Fenway, Burritos, and Bears, Oh My

The Story of a Canoe Trip Through Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park
By
Chris Rudolph


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    Like a Slinky, it peeled off Chorzyís chest, rolling to his stomach, bouncing off his knee until hitting the floor. Splutt. He stood speechless, but his expression said, "Rudy, that was the foulest thing you have ever done." Next to his foot lay a soppy clump of my tighty whities that survived a week in canoe country. On impulse, I fired them at an unsuspecting Chorzy as he walked in the shower house. Itís funny how guys sometimes express themselves when they have a hard time saying goodbye.

    Our trip was over, and Chorzy was headed back to Chicago with the other counselors and the high school students.   A few days later, he would be in college, and eventually weíd start talking about next yearís trip. I wasnít ready to think about next year because I had one more trip left- Nym to Cache Bay.

    I teamed up with John, a recent high school graduate who paddled with us during the previous week. John is the opposite of me with piercings, wild stories, and an extroverted personality that women love. He was also a tremendous paddler, and I was looking forward to our trip together.

    We loaded up at the dock at Voyageur Wilderness Programme to a bit of a gathering. John was in the front, I was at the stern, and the dog, Fenway, climbed over our packs in search of the optimal sleeping position. It was an exciting send off.  As we paddled from the dock, I turned to see two people.  First, the cute one, counselor Elaine. If she is the last woman I see, I'd die a happy man.  We exchange a nice smile, and I lie to myself "She digs me."  Of course, itís the dog she digs. Then the ugly:  Chorzy had a wicked laugh going, and that gap-toothed grin that said, "So long, sucker. I can't wait till you find out what I put in your pack."  

    Thereís a brief history at VWP of lacing packs with useless items.. A couple of years ago, our guide Jason opened his pack on the first campsite to find a meat grinder. He really enjoyed portaging the extra weight during the week. Thereís also a mallet that slides into guidesí packs. I dreaded looking in my pack because Chorzy has been known to sneak a bowling pin into packs. Now I was beginning to wonder if I should have fired the undies at him. Of course!

    The portage into Batchawaung is more work than I expect.  Iíve probably done 40 portages during the summer, but this one is killing me because my pack is misbalanced and heavier than usual. I begin to curse Chorzy, but then I remember that the extra weight is probably the dog food for Fenway. I curse Chorzy anyway.

    John and I fly through Batch despite a headwind.  I have never paddled with someone pulls so much water.    I realize that I am spoiled being with an engine up front.  My memories of paddling the park usually involve my deceased friend Father Mike, tracing us at 2.4 miles per hour on his GPS unit. "It can pinpoint us within 5 meters," he would brag.  That's not saying much  when we hardly move  with Mike at the helm. Behind his back, his nickname was Lillydipper.

    Allow me to go off on Mike for a little bit.  He had this watch- well it's not really a watch.  Basically, it's a mainframe computer with a band on it.  Often during the trip, you'd hear him sputter off random points about his watch, "This has a thermometer and can tell us the barometric pressure in Beijing right now."

    It's hard to really understand what went through his mind.  On the one hand, he could quote and dissect any excerpt from the New Testament.  He was a Catholic priest, and his understanding of theology went deeper than 99% of the clergy. On the other hand, he shared hour long conversations with Fenway that go no further than "whereís the squirrel?" Mike found entertainment by bloating my dog with leftover with fried onions and refried beans at night before she stumbled in my tent. He was also possibly the worst hearts player I have ever known. I guess I should have a little more respect for the dead. But itís only Mike. Heís probably in heaven right now increasing that headwind that is currently blowing us backward.

    At Mosquito Point John and I take a break from battling the wind to munch on granola bars.  We really hadnít had much of a chance to talk, and I soon realize that the conversation is going to seriously stray from the talks I typically share with my canoeing buddies.  There will be no theological discussions, no thought provoking questions such as "Was the Bears-Packers rivalry better before Ditka or after?"  We donít list the all time worst Cubs trades (Brock for Broglio). John kicks things off with this, "I canít believe my girlfriend is bothered by me seeing 3 other girls." Yeah, I can almost empathize with his dilemma. Iíll spare you the rest of the conversation as I humbly felt the shame of my sheltered youth.

    The map indicates that we would save time by cutting through Holiday, Elizabeth, Maria, and Jesse.  Later on we would find out that the true time savings is for crows and other flying aircraft.  The problem is that we move slower with a canoe on our head than we do paddling it.  I encountered the 2 worst portages of the summer on the way into upper Sturgeon.  

    I had a bad feeling as we approached the first portage. The landing was hard to find, and the trail was overgrown. Furthermore, the trail simply heads upward as we scale to higher elevation. If Quetico allowed signs on portages, this one would read, "Thereís a reason no one travels this, pinhead." Or perhaps simply, "Road to Mt. Olympus".

    The trail is composed of large rocks, posing a constant threat to our ankles. Every step was upward, and every turn was the beginning of a new staircase.  In short, these portages were miserable. We completed them tired and frustrated. Some shortcut.

