I have been recapping my 5-month journey as a Woods Explorer for the past few months, but today, I finally get to talk about my favourite leg of the trip: Quetico Provincial Park.
Never in a million years would I have thought that my favourite corner of the country would be in Ontario – but alas, it is.
This is Quetico Provincial Park. Would you look at all those lakes? I’ve never been anywhere like it. Unlike the other provincial and national parks I’ve visited, Quetico is for paddlers. No hiking, no biking, and definitely no motor boats. You canoe or kayak from lake to lake, partaking in all kinds of portages. The portages are marked on a map, but there are no signs in person. You have to locate them on the map and do your best to figure it out. There are campsites everywhere, but they aren’t marked on the map or with any signage. Again, you kind of just have to figure it out.
Back when we had been in Toronto (for the Summer Camp for Grown Ups), we were told that we’d have a guide accompanying us in Quetico. You would think we’d have enjoyed the idea of spending time with another person – after all, for the majority of our trips, it had been just Cedric and me, and we’d had a lot of together time.
But we didn’t warm to the idea of a guide. Melba and Adam had already had their leg in Quetico, and they hadn’t needed a guide. They had suggested that having one would have been beneficial, but we felt like we having a guide would “baby” us a little. Not to mention, having a third person would totally change the dynamic of things. Throw in the wrong person, and we’d be in for a long, horrible week.
We actually tried to talk our way out of the guide, but we were told he’d already been hired. When we arrived in Atikokan, we decided that we’d meet with the guide, get some intel from him, and tell him that he was welcome to keep his fee but that we would be able to carry on alone. (I bet the people at HQ would have loved that!)
And then we met Bob.
Instantly, having a guide seemed like a brilliant idea. Bob was about my dad’s age. He told us that there was a designated Trans Canada Trail course through the park, but that he knew way better lakes and campsites that he’d rather take us to. He organized all of our food for us (which was amazing after having eaten Tim Hortons and camp food for a few months now). He told us of the excellent fishing that lay before us – he even told us we’d get to do a fish fry. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember why we had fought against the idea of a guide.
What followed was one of the best weeks of my life.
I don’t even know where to start. First of all, the park was incredible. I felt like I was immersed in a Group of Seven painting. Days would pass without seeing a soul. We’d paddle, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, taking in the lakes, the trees, the occasional wildlife sighting (eagles, moose, a bear, tons of loons). There was something about being in a canoe all day that made me feel so gosh darned Canadian.
Each campsite was more spectacular than the last. They consisted mainly of small clearings overlooking one lake or another. Many were located on little islands that were fun to explore. Nearly every day was pleasant weather – not hot (although it was August), but not-too-hot, not-too-cold, partly cloudy and partly sunny.
I never though I’d care about fishing – but suddenly, I did. I caught my first walleye seconds after dropping my hook into the water. That is not an exaggeration, though it must have been beginner’s luck because it was not quite so easy to replicate later. Though I didn’t quite share the passion that Cedric and Bob had for fishing, I did really enjoy it and didn’t even mind when we decided to dedicate an entire day to fishing.
Perhaps the best part about fishing was the dinners that we’d eat afterwards. I believe we had fresh fish every night except the first. We’d watch Bob fillet the fish with the precision of an Iron Chef, then we’d watch the eagles eat the guts. We’d help chop veggies and set things up, then we’d devour the freshest, tastiest fish I’d ever eaten.
I’ve always enjoyed canoeing, but Bob taught me how to appreciate it in a whole new way. At first, we were hesitant to abandon the old j stroke style we’d grown up with, but when he introduced us to the Quetico hut stroke, we were hooked. It took a bit of time to get used to the style – which involves the person in the stern emitting a periodic “hut” sound, then both parties switching which side they were paddling on – but we quickly learned to love its speed and efficiency. We’d end up using the hut stroke later on in the Northwest Territories.
The three of us alternated between a conventional two-person Kevlar canoe and a super sensitive one-man model, which was wobbly and a lot of fun. The days were full, but not exhausting. We covered plenty of ground but never felt rushed.
Beyond being an excellent navigator, instructor, and chef, Bob was a fascinating person. He didn’t ruin our dynamic – he enhanced it. He knew the park inside out and had crazy stories about everything from wildlife to poachers. Around the fire or in the canoe, we’d talk about relationships, dogs, family, and just about everything else under the sun.
At the end of our trip, we headed back to the main lodge, Camp Quetico. We ate dinner with other visitors in the dining room and slept in a rustic but comfortable cottage that I loved more than any hotel I’ve ever stayed at (except maybe the Fairmont in Jasper…). It was perfect, all of it. After a few months of getting my bearings as a Woods Explorer – of becoming accustomed to living out of a backpack and broadcasting every moment through photos and videos – I felt like I had finally found my groove.
Our Quetico ornament is a simple, kind of old-fashioned canoe. I love it. When you’re on a canoe trip in a place like Quetico, you’re in a different world. A major news event could happen, and you’d never know about it. You develop routines and habits that are so different than your everyday life – yet, in a way, they become your new everyday life for a short little while.
It’s hard to describe it all. I wonder if I’ll ever get to go back to Quetico. On the one hand, it’s absurd to think that I might not ever return to one of the best places I’ve ever been. On the other hand, my memories of it are so fond that I wonder if any return visit could ever live up to the memories.