Canoeing the Road Less Traveled in Quetico Provincial Park

Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park, in southwest Ontario, offers a million-plus acres of some of the best wilderness canoeing in the world…

quetico lake
(photo courtesy of Emma Todd)

About Quetico Provincial Park: What’s So Awesome?

Those who canoe Quetico and those who want to canoe Quetico are lured by its wildness and its beauty. It’s truly a backcountry world.

Look at this map to give you an idea of what this 1,844-square mile wilderness looks like. 2,000+ lakes. 2,200 backcountry campsites (although camping is allowed anywhere). You can go for days—maybe your entire trip—without seeing another soul outside your own party.

What You’ll Find in Quetico

PRISTINE LAKES, RIVERS, WATERFALLS AND FORESTS. Beauty is everywhere. The forest is boreal, meaning mostly evergreen with birch and aspen interspersed. The lakes are clear, cold and often very deep. Rock formations along the shore add structure and more rugged beauty.

ABUNDANT WILDLIFE AND TERRIFIC FISHING. This is moose, deer, wolf and bear habitat, as well as dozens of smaller animals. Eagles and loons are common, along with northern songbirds and waterbirds of all types. Northern pike, muskie, walleye, bass and perch are plentiful and big, since far fewer anglers make their way to these lakes.

A SENSE OF SERENITY. Anyone who spends considerable time in the wilderness knows what I mean!

A PROFOUND SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT. My friend Krista experienced this when she and another woman embarked on a 10-day canoe trip there through The Man Chain many years ago. Though they met several men along the way who assured them they’d never make it, they did. Krista shared:

“I finished the trip with a great sense of accomplishment. We conquered Quetico—it didn’t conquer us! I came away with greater strength as a person and much deeper faith in God. Going with just one other gal and the fact that we made it—without men—realizing that with God, all things truly are possible, even as a single woman. That trip really impacted my life and was actually what helped me take the risk of starting my own business in 1998 in an industry that was pretty much dominated by men at the time.”

Ladies in Quetico
Krista with her friend, Beth, on The Man Chain, mid-90s (photo courtesy of Krista Erickson)

15-year old Emma just had her first experience in backcountry canoeing in Quetico in the summer of 2018. Here’s her story:

“When I went to the Quetico this past July, it was a dream come true. I had the opportunity to go with Wolf Ridge, and the thought of 8 days in the Quetico got my heart pumping. I’ve spent my whole life living near the BWCA but never went in.

“See, almost 5 years ago I was in a car accident, and it had ruined my body. I was unable to do anything for years. When this trip came, I knew this would be it—the trip that physical limitations would no longer hold me.

“Paddling 8-plus hours a day and doing mile-long portages with a 65 pound canoe or a 60-95 pound pack on my shoulders wouldn't have been even a thought in my mind before.

“One of the most powerful things that happened on my trip was when we did a 280-rod portage. I carried a canoe on my shoulders the whole way up and down hills, through mud and swamps.

At the end of that portage, when I saw that lake, I took the canoe off my shoulders and a tear rolled down my face. This tear was not for pain or frustration but of joy and happiness that the physical problems no longer held me. I did it! I made it, and I conquered.”

emma with trout
Emma holds up her first lake trout (photo courtesy of Emma Todd)

What Else You’ll Find

UNFORTUNATELY, LOTS OF BUGS! If you canoe in Quetico during the summer months, bring a healthy supply of bug repellant. The more DEET the better. You’ll encounter black flies early in the season and other flies later. Mosquitos are abundant throughout the summer.

If you want to trade cold nights for fewer-to-no bugs, plan your trip for May (after the ice if off the lakes) or September/October.

UNPREDICTABLE WEATHER. It may be beautiful with hot, sunny days. It may rain. It may storm. You might get high winds. Nights could be chilly to downright cold. Check the forecast before you go in, and prepare for it all!

What You Won’t Find in Quetico

PEOPLE. While the Boundary Waters averages a couple hundred thousand visitors a year, only 20,000 are allowed in Quetico. It’s easy to imagine you’re alone in the world when you’re there.

That’s why my friend Karen, a lifelong Boundary Waters canoeist, prefers Quetico now. She told me:

“Quetico is so much more of a wilderness feel, with very few people compared to the Boundary Waters. BWCA can be quite crowded, so you don’t feel like you’re in a wilderness anymore.”

(Did I mention Karen and her canoe partner, husband Karl, are in their 70s?)

Karen with her canoe
Karen prepares to launch (photo courtesy of Karen Peters)

 

MANICURED PORTAGES. I love this short quote from writer Doug Smith: “Quetico's nasty portages are legend.”  (source)

You can expect to encounter mud, swamp, fallen trees, overgrown branches, boulders and tree roots that will challenge your progress through the portages. Portaging in Quetico isn’t for the faint of heart. If you love a challenge, though, this is the place for you!

DEVELOPED CAMPSITES. While sites are marked on the maps, they don’t include fire grates or privies like those in the Boundary Waters. So bring your hand shovel and your own collapsible cooking grate.

QUETICO CAMPSITE
Karen at their Quetico campsite (photo courtesy of Karen Peters)

Requirements and Helpful Resources

Canada’s park system has a healthy number of rules for Quetico’s visitors. Fees are substantially higher there than in the Boundary Waters. And you’ll need a valid passport and border permit if you’re coming from outside Canada.

You can find all the specs for both day trips and overnight trips on this Ontario Parks website page.

The folks at canoeing.com have a list of popular routes from 4-13 days. If you’ve not been to Quetico before, take advantage of these suggestions from some veterans.

Don’t even think about going in without a map. Detailed topographic maps with marked campsites and portages are available through mapmakers Fisher or McKenzie.

If you like the idea of going with an outfitter or professional guide, BWCA.com has a list of them for you to start your research.

canoe quetico
(photo courtesy of Emma Todd)

Are you ready for your Quetico adventure? Happy paddling!

What questions do you have about paddles for your Quetico or Boundary Waters canoe trip? We can help! Contact us today: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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