    We land at upper Sturgeon, and I said a quick prayer for Pat Shea's paddle buried in the muck underneath the reeds.  Last year on the VWP trip, one of the students in Patís group had tried to see how deep the water was. So he jammed the shaft of his paddle into the soft floor of the lake. The paddle was absorbed in the muck. A gust of wind (probably from Mike) then spun their canoe, causing them to lose bearing, and the paddle couldnít be found. Right now some northern is probably cruising the park with it. Omen.  

    Cruising down the channel, we encounter a group of six fishermen who packed everything short of a Weber grill.  These are the folks that donít believe in a single-trip portage; but rather they balk at anything less than 18 trips. Their site is strung together by about 2000 feet of rope with everything hanging off it: clothes, tents, sleeping bags, office supplies. These people seem to carry most of my camping pet peeves. Blue Jeans, camouflage (are we at war with the loons?), and rope. Iíll bet that they even have lanterns and cast iron skillets.

    We then pass a nice couple from Appleton Wisconsin on Blueberry Island.  I ask if they would like to hear a Packer joke.  They do.  "What's the difference between a porcupine and Lambeau Field?  The porcupine has 60,000 pricks on the outside." The man proceeds to tell me a slew of Bears jokes, putting me in my place.

     The sun is setting, and we dash over to Russell.  We crash on a site near Chatterton Falls. John throws his tent, and  I open my pack to look for Chorzy's present. A quick search for the bowling pin turns up empty. Instead, I find a large role of rope with a note: "Couldnít find the meat grinder. Weíre still not even."

     Tuna Helper is scrumptious because itís warm and filling. Itís amazing what tastes great in the outdoors. After an exhausting day, I could dine on fried gym socks if prepared correctly.  It's John's 19th birthday, and I offer to make brownies.  He passes on dessert for sleep.  In the tent, he shows me all his photos that his digital camera stores. What a cool toy!

    #9; The morning does not offer the howls of wolves which I previously heard on Russell, but rather a steamy bowl of Rudy's hot 'n go.  Rudyís hot Ďn go is basically apples and cinnamon oatmeal, granola cereal, milk, and dried fruit. Heat, eat, go.

    We head out to Chatterton and encountered a woman about 68 years old coming out off the portage.     I felt I should help her until we see her easily throw a monster pack into her canoe. She tells us that she is on a 14 day solo journey, her 25th trip. John and I were quite impressed.  She is from Green Bay, but I spare her the Packer jokes.

     John finds a rock shaped just like lazy boy chair at the landing at Split Rock.  Sitting in it was dangerous, as it was awfully comfortable.  He and I have fine tuned our portaging, and now we really fly between the lakes. One of us takes a pack and canoe. The other grabs the heavier pack, paddles, and fishing rods. The only worthless member of our team is Fenway. My dog believes that she helps us by protecting us from dangerous pine squirrels and chipmunks. She randomly darts off in the bush after noises, small animals, leaves, and windmills. At the campsite, she has staked out chipmunksí dens for hours, taking occasional breaks to eat a few fried onions from Mike. I honestly feel sorry for her first victim for being so closely exposed to Fenwayís dragon breath.

    Snake Falls offers John a Kodak moment. As we approach Have a Smoke Portage, I tell him the story of Mike and Chorzy going for a drink.

Back in the summer of 1998, Mike had a group that included Chorzy, a high school senior at the time. The kids in his group raided the food packs of my group one night as we were camped on Keats. To get even, the kids in my group decided to steal their canoes the next afternoon. They had stolen three canoes and were returning when Mike and Chorzy peeled out of their site in their lone canoe. They were closing in on a student, Danny Kraft, who was struggling to paddle solo in a stolen canoe. Zig zagging through the water, Danny was about to be grabbed and thoroughly tortured by Mike and Chorzy. They reached out over the same side of their canoe to grab him, throwing off the balance of their canoe. Splush! What a sight!

    John and I work our way to Kawnipi and crash at Rose Island for some sandwiches and lemonade. The sun had been very hot, tiring us out.  Mike would probably be more specific with something like, "Expect mid 80's throughout the week with easterly winds surfacing as a cold front from moves in from Beijing."   Actually winds did come out of the East as we came to the heart of Kawnipi.  Funny how it shifts in my face.

    We crank through Kawnipi and stop for a moment of silence for Phil's Nalgene bottle. Earlier in the summer, my buddy Phil was paddling at the bow and passed me back his Nalgene bottle so I could get a drink. Instead of throwing back to me, he dropped it in the water but forgot to screw on the cap. I helplessly watched as a small wave dropped on it, and pulled the bottle under at an accelerated rate into the black abyss. Phil still regrets not diving for it. Iíll bet that northern is drinking out of it while paddling around Sturgeon. Omen.

    The frustrating  part of lower Kawnipi is the lack of  campsites on the South part of the lake.  Since the fire in 1995, only one site remains in the final two hour paddle towards Kenny Lake. We choose to pass on that site and head to Kenny. Welcome to the Falls Chain.

