushing waters, calm islands, gnarled twisted trees growing on rocks, diversity of trees, Canadian shield shorelines and slight rises where it is difficult to know if land is only islands in water or water is a set of lakes in land? Summer heat comes and goes passing from 9° to 30° sometimes at night, and the same 20 or more degree spreads during the day. Next week we change crew and welcome Adam & Adrien for the end of Quetico and the final journey to the Great Lakes. The trip is clearly carving the minds and spirits, leaving what I sense as a permanent mark. What will be made of it is unclear, each one his own, for me it confirms what I had previously seen doing 1000km of paddling in France, I feel wholesome and in a place of coherence with myself living for now in a traveling life style. My awareness, my emotions and joys of the moment are allowed to invade most of my daily experience nourishing my being. An interesting equilibrium between the need to “express one’s self” which the traveling fullfills, and the need to “experience” what this nature offers. A time of healing from the compromises and stress of struggling to ‘make a life’ in this society.

Crossing teenager canoe expeditions

A time to learn to live, behave and act in what the Buddhists call ‘ the middle road’. A road of self-coherence and joys that allows one to ‘give’ of one’s self to the whole, the others, the common life source.


Time to make the pancakes, possibly some will go picking blueberries, big and delicious … we’ll see, but everyone is up so it’s time to feed the troops.

Long day, started at 8 and we had 6 portages to do in a narrow passage way between lakes, a sort of river that compensates for the 4 meters between the two lakes. Narrow passage \ways, the first one of 280 meters is full of rocks, large boulders and trees that fell that we have to cut or push off the side. The unpacking is familiar, but then we have to carry each heavy pack to the other side in 2 to 3 trips depending on how we are organized. The strong ones generally make one more trip than the weaker ones, then all gather for the final carry of the big boat. We have developed a technique with 4 persons under the boat, one at the helm and one at the stern compensating for the ups and downs which put all the weight at times on the end men. 240 lbs devided by 4-6 is quite acceptable even though the paths are slippery, the poison ivy at times making us step aside when we see it, the rocks slippery, the marshes reaching our calves … a sort of hell that we know to be brief but when repeated in the day with at times up to 500 meters makes it a long day. When we are lucky we hit a 40 meter one on flat rocks and with wonderful swimming holes, then we portage and undress to jump into the cool water and refresh. Oh I almost forgot: the heat is on, the sun beats down and it is VERY humid. But we are lucky, the flies are only a slight annoyance this year. The ones though that really make you bleed are the leeches: at times you pass through a march and you have 4 or 5 of them on each leg. Then as you peel them off, they leave you bleeding, having already injected an anti-coagulant that keeps your blood flowing. When you’re really lucky, you get the whole family, a couple of big ones and dozens of tiny little ones that, like their parents, cling on one side and bite on the other. The art is to find them quickly and wipe them off before they get a chance to get embedded.

The Quetico region however is worth every bit of trouble and when you see old growth or areas where a fire has devastated the landscape but where dense tree renewals are on the way naturally, the rocks are like strange presences marking the territory and insuring those hundreds of little islands keep their heads out of the water … a wonder land. This morning a flock of loons was surveying our campsite and gently discussing amongst themselves wether to have breakfast of small mouth bass or pike. I wonder if they also eat the crayfish that I keep finding in the pike I have caught or the clams whose shells the size of our hand we see even if we can’t see live ones.

As we canoe, almost getting lost due to the twisted nature of the landscape, we go from rocks almost emerging underneath us, surging from the great depths we just crossed to narrow marshy passages full of reeds between the islands. A surprising land that enchants us despite its hardships. We now, at the end of July, cross many canoes, little expeditions of 5 to 8 persons, often from youths camps but also father & son trips, family trips or just fishing buddies’ trips. Compared to the 250 000 visitors in the boundary waters (waterway that lies on the frontier between Canada & USA) the Quetico with its 40 000 visitors per year seems a peaceful wilderness, also due to its rules that forbid motorised boats. Paddlers are people who, like those you meet on trails in the mountains, appreciate and respect nature. Another example where effort in life is linked to values being lived and recognized … the essence of what life is about.

The day of the exchange, the 22nd of July is here. We just met Janice, the park ranger that has been manning the Cache lake station for the last 27 years. There are some meetings on a trip that stand out and this is one. This woman who loves the back country, has always lived in it, has built a home out of logs hewn off her property, … with a life of more hardships and people bad experiences than you’d possibly imagine possible, has a dynamic of life, a wisdom and a heart that redeems humanity. She has made the Cache lake entry point into Quetico both a place you should not miss coming into the region (people who show up year after year say this to us) while she teaches the spirit and the law of the strict rules that govern for safety and protection the exceptional Quetico park. Her ‘briefing’ of new comers is full of information. An exceptional person for a difficult yet wonderful job in the middle of nowhere.

