Wilderness Learning: Quetico Style
Harold D. Rutan

As a youth and a teenager, I had the good fortune to make several trips each summer to the to the Boundary Waters and Quetico with my family. Adulthood and twenty years of military service brought moves to distant locations, marriage and a wonderful family. During these years I had little opportunity to consider returning to the land and lakes that were so much a part of my youth.

My desire to return to canoe country started when a friend mentioned that he had heard of a wilderness area known as the Quetico. As he said this, memories came flooding back to me and I spent the evening telling him of our many family adventures.

Several months passed, and I was unable to put these rekindled memories out of my mind. I began some preliminary planning and asked my twelve year-old stepson, Nathan, if he was interested in a wilderness trip. It is an understatement to say that he was enthusiastic and our preparations began in earnest.


While it was over four months from our planned departure, we learned that this was a late start in obtaining an entry point permit. Virtually all of the Quetico entry permits were spoken for and what remained available was a fly-in entry via Clay Lake in Quetico's Northeast.

We gladly reserved this entry and began looking for information about the lakes and routes possible from that point. We pored over Fisher and Mackenzie maps estimating travel distances, and attempted to gauge portage difficulty by looking at topographic maps.

As a part of our research, we discovered the Boundary Water Journal on the World Wide Web. We proceeded to order back issues and read the articles and stories knowing that they would be valuable for our upcoming adventure. We marked on our maps campsites mentioned, fishing spots, portage difficulty and advice from other travelers. To our disappointment however, we were unable to learn much about the Clay Lake entry point and of the journey through the Greenwood Creek to the Wawiag River to Kawnipi.

We arrived at our outfitter on Moose Lake Minnesota the day prior to the fly-in and made a quick boat trip to Prairie Portage to purchase a fishing license and pay campsite fees. Later, the outfitter gave us a Duluth pack with equipment for familiarization and an empty pack for our personal gear. We had selected a full outfitting package and had our outfitter select our food for a ten to thirteen day trip. All that we brought with us was essential clothing, footgear, raingear, first aide kit, and fishing gear.

In my minds eye, I had an image of us starting out with three packs. One for the tent, sleeping bags and other gear, another for our clothes, boots, tackle, etc, and one pack for food. That evening as we hefted the "gear" and "personal'  packs, I began to become concerned, as their weight was more than I had anticipated. Still, I had my three pack "mental" portaging image, in which I would carry the lightest pack and the canoe, Nathan would carry one pack, and I would double portage the remaining pack.

The next morning, we carried our two large Duluth packs to the dock where the floatplane would pick us up. I was astonished to see two additional packs waiting for us. These were our food packs and as the plane pulled up to the dock, I realized that I underestimated the bulk and weight of the food for our trip. I recall marveling at the thought that two people could consume (and process) this much weight in such a short time.

The image I held of whistling and casually admiring wildflowers as I strolled across portages with my light pack and ultralight canoe was shattered. It was replaced by a disheartening vision of three trips across each portage or more if I did not carry both a pack and canoe on one of those trips.

Weather forced a late start and at noon the floatplane arrived and we began our flight. We were admiring the scenery and as we neared Clay Lake, the Wawiag River and Greenwood Creek became clearly visible from the air. I excitedly pointed out to Nathan that we could do an aerial scouting of the route that we were about to travel. This excitement quickly turned to apprehension as we noted two enormous log jams on the Wawiag River that clearly would require portaging in addition to the one marked on our maps.

If my original "mental image" of us carrying three light packs were still intact, I would not have been too concerned by additional portages. However, with now four, seemingly enormously heavy packs, the physical conditioning program that we had been on seemed inadequate. My thoughts gloomily turned to wondering if I had packed enough Motrin in the First Aid kit.

We loaded the gear into the canoe on a rocky point in Clay Lake where we were left by the floatplane, and headed for the Greenwood Creek. The creek with its mild current was narrow and shallow, with numerous deadfalls. This obstacle course and the ducking, leaning, and counterbalancing required to pass under these deadfalls was a great help in immediately sharpening our canoeing skills.

As we moved along the creek, I was startled when Nathan suddenly yelled as we came around a bend, "Backwater... we are about to hit a big boulder!"  Complying, I began to backwater, and as I looked around him in front of the canoe, I saw the enormous rump of a Moose, with its head down under the water, feeding on bottom delicacies.