    Dinner that night is fantastic, making Tuna Helper seem like, well, Tuna Helper. John and I feast on monster burritos made with red Beans and rice, smoked cheddar cheese, dehydrated refried beans, and shredded dehydrated beef with burrito seasonings. Three of these hogs apiece and one bowl full of leftover glop for the mutt. What a meal, but what a miserable night in the tent!

    John and I were impressed that we had traveled roughly 25 miles in one day.  The unfortunate part of being back in the Falls Chain is the presence too many weekend campers.  Four of them were camped next to us.  They had all the necessary tools of a weekend camper- rope, a huge ax, a radio, and a glass lantern.  I am amazed at the number of clothes that they hung to dry.  How does one get 19 articles of clothing wet?

    We had planned to sleep in the next day and simply head over to Bald Rock Falls.  Unfortunately, our neighbors woke us up as they were jabbering past us in the morning.  I walk out of the tent to hear, "Oh, did we wake you up?"  No actually  the blueberries did. I am a crab this morning.  They tell me that they wanted to get an early start to get that site on Bald Rock.

    John and I pass on breakfast and pack things up.  He is just as crabby as I am.  We want to catch those guys. If they took our sleep, then weíll take their site. John takes the first portage at Canyon Falls.  This one is tricky as there is steep terrain and two rivers to portage between.  The landings on both ends are dangerous, but we complete it, load up, and head to the next portage. I throw the canoe on this one- a long 600 yard pass that covers two beautiful falls..

    The portage overlooking Little Falls offers one of the most beautiful sights in the park. It is a simple view, overlooking a strong current rushing over rocks thirty feet below. I get so caught up in the view that I am startled to encounter our noisy neighbors from the morning.  They must have been sizing up game or practicing survival mirror skills when we caught them.  One of them had an astounded look on his face as we blow by them.

    In no time we are at Bald Rock Falls eating cereal and toast.  John takes a few photos, and we enjoy watching the disappointed look of our neighbors as they haul over the 20 yard jump portage towards a different site.  Did I mention that two were wearing blue jeans?

    After a break, we decide that it is too early in the day to stop moving.  We fire up the engines and head out to Saganagons.  An hour passes when we reach the group from the morning.  One of them asks to me, "I thought you were staying back at Bald Rock?"  "Nah," I reply, "Changed our minds. You can head back if you want it."  He looked about as irritated as I felt when those blueberries woke us up.

    John cranks out the GPS and tracks us at a steady clip of 5 mph. On principle, I do not like electronic devices in Quetico. I remember Mike watching the screen like a TV as he lillydipped. Beyond principle, I do think those gadgets are pretty cool. Itís amazing how they can direct us to a point precisely.

    It seems that weíre at the Silver Falls portage in no time. Traditionally, this is the final portage of the season for me. Bittersweet. I am always relieved to take the canoe off my shoulders for the final time, but I soon will miss the voyageur lifestyle. I pull myself over the rocks at the end of the portage a little slowly but very proudly. Itís a good feeling to overcome a season of challenging portages.

    John and I walk over to the falls to find a scary sight.  Four people are swimming at the top of the falls a few yards from the six meter drop.  One of them doesn't even have a life jacket on. The people seem to be oblivious to the danger, so I ask, "Don't you think it's too dangerous so close to the falls?"  In an accent, one of them tells me not to worry. Heís done it before.  "Where are you from anyway?" I ask. He replies that heís from   Texas, and this reminds me of Mikeís famous saying:  Never underestimate the stupidity of a Texan.

    We stop for an early dinner  at a campsite in northern Cache Bay that the ranger, Janice has named Stupid Steveís.  Apparently, Steve came within a centimeter of lopping off his thumb with hatchet. We toast Steve with tortellini in pesto sauce.  I use my outback oven to bake a pan of brownies for Janice.  She is my favorite ranger, and I traditionally greet her with fresh chocolate baked goods. With a warm pan of brownies on my lap, we embrace Mikeís strong headwind in Cache  Bay and head across.

     Janice greets us with  smile and a squeeze. Soon weíre inside the cabin watching her son Lief perform a magic show.  We catch up on park stories and news on mutual friends.  She tells about paddling Montrealers in a race on Lake Superior. I enjoy the two hour visit. Itís nice to see my friend.

    As the sun drops over the bay, we head down to the dock. Janice and Lief come down to see us off. Just as John pushes us off the dock, Lief asks his mom, "Hey, whatís that thing in the water?" She walks to the end of the dock to look over. Uh oh. Her eyes widen as Lief launches her,  "Ooooooooooooooh  No!"

 Splushhhhhhhhh!

   "Lief you are such a snot!"  In the two visits I had with Janice this year, both ended up with an unexpected cold swim.

    We camp at Hook Island- amazed that we had traveled the whole park in two and a half days.  In the morning we greet Jeremy from Voyageur Canoe Outfitters to tow us back across Sag. The ride is silent. I miss the park already.

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Copyright 2003 by Chris Rudolph http://www.canoestories.com/quetico.htm