We are all at the ranger station, the docks cleared of our canoes and the ones leaving sharing with their loved one quiet moments knowing that soon they will be parted for another couple of months. I’m overjoyed to wait for my son and preparing the film camera to film the arrival. Yes I’ll be making a video of this journey that I’ll edit in the first half of next year, and hope to finish by June 2012, the start of my next major trip planned but this time with my wife to cross from north to south the Americas by foot. The Pacific Crest Trail and then the transAmerica trail … for 18 months to 2 years. But Dana calls out saying he hears the plane and indeed we finaly see it flying overhead, turning at the end of the lake and then coming down on its floaters directly towards us. It seems to go fast but as soon as it hits the water, splashing in its glide, the plane slows rapidly and finally has to push its engines to come to the docks where Janice grabs the prepared ropes to stop the plane on the right spot on the dock. And out comes a grinning Adam and Adrien, pale as city folks. Big hugs all around and a special shared moment between son and father. But the plane must leave and a new set of hugs, more painful, are exchanged with those departing, Andy having come to join in the experience with close friends, and Katie and Jodie having bravely come to share the adventure with their men. It’s a beautiful day with rich emotions and feelings.

In the last 10 days we have been capturing WTIP, the local ‘free’ listener supported radio situated on the shores of Lake Superior in Grand Marais. We have been joking around the fire about making a day-paddle in to give them some money for their fundraising efforts and thanking them about the good programming. Janice proposes to us that we go there on an excursion that very day of the arrival of the new members. So we jump into a friend’s boat, leave Dana & Adam at camp for a quiet day, and after an hour of fast boating, another of speed limit driving, we get to Grand Marais and see for the first time Lake Superior that looks to me like the Mediterranean as we plunge into town. Driving directly to the radio station, we go in, visit and leave our $40 donation explaining our motivations. Ann a producer who arrived as we leave tells me to call her from Thunder Bay and do a phone interview with her about our trip … a rendez-vous for the future. Then we proceed to go to town and I take Janice out for her birthday dinner while the guys go their way to have dinner — or should I say multiple dinners, as Hugo tells us later. Then we go to a terrace overlooking the bay where we drink a beer and listen to a live band. Janice & I, despite her bad ankle, dance and at times this motivates some to join us. The guys just watch, discovering another side of me as a dancer. Time flies by, but finaly around 11pm we get going arriving at camp around 1:30 am. What a wonderful night, a change from our trip routine and a good shared moment for all.

Portaging the big white canoe 240lbs

Next morning, getting up is difficult and we leave a little late even if we get up early. Then we fight the wind, hugging the shore and fearing that the waves on the open big lake beyond Cache Bay could stop us from going on. But in the end, we sneaked through during a calm and plunged into the entrance of what would end up being the Pigeon river. Amazing entrance, you head for the shore and at the last moment, behind what looks like reeds on the shore, a narrow channel opens up at a right angle and you discover a new world; the world of rivers once again. Over there, a deer is jumping out of the reeds as we pass by and we meet once again with Canada Geese whom we hadn’t seen in the last 2 weeks at least.

Blueberries for pancakes and jam

A couple of rough portages, beautiful rocks emerging now in the distance (we have been in flat lands so long!) and onwards to South Lake. We go from small rivers to thundering ones. We run up rushing water under the amazed eyes of other canoers painfully pulling their canoes across (this is where our experience and practice helps!) and we portage over terrible paths full of blown down trees. We finally we camp at the beginning of the last long portage nearly 3 km and in the morning climb the over hanging rock where a stupendous view awaits us.

At last on South Lake we find a very poor camp site, but we’re tired, and as we prepare dinner a man comes towards us in a canoe. We invite him for diner and start talking … this is Mark, a father preparing a future trip for his 5 year old daughter, identifying fishing spots where she is sure to catch fish. With this second generation of his own children, he wants to make sure she loves the outdoors, not like his first set of children to whom he imposed nature as a hardship and thus was not able to get them to appreciate it. A gentle kind man whom it turns out adopted us and later helped us by carrying our gear through Grand Portage, brought us beer and food when we got to Grand Portage and took us out to diner once we had achieved Grand Portage to celebrate. He even paddled the first hour of our initiation on lake superior as we continued our journey back to Canada and to Thunder Bay. But before all that we paddled the Pigeon River and ran the small rapids and had lunch in the middle of the water and … walked the canoes through rocky rapids … enjoyable change from portages.

Superior. There begins another story, the last third of our trip. Too much and too little to say on this post so I’ll keep it for the next one. Just one word, it is big, beautiful and cold.


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One Response to Thunder Bay – In and out of Quetico

  1. Philip & Reece Jones says:

    Nice to hear you made it! Great reading! Keep safe! Say hi to everyone!

    Phil & Reece

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